MAJOR POETS make themselves, with effort; they are not born. I would argue that many major poets begin minor, though the best of them begin with the promise of becoming major. They begin weird, out of step in some fundamental way, esoteric, in their own heads. Eventually, their strangeness comes to shape the poetry around them. They give voice to the poetry of their time, and one can no longer understand it without understanding them. W. S. Merwin is such a poet, both strange and essential. He is the poet of his time in part because he shaped the language with which we have described his time in poetry. He helped shape our notion of a contemporary poem, though his style is so much his own that no one has imitated it effectively — except Merwin himself. For he is also an example of another kind of poet: the kind who develops such virtuosity in his voice that he has perfected it and become his own imitator.
Of course, this happens to most poets, though mostly when they’re relatively young, not in their 70s and 80s, when it happened for Merwin. Most poets find a voice, a form, a mode, often in their 30s or 40s, and continue to issue versions of the same poem for the rest of their lives.
Merwin’s development is more like Stevens’s (and not like Eliot’s or Yeats’s, both of whom found new facets of their styles), who also attained such a kind of virtuosity in his voice that borders on habit — but what extraordinary technique to have in one’s muscle memory!
Merwin’s life’s work in poetry is now available in three books: a two-volume set including all his collections through 2008’s The Shadow of Sirius, and his new collection The Moon Before Morning, just out from Copper Canyon Press. The staggering thing about a life’s work is that it takes a lifetime to complete. Which is to say having a writer’s collected writings means having the chance to attempt to comprehend a life, or a life’s summary, in terms of whatever parts of a self make art. Each of a poet’s poems was once, if only for a few moments, the absolute forefront of his or her life, the forward edge of his or her self, the object of all of the mind’s attention. How remarkable, to be able to receive the pinprick of all that: a whole person’s whole gaze. Reading across these three books, one senses Merwin’s life pressing urgently on his artistic development.
Merwin is unlike any other American poet. His poems are related to those of Ted Hughes (the two were close friends in the 1950s), but Merwin’s are more varied. Merwin is a big, old-fashioned kind of poet. He is more like the great 20th-century Polish poets, Milosz and especially Zbigniew Herbert, in terms of the scope of his ambition and the development of his style across his whole career. He’s a moralist, a fabulist, a maker of myths skimmed off history. Merwin takes the long view of current events.
He is the kind of person one thinks of when one thinks of a poet — wizardly in appearance, deep-eyed, off the grid. (He lives on a tree preserve of his own cultivation in Haiku, Hawaii.) The voice that speaks his poems — simultaneously oracular, mysteriously humble, without identity, but personal, and timeless — also leans on the same kind of identification with an archetypal poet for its authority. Though he visited Pound at St. Elizabeth’s and apprenticed himself before the modernists, and though he held the mid-century confessional poets (especially Lowell and Berryman) in the highest esteem, Merwin’s real influences are much older: Homer, the troubadours, ancient Chinese and Japanese poets, the many voices of the Bible, the authors of anonymous religious and spiritual texts dug out of the earth. These are the kinds of sources Merwin wants us to align with his voice.
While other contemporaries — Ashbery, Plath, and Rich among them — were relentlessly making it new, Merwin has been making it old for decades. Merwin feels blessedly out of time in our era. No one else has been able to, or wanted to, write like him.
Merwin is also the kind of poet who developed on paper, poem by poem, book by book, in front of his readers. The author of A Mask for Janus and The Dancing Bears, books that can be almost pretentiously Pre-Raphaelite and overly ornate, seems like a different author entirely from the one who wrote, a little over a decade later, The Lice and The Carrier of Ladders. Though, since Merwin found that style in the late ’60s, he has stuck with it, and refined and developed it into the late poems of his last two books.
But, since early on, almost every step of the way, Merwin has shown himself to be wrestling with his aesthetic ideas and ideals, striving toward simplicity, though held in check by a showy desire to make complicated transformations happen, to impress the reader with virtuosity. He began to overcome this showiness by the time of The Lice. It’s nothing short of enlightening to watch him make that journey.
Merwin has sought places out of time since his first books. But, back then, it took him a while to write his way toward the silence he was after. “Tower,” the first poem in The Dancing Bears, is 19 quatrains long, taking most of that length to shed some of its heavy, Pre-Raphaelite ornamentation to arrive at the kind of Zen simplicity Merwin can now achieve in three lines. Near the end are these beautiful, if too-decorated, stanzas:
And my head, drifting
Bereft of body, gave me
Again from every stone
A pebble might have rung
A crash of seven years’ portent
On that water falling.
Or turn away the face.
But there was enough of portent
If, [ding] that stony bobbin
If the falling light could limb
And [lim] such legerdemain.
And what if all motion
Were a web into that stance
And all shattering
But served that severance?
How lovely that last stanza is, abstract and yet vivid, a descriptive contradiction Merwin has mastered. But did the poem really demand the head be “Bereft of body”? It’s a bit much, a bit formal, a bit, well, poetic. Perhaps Merwin still suffers from this striving toward wisdom and profundity to this day, but he hits his mark so often (so much more often than most poets) that it’s hard to fault him for aiming for it, even if his stance sometimes puts on airs.
There is, on the one hand, so much richness in this early work, a poet harvesting his fertile imagination — he seemed flooded with poetry, publishing new books every two or three years. But, so much of the early work is needlessly convoluted, backwards, overdone:
The bear had gone. She touched a silver bell.
She stood straightway in a white chamber
By a bed of lapis lazuli. Red agate
And yellow chrysolite the floors. A white
Carnelian window gave upon cut hills
Of amethyst and yellow serpentine
Pretending summer; when she stood naked there
Her nakedness from the lighted stones
Sprang a thousand times as a girl or woman,
Child or staring hag. The lamps went black;
When she lay down to sleep, a young man came
Who stayed all night in the dark beside her
But was gone before dawn came to that country.
This is a typical stanza from “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” a long poem from Merwin’s second collection that seems to have stolen many moves from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s playbook.
Really? The window “gave upon” the hills? And the hills were “pretending summer”? It just seems needlessly out of step with the mid-’50s. Yet, of course, there is something Merwin’s after that he catches with these effects. It’s the same timeless power as his Pre-Raphaelite forbearers found in their willfully hyperrealistic canvases and poems about myths and fantasies, but the problem is they got there first, and their time was more than half a century before, marking this as Merwin’s (obviously outstanding) apprentice-work. Of course, those lines about how “Her nakedness […] / Sprang a thousand times” from mirrors are absolutely extraordinary, and there are many more like them to make the poem well worth reading. It indicates the extreme effort Merwin was undertaking to grow as an artist, to extend the range of his voice.
So, how did he journey from these odd artifacts to the seemingly artless style of the new book? In The Moving Target, Merwin’s mature style fitfully takes shape, wrestling with his older manner for control:
No need to break the mirror.
Here is the face shattered,
Good for seven years of sorrow.
This three-line poem is an early example of gesturing toward the Asian poetry that Merwin read and loved early on and has translated throughout his career. Already evident is the stripped-down simplicity that has come to define Merwin’s late style, and the sudden, soft-landing leap that is Merwin’s version of epiphany.
Later in the same collection, in “To Where We are,” Merwin has already dropped most of his punctuation, using only end stops and line breaks to cork his thoughts:
With open arms the water runs in to the wheel.
I come back to where I have never been.
You arrive to join me.
We have the date in our hands.
We come on to where we are, laughing to think
Of the Simplicities in their shapeless hats
With a door so they can sit outside it
I hope I may say
Natives of now, creatures of
Their first, their last,
That “date in our hands” is much bigger than a handful. It’s the kind of symbol Merwin likes: vague, poignant, reaching back to an unrecorded time. He is also developing his signature line, an organic expression of a thought, sparingly punctuated, using breath as a measure and the eye for emphasis.
But, it is in 1967’s The Lice that Merwin finds his true and lasting voice, the one he is still mining. “The Last One” is one of my favorite poems of all time, and I’d say one of the finest poems written in the 1960s. It encompasses a huge, grim, expanding space, channeling Merwin’s increasingly articulate rage at the immorality of war and humanity’s selfish destruction of nature. But it’s not merely a poem with an agenda, a poem with — God forbid! — a message. It is a space in which history, current events, and emotion swirl into myth.
Well they’d made up their minds to be everywhere because why
Everywhere was theirs because they thought so.
They with two leaves they whom the birds despise.
In the middle of stones they made up their minds.
They started to cut.
Well they cut everything because why not.
Everything was theirs because they thought so.
It fell into its shadows and they took both away.
Some to have some for burning.
Well cutting everything they came to the water.
They came to the end of the day there was no one left standing.
They would cut it tomorrow they went away.
The night gathered in the last branches.
The shadow of the night gathered in the shadow on the water.
The night and the shadow put on the same head.
And it said Now.
I love the dark swagger of “well” and “because why not.” In this poem and the others in this book, Merwin has stepped wholly out of the Victorian era, and, in the spirit of his masters Williams and Pound, found a permanent expression of the language of his time. In the culture of the ’60s, a wish for a less mediated relationship with the earth and other people collided with unavoidable dismay at the politics and vagaries of that decade. Merwin stood up to become one of that era’s principal bards, and he kept it up into the early ’70s through his Pulitzer-winning The Carrier of Ladders. These four books, collected in The Second Four Books of Poems, are his most important and enduring.
Merwin sustained his power through many wonderful books between the 1970s and ’90s — The Vixen is one extraordinary example. His fables, published in two separate books in the ’70s and now republished as The Book of Fables, are the finest examples of the form since Grimm. But, in this mature work, he also begins to show a vanity, perhaps a natural result of the authority Merwin cultivated, that undermines his wisdom. The flaw in Merwin’s poetry is a kind of self-importance that grows tiring, a too-obvious pleasure the poems seem to take in the sound of their own voice, the vanity of the wise. This is the risk in writing what one might call “wisdom poetry”: the poet’s belief that whatever he utters is worth hearing. There is an overabundance of this quality in Merwin’s 1999 collection The River Sound. The shockingly long-winded opening poem mourns the end of Merwin’s index finger, lost in an accident:
let us be at peace with each other let peace be what is between us
and you now single vanished part of my left hand bit of bone finger-end
who began with me in the dark that was already my mother
you who touched whatever I could touch of the beginning
and were how I touched and who remembered the sense of it
when I thought I had forgotten it you in whom it waited
under your only map of one untrodden mountain
you who did as well as we could through all the hours at the piano
and who helped undo the bras and found our way to the treasure
I don’t share the poem’s grief over the lost digit “who helped undo the bras.” Calling what’s beneath them “the treasure” is simply bad writing. Merwin gets lost in the myth he makes of himself and, elsewhere in this book, of his friends in his poetic generation.
“Lament for the Makers” pays tribute to those friends and mentors in awkward rhyming quatrains, a form borrowed from William Dunbar’s famous poem of the same title:
Sylvia Plath then took her own
direction into the unknown
from her last stars and poetry
in the house a few blocks from me
Williams a little afterwards
was carried off by the black rapids
that flowed through Paterson as he
said and their rushing sound is in me
It’s a bad sign, a symptom of solipsism, when a poem ostensibly about other people ends each stanza with the word “me.” He seems not to realize that his friends and mentors are straw men and women holding up mirrors.
Merwin is most at home in his own free forms. When he tries something rhymey and rigid like this it feels awkward, like he’s doing a bad impression of another poet. The long poem “Testimony,” which is the centerpiece of this book, and name-checks every poetic peer Merwin can think of, is windy, utterly self-indulgent, and frankly terrible. This is the worst of Merwin.
Present Company, a transitional book to get between the par-for-the-course work of The Pupil (which, in retrospect, looks to have been Merwin’s way of taking in the bagginess of The River Sound) and the masterful late poems of The Shadow of Sirius, provides ample evidence that, even going though his motions, Merwin can make good poetry out of very little. He hardly needs a subject. In these poems, he merely needs an addressee — all the poems of Present Company are addressed to abstractions or at least to things that don’t talk back: “To Age,” “To the Dust of the Road,” and “To Waiting”:
You spend so much of your time
expecting to become
who will be different
someone to whom a moment
whatever moment it may be
at last has come
and who has been
met and transformed
into no longer being you
and so has forgotten you
There’s that slow, surprising unfolding of thought across the lines, such that the eye splashes into little epiphanies upon landing on a new line, as happens between “whatever moment it may be” and “at last has come.” This is an everyday poem, not the kind of extraordinary or transcendent work Merwin is capable of at his best, but better by far than the average poem you’ll meet on the street.
The late poems of The Shadow of Sirius are among Merwin’s best, charged with a lifetime’s observations and practiced phrase- and line-making. He is, by now, undeniably, a master craftsman, and also a master at listening to his own inner music. These poems feel effortless, like late Stevens. Almost all of the time in this book (though not in all of his late books), Merwin can step out of his own way and let the poem come through, seemingly unfettered, but with bits of his knowledge and experience clinging like soil to roots. Merwin casts a long eye across time, seemingly able to remember what he himself never experienced. It’s the kind of dark thrill one can only have in a poem:
So this is the way the night tastes
one at a time
not early or late
my mother told me
that I was not afraid of the dark
and when I looked it was true
how did she know
so long ago
with her feather dead
almost before she could remember
and her mother following him
not long after
and then her grandmother
who had brought her up
and a little later
her only brother
and then her firstborn
gone as soon
as he was born
If, in his early experiments in the ’60s, punctuation seemed to be missing from the poems, now it feels as if it was never there, never necessary. The stops and starts are somehow contained within the lines, if not the words themselves. Merwin locates himself in an ongoing stream of losses; the poem takes a wide view of time, the kind of wide view one would need a lifetime to take. Merwin’s oracular, timeless tone has finally found its place in time. As a young man, he wrote poems wearing an old man’s mask. As an old man, he’s grown into that mask, such that one can no longer detect where it is fastened.
There are marvelous figures for death in these poems: “when the pictures set sail from the walls / with their lights out / unmooring without hesitation or stars / they carry no questions.” He is also able to write about poetry, which figures a longing for what words refer to: “today nothing is missing / except the word for it / the morning is too / beautiful to be anything else.” As he writes in a minor but telling poem, “it is the late poems / that are made of words / that have come the whole way / they have been there.”
Here we have a master craftsman effortlessly deploying his craft. He doesn’t seem to strain anything. Words seem to just come at Merwin’s beckoning. The themes are the same as those in Sirius — memory, the passage of time, old age, mortality, and a sense of empathy with natural processes — but here, the work feels more solipsistic, the voice blocked by its own shadow. Merwin’s work is subject to an aperture that opens and closes, letting in more and less of the world, confining him to his own vision, or transcending it.
In the past two decades, Merwin has alternated between these two states. The Vixen was an open book; The River Sound was closed; The Pupil was closed; Present Company served to help Merwin open back up again; and The Shadow of Sirius found him fully open and receptive. The Moon Before Morning finds him closing again, even though the subjects seem as expansive as ever. Nature in this book is nature through the scrim of Merwin, nature with Merwin blocking some of the view. The best poems here take as their subjects that specific occlusion, where what’re mourned are the parts of the past that the self prevents itself from seeing:
Youth is gone from the place where I was young
even the language that I heard here once
its cadences that went on echoing
a youth forgotten and the great singing
of the beginning have fallen silent
with the voices that were the spirit of them
and their absences were no more noticed
than were those of the unreturning birds
each spring until there were no words at all
for what was gone but it was always so
I have no way of telling what I miss
I am the only one who misses it
So why does this happen? How does a poet as powerful and capacious as Merwin come to imitate himself? By now, Merwin has attained something like what Stevens had by the end, as in “The River of Rivers in Connecticut”:
It is the third commonness with light and air,
A curriculum, a vigor, a local abstraction …
Call it, one more, a river, an unnamed flowing,
Space-filled, reflecting the seasons, the folk-lore
Of each of the senses; call it, again and again,
The river that flows nowhere, like a sea.
This is not a description of a river, but an imaginary place with a real river in it, one that has flown through Stevens and comes out in the poem. Stevens has taken his Connecticut landscape into himself and filled his words with it, changing Connecticut a tiny bit in the process. By the time he wrote this, Stevens was an absolute virtuoso of his own style, such that he could play his own instrument as well as could be imagined, but also such that he couldn’t help but imitate himself.
Something similar has happened to Merwin. He is a virtuoso of himself, and somewhat subject to the habit of his virtuosity. Still, Merwin has brought so much of the world into him that the view from his words is mostly breathtaking.