• On the Poetic Legacy of W.S. Merwin

    John Freeman on The Collected Poems

    In 2013, at an age past which most people live, W.S. Merwin published three books. One of them was a 1,500-page Collected Poems with Library of America, which even as it landed was out of date. A new volume was already scheduled for 2015. Others would follow. Just last month yet another book of prose arrived, full of Merwin’s account of meeting Pound, tales of translation woe, tiny shards of memory from travels long ago. This constant production, which in a writer like Updike could feel like mania, in Merwin felt proof that the meaning of living was to search, and the search could not end until he did. I carried these LOA volumes—and another 40 or 50—around for a year as I wrote the following essay*, surprised that the deeper I hiked into Merwin country, the less I felt I was in his territory. But rather the world itself opening up for me, his voice, his story, his words, like lamplights. Merwin’s search ended last week when he died at age 91. The lamp burns brightly still.

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    *Originally appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of The Virginia Quarterly Review.

    Just after World War II, a young Princeton student journeyed to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, DC, to visit Ezra Pound. The great poet had been tried for treason for broadcasts he made in Italy for the fascist government and, pleading insanity, wound up serving a dozen years in the psychiatric institution. To the astonishment of his young visitor that day in 1946, Pound greeted him as if he were a serious poet. Like an elder, he also offered advice. “You don’t really have anything to write about at the age of eighteen,” Pound warned. “The way to do it is to learn a language and translate. That way you can practice, and you can find out what you can do with language, with your language.” Despite their age difference, the two writers began a correspondence afterward, and some time later, as he prepared to enter graduate school in Romance languages, the young poet received a postcard from Pound. “Read seeds not twigs,” it pronounced, signing off, “EP.”

    The young poet was W.S. Merwin, and if his pilgrimage to a master was a clue, apprenticeship was a notion he took seriously. At Princeton Merwin had memorized John Milton by heart, and he crashed R. P. Blackmur’s classes with John Berryman, who showed up the first time in a pork-pie hat. Following Pound’s call, Merwin also began to translate. He started out in school with the New York poems of Federico García Lorca and moved on to the early Spanish texts such as the epic Poem of Cid. Over the next 65 years, as he launched one of the most brilliant postwar careers in poetry, Merwin continued at the trade, working in a comically diverse array of languages: French, German, Russian, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Italian, Chinese, Romanian, Greek, Irish, Quechuan, and Kabyle, to name just a few. A second collection of such translations was published this spring, alongside a new edition of haiku by Yosa Buson. Had he merely plied his trade as a translator, Merwin would have been one of the most significant figures in American letters.

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    But of course Merwin’s own poetry has eclipsed this work. Its awesome range, intensity, and feral strangeness are evident in a new two-volume Library of America edition, beautifully edited by J.D. McClatchy. Nearly 1,500 pages in all, it represents an oeuvre so large as to make Robert Lowell’s prodigious output seem puny. It is not the sheer amount collected here, however, which transports, but the radical evolution arcing through its pages, like an explosive chemical reaction that is still ongoing. (A new collection is already slated for next year, when Merwin will be 87 years old.)

    Although he is known today for his oracular, quicksilver lines, their swift unpunctuated movement and stamped solemnity, Merwin began his career as a formalist, mimicking the chthonic tones of his masters: Milton, Pound, and W.H. Auden, too, who selected his first book, A Mask for Janus, for the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1952.

    Merwin began that book in the early 1950s on the island of Majorca, where he had visited the poet Robert Graves—again another mentor of sorts. Full of technically virtuous songs, sestinas, odes, and a whole catalog of ancient poetic forms, it reads like the work of a young man attempting to please his masters from the library carrel he had built in his mind. But for a poet coming of age at the same time as Allen Ginsberg and raised in the shingled grit of Scranton, Pennsylvania, in the Depression, there is very little sense of where Merwin was actually calling from.

    In fairness to Merwin now, it’s clear from later work that as a young man he didn’t really know the answer to that question. In his incredible memoir Unframed Originals, published in 1982, Merwin wrote of his childhood growing up the son of a Presbyterian minister working a down-on-its-luck congregation in Union City, New Jersey, and later, northeastern Pennsylvania. This in a period when coal-mines still left a layer of soot on front porches, and much of the region was very, very poor. Merwin Senior’s relationships within his own family were so strained that Merwin met his grandfather, who had been a hard drinker and flamboyant spender, only once, even though the old man lived just on the other side of town. Merwin recalled how his proud but brittle father would occasionally produce a pocketknife, “which he said was the one thing he had that had belonged to his father. . . Talking as though his father were dead.” The true dimensions of his family weren’t apparent until he was an adult, and even then he had to break form to find them out. “I had been told repeatedly,” Merwin wrote in his later memoir Summer Doorways, “that it was rude to be openly curious about anything ‘personal.’” As much as he later admired Lowell, and traded letters with Sylvia Plath, including those containing early drafts of her great book Ariel, Merwin would not go the way of the confessionalists.

    Instead he took four books to work through his early influences, untangle his syntax, and find his voice. It begins to happen in his fourth volume, The Drunk in the Furnace, from 1960, parts of which he read aloud to Lowell himself, to the elder poet’s approval. The book is dedicated to his mother and father, the man who used to take him to see destroyers and ships docked in New York harbor. There are several tremendous poems about life at sea, as if the poet is casting off and touching down all at the same time. “The Portland Going Out” describes a close passage of two ships at sea: “It looked that truthworthy,” he writes, “glassy and black / Like one of those pools they have in the lobbies / Of grand hotels.” In “Sea Monster,” this new clarity of simile and intensity of image is elevated further. One feels, finally, this is not a performance of virtuosity, but virtuosity lent to the mystery of experience. “Just after / The noon watch, it was, that it slid / Into our sight: a darkness under / The surface, between us and the land, twisting / Like a snake swimming or a line of birds / In the air. Then breached, big as a church, / Right there beside us.”

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    These poems, Merwin later wrote in an essay, were exaggerations of his own thin seafaring experience off the coast of England. The Drunk in the Furnace does, however, contain the first poems that are easily, readily identifiable as autobiographical. They are hardscrabble, flinty, and evoke the world so often described in the awkwardly gorgeous poems of his contemporary James Wright, a fellow traveler of straight talk about family life. “Grandfather in the Old Men’s Home” seethes with lack of nostalgia:

    And he smiled all the time to remember
    Grandmother, his wife, wearing the true faith
    Like an iron nightgown, yet brought to birth
    Seven times and raising the family
    Through her needle’s eye while he got away
    Down the green river, finding directions
    For boats. And himself coming home
    Well-heeled but blind drunk, to hide all the
    And shoot holes in the bucket while he made
    His daughters pump.

    In these observations, Merwin’s poetry uncouples its long, winding search for meaning and morality from the lessons of the gods and starts looking to the experience of real humankind: his uncles and grandparents, his parents, and, most crucially, himself. He trades myth for the hard facts of the real world. It is a key transition for a poet whose later work would look so seriously and harshly at the capacity human beings have for destruction, not just in Vietnam, which he would vehemently oppose, but in the natural environment.

    Merwin does not wallow here, in the past, but he does not give himself a free pass either. In “Grandmother and Grandson,” also from The Drunk at the Furnace, the poet describes a young boy tricking his grandmother, grown increasingly frail, into searching a large sprawling house for him. It is an odd, nasty little poem. The boy lures her into an attic and sneaks out behind her, laughing, leaving her lost and bewildered. “Being forgotten. In the unwashed light, / Lost, she turns among the sheeted mounds / Fingering hems and murmuring, ‘Where, where / Does it remind me of?’” Of all Merwin’s poems about death, this might be the most terrifying, how he intuits it might be personal, and cruel.


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    This inward movement of Merwin’s poetry happened simultaneously with a radical stylistic shift. In the introduction to The Second Four Books of Poems, Merwin describes how, beginning in the early 1960s, he began to shed punctuation, until he had given up on it entirely. “I had come to feel that it stapled the poems to the page,” he wrote. “Whereas I wanted the poems to evoke the spoken language, and wanted the hearing of them to be essential to taking them in.” In The Moving Target, the first of these four books, one feels the heat and pressure of this change keenly. “To My Brother Hanson,” addressed to a sibling who died in childbirth, Merwin’s lines hint at the scale of his project to come. “Yes, now the roads themselves are shattered / As though they had fallen from a height, and the sky / It is cracked like varnish.” In this period, Merwin began living part of each year in a rundown farmhouse in south- west France that he bought on the cheap with a small inheritance. It was part of a very old world, whose history and animal life humbled him while it also provided a doorway to a new kind of writing. The Vietnam War was raging, and although few poems in The Lice address it directly, the grim vision they evince of life’s evanescence, its violence, even, have the barbed edge of anger. At times it reads as if the poet is trading his citizenship for a larger tribal sense of belonging. “If there is a place where this is the language,” he writes in “The Cold Before the Moonrise,” a poem about the turning of the night, “may / It be my country.”

    To read Collected Poems is like watching a man crawl out from the underworld and into the light.

    One can feel Merwin beginning to tack toward the Buddhism that he has studied since the 1970s. He is not just shedding punctuation, but the attachments which the discipline instructs are ephemeral—self, identity, the lifetime of our lives. “For the Anniversary of My Death,” one of Merwin’s strongest poems ever, reads like a eulogy written simultaneously in the past and future tense.

    Every year without knowing it I have passed
    the day
    When the last fires will wave to me
    And the silence will set out
    Tireless traveler
    Like the beam of a lightless star

    Then I will no longer
    Find myself in life as in a strange garment
    Surprised at the earth

    Mourning, in advance, haunts these four books of poems. Ash, stone, fires, and silence recur throughout them like postapocalyptic rubble. There is no rebirth, only continual death. “The nights disappear like bruises but nothing is healed,” he writes in “The Asians Dying.” Readily autobiographical details recede until they glint in the dark like very distant planets. The poem “Lackawanna,” which takes its title from the river which carves through his former state, ends with the remarkable line: “too long I was ashamed / at a distance.”

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    The forsaken country is replaced with the world around him in all its natural splendor and insentience. The Carrier of Ladders (1970), which won him his first Pulitzer Prize, is full of sumptuous poems about the changing of the seasons, animals, mountains, and dispatches from dreams. The poet is becoming a stranger to himself and, without the armature of a stable self, appears to see more clearly. He turns inward and finds fear, shame, and chaos pulsing in incantatory rhythms—especially in the propulsive poem “Fear”—while outwardly the world tilts on. Merwin uses this velocity to even greater effect in the poem “Psalm: Our Fathers,” each line of its 63 lines beginning with “I am” until the poet is everything and nothing.

    This realization would have profound effects on Merwin as a naturalist. If one is nothing, all claims of ownership are fraudulent. Irrelevant. In this sense, the land one occupies, as well as the thoughts one possesses, are all temporary. The self is the useful handle grip of a tool for stewardship, a theme which begins to recur in this period, most spectacularly in the poem “Now It Is Clear,” which begins

    Now it is clear to me that no leaves are mine
    no roots are mine
    that wherever I go I will be a spine of smoke
    in the forest
    and the forest will know it
    we will both know it.

    The later poems in The Carrier of Ladders and throughout Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment (1973) begin to approach the aphoristic torque of Merwin’s late work. Some are briefer than the haiku he continued to translate in this period. “Elegy” runs, in its entirety, “Who would I show it to.” The Merwin who began his career as a vehicle for forms and his Western influences has become a new kind of chimney for epiphany. The images here are stark, and poignant, as in ancient Chinese poetry. “Far away an empty lantern is swinging.” Whatever his influences once were, this poet is one talking on a different scale. “One travels,” he writes in “Traveling,” “to learn how not to look back. . .  out of words one travels / but there are words along the road waiting / like parents’ grandparents / we have heard of but never seen.”


    To read Collected Poems is like watching a man crawl out from the underworld and into the light. But each summit turns out to be a kind of false summit, a new vantage point for a reminder of the slippery shale of truth. In the early 1970s, Merwin appears to have dealt with this challenge by dedicating himself, almost entirely, to chronicling the rhythms and stories of the landscapes he occupied, and worked, in France. His poems move toward a steadier, stiller music. The rage and anguish that vibrate in the work of the past decade is largely gone. The Compass Flower (1977) has a seasonal pulse. There are arrivals and departures, apples and snow, the birds who arrive for a temporary stay. Rain in June. Merwin’s unpunctuated style continues, but there is a gentler tonal wash of gratitude.

    In 1973, Merwin began to venture ever more seriously into the East. That same year he published a collection of translation from Japanese, Chinese, and Korean proverbs, Asian Figures. The similarity of his poems from this period onward, especially “Feathers from the Hill” (1978), to haiku is impossible to ignore, even if he strays beyond the haiku’s syllabic limitations. He is in search, it appears, of wisdom, as it can be found in everyday things, in their essence. Several long poems proceed in short units, bursts, which juxtapose sensory images, as in “Summer Canyon.”

    Far away a dog barks
    on a windy hilltop
    beyond which the sun is setting.

    And late in the same poem:

    Under a pine at noon
    I listen to plates
    clattering in a kitchen.

    In this further reduction, Merwin’s poetry narrows the self to its observational register. It is also a devotional register, too—one he surely studied in order to bring love poems from Sanskrit into English in this period. Merwin was not the only poet of his time to be so inspired by the East. Gary Snyder, who has equal claim to the title of poet laureate of deep ecology, had made his debut in 1959 with Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems, a book which was part poetry, part translation from the ancient poems of Hansan. His stripped down, de-articled style, with its abrupt juxtapositions and short lines, had become a kind of Buddhist shorthand. The Beat movement’s wisdom espresso shot. A child of the American West, raised in the shadow of mountains, it was a posture, and commitment, that came naturally to him.

    In the 1970s, Merwin was just beginning to get seriously interested in Buddhism. In 1975 he made his first visit to Hawaii, and in 1976 spent the summer housesitting for Robert Aitken, who had become his teacher and mentor in the discipline. The study, however, didn’t come to dominate his work in the way it has with Snyder, in whose work one can almost always see the lofty mechanics of Zen practice pumping away in the background. Unlike so many poets who have evolved enormously in their lifetime, John Ashbery and Adrienne Rich included, Merwin never entirely abandons an early style or register, he simply appears to deepen or expand them, return to it when it makes sense.

    Merwin has stayed, part of the time, in Hawaii, ever since the late 1970s. While he began planting extinct palm trees and tending a small plot of land in Maui, where he was building a house, Merwin was still shuttling from there back to an apartment on Waverly Street in New York City. These books from the late 1970s and early 1980s syncopate between city and country, with sudden trips back to his early life. In this period both his parents died, and in several moving poems he revisits them in his work. One starts to detect the overheard quality of speech which characterizes Merwin most recently, as in “Yesterday,” from Opening the Hand.

    My friend says I was not a good son
    you understand
    I say yes I understand

    he says I did not go
    to see my parents very often you know
    and I say yes I know.

    Whereas Merwin’s poetry once juxtaposed images, now it is speech patterns. In some poems it varies line from line, almost like dialogue, and in other poems it happens within a line, such as in “Shaving Without a Mirror” or “Questions to Tourists Stopped by a Pineapple Field,” when the jump happens within a single line, broken in the middle by unpunctuated white space. “Do you like your piece of pineapple would you like a napkin,” and so on. In the latter poem, it is more of a gimmick, as Merwin’s stylistic variations occasionally can be, briefly, but the intensity of his search, for the right language, for all situations, eventually pays off as it does in “A Birthday,” which has this incredible passage:

    the long way to you is still tied to me   but it
    brought me to you
    I keep wanting to give you   what is already
    it is the morning    of the mornings together
    breath of summer    oh my found one
    the sleep in the same current    and each
    waking to you

    when I open my eyes    you are what I wanted
    to see

    Has there ever been a poet who has written in so many voices? The good, relentless student quality which has made Merwin such a great translator, and brought him early success, when applied to language over a lifetime gives us the sound of a poet who is perpetually preparing to meet his inspiration on its own terms, as if it is something he is merely guiding, not creating. As he writes in Rain in the Trees (1988), in the poem “Witness.” “I want to tell what the forests / were like,” it reads. “I will have to speak / in a forgotten language.”

    In later books, especially his prose book about France, The Lost Upland, as well as The Vixen (1995), which chronicles his relationship to the home in southwest France, and The Folding Cliffs (1995), a narrative of Hawaii in the 19th century, Merwin resurrects old forms as a vessel for ancient places. The Vixen, though the slimmest of these books, is the most effective. Modeling his poems on the classical elegies, he spins one timeless poem after another. The strengths of Merwin’s previous styles are imported and incorporated into a longer line, giving them a spooky luminescence: the way an unpunctuated line controls a reader physically, the robust pivots of layered images, the ear he has tuned for speech. All of this is evident in “Walkers”:

    I met an old woman who laughed and said
    this was the way she had come all her life and between two
    fingers she
    accepted a fig saying Oh you bring me
    there was still the man always astray in the
    dark suit
    and string tie who might emerge from a barn
    and gaze
    skyward saying Ah Ah something had
    happened to him
    in the war they said but he never took anything

    Merwin has lived long enough that these elegies can feel, at the most superficial, like the constant goodbye of an elder poet. They are not, and what makes them remarkable is that he has evolved a poetic style that, in its selfless intensity, its recycled use of previous forms of expression, has given us a shifting terrain from which to observe evanescence itself. Here is where the poet’s oracular power comes from. He is telling us something which the readers must grapple with, no matter how they believe it all ends for us. The second volume of this project concludes with the great poems from The Shadow of Sirius and a selection of uncollected work. In the former, one finds Merwin at yet another pinnacle of expression, moving between his life and the natural world and the lessons the passage of both teach. “All day the stars watch from long ago,” he writes, “my mother said I am going now / when you are alone you will be all right.” It is as if we are right there with him, overhearing these final words: “look at the old house in the dawn rain / all the flowers are forms of water.” Who said the end would be in fire?

    John Freeman
    John Freeman
    John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s, a literary annual of new writing, and executive editor of Literary Hub. His books include How to Read a Novelist and Dictionary of the Undoing, as well as a trilogy of anthologies about inequality, including Tales of Two Americas, about inequity in the US at large, and Tales of Two Planets, which features storytellers from around the globe on the climate crisis. Maps, his debut collection of poems, was published in 2017, followed by The Park in 2020. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages and has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The New York Times. He is the former editor of Granta and teaches writing at NYU.

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