The Collected Poems of W. S. Merwin

Reviewed By

I.

Publication of John Ashbery’s Collected Poems in 2008 came as a surprising inclusion in the Library of America series. He is after all, unlike those poets before him to have the same honor, still alive and actively publishing new work. Yet that surprise was outmatched this year with the LOA publication of W.S. Merwin’s Collected Poems. While the Ashbery Collected leaves off including any collections of his poems published after 1987, the Merwin Collected is a two volume set: 1952-1993 followed by 1996-2011. This is the case, although Merwin like Ashbery continues to be quite alive and active (both poets were born in 1927). Merwin’s latest collection of poems, Shadow of Sirius came out in 2008, he was U.S. Poet laureate in 2010, and this year has won the Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award. In addition, both his Selected Translations along with the Collected Haiku of Buson just appeared this year from Copper Canyon Press.

The Merwin Collected Poems clocks in at some 1500 odd pages of original poetry. Even when casually flipping through these volumes, Merwin’s range becomes readily apparent. Across his lifetime he has amassed a vast output of verse, from an ever abundant pile of first-person lyrics to the colossal epic historical narrative of The Folding Cliffs (1998). The poems document his life interests and pursuits. Tracking his loves (some three marriages worth) and his many homes (from Mallorca, where he served as tutor for the Robert Graves household, to New York City’s Lower East Side on to Southern France and Hawaii). His work is filled by an abiding care and concern for individuals (neighbors, family, and friends), locales (from buildings to the countryside itself, including plants and animals), and engages with numerous myths and histories which he discovers along the way. Assembled together the diversity of interests explored by way of poetic material astounds.

The formal mastery of subject and form displayed in his first collection, A Mask for Janus (a 1952 Yale Younger Poets prize winner) announced his arrival with rococo flair.

Pursed in the indigent small dark, confess:
Is mine this shade that to all hours the same
Lurches and fails, marine and garrulous—
A vain myth in the winter of his sense,
Capable neither of song nor silence?

(“Suspicor Speculum” to Sisyphus)

This is quite an ambitious start for the precocious young poet. Throughout the following decades, Merwin continued tackling new themes, new forms, always responding to changing political and social landscapes of the times. He is always a poet of the moment, grasping after the particulars of his surroundings, yet seeking to embed the poem within a universality of meaning. His “I” speaks for an ever present anyone, asking that every reader have the opportunity to identify with his visionary experience.

walking I thought of a fire
turning around I caught sight of it
in an opening in the wall
in another house and another
before and after
in house after house that was mine to see
the same fire the perpetual bird

(“The Flight”)

As striking as Merwin’s metaphors and images at times are, the universalizing reach he strives after has the disquieting effect of whitewashing specifics of the individual eye. Merwin the man often feels distant from his own work. Rather than putting too much of himself into the poems, at the risk of hindering the ability of readers to self-identify, he tends towards opting to leave out what is immediately of personal value. Or so that is the residual result the attentive reader comes away with. Very little of any feeling here, whether rational and/or emotional, comes as a surprise. The sentiment is often beautiful, always well crafted, yet placidly adequate, resolutely in tune with every expectation of what poetry should be.

II.

I recently came across a review by poet Ed Dorn of Merwin’s The Moving Target (1963) published in Poetry June 1968. Dorn is his usual meticulous self, casting a critical eye over Merwin’s volume and not mincing words, his criticism is bitingly direct. He starts off, “I have read through The Moving Target twice now and I find I don’t have any great enthusiasm for it. I will try to assess why.” I share Dorn’s misgivings with Merwin’s work. As Dorn astutely continues, “Generally the poems in this volume use a personal referent of persistent vagueness: them, their prayers, their faces, their names.” I’m unable to contradict or otherwise draw a contrast to challenge this assessment. Dorn’s identification of the “personal referent of persistent vagueness” sums up the ambiguousness which I find haunts far too much of Merwin’s work.

MerwinDorn asks the pertinent question: “why does the verse need to be so metaphorical? For all the use of the concrete, to my eye what remains is suggestion, in context surprisingly abstract.” He offers that, “I have no trouble hearing that the language is elegant at times, fine at others, and most times boldly enigmatic. And capable of an usually probable sound” even going so far as to admit “Merwin is as good a poet as any I know of” but again returns to critically point out that Merwin’s broad, universalizing reach fails to offer up anything concrete: “…mystical socialism is not as engaging as socialism, individualism is not as interesting as an individual”. For Dorn, as for myself, Merwin’s complicit willingness to favor opaqueness over unambiguous statement refuses allow any integral sense of the poet’s original thought to come through: “I still have the notion that in our time a poem ought to make something clear as well as be beautiful.”

III.

The biographical Chronology which appears in back of both volumes of the Merwin Collected Poems, notes how as a young man Merwin studied with poet and scholar John Berryman, who told him, “I think you should get down in a corner on your knees and pray to the Muse, I mean it literally.” Merwin also relates this in verse form in his poem “Berryman”

he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally

To Merwin, whose father was a Presbyterian minister and whose work displays a vividly strong spiritualism, Berryman’s ‘advice’ no doubt struck a resonant chord. Merwin’s poetic output in terms of sheer bulk attests to the fact that he has never ceased attending to his Muse. In the same poem, he also shares Berryman’s response concerning whether it’s possible to ever know a poem is any good.

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

Merwin remains Berryman’s resilient, faithful student of poetry. One thing remains certain: if nothing else, he has never shown any hesitancy not to write. His work demonstrates an admirable dedication to what is now likely considered an old-fashioned concept, belles-lettres, or rather a life in letters. It is difficult to believe his prolific output of poems ceased in 2011 and indeed it has not, The Moon Before Morning, a new collection is to be published in April 2014 by Copper Canyon Press. Take it or leave it, Merwin’s work is a phenomenon unto itself that is remarkably enduring. Needless to say, among American poets he is a major presence.


Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson Library for the University of San Francisco. His recent books include: from Book of Kings (Bird and Beckett Books), Drops of Rain / Drops of Wine (Spuyten Duyvil) and The Duncan Era: One Reader's Cosmology (Spuyten Duyvil). More from this author →