In September W. S. Merwin turns ninety. From the view of poetry that orbits around historical movements and groupings of poets based on style or substance, Merwin has always been a misfit. He was, first, during the 1950s, a latter-day Academic Poet after the manner of Robert Lowell, where what was prized was a chiseled form of Augustanism that favored ambiguity. A decade later Merwin was grouped with the Deep Imagists, who favored a tendency to write with a Jungian sense of the collective unconscious, especially as it related to opposing the war in Vietnam.
But Merwin was not a partisan of these movements. Never a joiner, he moved often, taught little, and eventually settled on a magnificent farm in Hawaii, restoring the natural habitat and publishing a book of poems every few years. His new writing resembled farming. Each book a new planting among the elements: earth, wind, fire, water. Add to that: myth, the psyche, historical ballads, whispery under-currents of consciousness, and moral conscience. He leaves the islands, so far as I can tell, only to give readings to make a living. To see him read during the last ten years has been to see the prestige, the eminence, the shiny gray hair and sly eyes, the illustriousness. His readings go on for hours, as if he has not spoken in months. All the while you figure he retreats to his sleek hotel room to shuffle new words across the straight furrows of his notebooks.
Throughout the course of Merwin’s career, American poetry has buzzed and fizzed with manifestos, point and counterpoint. By the late forties and fifties, as I mentioned above, formalized realism was trying to become the house style of American poetry. Thereafter, post-modernists tried to usher in a poetry of ruthless spectacle at odds with the erotic. All through this time, Merwin kept looking inward.
There is an argument to be made that few other major poets have had less to tell us about the national dramas than W.S. Merwin, and yet still not be of the avant-garde. His poetry, in a way, is a renunciation of poetic fashion. He spurned all reflections of the natural world that could not be internalized, embodied, or made incarnate, within his poems. This earned him the reputation in some quarters, especially among younger writers, as a poet who has only one hemmed-in thing to say. Easily refuted, I wish to retort, just by looking at one poem of Merwin’s, “The Gods,” that shapes an idea of living in America as a psychic still life—
If I have complained I hope I have done with it
I take no pride in circumstances but there are
My blind neighbor has required of me
A description of darkness
And I begin I begin but
All day I keep hearing the fighting in the valley
The blows falling as rice and
With what cause
After these centuries gone and they had
Each their mourning for each of them grief
In hue less ribbons hung on walls
Here in the future continues to find me
Till night wells up through the earth
Am all that becomes of them
Clearly all is lost
The gods are what has failed to become of us
Now it is over we do not speak
Now the moment has gone it is dark
What is man that he should be infinite
The music of a deaf planet
The one note
Continues clearly this is
The other world
These strewn rocks belong to the wind
If it could use them
Reading this I have the feeling that I’m watching Merwin expose pigments of his psyche. A poem like this doesn’t direct your attention to the hard politics of daily life. It tells us nothing about Merwin’s day to day experiences. He seems instead to present himself as an archetype, a means of contemplation, a way of being simply, a voice. Only in this narrow sense is a poem like “The Gods” dramatic. Historically aware, sure, but also unlike anything else.
Poetic contemplation typically is a means to container experience, like a still life. And this poem illustrates the unum of American life. In Merwin’s hands there’s an opposite tendency to let life pass through, to go with what’s present, to live in the moment, as the cliché puts it. Does this mean to forget the past? Hardly. Taken together, the past with the present and the future are in Merwin’s poetry infinite, exceptional. His poems are neither cynical nor penitential. In the manner that we all locate what is essential to our natures, “The Gods” vibrates in relation to the social world, seems to waver, mutable, like a distillation of an unclouded sensibility under whose eye the circumstances of the life, the language of the experience, and the inwardness of knowledge, become one.
This is part ten of a twenty-one part series. Here are links to parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. These pieces will appear every two weeks. We value your feedback and your suggestions for other pieces to be included in this list of poems which shaped, and continue to shape, America.