Until last Friday, when he died at the age of ninety-one, in Hawaii, where he lived for some forty years and restored palm trees and native plants, W. S. Merwin was by unanimous consent synonymous with contemporary American poetry. Now that he’s died, I feel suddenly like everything is dropping away, and he has become his poems.
And we can read him fresh once again.
W. S. Merwin existed in a rare league of contemporary American poets, one that might include John Ashbery and Adrienne Rich. They were all Yale series winners and all born in the 1920s.
Merwin was practically an abstract poet almost from the very first stanza of his very first book, the 1952 Yale Series of Younger Poets winner, that begins—
Then we poised, in time’s fullness brought
As to a new country, the senses
In the mutations of a sallow light,
A season of signs and speechless
That first book, A Mask for Janus, was selected by W. H. Auden, who could already see in the twenty-five-year-old’s poems that Merwin was a poet attentive to nothing less than the “collapse of civilization.” Starting with that first book, and the ones that followed soon after, such as The Dancing Bears, you see that Merwin began his writing in abstraction, turned his attention to the illegitimacy of the State in the 1960s and 1970s, and from then onward steered his poems through a sequence of expressionistic books that eulogized the extinction of the natural world.
Yet there was nothing deviating or arbitrary about the changes in direction of his approach. Merwin was always a poet of tenacity, deeply attentive to the European, South American, and North American literary traditions he affirmed and rebuilt, as well as to lyric homages to a forested world his poems made occasions for. If, in the 1950s, he began writing as something of a poet of extravagances, he ultimately forged a space as an American surrealist of extremes, like you see in “The River of Bees,” published in The Lice, published in 1967, that ends—
I return to his voice like a forkful of hay
He was old he is not real nothing is real
Nor the noise of death drawing water
We are the echo of the future
On the door it says what to do to survive
But we were not born to survive
Only to live
Those lines contain something like a hallucinatory, intangible realm that’s caught, as so many of Merwin’s poems are caught, between creation and terror.
For myself, I must tell you that up until the day he died, there had not been one day in my life as a poet (really, my entire life) when W. S. Merwin wasn’t just alive, but alive as a practitioner of the highest values of allusiveness, of absence (which he feared and extolled), and of human consciousness. Alive as a conduit, through his poems, to remind us that knowledge begins like a feeling of emptiness in the invisible mornings. I guess I have always felt that, well, no matter what’s going on in the world or no matter what poets and poetry swarm from one shiny object of concern to the next, at least W. S. Merwin is alive and writing poems somewhere. Thank goodness for that, I would think.
The son of a Presbyterian minister, Merwin published over sixty books by my count. By that I mean, he showed up. A lot. On time. He published so often and with such freakish regularity—and these were big books, too, seventy, eighty, ninety poems each—that it seemed not a decade went by without two, three, or even four brand-new Merwin collections of poetry or translation. And those translations! From the Japanese, from the Spanish, and especially from across so many centuries of the French. And, even an edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, “translated” from Early English, as well as Dante’s Purgatorio. He was the United States poet laureate from 2010 to 2011, he won two Pulitzer Prizes, he won the National Book Award, and I suppose he won nearly every major award you can think of, minus the Nobel.
When I began writing poems in the late 1980s, I was twenty-two years old. This was about fifteen years after Merwin won his first Pulitzer Prize, for The Carrier of Ladders. Like many in my generation, an early book like The Lice has probably been the more influential book—although The Carrier of Ladders, and also The Moving Target, books from the same era, are truly outstanding, and I find myself returning to them as the years go by.
But The Lice. I must have bought my first copy in Boston, in 1986. Or maybe in that little bookshop near Dartmouth College, in Hanover, New Hampshire, a year later, near all those dumpy bars, when I was living nearby in Vermont, when I was twenty-three. Or, was it another little bookshop? That one near the Uptown Theater on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, DC, while I was going to graduate school and living in Adams Morgan? What was that one called? Or, maybe I bought it at Chapters bookstore downtown in the District? Anyway I’ve probably bought an edition of The Lice two dozen times since then. But it seems I don’t have a copy now—because I’ve given each and every one of them away to students. “Read this,” I tell them, pinching it from a bookshelf behind their head. “Take it. Keep it.”
The Lice refined American poetry’s attention (if not many American poets’ thinking, mine included) about the bones of psychic terror that a poem seeks to dig out; about the cuts and slices of time a poem maneuvers through; about the un-camouflaging of identity that is the poet’s purest, well, Merwinian duty. Poems in The Lice remind you, too, to skip the self-congratulations about writing poetry, because a poet only happens into a special, lyric terrain now and again where poetry and the psyche are in sync.
And yet, Merwin seems to have replanted that terrain’s forest. Right? Again and again. Poem after poem. Decade after decade.
So many of Merwin’s poems, in all his books, stitched with light and vapor, get under your feet. Don’t they? As if his poems exist beneath every one of your thoughts, every dream, every nightmare. It’s like there’s a sudden drop-off, a sunken geology of meaning scrubbed in and out, over and over, as if his poems have been glazed. The tempo is mild, but the ineffable message, as in a poem like “For a Coming Extinction,” is clear: the landscapes of human consciousness are stark and ever-fleeting—
bewilderment will diminish like an echo
Winding along your inner mountains
Unheard by us
And find its way out
Leaving behind it the future
For most of the poets who have followed Merwin’s lead to examine what grace there is to be found imbedded in existence, even existence that teeters on the obsolete—but also for those poets who have been inspired simply by his workmanship, his work ethic, by his insistence on being a metaphor-maker, determined to locate in his verbal energy new worlds we can compare to our own, as well as planting all those thousands of native palm trees in Hawaii for forty years—what we now possess are his singular motifs. That’s why to enter a Merwin poem is always to travel from season to season, with the footsteps ahead of us and the footsteps behind us, with the stars and sea and craggy landscapes, underneath which there’s the giving of birth and the opening of graves, and everyone not-knowing-the-words of the language we speak, in a city whose streets we have not yet visited but know by heart, where the gates open or the gates close, but always the pilgrimage goes on and on.
Even in his late books, like Travels, which include those wonderful fictional narratives, and even in the epic, The Folding Cliffs, Merwin found a way to rub a kind of translucent gel across language, making it see-through.
Mostly, because of Merwin’s poetry, American poets have accepted into our own visions a way of no longer seeing the mind as distant, but as a terrain that exists always ever closer so that the curve of a feeling, or a desire rising inside the shadows of one’s spirit, like the petals of a flower rising on its stalk, as the figures for our most base and our most grand aspirations. The psyche is haunted by its own swollen intimacies, Merwin’s poems remind us. As in a poem like “Losing a Language,” the swellings are receptacles for a feeling where—
this is what the words were made
here are the extinct feathers
here is the rain we saw
Is that Merwin’s legacy? The distinctive intensity? When Merwin sets a thought flowing across a poem, its pulse acquires a detached wisdom, a quality of a trance. The feeling is constantly held and inflected by the vestiges of a deep, collective memory, the angled bruises and awe-struck sense of human survival that have become a permanent facet of his poems, if not his style. Consequently, to read Merwin without Merwin alive—now that he is gone and has become his poems at last—is to read a poet fully possessed of a vision, something deeply rare in poetry.
To survive as long as he did as a poet, to thrive as long as he did as a poet, is to embody the simplest idea, that following one’s impulse is the goal of the writer. His mastery was never to smooth out the kinks of his abstract imagination, but to locate the most profound utterances inside it, so that—
here we are
with our names for the days
the vast days that do not listen to us
Rumpus original logo art by Genevieve Tyrrell. Photograph of W. S. Merwin © Jill Greenberg, courtesy of Copper Canyon Press.