Apr/May 2006 Book Reviews

Star Stuff

W.S. Merwin
Copper Canyon Press (2005) 552 pages
ISBN 1556592183

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Buy now from Amazon! W.S. Merwin's Migration: New and Selected Poems contains eight new poems in its 552 pages. They are simple, playful and thematically continuous with the work that goes before. That said; there are reasons that Merwin's poetry flourishes in the "new and selected" format more than most. The road from his Yale Younger winning first volume, A Mask for Janus (1952), to these new poems, in which the poet's "ancient, glittering eyes are gay," is a long and an unusually diverse one.

Commentators on Merwin's poetry have often waxed ambivalent or worse. The early work was highly formal, the moment clearly transitional, and the poet seemed to drag his feet against his presumed responsibility to keep up with them. Even after the poems were no longer formal they continued to sound formal.

The worst of the poet's offenses were his quantifiable rhythms and an obviousness of influence. As Richard Howard would later put it, assessing Merwin's early work, in Alone With America (1969), "Echoes of other writers are indulged..."

In the essay "Diminishing Returns" (1974) the critic James Atlas would complain of the early poems' "ornate, peculiar diction, an absence of all qualities distinguishing the modern, a derivative, self-conscious voice". Perhaps it was the debt that poems such as "Burning the Cat" and "The Hotel-Keepers" owed to Frost, and that so many owed to Yeats (and indirectly to Pound) that went beyond the pale.

These comments reflect aesthetics that were already achieving dominance as Merwin's first volumes were being published. The Black Mountain College movement, intimately related as it was to the even more influential Bauhaus, discouraged any hint of the decorative, of style. At Black Mountain, creative learning was encouraged by unstructured teaching methods. The result was a considerably less structured art and text. Upon the effective demise of Black Mountain, the departure of poetry instructor Robert Creeley to San Francisco actually amplified its influence by injecting it into the Beat movement and the wider San Francisco Renaissance. The first writing programs were also coming into prominence under the influence of Paul Engle's Iowa Writers' Workshop. It would be difficult to exaggerate the influence of Engle's plain-language aesthetic in the decades following World War II. The pressure from these and other directions to consider formalism as entirely outmoded was pervasive and immense.

On the other side of the ledger, W.H. Auden's 10+ years selecting the winners of the Yale Younger Poets Series made it far and away the premiere prize for a first book. Auden was himself an enormous figure in the poetry world and a staunch believer in traditional craftsmanship. From 1948-59 the winners of the Yale Younger Award tended to begin as fine traditional craftsmen supported by the poetry "establishment" and to be faced with the prospect of having their future volumes ignored outside of a small but elite coterie or still more overtly dismissed. As a result, radical conversion was the rule among these poets rather than the exception.

Whether in response to this critical undertow or in the normal course of his development, "The Crossroads of the World Etc." marked Merwin's transition to an almost surrealistic style. This and other poems in The Moving Target (1963) were sparsely punctuated, if at all. They were even considered revolutionary in some ways, few American readers then being familiar with the French surrealist poets Louis Aragon and Rene Char. Yet a niggling dissatisfaction of many of his more august contemporaries continued in evidence long after he left off all overt traces of formalism. Two sources, in particular, remained for it. James Dickey summed up the first objection in an early piece on Merwin first published in 1961, and collected in Babel to Byzantium (1968):

"What [he] has lacked up to now, and still lacks, is intensity, some vital ingress into the event of the poem which would cause him to lose his way among the intricacies of what is so easy for him to say concerning almost anything on earth..."

In an age when poetry is all but entirely identified with Dionysian involvement Merwin is, by inclination, Apollonian, mediate. He rarely attempts to be so much as urgent: "I keep finding this letter / To the gods of abandon, / Tearing it up."

The second source of frustration was Merwin's insistence upon the perversity of human nature and its constructs. His name has been coupled with Eliot and Beckett in this regard: "He is one of the voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells," Helen Vendler avers, in a review of The Carrier of Ladders (1970), "and if the toneless cry of the Waste Land is one of your affinities, you will find it in Merwin." Ours is also an age in which poetry is expected to redeem the common man from centuries of elitist misrepresentation. In such an idealistic environment, Merwin could only be perceived by some to be a closet misanthrope, or, at best, pathologically morbid.

This marked ambivalence notwithstanding, Merwin's volume The Carrier of Ladders won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize and his poetry dominated the next decade. Many more volumes (and awards) followed, and, although no single transitional poem or volume can be cited, his work has gradually come to feature nature. His descriptions of human nature have become steadily more sympathetic, at times even to the point of indulgence. The heavy enjambment he had long utilized in order to force the reader to pay close attention to the text has given way to generally end-stopped lines.

In The River Sound (1999), Merwin returned to rhyme while continuing without punctuation or capitalization. The rhyme is often imperfect and the line lengths are irregular in an attempt to maintain the requisite conversational tone.

Amidst all of these changes resides a continuity that is even more to the point. From the eccentric early Biblical references, to the late wistful surrender of the body, Migration reveals an attempt to pursue a spiritual journey that will not seem ridiculous in the context of the times. The Buddhist/Taoist concept of "the path," which suffuses so many of these poems, has resulted in a progression of images developing the metaphor of time as a physical landscape through which we pass. It has also provoked meditations on the nature of the human will, deftly explored in lines such as these, from "The Trail into Kansas," where will hardly seems will and fate hardly fate: "we have been guided from scattered wombs / all the way here choosing choosing / which foot to put down".

There is a persistent dissociative quality that evolves within W.S. Merwin's poetry, corollary of his many exercises intended to overcome the traditional identification of self. With "I take down from the door / My story with the holes / For the arms the face the vitals", mind-body duality takes on decidedly extra-Cartesian implications. In various poems, body parts become foreign and take on lives of their own. Of his habits Merwin reports that "Even in the middle of the night / they go handing me around," as if they were embarrassing companions he can never seem to get away from. In a later poem starlight brings us our "words / traveling towards us even in our sleep." Even our utterances have a life apart from us; more to the point, we are both less and more than our western egos take us for. The search for just who exactlyme is slowly reveals itself to the reader to be the dominant theme of this lifetime of poetry.

Migration tells the story of a long and unusually fruitful journey. With a bit of context it is also a kind of documentary history of an unusually talented poet seeking ways to come to terms with the times in which he lives while maintaining the integrity of his personal vision. Wise enough not to make the mistake of an intractability that would exile him to a peripheral existence, Merwin nevertheless could not choose to follow the road signs and to be pleased to count the accumulation of flyleaves from which his face would beam out as a result. A strong climber would rather fail at a cliff than conquer a hill. In the end he graced the flyleaves anyway.

These are poems that often contradicted received ideas--many of which persist--about how poetry should be written in the post-modern world, and the reader may experience some frustration, as a result. The ambivalence of Merwin's better critics highlights differences with which his readers are called to struggle. When he gave up traditional forms, Merwin surrendered the myths of order, narrative line, and heroism that went with them. This provided those critics little relief, however, as he chose not to replace them with the prevailing myths of our own times. Altogether without its myths, humankind was bound to make a paltry figure. This was not misanthropy, however, but the first step of a journey, provisioned with little more than a wealth of language and observational skills the poet had acquired during his extended apprenticeship, toward wherever his next step would take him. The result is a seductively luxurious vagabond poetry that slowly accumulates style and theme from out of the poet's personality (the only constant in its landscape); a poetry of uncomfortable and unquestionable excellence.


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