Oct/Nov 2017 Reviews & Interviews

An Invitation to Great Poetry

The Essential W. S. Merwin
Michael Wiegers, Ed.
Copper Canyon Press. 2017. 344 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-513-4.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Buy now from Amazon! The lingering days of the great poets are just about behind us. The craft was once the realm of white males, heterosexual by popular assumption if not in fact. The tradition was thoroughly western, couched in centuries of development. Each generation produced its new crop of great poets: those whose names were known and respected beyond the genre's modest reach.

Little by little over the most recent of those centuries, women have had a growing presence until now it is they who dominate. Post Civil Rights Act, a small community of African-American poets has burgeoned into a strong literary and political force. The reader probably knows the general history of the impressive inclusivity and tolerance that has become central to the poetry world over the past 60 or so years. To go on at length can only prove tiresome. Each identity group has its own collection of sacred stories.

W. S. Merwin is part of the pre-academic, pre-open-mic, pre-Internet age of poetry as an accident of birth. That accident, and his longevity, make him a poet of a different world. Together with Richard Wilbur, he is one of the last two mastodons standing on the plain. Bigger, gentler and less relentlessly social than creatures can afford to be any longer.

In some ways, part of his Great Poet status comes from the fact that his environmentalism and pacifism have been powerful influences on those who have come after. More influential still has been his poetic experimentation. Already the craft was rapidly becoming a choir at the expense of the soloist. Already the craft was growing simpler such that more were able to join in as choristers. Merwin has managed to fruitfully straddle two worlds: the old cultural literacy and the new democratic buzzing hive. He has striven to communicate with each new audience, in a rapidly changing world, with its new needs and demands while remaining true to himself. Under such circumstances he can only have been quite different than the Great Poets that came before: men such as Browning and Tennyson, such as Frost, Auden, and Merrill. But still, his soil could only be the loam of their tradition.

There have been other exceptional collections of the poetry of Merwin. The concept of The First Four Books of Poems (1975, 2000) and The Second Four Books (1993) is simple to the point of being profound. The emergence of the poetry of The Carrier of Ladders involved a fascinating voyage from the early formalism, through volumes of struggle and uncertainty, always toward a new idea of what and how a poem needed to express. Migration: New and Selected Poems (2005) is panoramic.

The Essential W. S. Merwin, on the other hand, was selected specifically with the choir in mind. The medium cardstock matte covers show the poet's refuge in Maui. The high quality color photographs are divided between that refuge and the modest trappings of the highest professional success. The poems those photos preface come from 65 years of books, two of which have won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

What is essential in this collection is the targeting of post-Great-Poet audience. The first two formal books provide a single poem apiece. The perversity of human nature so often decried by early reviewers is little prevalent in the selection made for this volume. The share of shorter poems is higher than in Merwin's work as a whole. The same for poems of shorter line lengths. Several selections are made from Merwin's charming book of short prose fables, The Miner's Pale Children.

Yet page after page of lyrical poems await the reader here, as quietly tucked away as they were at their first appearance:

How many times have I heard the locks close
And the lark take the keys
And hang them in heaven.

Strong, ironically beautiful poems that we remember with something of awe are here, like "The Drunk in the Furnace" and "Burning the Cat." Poems nourished out of the tradition of Great Poetry and Great Poets like "Odysseus" and "François de Maynard 1582-1646" and brought into the language of a new poetry are scattered about in sufficient numbers to make clear how essential such revival has seemed to the poet.

If anything about the book is disappointing—notwithstanding its objective—it is the necessarily small number of selections from the always solid and sometimes great books of translations that have long enriched a book reviewer's life. Still, essential as they have been to the Merwin's effort, it is difficult to imagine giving them additional space rather than original poems.

The Essential W. S. Merwin is exceptionally well conceived as a text to welcome the new or nearly new reader into the work of this poet. The reader who already has the individual books on the shelf might find it a refreshing perspective, one of the ways that a reader can enter into W. S. Merwin and see things a bit differently. And, of course, that already dedicated reader might find it a fine Christmas gift to give to those on their list who love to read great poetry.


P.S.: W. S. Merwin's beautiful wife and helpmate of 35 years, Paula, passed away in March of this year. We at Eclectica send our heartfelt condolences for what must be a profound loss.


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