Jul/Aug 2020  •   Reviews & Interviews

A Second Progress Report

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

The Second Four Books of Poems.
W. S. Merwin.
Copper Canyon Press. 2020. 320 pp.
ISBN 978-1556590542.

When I wrote "A First Progress Report" in 2014, reviewing The First Four Books of Poems by W. S. Merwin, the author was 86 years old. Sadly, he has since passed away. The books, however, remain, which must be some comfort to us all. Like the first four, The Second Four Books are a singular part of the history of the poetry of their time.

Despite the begrudged half-acknowledgements of his talent that graced so many reviews, still, of volumes such as The Drunk in the Furnace (1960), Merwin had to be aware he was writing some of the finer poetry of his times. He might have been well aware that university writing programs' rejection of form was the source of the reviewers' resistance.

Poets made very little money from their poetry any longer, or their reviewing. But they were no longer bohemians, insurance or bank executives with free time, beneficiaries of family trust funds, etc. They were issued a steady paycheck to teach those programs; programs that needed to attract large numbers of students in order to cut those paychecks. "Accessibility" was the byword.

He had tried variations on form—often quite loose or distant—for four volumes. The poems were generally exceptional. With his fifth volume, The Moving Target (1963), and his 36th year, his style began to change. Rapidly, before the readers' eyes. The early pages are only distantly redolent of form. By the middle of the volume, punctuation is sparse, then irregular. By the end, punctuation has disappeared altogether, and single word lines regularly feature.

The overwhelming impression of the volume is of a series of exercises toward the transition from a traditional to an experimental poetry. The more a poem comes across as an exercise the less it depends upon emotional response for success. Some do not succeed at all.

But it is also a volume where the major themes begin to emerge. One of the finer images of the dissociation to be found throughout all of Merwin's poetry is already here, in the poem "Spring":

I take down from the door
My story with the holes
For the arms the face and the vitals

The complex assonantal partial-rhymes of the next line—however much they might go consciously undetected—bespeak a mighty struggle to keep his identity.

I take down the sights from the mantle

He struggles to make the lines entirely his own. (The italics are my own.)

It is not unreasonable to describe the volume as a puzzle-book which periodically blooms in stunning images. Solving a puzzle was rewarded with an insight and whatever sense of gratification might go together with it. Occasionally—and this was all to the point—something more comes together. Something not easily described.

Only capital letters were carried over from the old work, marking out the beginning of lines, after the manner of the French surrealist poet Louis Aragon. Much more suggests Aragon as a model. The transition was happening so quickly, Aragon would better be called his "point of departure."

In the next volume, The Lice (1967), Aragon persists, but the signs are his influence is already on the wane. By The Carrier of Ladders (1970)—the book for which Merwin won the Pulitzer Prize—capital letters are assigned a much smaller role. Aragon is a husk left behind the tasty parts having been devoured and digested.

Somehow, the puzzles had been more for Merwin to solve than the reader. They remain in The Carrier of Ladders but now the reader doesn't have to solve them in order to experience the poems. There is something for every reader. Each takes away what they are able. Now the punctuation is entirely gone. The poet has developed a remarkably expressive dance between line breaks and sense breaks that rewards the reader the more the more they slow their reading to attend to it.

The images remain precise. We were once simply, naturally related, but now...

the tree has been cut
on which we were leaves

While we are still every bit as intimately related fundamental matters have changed. The nature of our connection while we cut down nature begins here, perhaps, but it is certainly everywhere hereafter throughout the poems.

Again a common theme throughout Merwin's poetry, we arrive where we arrive one intentional step at a time without intention:

we have been guided from scattered wombs
all the way here choosing choosing
which foot to put down

It is fascinating watching the pieces of a unique perspective come together that would inform us for decades to come.

It is impossible, however, to see how The Carrier of Ladders could be considered a better volume than The Moving Target. For all their similarities of craft and intent—for all that each is an exceptional volume—the earlier is far the better book. Looking at the competition for the Pulitzer in 1964, it is difficult to say that any volume approached the quality of Merwin's. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the reason the better book failed to win the prize was the habit throughout of capitalization of first letters to units readily identifiable as traditional lines.

One trait that seems to begin in The Carrier of Ladders is a touch of sentimentality peeking out, rigorously emptied of sentiment. For surely the trolley of "The Old Room" below which...

the parade is forming again
with the streetcar for its band
it is forming I hear the shuffling the whispers
the choking then the grinding starts off
slowly as ice melting
they will pass by the house

closed ranks attached to the iron trolley

...is the same trolley from The Shadow of Sirius, published 38 years later.

It was one of the carols
of summer and I knew that
even when all the leaves
were falling through it as it passed
and when frost crusted the tracks
summer stayed on in that song

In the later book, it is unabashedly one of the beloved memories of his youth. He had become W. S. Merwin and had earned the right to write it as he saw fit. The volume would deservedly also win the Pulitzer Prize.


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