The Essential W.S. Merwin is a quiet book, but it marks a milestone in the long career of one of the most metaphysical poets in the United States. The title is formidable, but merited; within the Copper Canyon catalogue, the only poet with more edited books is Pablo Neruda. In the United States Merwin goes somewhat under the radar as a poet, despite having won many of the country’s major prizes. He is an old man now, born in 1927 in New York and currently living with his partner on an ex-pineapple plantation in Hawaii, dedicated to living in peace with the environment and his own mind. The book’s first pages are taken up by pictures of him surrounded by tropical palms, looking very much like an ideal grandfather. There’s nothing grandfatherly about the devilish gleam in his eyes though. The imagination, mine at least, slips in a funny way from “Merwin” to “Merlin”—a silly replacement perhaps but not entirely an unwarranted one, since as a poet he does create something of a magical space.
Merwin was a prolific writer, and the Essential is a helpful cut of his work. Arranged chronologically, this book makes it possible to track changes in his style over time. In some years Merwin tends to coquette with simplicity, in others with abstraction. One book is melancholy, with line breaks that lend themselves to a simpler read; another is full of zesty enjambment. Merwin has always experimented with different verse styles that inhabit different traditions, which seem to mirror his intellectual interests in other cultures. From the first he was also obsessed with mortality, present in the very first poem he wrote and insistently obvious a theme as he aged. One extraordinary poem recites dead poets from Sylvia Plath to John Berryman along with their ways of dying, a lucid elegy.
Merwin had a full and adventurous life, from working as a tutor for the Portuguese royal family to living in Mallorca tutoring Robert Graves’s son, but these experiences do not show up in an obvious way in his poems. He avoids the anecdotal approach of the autobiographical in favor of a lyrical ‘I’, which could be anyone. The experiences he describes are not exotic; the angsts are universal. These are poems of solitude, and while there is sometimes another, there are never more than two. More often than not the poet is alone with nature, a self in the landscape. Urban poetry this is not.
The Essential begins with a poem from Merwin’s early book “A Mask for Janus.” This is perhaps one of his most linguistically complex poems, full of baroque phrasing; it was chosen by W.H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. Following this are a few translations. It’s interesting how much the translations contain Merwin’s own poetic voice — or is this impression of mine retrospective? I’m not sure how Merwin’s translations of, say, Antonio Porcha or Musō Soseki rate compared to those of other translators, but I know that for me personally it was in part through them that I got interested in Merwin in the first place. While “reading around” in college, Merwin seemed like one of the few contemporary US poets really trying to engage with literary traditions from wide-ranging parts of the world and periods of history, whether this be ancient Greece, medieval Japan or late-19th century France.
As I jot down these thoughts on Merwin’s anthology, I also happened to be reading Henry James’ late novel The Ambassadors. For some reason I’ve always thought of James as a writer who is psychologically adept but a bit abstract, not to mention curiously fascinated by ill women and aspirational Americans. Since in Santiago buying books is so expensive, though, I’m open to read any cheap classic English books that cross my path. When James popped up at a used bookstore amidst stacks of Regency romance, I snapped him up.
Despite expectations, The Ambassadors pulled me in. The book takes place almost entirely in the head of the character Strether, yet this abstraction is oddly satisfying. Since everything is so mental, an ambiguity is created. Every gesture can be interpreted both one way and its opposite, in an endless act of decipherment. “They walked, wandered, wondered and, a little, lost themselves; Strether hadn’t had for years so rich a consciousness of time — a bag of gold into which he constantly dipped for a handful,” writes James. This is intoxicating, dizzying, maddening; it is precisely the place where hyperrealism touches fantasy.
I mention this because there’s something of James in Merwin, in his clause-filled, searching, abstract use of language. Early in his career, Merwin stopped punctuating his poems, creating an atmosphere in which one phrase flows into another and one poem bleeds into the next. But Merwin doesn’t see language as a probe used to puzzle out the infinite complexity of social relationships. Words are, rather, the bulwark against infinite silence. The world exists beyond us, will survive us, does not need us. Our consciousness is a kind of register of the world during the brief period we inhabit it.
Although Merwin tries out many different systems of belief, trying on a number of different mythologies, he seems to conclude that ultimately there is nothing, except the sound of rain. Indeed, rain has a special role in his work, as a force that can erase everything, or as what is at the end of all things. In “Rain Travel” he writes that: “all at once there is no sound but rain / and the stream below us roaring / away into the rushing darkness.” All of Merwin’s work is about life as hyper-conscious of death, oriented toward it and in preparation for it. To write is to celebrate life, but also to rehearse the serenity needed to face death.
“There is a man who slouches listening / To the wheel revolving in the stream, only / There is no wheel there to revolve,” writes Merwin in “On the Subject of Poetry.” So why write? Talk is blather, a cough, a patter. Poetry is “listening to the turning / Wheel that is not there, but it is the world.” This is an ambiguous phrase. Is the revolving wheel, despite being invisible, the true world? Is the poetic act of listening to the revolving wheel what creates the world? Or is the revolving wheel an illusion? Merwin is a poet; he merely poses the question.