W.S. Merwin, Part One: A Poet Not Afraid To Go Epic


The best work of American poet W.S. Merwin was delivered in The Drunk In The Furnace, a collection which took what was good in his book A Mask For Janus and cranked up the genius to ten.

Unfortunately for the world, after these successes, right at the peak of his power, Merwin succumbed to the style of his contemporaries and slipped into the mixed-up, cacophonous waters that was late-twentieth century so-called poetry.  Starting around the time of Moving Target, Merwin’s work did not just take a step down– it rapidly descended a flight of stairs the hard way.

What I love about the poetry of Merwin circa The Drunk In The Furnace and A Mask For Janus is that he was not afraid to go epic.  Any coward can write the snide and ironic.  It takes a real man to tell a sweet story.

Of course, I cannot put Merwin up at the very top echelon of poets since he– even at his best– does not bother much with the things that turn sentences in to songs, such as assonance or meter– these were too old-fashioned already even when Merwin was young.  Even at his best, his merely a pithy prose writer– not a crafter of verse.

Also, almost as an aside, I noticed that Merwin is a poet who is greater at beginnings than at endings.  Most of my favorite lines from him occur in the first parts– often the very first part– of his poems.

In his best pre-Lice or pre-Moving-Target days, Merwin wrote epic tales of myth and meaning, singing of legends, heroes, and –most especially– dramatic sea adventures!

Some of Merwin’s best mythic or epic poems include:  Odysseus (watch for the fun wordplay:  reproaches, unraveling, wedded-to…), The Portland Going Out (here, the poet can’t get over the way the tiniest modicum of distance and time can create a giant chasm between human souls and destinies), and Fable (light-hearted, but with an Aesopian, psychologically truthful moral to the tale).

in the poem Canso, Merwin writes of how the poet’s pen can truly be mightier than the sword, at least when it comes to fighting everyone’s mortal arch-enemy, Time.  In epic tales, says Merwin, the heroes…

“who contend forever in the fanciful song

are the real, and those who with tangible

bronze fought are now the unbelievable dead,

their speech inconceivable, their voyages in vain, 

their deeds inaccurate, save they coincide

with the final tale, the saving celebration.”


Merwin states, in another poem also called Canso, that the epic song or mythical tale is “that ceremony whereby you may be named perpetual out of the anonymity of death.”  And, “the song is nothing if not a resurrection.”

The poem, Sea Monster, has a wonderful description of the moment when the ship’s crew and the great beast from the depths come eye-to-eye:  “its eyes were like the sea when the thick snow falls onto it with a whisper and slides heaving on  the gray water.  And looked at us for a long time, sinking at last, the waters closing like a rush of breath.”

Then there’s this marvelous description from Leviathan (I particularly find intriguing the verbing and word-making-via-hyphenation):

“This is the black sea-brute bulling through wave-wrack, ancient as ocean’s shifting hills, who in sea-toils traveling, who furrowing the salt acres heavily, his wake hoary behind him, shoulders spouting, the fist of his forehead over wastes gray-green crashing”

In the Mariner’s Carol, Merwin speaks eloquently as the sea as monster:  “the serpents deep sliding” […] “is everywhere around us, heaves under us, gliding; we know its toothed curling the whole world encircles.”

Another good sea-themed poem is Sea Wife (a second tier poem, but good).

Here are some verses from The Eyes Of The Drowned Watch Keels Going Over:

“Where the light has no horizons we lie.  It dims into depth not distance.  It sways like hair, then we shift and turn over slightly.” […] “Why should we, rocking a shoal pillow, with our eyes cling to them, and their wakes follow, who follow nothing.  If we could remember the stars in their clarity, we might understand now why we pursued stars […] how we traced in their remote courses not their own fates but ours.”

In the poem Fog, Merwin speaks of how not making a choice is, itself, a choice, and can be just as perilous as bold action:  “drifting itself now is danger” and “ships were not shaped for haven.”

Then, he shifts into full Tennyson gear, ending the poem with:

“Let us turn head, out oars, and pull for the open.  Make we for midsea, where the winds are and stars too.  There will be wrung weathers, seak-shakings, calms, weariness, the giant water that rolls over our fathers, and hungers hard to endure.  But whether we float long or founder soon, we cannot be saved here.”

(I especially relish that last line).  Notice how he uses the old-fashioned verb-noun “make we”– a style he sometimes employs.

One-Eye is another mythological tale from Merwin; this one is about the one-eyed man who actually does arrive at the land of the blind and become king.  The sightless inhabitants meet the stranger with “their leaping fingers flicking around him like locusts in a cloud.”  There’s some thoughtful detail here, too, (worthy a good fantasy novelist) when Merwin writes of how the kingdom of the blind would of course have the world’s most beautiful music; and when the inhabitants send the new one-eyed king their most beautiful young girls, they send “their softest daughters” who are “clad only in scent.”

Relatedly, Blind Girl is a nice, very short, Hitchcockian, psychological thriller with great lines like, “Silent, with her eyes climbing above her like a pair of hands drowning.”

Merwin’s heroes do not crave excitement merely for excitement’s sake.  They, again like some of Tennyson’s heroes, hope to move through the battle and arrive at a well-earned Elysium of peace and deeper understanding.  This is most especially evident in the poem Proteus, wherein the seeker discovers that the shape-shifting god he has been wrestling with is none other than the poet, himself, a man “who to no end battles the foolish shapes of his own death by the insatiate sea.”

The poem Burning Mountain is a tale about a town setting atop veins of coal that are continuously smoldering beneath the ground.  What I like about this poem is that Merwin puts front and center what I think is one of the most important jobs of the poet:  showing us the mundane in such away that we see it again with fresh eyes, and thus, see the beauty and mystery we so easily take for granted.  Speaking of the town, he says:

“Under it, not far, the molten core of the earth recedes from its thin crust which all the fires we light cannot prevent from cooling.  Not a good day’s walk above it the meteors burn out in the air to fall harmless in empty fields, if at all.”

The Drunk In The Furnace is another good tale in poetic form, this one with the theme of judgment; specifically how prejudice (as in pre-judgment) can close our once-youthful eyes to wonder.  Witness these lines about how, unlike their parents (gathered dutifully in church), the children of a town find irresistibly intriguing the doings of a local drunk who has taken up residence in still-standing furnace of a crumbled structure (“his bad castle“):

“In their tar-paper church in a text about stoke holes that are sated never, their reverend lingers.  They nod and hate trespassers.  When the furnace wakes, though, all afternoon their witless offspring flock like piped rats to its siren crescendo, and agape on the crumbling ridge stand in a row and learn.”

Here is the entire poem, Fishing, which i think does as well as any poem of catching the essence of a moment as it flies by:

Day and night as a child

I could imagine feeling the bite on the line

moment of fire

above a drum of white

stone water

with the line vibrating through it

one-string harp

never to be out of the feeling in my fingers

name from before anyone was born

bright color in darkness through half a life

beating suddenly toward me.


And lastly, the first stanza from For A Dissolving Music, which speaks of the sad decline of old age:

What shall be seen?

Limbs of a man

old and alone,

his shadow with him,

going and gone.

What shall be heard?

A hollow rime:

the heart gone tame

knocking afraid.

What shall be known?

Briefly the name, 

but its frame shaken,

house of time

blown and broken

drafty room,

dwindled flame,

red coal come

out of the warm,

dry honeycomb,

ended dream.


In my next post I’ll explore the more sedate side of Merwin’s work.



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