W.S. Merwin, Part Two: Poet In Search Of Quietus

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As I said in the last post, Merwin is a poet of myths and heroes and stories of the sea.  Merwin is also a poet in search of quietus.  His poems sometimes sound like gentle prayers, and he is often to be found longing for a safe harbor.  Many times he speaks in his poems of the calmer or cooler side of Nature, of stillness of shadows and of stones.

Here are two examples of Merwin’s invocation of prayers:

From Rime Of The Palmers:  “At the broken bridge where the cold rivers move in a rage, let the breath be prayers.”

And from The Passion:  “In that garden at evening we could not speak save in prayer unto each other saying, ‘Each other’s will be done.’ “

Here’s the sedate beginning of Two Horses:

“Oh, in whose grove have we wakened, the bees still droning under the carved wall, the fountain playing softly to itself, and the gold light, muted, moving long over the olives; and whose, stamping the shadowy grass at the end of the garden, are two wild horses tethered improbably?”

In The Annuciation, Merwin’s style bends toward the Hemingwayesque:

it is “that empty hour of the afternoon when it is hard indeed to believe in time” […]  “and the air forgets to move, forgets, and you can hear a humming– it is like a humming, but it is not a sound, but the edges of the silence whirring” […] “all the light was gone, and only that noise and terrible darkness, making everything shake as though the end of it was come, and there was no word it.”

Notice two things above: 1) Merwin sometimes makes use of old-fashioned verb uses (“was come”), and  2) the poet expresses, as he often does, the difficult job a poet has in trying to translate multi-dimensional Nature into single-dimensional sentences (“and there was no word for it”).  He says later in the same poem, “whatever it was, that above all, I cannot name.”

He ends The Annunciation with the philosophical (and somewhat doleful) lines, “And I moved away because you must live forward, which is away from whatever it was that you had.”

Here’s the entire poem (19 words), Separation:

“You absence has gone through me like thread through a needle.  Everything I do is stitched with its color.”

I like this calm snippet from Summer: “bird-sleep, moonset, Island after island, be of their hush,” and this phrase from Hemione On Simulacra:  “for comfort I became a stone.

Birds are not an infrequent subject for Merwin either.  Take for instance these nice lines from Some Winter Sparrows:

“Through frayed trees I see your shaken flight like a shiver of thin light on a river.”  And combining both sea and bird imagery…  “Caught in flight by harbor winds, you stumble in air, your strung-out flock shudders sideways, sinking, like a net when heavy fish strike.”

As becomes evident after even a short perusal, Merwin writes often of Nature, and yet he is not exactly what one would call a “nature poet.”  Rather, I think he looks to Nature for his themes and symbols; also, he craves the power Nature possesses to restore our souls to balance in an off-balance world.  At the same time, he is intimidated by Nature, and is uncertain that he convey enough of its bounty by mere words and analogies.

From Variation On A Line By Emerson:  “Who can tell a story like new grass blown in sunlight?”

And from White Goat, White Ram:  “We know only the whisper of an elusive sense, infrequent meanings and shadows, analogies with light and beating wings.  Yet now, perhaps only a few feet away in the shaking leaves they wait beyond our words.”

Nature is the Great Reminder for Merwin, and not always in a pleasant way.  From The Master (the first three stanzas of which, by the way, are a great portrait-poem in the tradition of Robert Browning):  “Oh what we can never forgive is the way every leaf calls up to our helpless remembrance our reality and its insupportable innocence.”

Not only are we humans naive concerning the ways of Nature, but we are also, at best, useless:  “There is no season that requires us,” Merwin states matter-of-factly in The Widow.

Merwin writes often –perhaps unnoticed by himself, perhaps not– of hands.  Many times, when writers try to talk about the gulf between man and beast, they concentrate on our brain-power, or on our powers of sympathy or romantic love.  But our hands –so adept, so strong– also help to define the sort of creature we are.  And (perhaps for men especially?) the work with do with our hands in a great part defines who we are.  I can claim to be a good Buddhist or decent dad or rabid revolutionary– but actions speak louder than words, and our hands speak our most eloquent language.

Besides myth-teller and seeker and salty old sea dog, Merwin is also an unsure poet-– or rather, an insecure or uncertain one.  He wants to be loved– but most especially he is in need of a very specific part of love:  the faith and support that comes with it.  His shaky writer’s ego needs the scaffolding of someone’s faith in him to hold him up when all the words he’s churning out start to seem useless and ridiculously incomplete.

“It is by your faith that I believe, I am.” he says in Canso, going on to say:

“When doubt possessed me, and my eyes fell 

To stones, half trusting in stones, and my mind fell

To a merciless winter of bleak words, yet you

Beyond words believed me to be a gentle

Season, and I, as from sleep returning,

Was thence the sign and green wind of spring.”

Merwin believes that it is faith that is the very genesis of creativity.  “Believing is conception,” he says in Canso.

In another poem he also entitled Canso (I hate it when poets do this), he says:

“Though I had imagination to remove mountains out of their shadows, and did not have this love, I were a vain instrument; I were nothing.”

Yet, our poet does not trust love to last– feeling constantly the foreboding of its inevitable doom.  From Canso:

“Must there be in the continuum and whorl of love always this whisper, on the tender horizon this supposition always, a boreal shudder of feared light.”

Here are the first three-and-a-half lines from The Bones, where the poet laments the lameness of words:  “It takes a long time to hear what the sands seem to be saying, with the wind nudging them, and then you cannot put it in words nor tell why these things should have a voice.”

Merwin feels the pressure on the poet to find a way to put the world into words and to release “the echo there waiting upon this word” (from the other Canso).

In Cover Note, Merwin openly admits that he questions the merit of his own work:  “I have not the ancient’s confidence in the survival of one track of syllables.”

Before I end this post –my last on W.S. Merwin– I want to throw-in two quick examples of another of Merwin’s many style variations.  He basically collects into one poem, Warm Pastures, a series of haiku-like little ditties, two of my favorite of which follow:

“Can’t see the rain

but see where

the sand jumps.”

…and…

“I wake touching her

and lie still to listen

to the warm night.”

Farewell, Mr. Merwin.  I’m always thankful to find a modern poet whom I can praise.

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