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Saturday, 3 November 2007

W.S. Merwin - and an exercise.

Writing my "How to Read Poetry" post last week brought to mind a long-time favourite of mine, W.S.Merwin, whose praises I have not yet sung - an omission I am about to correct. He has been one of the most influential voices (some would say the most influential voice) in American poetry over the last half-century or so, but, incredibly, he has been unobtainable in Britain for over thirty years. Now a selected edition has been issued by Bloodaxe which is remarkably good value at £9.95.
Merwin has perhaps three great passions: the landscape, language and the environment. And two great hates: imperialism and the violence that we do to the landscape, the language, each other and ourselves. If any one sense could be said to haunt his work it is the sense of loss; loss to the environment, the loss and impoverishment of language and loss of any real sense of self. He has, for example, dedicated himself to the protection and restoration of the Hawaiian ecology. Three snippets from his work, all opening lines, followed by one complete poem of just eighteen words, will, hopefully, whet your appetite for more:

To the Words
When it happens you are not there

O you beyond numbers
beyond recollection
passed on from breath to breath
given again
from day to day from age
to age
charged with knowledge
knowing nothing

Losing a Language

A breath leaves the sentences and does not come back
yet the old remember something that they could say

but they know now that such things are no longer believed
and the young have fewer words

many of the things the words were about
no longer exist

the noun for standing in mist by a haunted tree
the verb for I


while Keats wrote they were cutting down the sandalwood forests
while he listened to the nightingale they heard their own axes
echoing through the forests
while he sat in the walled garden on the hill outside the city they
thought of their gardens dying far away on the


I want to tell what the forests
were like

I will have to speak
in a forgotten language

And now the exercise I promised. Not mine, but something I found earlier, something from which I have derived much fascination and, I believe, no little insight - and that not confined to the poetry of W.S. Merwin. We are indebted for it to a book review by Marion K Stocking in the Beloit Poetry Journal, Summer 2006 edition:
   Empty Water

I miss the toad
who came all summer
to the limestone
water basin
under the Christmasberry tree
imported in 1912
from Brazil for decoration
then a weed on a mule track
on a losing
pineapple plantation
now an old tree in a line
of old trees
the toad came at night
first and sat in the water
all night and all day
then sometimes at night
left for an outing
but was back in the morning
under the branches among
the ferns and green sword leaf
of the lily
sitting in the water
all the dry months
gazing at the sky
through those eyes
fashioned of the most
precious of metals
come back
believer in shade
believer in silence and elegance
believer in ferns
believer in patience
believer in the rain
Try reading this poem a line at a time, reenacting the process of composition. Ask what would happen if one ended the poem there. Ask how each hypothetical terminal line casts its light back over the preceding lines, determining what the poem is "about." What it gives me is an overlay of thirty-three delicately different poems in a succession of voices – the affectionate observer, the historian, the gently amused ("left for an outing"), the ecologist, the metaphor maker, and ultimately the voice of formal supplication. Reading "Empty Water" in the context of all that preceded it, I hear resonance of the famous toads in folk literature; I hear Merwin's concern for geologic and natural history (no mask here: the poet speaks of his own spot of time on earth); I hear and am moved by the shifting rhythms of the syntax and lineation, by the limpid lyric progressions, by the clarity and simplicity of the words, always conscious of the silences behind them, and by repetitions all culminating in the incantatory litany. "A poem," Merwin has said, "is an act of attention." His attention here contemplates with sensuous intension a small creature which, in its absence, signifies something crucial about our future on this planet.

Some Useful Links

more poems
an interview with Merwin
In an interview with Edward Hirsch Merwin outlined some of what drives him: "I have a faith in language. It's the ultimate achievement that we as a species have evolved so far. (I don't mean that I think we are the only species with a language.) It's the most flexible articulation of our experience and yet, finally, that experience is something that we cannot really articulate.... That's the other side, one of those things that makes poetry both exhilarating and painful. It's conveying both the great possibility and the thing that we cannot do."

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