The Lost Upland: Stories of Southwest France
by W.S. Merwin
Knopf, 307 pp., $22.00
A number of modern poets have tended to explore aspects of their sensibility and of their surroundings more boldly in prose than in poetry. Baudelaire excelled at the critical essay; his prose poems and intimate journals complement Les Fleurs du mal in subtle ways we are still exploring. Hofmannsthal made a major poetic statement in The Letter of Lord Chandos (1902). Rilke speaks to many of us through the intense scenes of The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. I could make a strong case for Rimbaud and even for Mallarmé as poets sometimes at their best in prose. Dylan Thomas came down to earth in his ripely sensuous stories. And a sound rule of thumb tells us that poets have been the best critics of poetry.
The fine command of prose by a poet gives to The Lost Upland a strong appeal in a genre that alternates between description and narrative. In the first two stories, “Foie Gras” and “Shepherds,” Merwin finds his range and his voice for depicting the rhythms of life in one of the oldest rural regions of France. “Blackbird’s Summer” is a 150-page novella whose appeal lies in its discovery of listenings and revelations among the most ordinary moments of unfamiliar lives. I shall try to explain why I find The Lost Upland Merwin’s most impressive book as well as a rare achievement.
The translations Merwin has published from his earliest years have disciplined his language and his mind. They now add up to fifteen volumes, ranging from The Poem of the Cid to Jean Follain’s poetry. Translating for a living has helped Merwin avoid the confinements and hypocrisies of creative writing programs. Two visits to Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeths Hospital when Merwin was eighteen steered him in the healthy direction of a career as an independent writer.
Through twelve or so collections Merwin’s poetry has followed a fairly common trajectory. His early formalist writing sometimes seemed to hover in midair between the attractions of Pound and of Stevens. With his fourth book, The Drunk in the Furnace (1960), he found a diction of his own. The cultural and political gales of the Sixties drove many young American poets toward a freer line and engaged subjects. While he was living primarily in France, Merwin’s poetry not only adopted a loose line; for a time he eliminated all punctuation, as Apollinaire had done. In 1971 Merwin announced he was giving his Pulitzer Prize money to Draft Resistance (after appearing at first to refuse the award). Yet his poems alternated primarily between family motifs from the Lackawanna region in Pennsylvania and French goat sheds. In the early Eighties he began reeling in his verse structures, and tried out a clumsy typographical experiment emphasizing the caesura by means of a channel down the center of the page dividing all lines in two.
Looking again at Merwin’s substantial published poetry I have the impression of one underlying theme. He returns over and over …