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Defender of the Earth

Mark Hanauer
W.S. Merwin, early 1990s

The American poets born in 1926 and 1927 formed a remarkable generation that included A.R. Ammons, James Merrill, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, James Wright, John Ashbery, and W.S. Merwin. These poets were a disparate group: Ammons the prophetic ecologist, Merrill the lyric perfectionist, Creeley the fastidious minimalist, Ginsberg the political poet, O’Hara the quotidian comic, Wright the sad mourner, and Ashbery the wry omnivore. And then Merwin. When W.H. Auden named him the Yale Younger Poet in 1952, he was writing Audenesque lines—these, for instance, from an eighty-line stanzaic masque presaging a deluge:

There will be the cough before the silence, then
Expectation; and the hush of portent
Must be welcomed by a diffident music
Lisping and dividing its renewals;
Shadows will lengthen and sway, and, casually
As in a latitude of diversion
Where growth is topiary, and the relaxed horizons
Are accustomed to the trespass of surprise,
One with a mask of Ignorance will appear
Musing on the wind’s strange pregnancy.

All the characteristics of the Audenesque are here: the stanzaic form, the long unwinding sentence, the undefined thing preceded by a definite article (“the cough”), the transferred epithet (“diffident music”), the muted apprehension (as “casually” a storm prepares itself), the anthropomorphizing of the landscape (“the relaxed horizons”), the use of personified abstractions (“Ignorance”).

Now, almost a half-century later, we encounter in Merwin’s new volume, The Shadow of Sirius, not that ingenious young imitator of Auden, but the poet we have come to know over the last decades—the poet of the punctuationless short poem lacking (after its first line) initial capitals, a poem spoken to nobody within hearing distance, spoken to the air. I begin with one such piece, which reflects on the appeal of last poems (such as the late verse of Stevens—minimal, bleak, true):


The late poems are the ones
I turn to first now
following a hope that keeps
beckoning me
waiting somewhere in the lines
almost in plain sight

it is the late poems
that are made of words
that have come the whole way
they have been there

Words that have come the whole way”—faithful and familiar companions that have traveled through life with their poet: these are now the materials of Merwin’s own late poems. The poems of The Shadow of Sirius are not, for the most part, fancy or fanciful; if they are to hold their own, it must be with their skeletal plainness of language. Their claims are those of insight rather than of display—or rather, their display is that of a cunning syntax curling the plain words into a Gordian knot. The paradoxes of living and remembering become ever more naked, more exposed.

Merwin long ago gave up ordinary punctuation, and when one imposes conventional pointing on one of his drifting meditations, one can see why he has sacrificed periods and commas, exclamations and question marks, colons and semicolons, dashes and all the rest. To show what he is after through such a method, I will deface a new poem (“One of the Butterflies”—on the evanescence of pleasure) with conventional punctuation, initial caps, and spaces between some lines. Punctuated like this, it sounds decisive:

The trouble with pleasure is the timing.

It can overtake me without warning,
And be gone before I know it is here.

It can stand facing me unrecognized
While I am remembering somewhere else
In another age, or someone not seen
For years and never to be seen again
In this world.

And it seems that I cherish
Only now a joy I was not aware of
When it was here, although it remains
Out of reach and will not be caught or named
Or called back.

And if I could make it stay
As I want to, it would turn into pain.

Statement; statement; statement: five times. Or (again with apologies to Merwin) I could print these thirteen lines as a quasi-sonnet, with a seven-and-a-half-line “octave” and a five-and-a-half-line “sestet,” thereby suggesting its European lineage and its division into a problem (the timing of pleasure) and a conclusion (its elusiveness past and present):

The trouble with pleasure is the timing.
It can overtake me without warning,
And be gone before I know it is here.
It can stand facing me unrecognized,
While I am remembering somewhere else
In another age, or someone not seen
For years and never to be seen again
In this world.
And it seems that I cherish
Only now a joy I was not aware of
When it was here, although it remains
Out of reach, and will not be caught or named
Or called back, and if I could make it stay
As I want to, it would turn into pain.

And now I give the real poem. Printed as Merwin prints it, it reproduces, in its unpunctuated and uncapitalized and undivided floating state, an ongoing drift of frustration and feeling:

The trouble with pleasure is the timing
it can overtake me without warning
and be gone before I know it is here
it can stand facing me unrecognized
while I am remembering somewhere else
in another age or someone not seen
for years and never to be seen again
in this world and it seems that I cherish
only now a joy I was not aware of
when it was here although it remains
out of reach and will not be caught or named
or called back and if I could make it stay
as I want to it would turn into pain

Without even a period at the end, the poem becomes a skein lifted out of the mingled yarn of memory and perception; slipping through the fingers, it sinks back into the whole from which it was momentarily selected. The measure of Merwin’s success with this manner is how stiff the repunctuated and respaced examples seem when set against the poem he has so lightly unfolded on the page.

Merwin’s nonpunctuation is one extreme choice from a wide spectrum of possibility. Far at the other extreme lie Frank Bidart’s obsessive overpunctuation, where a dash can be accompanied by a comma, and his field-spacing, where phrases can be cast far apart on a wide page. Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum we find Emily Dickinson’s dashes. If Merwin had adopted Dickinson’s dashes, his lines would look like this:

The troublewith pleasureis the timing
It can overtake
mewithout warning
And be gone
before I knowit is here

Dickinson is “spasmodic” (as her bewildered “mentor” T.W. Higginson remarked); she rethinks each quantum of thought as she utters it, qualifying it immediately by the deflection of the next phrase-packet. Merwin (as can be seen from these contrasts) wants to reproduce something important about consciousness that is lost both in conventional punctuating and spacing, on the one hand, and in Dickinsonian hyperconsciousness or Bidartian overpointing, on the other.

What is this important quality of consciousness? It is not the Joycean stream-of-consciousness, diverted at any moment by distraction. It is, rather, the focused stream of a consciousness fixed on the insoluble, like the mind of a mathematician of the past straining to understand Fermat’s theorem. The most salient aspect of the Merwin mind in meditation is its tenacity to its perplexity. Nothing can interrupt it once it has located its chosen difficulty—whether in perception, in thought, in human relations, or in memory. The Shadow of Sirius eddies around such difficulties, each a stone in its current.

Merwin is less inclined to solve his (insoluble) enigmas than to turn them around, observing them angle by angle. He does not, for instance, explain the title of the new volume. There is no poem in it called “The Shadow of Sirius,” and the phrase does not appear anywhere in the book. Some readers may recall a 2005 poem called “To the Dog Stars,” beginning “But there is only one of you / they say,” which sheds light on the reappearance of Sirius here. The curious reader can turn to Google, and discover that Sirius A, the brightest star in the sky, has a small, dim (but much hotter) companion called Sirius B, a “white dwarf,” which in the past was more massive and luminous than its brother, Sirius A, but which has now exhausted its nuclear fuel.

Even the brightest illumination, for Merwin, arrives, like Sirius A, accompanied by a perpetual shadow, perhaps because Merwin’s own life was shadowed by his knowledge of the harrowing death of his elder brother, Hanson (born a year before Merwin), who lived only a day. And throughout his work, Merwin alludes to the many shadows of inexplicability cast over his youth by the unwillingness of his parents, even under questioning, to explain how things came to be in family relations, and whither they were tending. The shadow pervades especially Merwin’s poems about growing up in a household where the unhappiness of his parents’ marriage and the stiff distance of his minister-father created in the child a desire to escape into a better place, one where he could feel at home.

The habit of pondering the inexplicable was awakened so young in Merwin that he could never discard it. Nor could he confine it into neat packages of assertion—hence the abandonment of punctuation. His wish to escape, once granted (as Merwin moved restlessly around Europe in his youth and middle years before settling in Hawaii), left him permanently suspended between past and present, with neither environment providing a true native tongue. The story is told at some length in the 1983 poem “Émigré,” which ends with the poet stranded between home and away:

if you cling to the old usage
do you not cut yourself off
from the new speech
but if you rush to the new lips
do you not fade like a sound cut off
do you not dry up like a puddle
is the new tongue to be trusted

The young Merwin, exquisitely sensitive to several languages and writing at the beginning like a student educated in many poetries, was shocked by the Vietnam War into bareness of utterance. In 1967 he published The Lice (a book that became famous), gaining a reputation for plainspoken political allegory, arguing against both war (“The Asians Dying”) and ecological destruction (“For a Coming Extinction”). He achieved original images and arresting lines—“Rain falls into the open eyes of the dead”; “The extinct animals are still looking for home.” He sees the gray whale on its way to the Hades of extinct species:

Consider what you will find in the black garden
And its court
The sea cows the Great Auks the gorillas
The irreplaceable hosts ranged countless

In The Lice, although he had already abandoned end-punctuation, Merwin was still allowing his lines initial capitals. But by the time of The Carrier of Ladders (1970), he attached an initial capital only to the first line of the poem, and he has retained that practice ever since. The capital letter is the formal sign of a new initiative, but from 1970 on the Merwin poem unspools from its opening unhindered except by its intensity of focus. Sometimes the poem yields a controlled narrative, at other times a contained meditation.

Here is one of the controlled narratives in the new volume, a poem called “A Single Autumn.” After his parents’ successive deaths in a single year, the adult Merwin reenters their house (a parsonage never in their own possession). In the narrative’s five terse stanzas, we see first the house (“it had never been theirs”), then its reticences (“all the things that we/had never been able to say”), then its contents (“doll collection/…lace on drop-leaf tables”), then the time of year (“the days had turned cold”), and then—surprisingly—a personal one-line fifth stanza: “I could do anything.” The defiant childish claim of a final freedom supervenes on the elegiac inventory of the past; the early imposed repression surges up again in memory and is repudiated—triumphantly? wonderingly? desolately?—in the last line. Merwin leaves the line—“I could do anything”—open to speculation.

This sort of “realistic,” if abstract, narrative of his own life, recurring in many retellings, is one of Merwin’s consistent resources. The genre reached its greatest length in his 1993 ten-page stanzaic narrative “Another Place,” an autobiography unobtrusively linking its sixty-two stanzas by the repeated word “air” or its variants, reminding the reader how intimate Merwin remains with ballad and song. On the whole, though, the narratives, tethered to incident and place, are remarkably economical.

Merwin’s contained meditations fit better with his determined anonymity and with his Heraclitean sense of the perpetually moving current of life. Here, from the new collection, is a fifteen-line sonnet-like meditation (“Youth of Grass”) on the rapidity with which, as the first hay is reaped in the countryside, a year turns from spring to autumn. Although the reaping could have been an occasion of exultation (as it was for Hopkins) or for muted celebration (as it was for Keats), Merwin, at eighty-one, finds in it only grief:

Yesterday in the hushed white sunlight
down along the meadows by the river
through all the bright hours they cut the first hay
of this year to leave it tossed in long rows
leading into the twilight and long evening
while thunderheads grumbled from the horizon
and now the whole valley and the slopes around it
that look down to the sky in the river
are fragrant with hay as this night comes in
and the owl cries across the new spaces
to the mice suddenly missing their sky
and so the youth of this spring all at once is over
it has come upon us again taking us
once more by surprise just as we began
to believe that those fields would always be green

Summer, says Keats, has “set budding more, / And still more, later flowers for the bees, / Until they think warm days will never cease.” Merwin puts himself in the place of the bees, almost believing that the fields would always be green. As the poem flows quietly on from the bright hours through the fragrance of hay (replacing Keats’s “fume of poppies”) to the long evening, it remains an idyllic current, but when it encounters the cry of the owl and the Burnsian timid mice defrauded of their grassy nest, the stream of words snags on the all-at-once surprise of mortal recognition.

Like many of Merwin’s seasonal poems, “Youth of Grass” could be set anywhere where grass is (or has been) reaped—in Keats’s Saint Cross, in Hopkins’s Wales, in Whitman’s prairies, in Stevens’s Oley, in Merwin’s rural France. The topic of the poem is the human capacity to believe in its own immortality, a Wordsworthian theme never exhausted. The scene of the poem—a landscape—is painted with a serenity that acts as a counterpoise to the emotions of loss. Over and over, Merwin introduces a poem of meditation by naming the season or the time of day: “August arrives in the dark”; “Autumn comes early this year”; “The September flocks form crying”; “The old grieving autumn goes on calling to its summer.” The distance and impersonality of such openings reveal the distance and impersonality of the worn gaze, while the musicality of the ongoing lines asserts the continual inner reward of meditation.

But sometimes, reading from this meditative distance, one longs for the domestic Merwin whose sharp powers of rendition and emotional brevity strike nearer home, as (in the six-line 2001 poem “The Name of the Air”) the pang felt at seeing a beloved dog sink into old age is extended into the thought of one’s own death:

It could be like that then the beloved
old dog finding it harder and harder
to breathe and understanding but coming
to ask whether there is something that can
be done about it coming again to
ask and then standing there without asking

Here, as throughout his work, one notices Merwin’s ever-acute choices of where to break his lines: “the beloved” (a person? no, the old dog); “finding it harder and harder” (to do what? to breathe); “coming” (for what? for food? for attention? no, to ask); “whether there is something that can” (can do what? relieve suffering? no, that can “be done”); “coming again to” (to do what this time? oh, the same thing, to ask); and then the conclusion, with standing yet possible, but asking extinguishing itself. The care taken with each line break is a measure of the care taken with the whole painful sequence of the beloved dog’s decline.

In The Shadow of Sirius there are, as one might expect, poems explicitly about the poet’s own foreseen death, including a touching one about a small cemetery (“Walled Place above the River”), located probably in France where Merwin in his youth, with a small legacy from an aunt, bought a house. Beginning “There are fields smaller than this…//and there are rooms bigger than this,” Merwin adds a recollection of the Jesuit plot in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery:

the lid of earth inside the walls
in Dublin where Hopkins’ bones were left
among those of fellow Jesuits
as I recall it is of a size
roughly comparable to this

But wherever the cemetery, “this is not a place made for knowledge.” The enigmas of knowledge end at the grave, but Merwin is not deterred by this truth from his driven search for accuracy in inquiry.

Merwin’s poems are usually uttered with a gravity that is characteristic of his writing; but I could wish that there were, throughout his poetry, more responses like the ironic one that opens the 2005 poem “To the Consolations of Philosophy,” addressed to Boethius (who wrote his treatise in prison). To the offer of such consolations Merwin replies dryly:

Thank you but
not just at the moment
* * *
I know the design
of the world is beyond
our comprehension
thank you
but grief is selfish and in
the present when
the stars do not seem to move
I was not listening

And a distinct bitterness of tone was often felt in Merwin’s poems of ecological denunciation (which are less frequent now, although Merwin is still cultivating endangered species of indigenous plants on his land in Hawaii). The grimness attending the thought of coming extinctions gave, in the past, an acerbic edge to some of Merwin’s poems of Hawaii, among them the striking 1988 poem addressed “To the Insects,” which imagines that after we are extinct the insects (our evolutionary predecessors) will survive us, and become the masters of the world:


we have been here so short a time
and we pretend that we have invented memory

we have forgotten what it is like to be you
who do not remember us

we remember imagining that what survived us
would be like us

and would remember the world as it appears to us
but it will be your eyes that will fill with light

we kill you again and again
and we turn into you

eating the forests
eating the earth and the water

and dying of them
departing from ourselves

leaving you the morning
in its antiquity.

This caustic Merwin was the prophet of a denuded planet, and his vision of the earth being dominated once again by insects is voiced in a tone we might find hard to name. With its reiterated battles between the human side (“we,” “us,” “ourselves”) and the insect Elders (“you,” “your,” “you”), “To the Insects” is a disturbing poem, combining, as Merwin’s best poems often do, the didactic and the imaginative.

Even if we miss the harsher Merwin, we must grant the present poet the “worn words” of his late verse, where both the bitterness toward his unsympathetic father and the bitterness toward the political powers have subsided, and where his more fundamentally elegiac voice takes dominance. He is, after all, the author of the best brief poem of mourning in English:


Who would I show it to

In his personal anonymity, his strict individuated manner, his defense of the earth, and his heartache at time’s passing, Merwin has become instantly recognizable on the page; he has made for himself that most difficult of creations, an accomplished style.

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