Defender of the Earth

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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):

WORN WORDS

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 …

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