W. S. Merwin
W. S. Merwin; drawing by David Levine

What is the nature of the difference between poetry and—the poetical”? The two cannot be clearly separated and yet they do remain distinct:a distinction clearly apparent to a later generation, after the poets in question have themselves departed for the Elysian fields. What is poetical then begins to resemble a period piece. Could anyone have ever been physically thrilled and startled, stirred and electrified, by, for example, Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads? And yet they were. Readers—young readers—knew them at once for the true thing—exciting, authentic, and subversive. Today they move the sympathetic reader in another way: as a poetical voice from the past.

The whole question remains ambiguous nonetheless. It is not just a matter of telling the good from the bad, or the deathless from the merely dated. Louis Untermeyer’s huge anthology, Modern American Poetry, which went through several editions in the Twenties and Thirties, is just such a period piece today; but to browse through its dense pages is thoroughly absorbing. Hosts of poets from not so very long ago seem to be pleading for our continued attention. It may be for the kind of attention which has led W.S. Merwin to compose a Lament for the Makers, heeding the supplication shrilly and yet forcefully made by Edna St. Vincent Millay, at a moment, and in a poetical style, which already seems long ago.

Stranger, pause and look; From the dust of ages
Lift this little book, Turn the tattered pages,
Read me, do not let me die! Search the faded letters, finding Steadfast in the broken binding
All that once was I!

It may be significant that Merwin uses for his lament a meter as “poetical” as Edna St. Vincent Millay’s or indeed as Swinburne’s—supple and cunningly jointed, as if to celebrate not only a dead poet but the kind of monument in which poetry, too, must lie before it is resurrected, not so much in the spirit as in the hush of collected editions and the quietness of anthologies. Like Anthony Hecht and Derek Walcott, in their poems of the present time, Merwin’s seem elegiac in a radical sense, as if the “modern” in poetry—defined as the injunction to break bonds, to strive for the new and untested, to eschew the classical sensibility of one’s poetic forebears—was no longer worth bothering about; for look what has happened to those who assumed its importance in other days. Merwin is wonderfully sensitive at indicating how a reader in whom poetry lives, although he may not necessarily be able to write it, sees the poets as individuals and yet as part of his own being too, since they have “become their admirers” (as Auden put it in his elegy for Yeats) as well as being themselves in and by reason of their own poems. Merwin writes,

I found the portraits of their faces
first in the rows of oval spaces
in Oscar Williams’Treasury
so they were settled long before me

and they would always be the same
and in that distance of their fame
affixed in immortality
during their lifetimes while around me

all was woods seen from a train
no sooner glimpsed than gone again
but those immortals constantly
in some measure reassured me…

then word of the death of Stevens
brought a new knowledge of silence
the nothing no there finally
the sparrow saying Bethou me…

and not long from his death until
Edwin Muir had fallen still
that fine bell of the latter day
not well heard yet it seems to me…

Williams a little afterwards
Was carried off by the black rapids
that flowed through Paterson as he
said and their rushing sound is in me

That was the time that gathered Frost
into the dark where he was lost
to us but from too far to see
his voice keeps coming back to me

then the sudden news that Ted
Roethke had been found floating dead
in someone’s pool at night but he
still rises from his lines for me

I dreamed that Auden sat up in bed
But I could not catch what he said
by that time he was already
dead someone next morning told me

Merwin has caught some of the accents of the Scottish poet John Dunbar’s original medieval “Lament for the Makers,” and he has skillfully echoed and adapted the meter. Significantly a “maker,” the Anglo-Scottish word for poet, suggests the poetical craft, rather than that sudden surprise of new and shocking speech which poets and their readers for some years now have been accustomed to strive for and to expect. Sylvia Plath is indeed in Merwin’s pantheon, as is Ezra Pound, but Merwin, like Hecht and Walcott in their latest volumes, does not seem in the least concerned to Make It New; he wants to cherish what has been made and preserved by poets who have been “sustenance and company/and a light for years to me,” poets like the still-today-almost-unknown David Jones: “…from the sleep of Arthur he/wakes an echo that follows me.”


That echo sounds not only in Merwin’s “Lament,” and in the personal anthology he chooses to accompany it, but in the haunting poetic monotone of the poems in The Vixen, composed as if on one note and yet with a plangency beautifully fulfilled in the fluid variations of their meter. “Upland House” is a perfect example of what might be called the new piety in today’s poetry: a piety about the poetical itself, which seems to slip away into the past and live among poetical predecessors there.

The door was not even locked and all through the day
light came in between the boards as it had always done
through each of the lives there the one life of sunlight slipping
so slowly that it would have appeared to be
not moving if anyone had been there to notice
but they were all gone by then while it went on tracing the way
by heart over the cupped floorboards the foot of the dark bed
in the corner the end of the table covered
with its crocheted cloth once white and the dishes yet on it
candlestick bottles stain under one bulge in the black
ceiling the ranges of cobwebs roots of brambles
fingering the fireplace the line continued across them
in silence not taking anything with it as
it travelled through its own transparent element
I watched it move and everything I remembered
had happened in a country with a different language
and when I remembered that house I would not be the same

There is a strong affinity here with the poetry of James Merrill, particularly The Changing Light at Sandover, and with later poems of John Ashbery like Flow Chart. The contrast with the poets who in their own different ways Made It New is very striking, suggesting almost that poetry today no longer seeks to achieve an unprecedented effect, or to punch a hole in the cool web of give-and-take language. It is as if the brutal excitements of poetry’s experimentation have today been left as far behind as the violent political experiments of our century. Piety, gravity, and nostalgia seem naturally to link this poetry of today with the poets who slumber alive and unforgotten in the pages of the Untermeyer anthology.

The sense we may have in these three poets—Merwin, Hecht, and Walcott—of poetry’s return to the poetical, by whatever original and unfamiliar means, harmonizes easily with words from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding,” one of the poets whom Merwin celebrates in his Lament, and selects for the brief personal anthology he has included in his book. Hypersensitive to the language of the living, Eliot also understood, as did Ezra Pound, the need for a new poetry to speak at times in the language of the dead.

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.

The present itself is always in this sense a kind of limbo, which the poet must fill as he may. The striking thing about our three poets is how accurately, and as if in unconscious unanimity, they seem to have found in their own differing ways a language which is neither new nor old, but which liberates ghosts whose function is to reveal, and even to emphasize, the nature of our present poetic limbo. As our own time, the time of today, may seem to us to be lacking in strong feelings, so the language of this poetry mirrors that impression, conjuring up the past in an attenuated, almost tired voice that quite consciously contrasts itself with the vitality of poetry in the preceding periods. The past may seem obscurely and paradoxically to be present in the bustle of immediate contingencies to which much of our art seems more alert than it is to anything else. But Merwin’s art, like Ashbery’s in Flow Chart, seems adept at catching a much cooler impression of this contingency.

“Vixen,” one of the most impressive poems in the collection so named, strives to find in the creaturely world both an antidote to the miasma of modern technology and a sense that the past is kept alive in a wild animal’s presence. Viewers who wistfully watch wildlife on television, captured in the unreal perfection of modern photographic technology, may feel the same sort of nostalgia. D.H. Lawrence had it for his snakes and fish and tortoises; but Lawrence was much more sanguine about the absoluteness of his creatures, their unique independence. Merwin’s vixen seems more like a ghost among ghosts, prey to the camera and the media, without whose flourishing industry she could hardly continue to exist.


Comet of stillness princess of what is over
high note held without trembling without voice without sound
aura of complete darkness keeper of the kept secrets
of the destroyed stories the escaped dreams the sentences
never caught in words warden of where the river went
touch of its surface sibyl of the extinguished
window on to the hidden place and the other time…

…when I have seen you I have waked and slipped from the calendars

…as long as it lasted until something that we were
had ended when you are no longer anything
let me catch sight of you again going over the wall
and before the garden is extinct and the woods are figures
guttering on a screen let my words find their own
places in the silence after the animals

A master of formal language, Anthony Hecht has always seemed content never to try to sound as if he were not writing poetry. Auden was his most revered master; but whereas Auden, in the midst of all his ingenuities and parodical poetic skills, always managed to sound happily informal, Hecht’s verse has a built-in elegance of manner which is never dropped for a moment. He is as stylish as Don Juan, but also as much and as spontaneously of flesh and blood. Flight Among the Tombs is his most mordant and witty, his most humorous collection to date. Yet at the same time the reader feels that Hecht would be quite content to take his place, in the pages of the Untermeyer anthology, with Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elizabeth Coatsworth, or even Carl Sandburg (“…in the dust, in the cool tombs”). Stylish writers all, with John Crowe Ransom among the most stylish, they all seem indifferent to time and to fashion, easily embracing each other across the years. An excellent company, of the sort that appeals to all lovers of poetry, and that only fools and postmodernists would ignore.

Philip Larkin, who was very much a member of this company, once observed that vers de société were among his favorite reading because he knew they would be intelligent and well made. And who could make them better than Anthony Hecht’s sardonic Death figure, who, in Flight Among the Tombs, appears in a multitude of social disguises, and has something equally just and eloquent to say in each?

Hecht too has his “Lament for the Makers,” pronounced by Death the Poet.

Where have they gone, the lordly makers,
Torchlight and fire-folk of our skies,
Those grand authorial earthshakers
Who brought such gladness to the eyes
Of the knowing and unworldly-wise
In damasked language long ago?
Call them and nobody replies.
Et nunc in pulvere dormio.

The softly-spoken verbal Quakers
Who made no fuss and told no lies;
Baroque and intricate risk-takers,
Full of elliptical surprise
From Mother Goose to Paradise
Lost and Regained, where did they go?
This living hand indites, and dies,
Et nunc in pulvere dormio.

The mad eighteenth-century poet Christopher Smart supplies Hecht with an appropriate epigraph: Death as the Bat “who inhabiteth the desolations of pride/and flieth amongst the tombs.” In his own series of figures, “The Presumptions of Death,” the Grim Reaper is presented as “a great disguiser.” Although nowhere quoted, those lightly spoken words of Shakespeare’s Duke in Measure for Measure echo through the hall of mortuary mirrors through which Hecht’s skills lead the reader. Death, as Wittgenstein observed, is not an event: it is something we live with. Formerly it was the master figure for art, as well as for orthodox religion.

Hecht’s humor is deliberately out of time, as much at ease with the forms, conceits, and devices of poetic tradition as his Death figure is with modern movies.

Here comes Clint Eastwood riding into town
One of the horsey Four
Of the Apocalypse, who won renown
With Famine, Plague and War.

“Horsey” is an exquisitely comic epithet, whose aptness consists in summoning to the reader’s mind a marvelously inappropriate reminder of beefy girls in jodhpurs and paddocks, bursting with innocent life. But a Clint Eastwood figure is inevitably a democratic one, as classless as Death himself, although as much at home with his predecessors in art.

Dürer observed him pass at an easy trot
Accompanied by the Devil;
To some a hero by whom the human lot
Is finally bulldozed level.

Clint and Dürer share an art of the same species, just as poetry too is a seamless garment in Hecht’s handling. The contemporary demotic is as natural to him as art’s Renaissance trappings. His Death is at ease among admirers in the movie theater.

While to the light of heart and proud of purse
Encountered on his way=
He smiles his cryptic smile and bids a terse
“Go ahead, make my day!”

Death, as we might expect, is equally at home at the university, masquerading as an Oxford don, and “Acquiring over years the appetite/and feeding habits of a parasite.”

I live off the cold corpus of fine print,
Habited with black robes and heart of flint,
The word made flesh for me and me alone.
I gnaw and gnaw the satisfactory bone.

Each poem is accompanied by one of Leonard Baskin’s admirably maca-bre drawings—twenty-two in all. But Death’s disguises are never predictable, and often far from triumphant: sometimes he has all the pathos of the living. Death the Whore was a nice girl once, whose story might have been told by Browning or Edwin Arlington Robinson. “Death the Whore” recalls in all innocence a children’s game.

…A grownup brought a tray
Laden with objects hidden by a shawl
Or coverlet with fine brocaded flowers
Beneath which, like the roofs of a small city,
Some secret things lay cloaked. Then at a signal
The cloth was whisked away for thirty seconds.
You were allowed to do nothing but look,
And then the cover was replaced. Remember?
The tray contained bright densely crowded objects,
Sometimes exotic—a small cloisonné egg,
A candle-snuffer with an ivory handle—
But simple things as well. It never occurred
To any of the children there to count them;
You had been told simply to memorize
The contents of the tray. Each child was given
Paper and pencil to list what he recalled
And no one ever finally got them all;
Something always escaped. Perhaps a needle,
A gum eraser or a plastic ruler.
And so it is that now as you’re about
To eat or light a cigarette, something
Passes too swiftly before you can take aim,
Passes in furtive silence, in disguise,
Glimpsed only hazily in retrospect—
Like a clock’s strokes recounted once they’re done,
Never with confidence.
And now you’re angry
At what you think of as my long digression
When in fact it’s the eclipses of your mind,
Those sink-holes, culverts, cisterns long avoided
As dangerous, where the actual answer lies.

The child’s game was never won: nor is the adult’s. There is always something one can never remember that may have caused the trouble. Death is both homely and subtle here; touching too, because the girl who went bad—drug overdoses and attempted suicides—loves the words she speaks, as if she speaks in perpetual commemoration, not of guilt and misery but of an ordinary and primal happiness.

The game Hecht’s Death figure describes may remind us of Proust, with whom Hecht is clearly in love himself. The second section of his collection, entitled “Proust on Skates,” is not only a brilliant tour de force which Auden, I think, would have deeply admired, but an invocation of the skating Proust gliding along together with a young couple in love, but finding himself “as usual, all alone.” Nonetheless the moment will last for him somewhere, and perhaps recoverably, like those other memories

Nourished by shadowy gardens, music, guests,
Childhood affections, and, of Delft, a view
Steeped in a cup of tea.

This section of the book has several masterpieces, none more so than “The Mysteries of Caesar,” a marvelous evocation of a boyhood Latin class, presided over by an elegant old pedagogue.

They rather liked Mr. Sypher, who was kind,
An easy grader. Was he a widower?
It was thought he had lost a child some years before.
Often they wondered what passed through his mind
As he calmly attended to their halt and crude
Efforts, not guessing one or another boy
Served as Antinous to that inward eye
Which is the pitiless bliss of solitude.

The elegiac note is everywhere in this, perhaps Hecht’s best, collection, from the poet who gave us the masterly Millions of Strange Shadows and The Venetian Vespers twenty years ago and has standards of craftsmanship and erudition higher than those of most of his contemporaries. The timeless element in his work is partly owing tohis learning, which is amply demonstrated in The Hidden Law, his fine study of Auden’s poetry published four years ago, and in his more recent Mellon Lectures, On the Laws of the Poetic Art. For Hecht learning is a part of poetry, as much an aspect of it as cadence and meter, which themselves bring many echoes from the past. Et nunc in pulvere dormio, “And now Isleep in the dust,” is the refrain of Skelton’s “Lament for the Death of the Noble Prince Edward the Fourth,” borrowed in its turn from an older anonymous Middle English lyric. Timelessness is also by paradox the true note for elegy; for if Death the Poet pronounces the doom of the individual, what the individual has achieved may yet live—a consummation wished for as devoutly by Edna St. Vincent Millay as by Shakespeare in the sonnets. Hecht gives us achievement and farewell in an elegy both grand and delicate on the death of James Merrill.

You are now one of that chosen band and choice=
Fellowship gathered at Sandover’s sunlit end,
Fit audience though few, where, at their ease,
Dante, Rilke, Mallarmé, Proust rejoice
In the rich polyphony of their latest friend,
Scored in his sweetly noted higher keys.

Derek Walcott’s The Bounty is also an elegy, and a learned one too, for his own mother and for the poet John Clare. By the “rustling archery” of the sea palms their graves seem very close together; mingled with an image of the breadfruit brought by the ship Bounty from the Pacific to the Caribbean islands; mingled as well with the bounty of each morning, and poetry, and survival itself. And yet even in elegy for the near and dear, a poet, as poet, cannot but be a hardhearted creature.

…for this morning’s sake, forgive me, coffee, and pardon me,
milk with two packets of artificial sugar,
as I watch these lines grow and the art of poetry harden me

into sorrow as measured as this, to draw the veiled figure
of Mamma entering the standard elegiac.
No, there is grief, there will always be, but it must not madden,

like Clare, who wept for a beetle’s loss, for the weight
of the world in a bead of dew on clematis or vetch,
and the fire in these tinder-dry lines of this poem I hate

as much as Ilove her, poor rain-beaten wretch,
redeemer of mice, earl of the doomed protectorate
of cavalry under your cloak; come on now, enough!

Walcott has always been a poet of singular honesty, which, with the earthiness that goes with it, combines naturally with an enchantingly Ovidian wryness and sense of nostalgia. Elegy makers of the past would admire almost as a new variation on the form’s technique the way in which sorrow for his mother makes him hate the lines he is writing in her memory, and as her memorial. In a sense poetry can but harden us “into sorrow as measured as this”; and yet we know and feel from his lines that Walcott’s feelings are in truth the reverse of hard, only that as a poet he has a more than usually multifold grasp of the self-protective or merely incongruous matters that go through the head of any mourner. And how much more so with a poet as good as this, while he is finding the words, and the art, of his grief?

God’s bounty, and the recollection of one who understood it, expands magically throughout the slow magic of an impressive poem. As with Merwin or Ashbery, the feel is of a complexity, and of a certain helplessness in modern living which poetry can record but has no business trying to triumph over. More significant is the note of phantom homecoming, the marvelous evocation of lost islands, their old French culture, and their rich physical being.

My country heart, I am not at home till Sesenne sings,
a voice with woodsmoke and ground-doves in it, that cracks
like clay on a road whose tints are the dry season’s,
whose cuatros tighten my heartstrings. The shac-shacs
rattle like cicadas under the fur-leaved nettles
of childhood, an old fence at noon,bel-air, quadrille,
la comette, gracious turns, until memory settles.
Black boulders on a wavering hill face the burning
Atlantic in August, with an old man cradling his cutlass
like a rifle, and his inevitable pothound returning
from his garden. A voice like the smell of cut grass,
its language as small as the cedar’s and sweeter than any
wherever I have gone, that makes my right hand Ishmael,
my guide the star-fingered frangipani.
Our kings and queens march to their floral reign,
wooden swords of the Rose and the Marguerite, their chorus
the lances of feathered grass, ochre cliffs and soft combers,
and bright as drizzling banjos the coming rain
and the drizzle going back to Guinea, trailing her hem
like a country dancer. Shadows cross the plain
of Vieuxfort with her voice. Small grazing herds
of horses shine from a passing cloud; I see them
in broken sunlight, like singers remembering the words
of a dying language. I watch the bright wires follow
Sesenne’s singing, sunlight in fading rain,
like the names of rivers whose bridges I used to know.

The moving sequence of “Homecoming” is succeeded by “Six Fictions,” imaginations of personae which might be, or might have been, those of the poet himself, linked to his own past.

He mutters to himself in the old colonial diction
and he heard how he still said home not only to appease
his hope that he would be there soon, but that he would come
to the rail of the liner and see the serrated indigo ridges
that had waited for him, and all the familiar iron
roofs, and even the vultures balancing on the hot ledges
of the Customs House. He wears black, his hair has grown
white, and he has placed his cane on a bench in the park.
There is no such person. I myself am a fiction,
remembering the hills of the island as it gets dark.

The pull of the old colonial background of childhood remains as hauntingly strong in these impressive poems as it does in V.S. Naipaul’s prose masterpiece, The Enigma of Arrival. Neither writer can escape, or in a sense wishes to escape, from those powerful early associations—in the novelist’s case of Trinidad, and in the poet’s of the island of Saint Lucia—which have made them writers. Native ground is the ground of their writing, although their genius, and the skills it has developed, has led them into regions far beyond it.

As it turns out, the nostalgia in The Bounty, the elegiac sense of a past which has vanished not only for the poet but perhaps from a more generalized human consciousness today, is common to these three collections of poetry. They all seem, in their own separate and potent ways, to live in the past, as uncompromisingly as do the poems in Louis Untermeyer’s anthology, Modern American Poetry. It might be going too far to say that these poets, like George Orwell, love the past, hate the present, and dread the future; and yet their poems, like almost all good poems, seem full of ghosts who are still very much alive. As Anthony Hecht’s sardonic Death persona is well aware, the backward look is the naturally poetical, and Tennyson’s “days that are no more” are a natural habitat of poetry—a habitat revisited in these fine collections.

This Issue

March 27, 1997