Lament for the Makers
Flight Among the Tombs
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
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.