Green and Secretive Islands

For centuries now poetry and prose have been growing further and further apart. As prose has become dominant poetry has lost its old authority and freedom and become more sensitive and self-conscious, more provincial even. Like a minority language, it is spoken only among its own people, the poets who cherish it but also give it the air of a survival. Hard indeed for a poet today to ignore this tendency, let alone reverse it. Among long narrative poems the brilliant exceptions—Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin, Macpherson’s Ossian, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Longfellow’s Hiawatha—succeed by emphasizing the role of poetry in competition with prose, rather than seeming to pay it no attention.

It is this situation that makes a book like W.S. Merwin’s The Folding Cliffs such a remarkable and apparently impossible achievement. There is nothing stylized or heraldic about it. It does not claim to be a novel in verse; it does not involuntarily invoke the tradition of the epic, the verse chronicle in many parts, or the mock-heroic. It describes itself as neither more nor less than “a narrative of 19th-century Hawaii,” and that is what it is. Its breadth of implication and its spirit of power transform the modesty of this subtitle. It never tells the reader it is a poem, but the majesty as well as the natural drama of the poetic inhabit its pages like invisible presences, even as the reader becomes as absorbed in the story, its setting and its detail, as if he were reading a thriller.

As in many of Merwin’s poems, most recently in the unfolding of his eerie pastoral The Vixen, the technical instrumentation is misleadingly simple. It rests the eye and fills the mind without effort. These qualities are well shown in the opening of the section called “The Valley,” which describes the mountainous island refuge in which many fugitives from the authorities have taken shelter:

The valley is the mountain split open to windward
to the northwest to the sea to the horizon
where the ancient peaks sailed away sinking before there was
anyone before the archaic words were first uttered
and from the crags at the head of the valley to the winding
stream beds and the drapery of forest tumbling into
the braided ravines it is so far down that only
sections of that carved land can be seen glimpses caught
between drifts of clouds as they travel in to the cliffs
along the pinnacles and the waved fins of buttresses
and through gaps in the stone facades cloud shadows pass
across blue slopes all the way below and in the partings
of the clouds waterfalls spring white from distant scars
high in the rock walls beyond the chasm and the silent plumes
descend slowly through the air of another time until they
melt into the mist but the veins gather somewhere below them
and down toward the rocks along…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.