Strange garment

Like many poetry aficionados, I was grieved the hear about the death of W. S. Merwin, among the last of the great poets born in the annus mirabilis 1926–1927, which also gave the world Snodgrass, Ammons, Merrill, Creeley, Ginsberg, Wagoner, O’Hara, Bly, and Wright, among others. I probably first encountered Merwin’s work in college—he didn’t appear in the Sound and Sense anthology that informed by high school days. That’s not entirely surprising, given the emphasis on form and meter, but it remains a embarrassing oversight.

I recall writing an essay as a freshman on this small poem (which has stuck in memory ever since):

Separation

Your absence has gone through me
like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

It turns out my reading was different than everyone else’s. It all hinges on the word “through.” To my mind, that implies a complete passage: when you go through a tunnel, it’s understood that you come out the other side, or when a camel passes through the eye of a needle, it’s understood that he emerges on the other side, if he passes through at all. So for me, the thread going through the needle meant that one end went through the hole, but the rest followed until it had all snaked through, leaving nothing behind. I wasn’t a very good seamstress, I suppose, and that had happened to me more than once in attempting to sew on a button. But to me, that made the poem all the more poignant and clever, as the stitches are literally the color of absence because they hold no thread—and therefore cannot hold anything together anymore. As I recall, my teacher didn’t buy it, but I still think such a reading is well within the realm of possibility.

Another poem from my college days that has stuck with me throughout the years:

Dead Hand

Temptations still nest in it like basilisks.
Hang it up till the rings fall.

I just love the brutality, the bathos, the cynicism, the utter lack of compassion, the whip-smart pivot from wonder to disdain. He presents a complete, singular vision of humanity in roughly the same amount of syllables as would make a haiku. Interestingly, Merwin lived out the latter part of his life in a place called Haiku, in Hawaii. That’s apt, insofar as his work often displayed an intense compression; but his work rarely strove to achieve the whimsy, serendipity, and pleasant shift in perspective we associate with haiku.

I recall the scandalous decision by Merwin not to award the Yale Younger Poets prize (in ‘97, I think). I later met one of the finalists that year, who did not have any kind words for a man who had nothing to lose by awarding the prize, but who chose to withhold it anyway. This poet subsequently went on to achieve considerable acclaim, including a Macarthur prize. But at the time, she really had no idea of who this Merwin character was. While I couldn’t defend his decision, I certainly did defend his poetry (often lumped in the “Deep Image” or “American Surrealist” schools). In particular, I raved on and on about The Lice, published in 1967 during the escalation of the Vietnam war, which heavily influenced the poetry of the time. This book sort of completed the transition away from punctuation. You’ll still find a few end stops, but those are rare. At first, I approached the lack of punctuation as sort of a gimmick, but I quickly understood what a powerful device it can be, stripping down language to its barest utterance. Many of his lines end with the completion of a thought or phrase, but many are enjambed–and the lack of punctuation really forces the reader to stop and backtrack to correctly follow the sentence. It can also impart a sense of simultaneity of thought, or a rushing together of disparate elements. Consider this poem (another that I committed to memory years ago):

Sunset in Winter

The sun sets in the cold without friends
Without reproaches after all it has done for us
It goes down believing in nothing
When it has gone I hear the stream running after it
It has brought its flute it is a long way.

The first lines all present a complete phrase; but the last line runs two phrases together. Consider how different it would sound if the final phrase were also brought down to its own line. It’s not just the lack of punctuation but the lack of pause or caesura that makes it sing.

Like other Deep Image poets (e.g., Wright), Merwin started out writing in a more traditional style, but abandoned it to forge his own poetics. Perhaps he felt that he scaffolding and embellishments of formal structure prevented him for reaching the true essence of a thing. Certainly, much of his work is elemental, with more than a few stones, birds, trees, and visits from a quasi-personified Death. This focus often allowed him to create fabulous metaphors and images. I love, for example, the final lines of “When You Go Away,” which reads, “my words are the garment of what I shall never be / Like the tucked sleeve of a one-armed boy.”

Wow.

There is an undeniable misanthropy undergirding these poems—not surprising, given the public’s growing lack of faith in government and the general disaffection of the age. Nature is a redemptive power, but even Nature might not have the wherewithal to reform the excesses of humanity. Consider the final lines of “December Night,” which read, “Tonight once more / I find a single prayer and it is not for men.” Or “Avoiding News by the River,” which ends bluntly: “If I were not human I would not be ashamed of anything.” This sense of shame in humanity is another undercurrent. It appears most notably in one of his more famous pieces, “For the Anniversary of my Death,” which reads,

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what.

That would of course be an apt place to end, though I could go on for pages and pages. But I’ll end by noting that I saw Merwin read—not once, but twice. I didn’t realize how fortunate I was, as he rarely gave readings (as far as I know). The first was some time around 1990, in Atlanta or thereabouts, and the second many years later in LA (where Merwin was introduced by the inimitable Stephen Yenser). He read “Lament for the Makers,” which at that time felt like a swan song, even though he still had many years ahead of him. In it, he recalled many of his poetic influences and friends, from Frost and Eliot to Wright and Merrill, who had recently died. It was truly an emotional performance—and that’s not what comes to mind when we think about Merwin. In part, it is a straightforward dirge, but in part, he considers how his efforts to carry on the tradition are doomed to failure, and how everything eventually comes to nothing. It is precisely the sort of sentiment that Buddhists are supposed to embrace, but in this poem, he seems to rebel against the Buddhist sentiment, if only for a moment (he also returns, ever so slightly, to the formalism of his younger days). It ends poignantly,

the best words did not keep them from
leaving themselves finally
as this day is going from me

and the clear note they were hearing
never promised anything
but the true sound of brevity
that will go on after me