Reviews Of W. S. Merwin

’s Books Essay, Research Paper

Helen Vendler

"Desolation Shading Into Terror"

Review of The Miner’s Pale Children: A Book of Prose

and The Carrier of Ladders: A Book of Poems

These books invoke by their subtitles the false distinction between prose and poetry:

the real distinction is between prose and verse, since both are books of poems, with

distinct resemblances and a few differences. There are more allegories, parables, and

fables in the 80-odd pieces that make up the book of prose, but that only makes for more

narrative and less reflection. The prose pieces come on with their dramatic title to

preclude our criticism: if we ask why they are no more robust, they answer by a single

eloquent finger pointing to sunless caverns where they were born: peaked and huge-eyed,

like wizened English workhouse children, they stand in speechless reproach in the

schoolyard, rebuking by their mere subterranean etiolation the boisterous ruddiness of the


The trouble with the analogy is that nobody tells us why the father of these pieces

hasn’t let them play in the sunshine more. There is maybe even a complacency in their

fragility, as if to say that they are more sensitive than those huge galumphing types with

their tans. I don’t know for sure whether one has the right to reproach a poet for his

subject, but Merwin has been maintaining his starved and mute stance so long that one has

a relentless social-worker urge to ask him to eat something, anything, to cure his anemia.

And then, relenting in face of a single poem, singly perceived, and not part of the

litany of hunger, one grants Merwin his talent for the desolate and the dismembered. He is

one of the voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells, and if the toneless

cry of the Waste Land is one of your affinities, you will find it in Merwin. He often

seems a lesser Eliot, taking one of Eliot’s tonalities to its logical conclusion, a hollow

man finding his hollow divinities:

in the abandoned foundation a dead branch points upwards eaten out from

inside as it appears to me

I know a new legend

this is the saint of the place his present form another blessing in absence.

The prose pieces are mostly too long to quote, but one of the shortest, ">From

a Mammon Card," can give some idea of the intricacies of the others: "Those who

work, as they say, for a living, are not to calculate how much they make an hour and then

consider what they claim to own, remembering that there was a time when they made less per

hour, and then consider that what they claim to own is perhaps all that remains of what

they sold that many hours of their life for, and then try to imagine the hours coming


There are tenuous allegories of wish and incomprehension: a "June couple"

imaging the "little place beside the water" that they would like to own, each

confecting a private vision (his has tan imitation-brick shingles, with a screen porch,

while hers is "a low stone building, one big dormer in its thatch roof"), and

while each says raptly in separate chorus "Mine," the separation yawns invisibly

between them, and the piece ends.

There are parental neglects and reparations. (A mother, frightened of her grown-up

daughter, continues "to look after her, but from a distance," so much so that by

the time she gets up courage to look inside the bedroom, she finds "that the girl had

left without a word two days before.") Other stories, more dream-like, with the

attendant disadvantages, revolve around incomprehensible journeys, uninhabited ports,

fragmented bodies, chilling rites of passage, inexplicable ordeals, and surreal tasks

(like "unchopping a tree" — a minute set of directions on how to put a

chopped-up tree back together again).

There are also painstaking and self-flagellating dissections of memory, grief, fear,

and personality: "You are the second person … You make a pathetic effort to

disguise yourself in all the affectations of the third person, but you know it is no use

… No, you insist, it is all a mistake, I am the first person. But you know how

unsatisfactory that is. And how seldom it is true." The first person would be

"the orphan’s mother who never lived but is longed for," and it seems to be an

orphan who has written both this spectral book and its companion volume in verse.

Merwin’s abstraction cloaks the human cause of these poems, but desolation and

abandonment shading into terror are more common than any other feeling. On the other hand,

one feels that these poems were written not so much from sentiments requiring expression

as from obsessive counters demanding manipulation. These counters are a set of words,

found here and in Merwin’s earlier volumes, that act for him as a set of talismans:

endlessly he pushes them around into different spatial arrangements, festoons them with

different decorations, but they are almost always there, central, demanding, repetitive,


The Merwin dictionary has nouns of ill-omen (pain, grief, fear, pallor, extinction),

obsessive objects (gloves, hands, clocks, watches, bandages, shrouds, and eyes), exhausted

adjectives (hollow, empty, faint, deaf, blind, blank, frozen, lost, broken, hungry, dead),

and constellations of negation (speechless, colorless, nameless, windless, unlighted,

unseen, unmoved, unborn). Is it ill-will in a reader to want to force-feed these pale

children till they, when cut, will bleed? Even Merwin would seem to want a change: he


Send me out into another life

Lord because this one is growing faint

I do not think it goes all the way.

There are poems when a new life may seem to be beginning, and some of these are very

beautiful, especially "Snowfall," where after a vision of death in the night a

vision of communion intervenes in the day:

… this morning

I see that the silent kin I loved as a child

have arrived all together in the night

from the old country

they remembered

and everything remembers

I eat from the hands

of what for years have been junipers

the taste has not changed

I am beginning


In his elusive pallors, Merwin sometimes comes near a flawless balance of cadence and

meaning. Some of his poems of deprivation and winter share a place in "the

pre-history of the mind" with the February poems of Wallace Stevens, but they lack

Stevens’s obdurate persistence in the natural — his squirrels, his forsythia, his scrawny

bird cry. On the other hand, Merwin has not subscribed to the falser poetic consolations

of Eliot: he inhabits a dimmer world than either Eliot or Stevens, but there is a faint

cast of sentimentality over his poems that rather persuades the reader that he could, by

taking thought, add a cubit to his stature and raise sturdier offspring.

from New York Times (Oct. 18, 1970). Copyright ? 1998 The New York Times

Company. Online Source

Joyce Carol Oates

"Family Portrait"

Review of Unframed Originals: Recollections

The supreme achievement of memory,” Vladimir Nabokov says in his masterly

autobiography, ”Speak, Memory,” ”is the use it makes of innate harmonies when gathering

to its fold the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past.” One ‘’sees” through

memory as through a tremulous prism: The past is recaptured by way of disparate images,

fragmented sensory vignettes, snatches of conversation. Chronological fidelity is desired

less than impressionistic immediacy. For of what value is the past if, being recounted, it

lies dead and mute on the page?

W.S. Merwin’s third book of prose might have as its subtitle ”What to Make of a

Diminished Thing,” for this collection of six related essays on the poet’s family refuses

to present its modest subject in anything but understated and relentlessly

un-self-conscious prose. Merwin, the author of nine books of poetry and 12 books of

translation, creates by way of the uncompromising plainness of his language a haunting and

frequently disturbing portrait of Americans who seem, in this convincing account at least,

to have had no language – no interest in literature, very few books in their houses, a

minimum even of curiosity about one another’s sometimes tragic lives. When, as an adult,

Merwin returns to visit a cousin of his father’s, to ask questions he hadn’t known – or

hadn’t dared – to ask as a boy, the reply is typical: ”She said, well she supposed she

did know some things, probably as much as anybody. But why? What did I want in things like

that? None of the rest of them thought anything of all that. They never paid no mind.”

(This is the very person who tells him, somewhat hazily, that a relative of hers married a

daughter of Jay Gould but that she never troubled to visit them. ”None of those Goulds

ever amounted to much,” she says.)

In ”Unframed Originals” the poet-narrator, sometimes called Billy, inhabits his

childhood life as we have all inhabited ours – from the inside, invisibly, seeing and

listening keenly but rarely experiencing himself. The son of a Presbyterian minister in

Union City, N.J., the grandson and nephew of exceptionally dour and closemouthed

Methodists who lived in small settlements along the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania,

Merwin endured what seems to have been a particularly joyless – and remorselessly bookless

-childhood. ”At home our lives were surrounded by injunctions. On visits there were more

of them”: Hence the refrain Don’t touch runs through the earliest recollections with a

dull, comic insistence. Why is Mr. Merwin so ”harsh” and ”peculiar” in his behavior

toward his son, people inquire, and the answer is typically ambiguous, the sort of thing

one recalls as an adult with a stabbing sensation in the region of the heart: ”He always

answered that he treated us, and me, that way, only because of love, and that he was

afraid I might get hurt.” Having been encouraged to believe himself superior by his own

mother and confirmed in this ‘’superiority” by the parishioners of his various churches,

Merwin’s father seems to have inhabited a private world so insular and so crudely in

sympathy with others as to verge upon pathology. One of the memorable scenes in ”Unframed

Originals” is a comically despairing account of an attempt on Mr. Merwin’s part to be

more of a ”pal” with his son:

”I would stand in front of his (study) desk, uncomfortable, hot, wondering what I had

done wrong now, and he would tell me to shut the door behind me. Then he would fish in the

lower recesses of his desk for a moment, shut a drawer and sigh, and tell me we just were

not spending enough time together, he and I, and that he was sorry it was happening but he

could not help it right now because he was so busy and had so much on his mind. But these

were precious years that would not come again. He would tell me how hard things had been

for him as a boy, and how fortunate we were, we children, and how much easier life was for

us, with our yard to play in. And he said how important it was for me to study hard and do

well at school. … Then he would start telling me about insurance, how I would come to

realize its importance when I was older. … And he might give me something, such as a

card printed with the Ten Commandments, … and pat me and say he would try to find more

time to be together, and we would be pals, and I would nod, and go, feeling grief

inextricably tangled with my own unexpected and unconvincing goodness, and shutting the

door behind me.” One begins to see revealing affinities between Merwin’s life and certain

of the haunting, parablelike prose poems of ”The Miner’s Pale Children.”

The narrative strategy of ”Unframed Originals” is one beloved of poets: Each essay is

a brooding, speculative, interior piece arising from and circling about an image (a picket

fence in Grandfather Merwin’s tomato garden, for instance; the New York skyline as it was

seen from Mr. Merwin’s yellow-brick church in New Jersey). As a much-honored man of

letters, W.S. Merwin is cautious about presenting himself, even inadvertently, as

‘’superior” to his subject, hence the monochromatic tone, the pages of straight family

history – catalogues of names, dates, places, summary careers and fates. These

”originals” are deliberately ”unframed”: Merwin’s book is no autobiography along the

lines of ”The Education of Henry Adams” with its covert claim for singularity, nor is it

a memoir in the service of an ongoing polemic, as in Lillian Hellman’s autobiographical

writing. Indeed, the manner is improvisational, the tone self-effacing. In a typical aside

the author says of a longdead relative: ”I cannot be sure now how much of her I remember

and how much I have dreamed.”

Nevertheless, there are memorably eccentric characters here. Though rarely presented

directly and allowed their own voices, certain of Merwin’s relatives declare themselves as

marvelously idiosyncratic. There is cousin Mary (”Some meaning of the word ‘naphtha’ was

inexplicably hers, and echoed the smell of her damp apron that reached below her knees,

and of the duster on her head, and of her hands, long shapeless and rough, running from

gray to orange. … Whatever she touched was the wrong size”). There is Alma, who

fantasizes a ghost child and insists upon living alone in her old age (”(Her hair) never

got washed. It was all nested up on top of her head, with pencils stuck through the nest

to hold it together. It got matted. Alma complained that it hurt. Her niece offered to

wash it. She found that the hair was caked solid, glued with what turned out to be an egg

and a melted crayon”). There is Mr. Merwin himself, who never spoke of his father (that

is, Billy’s grandfather) and allowed the grandson to meet him only once, on the day the

old man was being committed to an institution for the elderly and infirm.

Only as the narrator matures and detaches himself from childhood scenes does the book

lose its quirky, obsessive quality and become, by its end, a nostalgic reverie of a more

conventional sort. But Merwin’s prose is never less than graceful and his effort – to

understand, to record, perhaps even to celebrate inarticulate lives – is ambitious and


from New York Times (Aug. 1, 1982). Copyright ? 1999 The New York Times

Company. Online Source

David Bromwich

"Remembered Gestures"

Review of Opening the Hand

During the late ’60s and early ’70s, W. S. Merwin was the leading practitioner of the

”instant elegiac” mode that dominated American poetry. Since then the mode has been

largely assimilated and therefore forgotten, and Mr. Merwin’s own ellipses and fade-outs

have become less singular. ”Opening the Hand” still has echoes of the portentousness

with which Mr. Merwin once addressed ”last questions” to everything that met his eye;

when he writes, ”of tomorrow I have nothing to say / what I say is not tomorrow,” he is

poised delicately on the brink of self-parody.

Of course, to be parodied at all one must have come upon a personal style

distinguishable from other styles. This Mr. Merwin has done steadily for three decades;

and yet a certain mystery remains. Less than any other poet of comparable stature does he

occupy his own work as a personal presence. He writes of regret (before action) and

mourning (before loss), with a disdain for narrative argument that can seem a noble

reticence in the face of actuality. But it would be hard to say what his attitude amounts

to, without falling back on useless adjectives like ”restraint” and ”reserve.”

In many of these poems Mr. Merwin employs a long line, with a visible break to

represent a caesura.

Now it happens in these

years at unguarded intervals With a frequency never to be

numbered A motif surfacing in some

scarcely known music of

my own Each time the beginning

and then broken off

One may recall the experiments with Anglo-Saxon accentual verse in Mr. Merwin’s third

book, ”Green with Beasts” (1956); but in these new poems, for the most part alliteration

is kept to the level of a gentle hint; and often the break seems to be only a chiming

pause, as natural and adaptable as rhyme:

I keep waiting to give you what

is already yours it is the morning of the mornings

together breath of summer of my found

one the sleep in the same current of

each waking to you

Mr. Merwin, as the foregoing quotations suggest, has all the equipment of a poet, but

for the moment he appears to write from habit rather than impulse, with the result that

his poems have the reliable effect of remembered gestures and are not above being praised

for their craftsmanship. A poem about a stray dog and one about John Berryman, stand out

as interesting subjects of which the poet has cared to make something. But these read like

prose sketches, without being as well written as good prose. Perhaps the chief difficulty

Mr. Merwin faces at this stage of his career is an uncertainty about motive. He writes a

great deal, and has too much confidence to worry about his occasion. Self-confidence may

of course give reason enough for writing about anything, but complete freedom and complete

listlessness have always looked disturbingly alike.

from New York Times (Oct. 9, 1983). Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company.

Online Source

Edward Hirsch

from "Bleak Visions"

Review of Selected Poems

W. S. Merwin is our strongest poet of silence and doubt, vacancy and absence, deprival

and dispossession. As he put it in his poem ”Teachers”: ”What I live for I can seldom

believe in / who I love I cannot go to / what I hope is always divided.” He is a master

of erasures and negations, a visionary of discomfort and reproof, the Samuel Beckett of

postwar American poetry.

Mr. Merwin has gone through several sea changes in his work over the past four decades.

He began in the 1950’s with a Poundian reading list and a graceful style reminiscent of

Robert Graves, a gift for elaborate orna-mentation and traditional meters. In the 60’s and

early 70’s he radically stripped down his style, dropping punctuation and creating a

compelling quasi-Surrealist imagery and vocabulary of darkness and loss. The poet of

urbanity and wit became a cryptic visionary of the void, an anguished prophet of

apocalypse. In the latter part of the 70’s and throughout the 80’s he has continued as a

poet of ghostly negativities while slowly embracing a dream of pastoral or ecological


Mr. Merwin’s ”Selected Poems” brings together work from 10 books published between

1952 and 1983. There are only five poems from his first two books -”A Mask for Janus”

(1952) and ”The Dancing Bears” (1954) – and consequently his diligent apprenticeship is

scantily represented. His mature work commences with ”Green With Beasts” (1956) and

”The Drunk in the Furnace” (1960). Increasingly the poet’s mythic density and opulent

sense of traditional form belies an underlying uneasiness that ”We know we live between

greater commotions / Than any we can describe.”

The early work culminates in poems where Mr. Merwin describes the coal-mining region of

Pennsylvania. In these family mythologies he memorializes the stubborn inhabitants of a

forlorn country, old people such as his grandparents dying in an ”abandoned land in the

punished / North.” These blank verse poems also point forward by signaling a new

stylistic restlessness, a prodigious sense of human emptiness and loss. ”The Moving

Target” (1963) and ”The Lice” (1967) were two of the most influential poetry books of

the 60’s; they are arguably Mr. Merwin’s two most forceful and focused books. Everything

in them is written under the sign of ”a coming extinction.” His work has always had an

ecological consciousness, but these poems explicitly take up our desperate vulnerability

and our plight as a species, our relentless drive to exterminate ourselves and our

environment. One poem begins: ”My friends without shields walk on the target.” Another

ends: We are the echo of the future On the door it says what to do to survive But we were

not born to survive Only to live.

The voice in these poems seems inscribed on the wind – it echoes with little hope.

Stylistically, these poems – as well as the poems in ”The Carrier of Ladders” (1970)

and ”Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment” (1973) – are associatively, rather than

narratively, organized. They distrust language and resonate with mythic overtones. They

also have a peculiar quality of anonymity and impersonality – as if the void had inhabited

them. One feels primarily the guilt and shame of being human, our complicity in

destruction. Some are accusatory, misanthropic parables. ”The Chaff” begins: ”Those who

cannot love the heavens or the earth / beaten from the heavens and the earth / eat each

other.” These poems use the language of riddle and parable to denounce modernity and

imperialism, what Mr. Merwin views as the apparent death wish of Western civilization.

Yet in ”The Compass Flower” (1977) and ”Opening the Hand” (1983), one detects a

more celebratory and optimistic turn, a new sense of beginning. The poems are concerned

not only with what to renounce in the metropolis but also what to preserve in the country.

This gradual drift continues in Mr. Merwin’s new book, ”The Rain in the Trees.” To be

sure, about half of the poems in this book are fiercely moral parables of denunciation

directed at an undifferentiated ”them” – all those who cut down sacred forests and

develop the land, who trample native cultures and ruin the environment, who believe that

”nothing is real / until it can be sold.” But these poems of didactic rage are balanced

by others that immerse themselves in nature with a fresh sense of numinousness. They are

alive with the sound of rain in the trees, with beholding ”the ripeness of the lucid

air.” They radiate outward with an enlarged sense of the fullness of being and an

original experience beyond language. ”The First Year” begins: When the words had all

been used for other things we saw the first day begin.

In ”The Rain in the Trees” W. S. Merwin becomes a poet who not only traces the dark

night of our collective soul, but also welcomes the morning afterward.

from New York Times (July 31, 1988). Copyright 1999 The New York Times

Company. Online Source

Tom Sleigh

from "Now, Voyagers"

Review of Travels

Sturdily written, extraordinarily entertaining as tales, the best poems in W. S.

Merwin’s "Travels" concern displaced characters made and maimed by their quests’

contradictions: itinerant naturalists working among native populations; a European rubber

tapper who becomes a shaman; Rimbaud at 21, poetry behind him, wandering through Europe

and along the slave routes of Africa; two American Indian artists, one dying on the

reservation, the other escaping only to die in battle, hopelessly outnumbered by white

soldiers. This eccentric gallery of portraits and dramatic monologues provides the poet

with subjects rich in human incident and historical reflection. Such material could have

degenerated into predictable political allegory (imperialism is bad!) or become

somnambulant run-throughs of Browningesque winks and nudges. But Mr. Merwin’s style — his

reticent, self-denying, coolly prophetic blend of Romantic rhetoric and natural

description — transports the subjects into the realm of legend and myth.

Cinchona, the name of a Peruvian tree whose bark can cure fever, becomes transformed in

one poem into a sort of infernal Holy Grail of European empire, the Dutch transporting

seedlings to Java while the English attempt to do the same in India. The beginning of the

poem conjures a cabalistic sense of futurity, a chain linking the blood of humanity with

the fever produced by the anopheles mosquito and with the red bark of the tree named after

the Countess of Chinchon, a Peruvian viceroy’s wife cured of fever by the tree. Each link

of the chain is spookily prophetic of the others, as if behind human history lurked a

sinister design, Robert Frost’s dewdrop spider spinning minute occurrences into a web of

inescapable consequences: "but fever could there be none nor night sweats / numbered

agues aestivo-autumnal chills . . . until the blood was there to bear them." The

archaic flavor of "numbered agues," the Latinate "aestivo," the parody

of Old Testament prophecy in "but fever could there be none," lift the poem into

an empyrean far beyond its dusty sources in a university library.

"Travels" — which makes exemplary use of syllable count; of syntactical

ambiguity in enjambment; of stanzas that rhyme on the same end-sound to produce a

haunting, chantlike intensity; and of that most traditional and difficult device, the art

of telling a good story — represents Mr. Merwin doing superbly well what much

contemporary poetry attempts to do, but fails. He reveals, with great formal intelligence,

the eerie interconnectedness of evil and the minutiae of our day-to-day lives.

from New York Times (May 23, 1993). Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company.

Online Source

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