Silence. Stylistic radicalism. Ecological mysticism. Anti-war fervor. These are several of the traits discernible in Merwin’s poetic oeuvre. Merwin has stunned and perplexed us for over five decades: stunned us with his unique linguistic experiments; perplexed us with surrealistic images of our precarious status in the universe.
It is time to celebrate this major artist, whose authority and scope are dimmed by the reticence that has kept him away from more deserving adulation. Yes, his ultimate place in the canon is attested to and granted by critics and fellow poets, but his work demands even further analytic study. Merwin has often been affiliated with the “Beat” poets of the sixties and seventies. This linkage has also postulated him as another descendant of the Transcendentalists—an ecologically ideological model for the “Beats.” Although this connection has some validity, the purpose of this essay is to single out Merwin from “movement” grouping; to stress his original usage of the riddle as prosodic and philosophical trope; to examine the unique changes (yet remarkable stylistic constants) that range from his youthful dark lyrics to his current octogenarian vision.
As the son of a minister, Merwin rejected his father’s Presbyterian faith and became a Buddhist. He internalized this religious conversion, coupling his poetic gifts with a mission as seer or prophet. And given his familiarity with scripture and clerical texts (e.g., the eleventh century Exeter Book), his knowledge of the riddle provided a generic device for what resembles a mystical vision.
There are several ways we can generalize the function of riddles in poetry. Clearly, Northrup Frye serves as an authority:
Through the centuries, the riddle has varied in significance from childish rhymes to ribald innuendo. Aristotle described it as “aenigma,” a figure of speech in which ordinary meaning is overtly changed or turned (the Greek word “ainissesthai” means to speak in riddles). Riddles occur extensively in Old English poetry, drawing from an Anglo-Latin literary tradition, whose recorded exponent was Aldheim (c. 639-709). In the Anglo-Saxon world, riddles were closely allied with the wit (of wisdom), an empirical device similar to the kennings of Germanic languages.
The radical opsis in the lyric is the riddle, which is characteristically
a fusion of sensation and reflection, the use of an object or sense
experience to stimulate a mental activity in connection with it….
The idea of the riddle is descriptive containment; the subject is not
described but circumscribed, a circle of words drawn from it. 2
important miscellany of the form goes back
Exeter Book, an Anglo-Saxon
gathering of religious lyrics, nature
allegories, wisdom poetry, and most notably, a
collection of riddles. It has been
argued that the Christian message in the Exeter Book
was a “site for the expression of
cultural anxiety…a depiction of otherness and
ambiguity to reflect English concern about the
actual or potential threat posed by Viking
incursions…in the wake of the Benedictine
this archivist material create a parallel for
Merwin? His deep awareness of the
current political and ecological threats,
global and domestic, brings the esoteric,
secret wisdom of the riddle to his poetic
task. Using the magical element of
language, he has become a voice described
by critic Helen Vendler: “the prophet of
a denuded planet.” Merwin’s
further interest in riddles derives from his
extensive linguistic background (graduate student in Romance languages, translator of medieval and modern poetry). Having translated over 20 volumes of poetry, as diverse as the Middle English epic Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and modern French and Spanish poets (Follain, Neruda), he understands the mysterious power of the riddle, which foregrounds the apartness and magical power of words, yet the connectedness that language provides. Riddles are used in all languages, thereby serving as model to transcend national barriers. They exemplify poets’ ecological universality. They generally comprise a question or statement couched in deliberately puzzling terms. Moreover, their distinguishing mark is the use of metaphor. Their unique rhetorical purpose is to turn on verbal artifacts that continue to absorb us, even after we have answered them. They can also point to solutions or assumptions. Thus, they doubly satisfy Merwin’s literary and socio-political objectives.
While Merwin’s obscurity has been attributed to “pseudo syntax” or even willful nihilism, little connection has been drawn to explicate how he appropriates the riddle to express his vision. As a writer who prefers seclusion in Hawaii, he hasn’t granted many interviews. However, in a Forward to his volume Asian Figures, he provides an insight about his poetic tools:
There is an
affinity which everyone must have noticed
on the one hand, and such succinct forms as the proverb, the aphorism,
the riddle on the other….There are qualities they obviously have in
common: an urge to finality of utterance, for example, and to be
irreducible and unchangeable. The urge to brevity is not as typical of
poetry as we would sometimes wish, but the urge to be self-contained, to
irreversibility in the words, that is a mark of poetry. 4
Now to the literary elements in riddle that contribute to Merwin’s verse. Riddles are a device for conveying wisdom, but differ from proverbs or other aphoristic forms, which tend to impart practical knowledge and wisdom. Riddles are a kind of intellectual game of wits, whose truth is identified with what is not said or is said obscurely. The reader, or listener, must decode them. As we know from ancient myths, the riddle serves to verify that its deliverer possesses some secret knowledge (e.g., Sphinx to Oedipus). Also, the structure of riddles is brief, making comparative statements quickly. Interestingly, Merwin’s poems generally are no longer than one page. This fits with his distrust of language’s power to pervert, and his indirect effort to change it. Somehow, the riddle allows this removal. Its morphology imbues it with a quality of the unknown. Its vocabulary consists of impersonal ideas or objects. The copula form “is” or “are” is frequently used; and the verb is almost always in the present tense.
Merwin’s poems, especially in his earlier work, exemplify this, but often in surrealistic imagery. Time, place, and individuals have no identity. There is little dichotomy between city and country. There is no past or future. Connections are made between things ordinarily unrelated or hidden (as in riddles, Humpty Dumpty=Man). The riddle’s speaker may be a constantly transforming self. The reader is hardly in touch with a “you” or “we.” Neuter pronouns are often interchanged with gendered ones. The distinction between man, animal, and inanimate object is often blurred. Here is an excerpt from an early volume by Merwin, The Lice (1977):
begins here it swells it goes along
It comes to the man sitting talking to a stick
Which he thinks is his dog or his wife (“Pieces for Other Lives”)
Yet, Merwin’s obsession with the riddle persists. Note this excerpt from his 2008 volume, The Shadow of Sirius, his latest work:
All that I do not know
I have lost none of it (“The Nomad Flute”)
These two brief samples resemble the riddle characteristics just noted. What do they mean? Is existentialism suggested? If so, what message attends these lines, lines to parse, words and rhythms to unearth the answer?
enormous poetic output (nearly 30 volumes of
verse), I shall focus on just two volumes:
The Lice, perhaps the most distinctive
expression in American poetry of the Vietnam
War anguish; and The Shadow of Sirius,
a deeply philosophical view of life’s
mystery. My argument: whether young or
old, this word master declares that language,
by destroying its function as bridge for
mankind, has become its own riddle.
The riddle, in any language, has its own prosodic system, well based on syntactic necessity and the reversal of elements in a statement. For example, “what runs but never walks?” (river) is coincidentally iambic trimeter, whose syllabic stresses emphasize the paradox of violation of the laws of nature. The basis of this sentence, with the timeless present implicit in the verbs (“runs,” “walks”), and with ambiguous referentiality to persons or things in interrogative pronoun, is its grammatical play on human/object parallelism. In similar fashion, Merwin’s sparseness in his lines never abandons positioning and stress. He goes further, however, by abandoning punctuation as an instrument for truth or as an act of linguistic necessity. When he was asked why he had omitted punctuation, he said that he had considered inventing “a different kind of punctuation, but that that would seem too affected. “ Instead, he left it out:
I wanted a quality of transparency. Punctuation nails the poem down
on the page; when you don’t use it the poem becomes a thing in itself,
at once more transparent and more actual.5
The final clause of this statement is riddle-like. That is, it philosophizes on the subject of language and its virtues. It demands that poetry do more than just communicate or aesthetically please. It must help man find himself in the process of losing himself. Merwin wants things to be as near absolute as possible, “to do more with less. The absolute poem would be only one word.” Lastly, in congruity with ecological dictates, he wants “the experience to come through the language, not have the language there as a barrier between you and it.” 6 Poetry, then, is a tool for encountering truth, not an end in itself.
There is a further link between riddles and Merwin. His rhythms are formed largely by syntactic design, which works against a pre-existent meter, the latter of which is ordinarily expected by the reader. His rhythms must be re-established, or reaffirmed, and this reaffirmation tends to produce surprise or shock. For example, in the following poem the prosody generates from grammatical deletions and
transformations, which give it the effect of oracular statement:
Hoeing the bean field here are the dragonfly’s wings
From this spot the wheat once signaled
With lights It is all here [italics are the poet’s]
With these feet on it
And the hoe in my shadow
The contradictory message in this brief but resonating piece is both foreboding (the memory of a once fruitful land) and affirmative (man’s potential to restore this fertility). If one were to paraphrase “The Dragonfly,” the prose would read something like this:
Here, where I am
hoeing the bean field, are the dragonfly’s
Here, with my own feet on this spot, and the hoe in my shadow.
The wheat once signaled with lights: it is all here.
Transformations and deletions confound the
surface meaning: the core narrative statement
(lines 2 and 3), which provides temporal
perspective, is wedged between the other two
sections (lines 1,4,5,6), which form a
pseudo-unified sentence, but have no relation
to “this spot.” Although the title
suggests that the dragonfly’s wings is the
subject, the actual subject, with its lexical
variations (“here,” “this spot,” “it”) is
“It,” an existential reference to earth.
“It” is incorporated in the only segment of
the poem which has a predicate (“It is all
here”). In addition, “It” is converted
from a subject to an object in several ways:
in prepositional phrases (“from this spot,”
“on it”); as complement adverb
(“here”). The paradox comes from
the opposition between the semantic
elements—with their violation of grammar—and
the metrical structure. In other words,
the grounded wings suggest death; the “wheat
once signaled with lights” suggests the
pastness of fruition; the “hoe in my shadow”
suggests forgotten activity of tools.
(Also, the shadow itself is a riddle: its
two-legged creature is half man, half
hoe.) But the affirmative elements—in
the meter—outweigh the idea of inactive
wings. The strong stress positioning, in
which “here” becomes enjambment, a
disconnecting caesura, as well as the dominant
stroke in line l, and in which “It is all
here” is consecutively spondaic,
The poem is not about its titular designation: it is an affirmation of the land, albeit a mournful one. As Humpty Dumpty is destroyed through arrogance and pride, this poem’s riddle makes the same universal statement about man.
As a translator, Merwin learned much about the friction between cadence and grammar in his work. For example, in the “Preface” to his translation of Porchia’s poems, he noted that syntax was the basis for Porchia’s structures:
The work as a whole assumes and evokes the
existence of the absolute,
or the knowledge of it which is truth—Porchia’s utterances are obviously,
in this sense, a spiritual, quite as much as a literary testament….It is their
ground of personal revelation and its logic, in the sentences, that marks their
kinship, not with theology but with poetry. 7
Merwin feels that he, too, must use the sentence, after cleansing it of cultural reminders, to deliver such truth. It is also interesting that he separates theology from poetry: perhaps revealing that the literary vehicle is his moral choice?
Continuing with the use of the sentence in riddles, it is interesting to note that their abstract nature relies on a paucity of empty diction. Adjectives, much less compound adjectives, appositional elements, and function words in general, are used sparingly. Merwin heightens this practice, which carries his sentences’ proto-literate, primitivist tone. Reduction in itself becomes a principle construction. The last line in his poems is often a single word. He also enforces this reductiveness by using a lexicon of words with archetypal force. Words referring to the human anatomy and objects in the natural world come to the poem already charged with their familiarity. They are beyond the realm of historicity and possess significance prior to their function in poems. This lexicon is then used in surrealistic fashion, as in myth, creating the quality of a collective dream. The reader senses in the paradox and synaesthesia of such language a shared contemplation of a mystery:
“Bread at Midnight”
judges have chains in their sleeves
To get where they are they have
Studied many flies
They drag their voices up a long hill
Announcing It is over
that it is over
I remember my homeland and the mountains of chaff
hands deaf as starfish fetching
The bread still frozen
To the table
The vocabulary in this poem is elemental. However, the surrealistic use of images, the disembodied voice, and the indeterminate locus, work against our recognition. The title suggests an antithesis of conditions: yield and dearth. Does it mean that sustenance is given in a dire or crucial time, or is it a mockery of the idea that life’s necessities often become plentiful too late? The latter possibility exhibits the riddle’s strong enmeshment in primitive myth and the transmission of wisdom.
Another deep echo in this poem is that man must know how to separate the good from that which is useless. This is apparent in the opposition of “mountains of chaff” with “bread.” But at the same time the poem undercuts such wisdom, for the “bread” is “still frozen.” Its ambiguity is intensified by syntactic patterns. The verbal tense leaps (present, pluperfect, present participle) are embedded in mood leaps (the indicative, the conditional). The obscurity also comes from the perverted use of prepositional phrases. Unlike grammatical prepositions, which we ordinarily expect to suggest rooting, direction, or source, they have an opposite signification here when conjoined with their modifiers: “The judges have chains in their sleeves,” “the mountains of chaff,” and deaf hands bring bread “To the tables.”
imagistic connections project a tone of
anxiety, largely because the “It,” which the
judges announce “is over,” is never
identified. But—as noted in “The
Dragonfly”—Merwin typically reverses
this. The “It” is changed to lower
case in the subsequent line, reducing its force or threat. And in the same line, the interjection “Well,” with its will to certitude, or at least to reflective activity, brings in a note of human indomitability. The echoing, repetition, and enjambment of the final stanza confer an unexpected coherence, even serenity, upon the entire poem. Finally, the conventional syntactic order dupes the reader into interpreting the lines as information, but the bizarre qualifiers destroy any sense of logic: “they have/studied many flies,” “hands hands deaf as starfish.” This is what makes the poem so similar to the riddle. Through image control, it points out correspondences between the physical and human worlds (as in what runs, but never walks?). Yet, all we can know with certainty is that some unidentified social tragedy is over. As in the riddle example, where the answer (river) has astonishing accuracy, the mystery of its truth exists solely through the correspondence of its metaphors.
Since the riddle often serves as a harmonizer or teacher, its answers are recited catechetically. At times, as we are reminded through fairy tales and myths, an individual’s life literally depends on whether he can answer a riddle. In Merwin’s “Some Last Questions,” the stanzas are actually put in quiz-like format. All but the closing two stanzas refer to the human anatomy:
What is the head
What are the eyes
A. The wells have fallen in and have inhabitants
This poem consists of nine such questions, with the replies themselves creating new riddles. However, that part of the anatomy which is omitted is the heart! With regard to its prosody, it is the rhythm variation which helps to establish meaning where it seems that little exists. For the ternary meter which is repeated, giving a constant 2-syllable interval between ictuses (“What is the head”) is intermittently varied, so that by the end of the poem the variation becomes a powerful rhetorical tool: “What are hands A. Paid,” “No what are the hands A. Climbing back down the museum wall/To their ancestors the extinct shrews that will/Have left a message.” (Note the pun on “shrews.”) The switch to double spondaic (with the introduction of “No”) coincides with the metonymic use of human anatomy to issue a prophecy about the survival of man himself. In this context, the ending becomes political prophecy: “Who are the compatriots A. They make the stars of bone.” This is the first time “Who” replaces “What,” thereby naming, through question and answer, the perpetrators of destruction.
I believe it is with such poems as “Some Last Questions” that we can detect a link with Emerson, who speaks to the American poet in his essay “Nature”:
Adam in the garden, I am to new name all the
beasts in the field
and all the gods in the sky. I am to invite men drenched in time to
recover themselves and come out of time, and taste their native
But when the act of naming becomes the subject of this poem for Merwin, the deleterious use of language is the problem. Emerson’s scriptural allusion has been defiled. The American Adam is lost.
Since the riddle is a mental puzzle, the project of naming is not part of history. Place, time, context are absent. Here is an example of Merwin’s nearly elegiac poem, whose puzzle begins with its title: a pun on the word “end,” simultaneously suggesting goal/hope and death/finality:
“An End in Spring”
carried beyond itself a little way
And covered with a sky of old bedding
The compatriots stupid as their tables
Go on eating their packages
Selling gloves to the clocks
Ceasing to exist it becomes a deity
with the others that are not there
The centuries are named for them the names
Do not come down to us
way to them the words
The “It” of stanzas 1,3, and 4 becomes what the reader must name, even though the title suggests that “Spring” is the referent. But it is now obvious that the patterns in this poem resemble those already discussed: that a stanza (here the 2nd) of surrealistic imagery is wedged in as a form of political statement. The paradoxical reversal of referents comes from the interaction between syntax as meaning and rhythm as meaning. If “It” is spring, which transforms suddenly to winter (“sky of old bedding”), and then becomes a “deity,” why is it “with the others that are not there”? And what are the “others”? The tenuous connections dissolve into a single word in the last line: “Die.” The metamorphosis from a deity to its absence is chilling, largely because the use of the pronouns is normally ascribed to man (“others,” “them,” “is”). “It” is no longer the subject of the final stanza, having been destroyed along with the other words.
This poem is about linguistic annihilation, paradoxically expressed in the accretion of copulative verbs. In other words, the disjunctive import of the poem is conveyed by the conjunctive aspects of its syntax. But this is only clarified by the least clear section of the poem, stanza 2. The surrealistic projection of “compatriots” who “sell gloves to the clocks,” and the delayed apposition of “Doing alright,” means that the makers of history (dictators, diplomats?) have destroyed the restorative and bonding power of language.
This lament for language has its ultimate expression in poems where words function simply as presences, even eliminating such political overtones as those in “An End in Spring.” The following poem is an example. It is a network of syntactic fragments and uncertain apposition (e.g., is “You” in apposition to “Days to come” or to a persona, or perhaps even the reader?) The punning last stanza is pure riddle:
When we have gone the stone will stop singing
Sinks through the sand of names
Days to come
With no stars hidden in them
You can wait being there
that lose nothing
Here the poet has already gone over to the point where language has lost its vitalizing power. And, in grim fashion, it does so in April, that cruelest month!
Varying existential levels appear in The Lice, depending on the extremity of the message. In those poems where perpetration of destruction is addressed, and surrealistic imagery is used, the effect is surprisingly less ominous than in those poems where Merwin has clearly entered the nothingness. Perhaps this is because surrealist contexts are too unreal to provoke problems of belief. The poems of nothingness, however, are doubly awesome because their thematic target is the death of language: (e.g., “Now all my teachers are dead except silence,” from “A Scale in May”). On occasion, though, Merwin sounds more hopeful. Then he is exquisitely lyrical, and his syntactic and metrical patterns are easier to decipher. But the poems always remain gnomic, as in this example:
“How We Are Spared”
At midsummer before dawn
an orange light returns to the
Like a great weight and the small birds cry out
And bear it up
It contains the vivid picture often found in Imagist poetry. At the same time, the paradox of delicate creatures supporting the weight of day has its riddle component: Who performs the greatest task? Answer? Those least expected to do so? The poem is basically a compound-complex sentence, whose subject (“orange light”), at the riddle level, suggests the sun. At the level of poetics, the subject is a metaphor for human hope.
Merwin’s infusion of images with unexpected meaning is often simply caused by ellipsis. For example, in this line from another poem, “I have no shadow but myself,” the illogicality seems to come from the omission of words. But the chiming of sound and the balanced syllabic grouping of “I have” and “myself” somehow justify the recursiveness of “I” and “myself.” It also converts the meaning of the line to a paradox: it doubly attests to nothingness and being. Constructions like these make the reader want to reshuffle the words; they seem puzzling and ungrammatical. The first four stanzas of the following poem are a case in point:
All these years
With blind crosses sweeping the tables
And myself tracking
over empty ground
Animals I never saw
I with no voice
Remembering names to
invent for them
Will any come back will one
It is difficult to know if the obscurity derives from the deletions of certain phrases, which may have a recoverable context in the deep structure. In the line on stanza 2, “And myself tracking over empty ground,” it is not clear whether “tracking” is a transitive verb or intransitive verb, or in the next line of that stanza, whether “Animals” has an antecedent. Nor is it clear who has been spending “All these years behind windows” (stanza l). The reader wants to align the actions with the speaker. Merwin typically discourages this search for a human voice: “I with no voice” (stanza 3). Then we encounter the very rich paradox: “Remembering names to invent for them.” The riddle here: if language no longer exists, how or with what tools can we speak? In this particular instance, the riposte is the poem itself.
All this obscurity leads us to an important question: since terms such as closure or mimesis can rarely be applied to Merwin’s poetry, and since most of his subjects are buried in surreal worlds, how does he manage to speak with a public rather than a private voice? Again, it is through the formal, primitive, apersonal aspect of riddle, as well as through the reassurances of syntax that give his work the aura of universal experience. As with the ahistorical voice of the riddle, in which no self is present, the sheer foregrounding of syntax—forced to this position because of the nonsensical context—generates an awe that we may not experience from a purely personal voice. For all his crypticism, Merwin speaks with a common humanism and knowledge.
remains another dimension of similarity
between Merwin’s poetry and the riddle.
Although riddles are usually outside the
particular vernacular of a moment in history,
their understanding and solution still depend
on the information and memory of a cultural
fund. Their power resides in culturally
recognized similarities. Their wit and
wonder derive from the manipulation of these
similarities, so that a threat of
discontinuity or imbalance is introduced into
the context. Likely, an illiterate
tribal person would not respond with amusement
to “What is black and white and red all over?”
(newspaper). Therefore, for Merwin to
communicate with his audience, he must know
its cultural responses. Here is a piece
with widely universal recognition regarding
certain allusions. It is the customary
association (even for secular readers) of
December with religious enactment and a
promise for mankind, which makes the poem so
“December Among the Vanished”
The old snow
gets up and moves taking its
Birds with it
hide in the knitted walls
From the winter that lipless man
Hinges echo but nothing opens
before this one
Has left its broken huts facing the pastures
Through their stone roofs the snow
darkness walk down
In one of them I sit with a dead shepherd
And watch his lambs
The primary myth of salvation is dissolved, not so much in its denial as in its absence. Although the verbs have a transitive quality to them, they predicate absence: “The old snow gets up and moves,” “Hinges echo but nothing opens.” Ordinarily emphatic verbs act here only on abstraction: “A silence before this One/Has left.” Clearly, our expectation of relationships among words like “beasts,” “pastures,” “shepherd,” “lambs,” is defamiliarized. The words do not repeat the Story. The Christian mystery is now “dead,” and the speaker reveals a new mystery. The poem refers to what is perhaps the greatest riddle in western culture: the incarnation of God as man. In Merwin’s riddle, no answer is given. The “Vanished” of the title expands in the syntactic structure: Merwin deletes conjuncts, delays indirect objects, misplaces antecedents, and creates obscure appositives. The shifting planes of reality result in defamiliarization, where lineation introduces new spatial references. The line breaks disorient the syntax: is there a pause after “walls” or does “from the winter” modify line 3? Or is it contiguous to both phrases? The speaker himself, it seems, is a Christ-like figure, but a passive or powerless one.
Finally, let us consider what may be numbered among Merwin’s favorite images: the shadow (indeed, his latest volume is entitled The Shadow of Sirius). There is perhaps no metaphor more universally fraught with the dialectical potential for riddle than the shadow. As obscurity, the shadow attests to space and light. As nothingness, it reflects substance. Merwin confers upon it the role of an interposed body (language), which has been cut off from a source of light (faith in man and his language). It becomes an important element in his landscapes, a representation of human grief and silence. Consequently, its weightlessness has great weight. It changes its shape to conform to the overriding theme in many poems, but it doesn’t change its testament of the presence of absence. The shadow image is inclusively applied to creatures in nature, man, and the totality of earth. For example, in “Avoiding News by the River,” a poem about predatory devastation in nature, the “Trout rise to their shadows.” In “Crows on the North Slope,” the crows, which feed on devastation are “Demanding something for their shadows/That are naked/And silent and learning.” And in this lovely piece, the oxymoronic exemplification of light, having no relationship, is itself a shadow:
“Looking East at Night”
The moths fly at in the darkness
I took you for the moon rising
Do you reflect
As though it
came out of the roots of things
This harvest pallor in which
I have no shadow but myself
To close this section on The Lice, I would mention that there is only one poem in the volume that uses punctuation, “The Last One.” It appears just in the form of the period, which comes at the end of each line. Yet, each declarative sentence makes the poem a collection of riddles. Though no topicality fixes the content, it is suffused with admonition. It brings together Merwin’s feature of the riddle, from the mystery of the title to the repeated use of an “It,” which is never named. The shadow is its dominant image, but not its subject. The poem is too long to quote in full, but here is an excerpt:
“The Last One”
Well they cut
everything because why not.
Everything was theirs because they thought so.
It fell into its shadows and they took both away.
Although using complete declarative sentences may seem a departure from Merwin’s style, it is actually the opposite. It is precisely the rational order of grammar that he condemns as he uses—or foregrounds—it here. Our laws and values, and the language in which they are embodied, Merwin implies, will have consumed even the shadows of our annihilation.
Forty-one years passed between The Lice and The Shadow of Sirius (2008), Merwin’s latest volume. In between, he published a number of works. In 2005, Migration: New and Selected Poems provided us with the opportunity to observe in a single volume Merwin’s stylistic evolution for five decades. The volume endorses his deeply felt pacifist, anti-imperialist, ecological beliefs. More importantly, his obsession with the interaction between the land and language held fast. By that time he had literally changed his lifestyle by moving to an old pineapple plantation in Hawaii, where he has converted the land to its original rainforest state.
He had also become nationally recognized for his participation in protesting the Vietnam War: in 1971, he donated his Pulitzer Prize money (for The Carrier of Ladders) to the draft resistance movement. This resistance continued when the US engaged in the Iraq War: Merwin has always referred to his pacifism in interviews and poetry readings. It seemed as though Merwin’s vision had remained unchanged.
Yet, when The Shadow of Sirius appeared, readers wondered if his uniqueness would bring the same style and content to his verse. Happily, a certain lightness had replaced the dread-infused writing of his earlier years. He himself acknowledged: “I certainly have moved beyond the despair, or the searing vision that I felt after writing The Lice.” 9 But, because of the easier readability of this volume, his existential vision of the precipitous role of language is more glaring. The same glorification of nature is heightened by its association with the accretion of words like “words,” “silent,” “shadow.” There are several poems on the ephemerality of language itself. Yet, perhaps the signal difference we can detect in this volume is its direction toward reconciliation.
The memory of his
early childhood years and his challenges as a
poet over the decades brought a more human
perspective to the poems. But it also
freed him to experiment with metaphysical
solutions associated with word magic. He
played even more with riddles, burying puns
and jokes into his imagery. Using less
surrealistic content, he engaged in
meta-riddles, which ask questions concerning
their own subject, and become, as it were,
their own solutions. Sometimes, the
poems deliver ripostes, sometimes not.
As such, a more glaring scheme emerges:
nothing and everything in life appears to us
as a puzzle. This game of wits brings a
deeper philosophical imperative to his work.
When Merwin was awarded his second Pulitzer Prize for The Shadow of Sirius, critics praised him for moving to a more accessible, readable, sphere; to imparting the wisdom of old age; to invoking the role of memory; to offering all those personal, familial reflections that readers want to own and share. Here, they rejoiced, Merwin has replaced his difficult, often inscrutable work with “lyrical remembrances of his past so nicely turned.”10 This was a dramatic change from even a few years earlier, when Migration: New and Selected Poems (2005) was reviewed in The New York Times Book Review: “You feel zero poignancy reading these poems. Instead you feel, ‘what a weird party: why was I invited’”? 11
But those critics who did praise The Shadow of Sirius seemed to focus on “memory” as its ineluctable theme. Whether a piece turned on his childhood, his parents, his focus on a sunrise, blueberries, a river, they asserted that memory was its generative theme. Little attention was paid to the significance of the title, to its allusion, or to its role in his prosodic structure. A close look at this volume, however, indicates that while some of the apocalyptic environmental destruction disturbed him less, his original anxiety about language (its loss, its meaning) remains. Paradoxically, because his images are more conventional, they further vivify the shadow of language.
Here are some examples of how Merwin’s riddle/like poetics still place a linguistic chasm between sound, syntax, and man’s separation from nature. The name “Sirius” never appears in the volume after the title, but the image “Shadow” appears frequently. Here, the riddle begins. The bright star Sirius, a part of the constellation Canis Major (Dog Star), has been an object of veneration for many groups throughout history. It has been an influential heavenly body, affecting myths. Being more observable in summer, it has also been associated with the heat of human passion. For example, the ancient Egyptians revered it as the “Nile Star”: “they refused to bury their dead for up to 35 days after the sun conjuncts with the Sirius, which is hidden from view for about 35 days. It was believed that Sirius was the doorway to the afterlife.” 12 In the Chinese tradition, there is a remarkable analogy in the double meaning of the words “shin” and “sing,” the Chinese words for soul and star. Among other traditions, fixed stars, and their domain, contain the essences or soul of matter: a living soul is a higher essence of matter, and when evolved, may also be called a star. Regarded as having divine attributes, stars look down onto the world of humanity and influence the energies of humankind invisibly, yet most powerfully.
How does this mythological phenomenon affect Merwin’s text? The star itself does become a referent in the first poem in the volume, but there it ends (or begins thematically?):
“The Nomad Flute”
You that sang to me once sing to me now
let me hear your long lifted note
survive with me
the star is fading
I can think further than that but I forget
do you hear me
do you still hear me
does your air
o breath of morning
night song morning song
I have with me
all that I do not know
I have lost none of it
but I know better now
than to ask you
where you learned that music
where any of it came from
once there were lions in China
I will listen until the flute stops
and the light is old again
Why is the flute a “nomad”? Could it be an allusion to the poet himself? This might embody the poem as an invocation to the Muse. If so, is it not something of a play on, a mockery, of a traditional convention? Does he separate himself from his own voice, in “I will listen until the flute stops”? The pun on “does your air/remember you” (song?) is a reversal of the riddle in the lines: “I have with me/all that I do not know/I have lost none of it.” But the phonic “i” sound in “lions in China” gives it away. Such a spurious allusion to China, with no pre or post context, removes any sense of time or reality. This music is, was, and always will be with us—as are the stars.
Since Merwin’s reverence for nature is so pronounced, the connection with his transcendental predecessors is interesting to observe. He said that he keeps “Walden in the john” for ongoing reading. 13 Clearly, he shares Thoreau’s need to remove himself from the commercial, machine controlled world of society. Thoreau, rather than celebrating nature’s intentional benevolence toward humans, wanted to restore the original knowledge of oneness with nature. And as he noted in Walden, reflecting on his past childhood nature walks, and longing for the pre-literature world where the earth remained a mystery:
does not remember the interest with which when
young he looked
at shelving rocks, or any approach to a cave? It was the natural yearning
of that portion of our most primitive ancestor which still survived in us. 14
Thoreau saw himself as still a kind of spirit in the woods. Merwin goes even further by intertextualizing man with other phenomena in nature. He restores this knowledge of our essential place within nature in the following beautiful piece. The conversion of “voice” happens in wild life itself. Here, the speaker is the birds themselves (“we”), in a moment of time (“the only morning”), which fixes, in time, all of time:
“Gray Herons in the Field Above the River”
Now that the nights turn longer than the days
we are standing in the still light after dawn
in the high grass of autumn that is green
hushed in its own place after the burn of summer
each of us stationed alone without moving
at a perfect distance from all the others
like shadows of ourselves risen out of our
each eye without turning continues to behold
what is moving
each of us is one of seven now
we have come a long way sailing our opened
remembering all night where the world would be
the clear shallow stream the leaves floating
the dew in the hushed field the only morning
The birds speak of being “risen out of our
shadows,” and remembering “where the
world would be,” on this “the only morning.” How complete this moment must be.
Before parting with analogues between Merwin and the Transcendentalists, it may be useful to clarify his legacy from Whitman. Several critics have equated his espousal of the exuberance for earth with Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. However, the difference between them is that Whitman remained a purveyor of nature, yet more directly used it as a tool for celebrating himself: “Earth of the limpid gray of clouds brighter and clearer for my sake.” He had retained the Romantics’ dualism, whereby, despite their reverence for nature, it inspired and served man, and even replicated man’s notion of divinity. Moreover, Whitman’s prophecy of America’s great promise is hard to equate with Merwin’s implicit fear for his nation . Their “oracular” visions prove how distant that American dream has become.
Returning to Merwin’s penchant for the riddle, we can see where his dilemma with language tries to resolve itself within his own poems. While there is some suggestion that he is thinking back on his earlier work, drawing on memory, the following poem reveals a more complex statement:
poems are the ones
I turn to first now
following a hope that keeps
waiting somewhere in the lines
almost in plain sight
it is the late
that are made of words
that have come the whole way
they have been there
Where have the “words” been? Where are they now? Does he exist within the “words”? He now follows “a hope,” a search inextricable from the very art consuming him. What greater tribute to the power of language?
While the images in The Shadow of Sirius are more recognizable than those in The Lice, Merwin still employs his earlier patterns of structure: poems generally start with some form of abstraction, generally a riddle in itself; then, sandwiched in the center of the poem is a literal, often natural landscape picture. The poem then closes with other abstract riddle/like lines that are strangely peripheral to the rest of the poem. For example, in the following piece there is no closure, “the self has no age,” and although it is May, the “sky has no sky/except itself”:
“Cold Spring Morning”
At times it
has seemed that when
I first came here it was an old self
I recognized in the silent walls
and the river far below
but the self has no age
as I knew even then and had known
for longer than I can remember
as the sky has no sky
except itself this white morning in May
with fog hiding the barns
that are empty now and hiding the mossed
limbs of gnarled walnut trees and the green
pastures unfurled along the slope
I know where they are and the birds
that are hidden in their own calls
in the cold morning
I was not born here I come and go
Can we read this poem without experiencing the beauty of presence in the pastural scene, yet the very absence of it , hidden, like the birds?
Thus, Merwin has absorbed us in an inimitable way. Perhaps the greatest pleasure we derive from the poems is their blankness, their ability to turn the reader inward, searching for a recognition, a resolution, that will enable us to reflect on the wonder of being. There is no sentimentality in those sudden appearances of seasonal awakening, of sprouting flowers, of moments that never seem to be captured in time. Merwin’s enchantment with language brings a different vista. And while his ephemeral message often brings more “shadow” than its “star,” the wonder of words joins man closer to Sirius.
Merwin is also skillful at dabbling with those lighter poetic moments we all relish. Here, to close, are several examples of these motifs: playing on literary conventions; rejoicing in love; singing with the woodland birds.
In the following poem, “A Momentary Creed,” Merwin plays on dogma as a standard practice in society, something to which we are accustomed, but hardly notice. Here, he creates perfectly balanced couplets, in which the closing word in each couplet’s first lines rhymes, and the closing word in each second line is always “me.” His title alone is an oxymoron, inasmuch as creeds usually have duration, and temporality. Is the joke on us? Indeed, is this a creed? The litany-like repetition of “me” and the total void in time tax our credibility. If we don’t know when or where we are, what is the point of rituality?:
“A Momentary Creed”
I believe in
the ordinary day
that is here at this moment and it is me
I do not see
it going its own way
but I never saw how it came to me
beyond whatever I may
think I know and all that is real to me
it is the
present that it bears away
where has it gone when it is gone from me
there is no
place I know outside today
except for the unknown all around me
presence that appears to stay
everything that I call mine it lent me
even the way
that I believe the day
for as long as it is here and is me
This piece surely plays on riddle. The first line in each stanza becomes a mystery in the second line. Resorting to conventional rhyme only undermines the verity of what has been standard, classic verse.
Regarding the subject of romantic love, Merwin’s work is sparsely represented. However, in The Shadow of Sirius he not only dedicates the volume to his wife, he submits one poem in dedication to her. It also parries longing for immortality, reminiscent of a Shakespeare sonnet:
“To Paula in Late Spring”
imagine that we will come again
when we want to and it will be spring
we will be no older than we ever were
the worn griefs will have eased like the early cloud
through which the morning slowly comes to itself
and the ancient defenses against the dead
will be done with and left to the dead at last
the light will be as it is now in the garden
that we have made here these years together
of our long evenings and astonishment
The turn comes in that closing word, “astonishment.” Even a love poem enacts that sense of spacelessness that underscore the earlier lines, questioning how all those years happened.
Finally, the last poem quoted here is the last selection in the text, intentionally so, I believe. While the volume opened with a “nomad flute” and a fading “star,” the journey through the text closes on a paean to nature. The riddles, the rising rhythms, the transcendent placelessness, all gather here in song:
“The Laughing Thrush”
joy of the morning
tumbling upward note by note out of the night
and the hush of the dark valley
and out of whatever has not been there
unquestioning and unbounded
yes this is the place and the one time
in the whole of before and after
with all of memory waking into it
and the lost
visages that hover
around the edge of sleep
constant and clear
and the words that lately have fallen silent
to surface among the phrases of some future
if there is a future
here is where
they all sing the first daylight
whether or not there is anyone listening
The thrush is a soft plumaged bird that inhabits wooded areas. Its songs are considered to be among the most beautiful in the avian world. One species, “Genus Cetharus,” is a typical American bird, sometimes identified as the “nightingale thrush.” The Keatsian reminder is hard to ignore.
his eightieth decade, Merwin will gift us with
further work. His contribution has
familiarized us with the shadow in a lyrical,
mysterious mode. His penchant for the
universal, centuries-old practices of riddle
conjoins him in a canon few poets have
entered. His belief in language will
draw us closer to our natural “star” in
following essay proved helpful as
background and seminal overview of
George Scott, “On Defining the Riddle: The Problem of a Structural Unit,” Genre, 2 (1969), 129-142.
1. W.S. Merwin, The Lice (New York:Atheneum, 1967). Additional quotes in the latter part of the text are from W.S. Merwin, The Shadow of Sirius (CopperCanyon Press, Port Townsend, WA, 2008).
2. Northrop Frye, Anatomy
of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton,
NJ: Princeton UP, 1957).280.
3. Brian McFadden,
“Raiding, Reform, and Reaction: Wondrous
Creatures in the Exeter Book Riddles,”
Texas Studies in Literature and Language 50.4 (Winter 2008), 329-351.
4. W.S. Merwin, “Preface to Asian Figures,” from “Translating Asian Poetry: A Symposium.” Manoa 11.2 (1999) 95.
5. Daniel Bourne, interview with W.S. Merwin ( Artful Dodge) 3.3 (1982): 917.
6. Bourne, 917.
7. W.S. Merwin, Voices:
Selected Writings of Antonio Porchia
(Chicago, IL: Follett, 1969).
8. Ralph Waldo
Emerson, “Nature,” chapter on
transcendentalists in American Literary
James Woodress, l971.
9. Cary Nelson and Ed
Folsom, “Fact Has Two Faces: An
Interview with W.S.Merwin,” Iowa Review
(Winter, 1982), 30-66.
10. Biography updated
by the Poetry Foundation, 2010,
11. Dan Chiasson,
Migration: The Solemn Art,” review of Migration:
New and Selected Poems in New
York Times Book Review 4 August,
12. “Sirius, The God Dog Star,” http://www.souledout.org/cosmology/sirius/siriusgodstar.html.
13. J. Scott Bryson,
“Seeing the West Side of Any Mountain:
Thoreau and Contemporary Poetry,” in
Ecopoetry: A Critical Introduction (University of Utah Press, 2002).
14. Bryson, 92.