Migration: New and Selected Poems
Does poetry require poets? If we narrow that question to allow only the most functional definition of poets as those who manufacture the language considered poetry, then yes, of course, poets are necessary—if poetry is. But what about poets as discrete persons, agents of personality, characters? The primary value of poems as expressive of personhood (assuming that personhood is volitional) is that plenty of people seems to seek out poetry to achieve, among other things, a legitimate encounter with another person. If so, then maybe one cannot reach a person without “being” one. And what about the persons implied by this dialogue, those implicitly invited to the exchange between selves the poem occasions? In an interview from the mid-sixties, W.S. Merwin claimed that
“Put at its simplest, and with its implications laid out all plain and neat, the decision to speak as clearly and truthfully and fully as possible for the other human beings a poet finds himself among is a challenge to obscurantism, silence, and extinction. And the author of such a decision, I imagine, accepts the inevitability of failure as he accepts the inevitability of death. He finds a sufficient triumph in the decision itself, in its deliberate defiance, in the effort which it makes possible, the risks it impels him to run, and in any clarity which it helps him to create out of the murk and chaos of experience. In the long run his testimony will be partial at best…[but] He will not have been another priest of ornaments. He will have been contending against that which restricted his use and his virtue.”
There are things in this claim I love—”priest of ornament” is waiting to be weaponized for further critical use—and things at which to marvel, not least of which is the now-unimaginable (insert indeterminate property here) that would allow a poet to define the poetic mission as a clarification of “the murk and chaos of experience.” I’m not saying that this is a project universally abandoned; I’m just noting that whatever space would allow someone to make such a claim has seriously shrunk, and the number of practitioners who would define their own poetic ambitions in those terms considerably lessened. But let’s suspend for the moment any question of how or why that shift occurred, and take Merwin’s task as seriously as he seems to take it, and examine what poetry that wants to speak for other human beings looks like.
One of the first things a sequential reading of Migration reveals is that concern for other humans doesn’t necessarily require much of a subjective interest in humans per se. Even the early, neoclassical Merwin often preferred to speak for or to others via a universalized self, sometimes relying upon the inhuman ventriloquism of the divine or mythological:
And slower even than the arrows, the few sounds that come
Falling, as across water, from where farther off than the hills
The archers move in a different world in the same
Kingdom. Oh, can the noise of angels,
The beat and whirring between Thy kingdoms
Be even by such cropped feathers raised? Not though
With the wings of the morning may I fly from Thee; for it is
Thy kingdom where (and the wind so still now)
I stand in pain; and, entered with pain as always,
Thy kingdom that on these erring shafts comes.
from “Saint Sebastian”
Today, this sounds more likely to have been written by one of the Metaphysicians than by someone alive today. But even in the same volume from which this poem comes, Merwin was more likely to write from a point of view recognizably more current, one markedly less theatrical:
[…] If we could remember
The stars in their clarity, we might understand now
Why we pursued stars, to what end our eyes
Fastened upon stars, how it was that we traced
In their remote courses not their own fate but ours.
from “The Eyes of the Drowned Watch Keels Going Over”
When Merwin employs the first person during this period, he often conceals it within a persona that cannot be mistaken for his own; when the point of view could be assumed the poet’s, Merwin resorts to the third person, the collective. The assumption seems to be that one’s “authentic” self is an insufficient vehicle for the transmission of wisdom.
This conviction persists, but with an important interruption. Like a number of his approximate peers, Merwin moved in the Sixties to more expressly autobiographical poems, beginning with his volume The Drunk in the Furnace. Here, Merwin relies just as frequently on mythological or classical referents, but rather than allow them to serve their traditional function of illuminating human nature, he clearly means for poems like the wonderful “Odysseus” to stand in for Merwin-nature:
Always the setting forth was the same,
Same sea, same dangers waiting for him
As though he had got nowhere but older.
Behind him on the receding shore
The identical reproaches, and somewhere
Out before him, the unraveling patience
He was wedded to.
Given the previous poems’ fastidious formal control and relentless commitment to Meaning, the poems of this transitional collection offer a relatively goofy unbuttoning, as if Merwin had, at a fairly young age, become sick of himself. His self-reportage thus always has an element of mockery, even at its most sober, but the transition underway here isn’t one as simple as Lowell’s reckless and majestically sloppy commitment to confessionalism. For one thing, even though he’s starting with himself, Merwin is becomingly increasingly disenchanted with the more self-congratulatory aspects of human behavior, which is to say all of them. While he never goes so far as Jeffers, perfectly and perpetually content to whet his contempt on the stone of persistent, willful human folly, Merwin does begin to disregard the conventionally personal in favor of a concern for the natural world, and the consequences it suffers as a result of human self-concern. This is the origin of the elements of the fully contemporary Merwin:
All these years behind windows
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
Saying look carefully yes
We will meet again
Bid punctuation goodbye, friends: henceforth it will appear only incidentally, as Merwin shifts from elaborately-reasoned Metaphysical structures to argument by lyric. This evolution is a political one, influenced less by the court dramas of poetic fashion and more by Merwin’s great theme, the methodology of our relentless impoverishment of the natural world and the god-awful ideas that both enable this rapacity and occur because of it. Merwin’s arsenal—one that, given his concerns, must provide means of attack and defense simultaneously—consists of deep image and narration that essentially comes from nowhere. It’s a fitting combination of strategies, considering the ethical constraints Merwin’s moral convictions place upon him.
The problem, unfortunately, is that his technique of omni-valent narration sometimes operates poorly with Merwin’s other desire, which is frankly to educate and enlighten. Shorn of much of the array of poetic devices his technical proficiency allows him, Merwin’s later poetry reads as though the poet believes he has discovered a language that acts as a kind of universal solvent, a medium uniformly suitable for all observations and occasions. Even when he conceives more elaborate projects (The Vixen, The Folding Cliffs, The River Sound), he often commits the error of plain speech—which is not the error of the speech itself, but of believing any speech is plain. Water, of course, is true universal solvent, but in order for the purity and plainness of water to clarify and refresh, we must also admit that it lends itself well to manipulation: sweetened, spiced, colored, contained in vessels of various shapes. To admit this is not, I think, to become a priest of ornament. It’s simply to acknowledge that the physical world to which Merwin is so persuasively committed registers in human experience as a set of textures, as ambient, as literally environmental. In his desire to skip lightly over the surface of the world, Merwin sometimes allows his language to skip too lightly as well; to say that
You could never believe
it would come to this
one still morning
when before you noticed
the birds already
were all but gone
from “To the Grass of Autumn”
is not to manifest the morning or the birds with enough textural specificity to return the reader to the world with attention appropriately tuned. I think that Merwin’s considered rejection of fully detailed personhood as the highest expression of poetic meaning is wise and correct. There is much in the world in language beyond endless detailing of a poet’s closely observed feelings and experiences. You cannot, however, replace a singular person with a universal one, lest you begin to adopt the voice of god, whose observations and injunctions automatically inspire rebellion. To do the world justice, poems do not need not persons at all, whether specific or general. Perhaps poems could be, as I think Merwin would appreciate, places—worlds uninterrupted by the false urgency of alleged wisdom. Less voice, but more garden.