Merwin, W(illiam) S(tanley)
MERWIN, W(illiam) S(tanley)
Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 30 September 1927. Education: Princeton University, New Jersey, A.B. in English 1947. Family: Married 1) Diana Whalley in 1954 (separated 1968 and divorced); 2)Paula Dunaway in 1983. Career: Tutor in France and Portugal, 1949, and to Robert Ciraves's son in Mallorca, 1950; freelance translator, London, 1951–54; playwright-in-residence, Poet's Theatre, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1956–57; poetry editor, The Nation, New York, 1962; associate, Théâtre de la Cité, Lyons, France, 1964–65. Awards: Yale Series of Younger Poets award, 1952; Kenyon Review fellowship, 1954; American Academy grant, 1957; Arts Council of Great Britain bursary, 1957; Rabinowitz research fellowship, 1961; Bess Hokin prize, 1962, and Harriet Monroe memorial prize, 1967 (Poetry, Chicago); Ford grant, 1964; Chapelbrook award, 1966; P.E.N. translation prize, 1969; Rockefeller grant, 1969; Pulitzer prize, 1971; Academy of American Poets fellowship, 1973; Shelley Memorial award, 1974; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1978; Bollingen prize, 1979; Aiken Taylor award, 1990; Maurice English award, 1990; Dorothea Tanning prize, 1994; Lenore Marshall award, 1994. Member: American Academy of Arts and Letters, Academy of American Poets. Agent: The Wylie Agency, 250 West 57th Street, Suite 2114, New York, New York 10107, U.S.A.
Green with Beasts. London, Hart Davis, and New York, Knopf, 1956.
The Drunk in the Furnace. New York, Macmillan, and London, Hart Davis, 1960.
The Moving Target. New York, Atheneum, 1963; London, Hart Davis, 1967.
The Lice. New York, Atheneum, 1967; London, Hart Davis, 1969.
Three Poems. New York, Phoenix Book Shop, 1968.
Animae. San Francisco, Kayak, 1969.
The Carrier of Ladders. New York, Atheneum, 1970.
Signs. Iowa City, Stone Wall Press, 1971.
Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment. New York, Atheneum, 1973.
The First Four Books of Poems. New York, Atheneum, 1975.
Three Poems. Honolulu, Petronium Press, 1975.
The Compass Flower. New York, Atheneum, 1977.
Feathers from the Hill. Iowa City, Windhover Press, 1978.
Finding the Islands. Berkeley, California, North Point Press, 1982.
Opening the Hand. New York, Atheneum, 1983.
The Rain in the Trees. New York, Knopf, 1988.
Selected Poems. New York, Atheneum, 1988.
Travels. New York, Knopf, 1993.
The Vixen. New York, Knopf, 1996.
The Folding Cliffs. New York, Knopf, 1998.
The River Sound. New York, Knopf, 1999.
East Window. Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press, 1999.
Darkling Child, with Dido Milroy (produced 1956).
Favor Island (produced Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1957).
The Gilded West (produced Coventry, England, 1961).
Turcaret, adaptation of the play by Alain Lesage, in The Classic Theatre, vol. 4, edited by Eric Bentley, New York, Doubleday, 1961.
The False Confession, adaptation of a play by Marivaux (producedNew York, 1963). Published in The Classic Theatre, vol. 4, edited by Eric Bentley, New York, Doubleday, 1961.
Yerma, adaptation of the play by Garcia Lorca (produced New York, 1966).
A New Right Arm (essay). Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Road Runner Press, n.d. Selected Translations 1948–1968. New York, Atheneum, 1968.
The Miner's Pale Children. New York, Atheneum, 1970.
Houses and Travellers. New York, Atheneum, 1977.
Selected Translations 1968–1978. New York, Atheneum, 1979.
Unframed Originals: Recollections. New York, Atheneum, 1982.
Regions of Memory: Uncollected Prose 1949–1982, edited by Ed Folsom and Cary Nelson. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1987.
The Lost Upland. New York, Knopf, 1993.
Editor, West Wind: Supplement of American Poetry. London, Poetry Book Society, 1961.
Editor, The Essential Wyatt. New York, Ecco Press, 1989.
Translator, The Poem of the Cid. New York, New American Library, and London, Dent, 1959.
Translator, The Satires of Persius. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1961; London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1981.
Translator, Some Spanish Ballads. London, Abelard Schuman, 1961; as Spanish Ballads, New York, Doubleday, 1961.
Translator, The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes: His Fortunes and Adversities. New York, Doubleday, 1962.
Translator, The Song of Roland in Medieval Epics. New York, Modern Library, 1963; published separately, New York, Random House, 1970.
Translator, Transparence of the World: Poems of Jean Follain. New York, Atheneum, 1969.
Translator, Products of the Perfected Civilization: Selected Writings, by Sebastian Chamfort. New York, Macmillan, 1969.
Translator, Voices: Selected Writings of Antonio Porchia. Chicago, Follett, 1969; revised edition, New York, Knopf, 1988.
Translator, Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair, by PabloNeruda. London, Cape, 1969.
Translator, with others, Selected Poems: A Bilingual Edition, by Pablo Neruda, edited by Nathaniel Tarn. London, Cape, 1969; New York, Delacorte Press, 1972.
Translator, Chinese Figures: Second Series. Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, Perishable Press, 1971.
Translator, Japanese Figures. Santa Barbara, California, Unicorn Press, 1971.
Translator, Asian Figures. New York, Atheneum, 1973.
Translator, with Clarence Brown, Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam. London, Oxford University Press, 1973; New York, Atheneum, 1974.
Translator, Vertical Poems, by Roberto Juarroz. Santa Cruz, California, Kayak, 1977; enlarged edition, Berkeley, California, North Point Press, 1988.
Translator, with J. Moussaieff Masson, Sanskrit Love Poetry. New York, Columbia University Press, 1977; as The Peacock's Egg: Love Poems from Ancient India, Berkeley, California, North Point Press, 1981.
Translator, Four French Plays. New York, Atheneum, 1985.
Translator, From the Spanish Morning. New York, Atheneum, 1985.
Translator, with Soiku Shigemetsu, Sun at Midnight, by Muso Soseki. Berkeley. California, North Point Press, 1989.
Translator, Pieces of Shadow, by Jaime Sabines. N.p., Marsilio, 1995.*
Bibliography: "Seven Princeton Poets," in Princeton Library Chronicle (Princeton, New Jersey), autumn, 1963; Understanding W.S. Merwin by H.L. Hix, University of South Carolina Press, 1997.
Manuscript Collection: University of Illinois, Urbana.
Critical Studies: W.S. Merwin issue of Hollins Critic (Hollins College, Virginia), June 1968; "W.S. Merwin and the Nothing That Is" by Anthony Libby, in Contemporary Literature 16 (Madison, Wisconsin), 1973; "The Continuities of W.S. Merwin" by Jarrold Ramsey, in Massachusetts Review 14 (Amherst), 1973; W.S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry edited by Ed Folsom and Cary Nelson, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1987; Poetry As Labor & Privilege by E.J. Brunner, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1991; Difficult Language in the Poetry of W.S. Merwin (dissertation), University of Toronto, 1992, and "The Riddle's Charm," in Dalhousie Review (Canada), 77(3), autumn 1997, both by Robert Finley; The Still Performance: Writing, Self, and Interconnection in Five Postmodern American Poets by James McCorkle, Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 1992; From Origin to Ecology: Nature and the Poetry of W.S. Merwin (dissertation), University of Mississippi, 1992, "W.S. Merwin and the Mysteries of Silence," in South Dakota Review (Vermillion, South Dakota), 32(1), spring 1994, and "Writing outside the Self: The Disembodied Narrators of W.S. Merwin," in Style (DeKalb, Illinois), 30(2), summer 1996, all by Jane Frazier; "Forms Open and Closed: The Poetry of W.S. Merwin," in Gettysburg Review (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania), 7(1), winter 1994, and "A Poetry of Transcendence," in Gettysburg Review (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania), 10(4), winter 1997, both by Floyd Collins; "Jeffers and Merwin: The World beyond Words" by Neal Bowers, in Robinson Jeffers and a Galaxy of Writers: Essays in Honor of William H. Nolte, edited by William B. Thesing, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1995; W.S. Merwin by H.L. Hix, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1997; "Metrical Inventions: Zukofsky and Merwin" by Albert Cook, in College Literature (West Chester, Pennsylvania), 24(3), October 1997; W.S. Merwin and the Postmodern Environment (dissertation) by Carl Clifton Tolier, Austin, University of Texas, 1997.* * *
I imagine the writing of a poem, in whatever mode, still betrays the existence of hope, which is why poetry is more and more chary of the conscious mind in our age.
The mystery of man's condition, like the mystery of the word, is like the sea—which fills W.S. Merwin's poetry-with its attendant whales, birds, moon, tides, rocks, and bells; this is a poetry filled with silences and distances, doors and dreams. The early works are sometimes remarkable in their lyrical ease—e.g., "Song of Marvels," "Song of Three Smiles," "Song of the New Fool." Others, more formal and elegant, are long and elaborate narratives based upon folktales and myth, where story and character are of secondary importance to the poet's questions, much like Wallace Stevens's, about reality and art. In "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," an elaborate five hundred-line poem of thirty-nine thirteen-line stanzas in iambic pentameter, Merwin adapts a Norse fairy tale, itself an adaptation of Apuleius's Cupid and Psyche legend. But the story remains mere decoration, a frame within which he contemplates the relationship of art and imagination to reality. "All magic is but metaphor," he writes, and also notes the following: "All metaphor… is magic." Then, speculating on the perfection of art and eternity over the flux of this world, his character ponders, "Why should I / complain of such inflexible content, / Presume to shudder at such serenity, / Who walk in some ancestral fantasy." Like Yeats's Oisin, Merwin's persona is drawn to this world and would "ride a while the mortal air."
Perhaps Merwin's numerous and remarkable translations (Porchia, Neruda, Follain, René Char, Jorge Guillén, The Song of Roland, The Poem of the Cid) have stimulated or reinforced his own experiments with meter and form (from Yeats's and Stevens's symbolism to Neruda's surrealism and Follain's linguistic innovations). Nevertheless, by the mid-1960s Merwin had honed the form we most often associate with him: the spare and sometimes epigrammatic line, simple language, and absence of allusion, myth, rhyme, and punctuation. His focus had turned in great part to the articulation of the "desert of the unknown," of the absurd, nothingness, silence, as in "Daybreak": "The future woke me with its silence / I join the procession / An open doorway / Speaks for me / Again." This world of the unknown, always benignly indifferent to man, beckons the poet, with his infinite imagination, for articulation; the poet begs for comprehension and consolation.
Merwin has been associated with the tradition of contemporary poets known as the oracular poets, and if his surrealistic style has been compared to that of Roethke, Bly, Wright, Dickey, Plath, Olson, and even Lowell, his apocalyptic vision is entirely his own. Death for Merwin is not an entrance into harmony with the universe; rather, it is an entrance into nothingness. In an impressive blending of form and content, Merwin's muted voice and conspicuous absence of punctuation reflect his very quest and felt experience: "I know nothing / learn of me," he writes, and "I taught them nothing. Everywhere / The eyes are returning under the stones. And over / My dry bones they built their churches, like wells" ("The Saint of the Uplands"). Like Beckett, a master in the spare articulation of nothingness, Merwin writes, "It is when I assert to nothing that I assert to all."
Merwin's attraction to nothingness, and the knowledge it inspires, is often associated with water and also with sleep, night, and even erotic experience, as in "Sailor Ashore": "the waters are / Under the earth. Now to run from them. / It is their tides you feel heaving under you, / Sucking you down, when you close your eyes with women." Such knowledge, which all men aspire to and only a few can articulate in their own limited terms, becomes their statement of personal tragedy. Of the informed sailor in "The Shipwreck" he writes, "… this sea, it was / Blind, yes, as they had said, and treacherous— / They had used their own traits to character it—but without / Accident in its wildness, in its rage, / Utterly and from the beginning without / Error. And to some it seemed the waves / Grew gentle, spared them, while they died of that knowledge."
At times the poet cries out for revelation: "Oh objects come and talk with us while you can." But perhaps more frequently he feels paralyzed and in intolerable pain of spiritual emptiness. Sometimes nature is forbidding and frightening: "The whole night is alive with hands / Is aflame with palms and offerings / … in mid-winter … empty gloves."
Merwin concretizes the benign indifference of the universe in his many plants and animals, which have the knowledge he seeks. In "Noah's Raven" the raven turns away from Noah and says, "Why should I have returned? / My knowledge would not fit into theirs [man's]." Again recalling Wordsworth's imagery, the poet describes his isolation in the face of an enlightened nature: "You would think the fields were something / To me, so long I stare out, looking / For their shapes or shadows through the matted gleam, seeing / Neither what is nor what was, but the flat light rising."
When the poet achieves revelation, his vision is one of "blindness," his condition that of a stone. Perhaps man is ultimately "invisible, invisible, invisible," an alien in "silence," "trying to read what the five polars are writing / On the void" ("A Scene in May"). In an utter calm of despair he writes, "Not that heaven does not exist but / That it exists without us / … Everything that does not need you is real" ("The Widow").
Given a world of cosmic indifference, one might hope for comfort in the world of men. Merwin's most bitter poems, however, treat man's brutality to man. Of family relationships he writes, "tell me anything more / Of every kinship than its madness …" ("Uncle Hess"). Man has ruined his environment, and he has destroyed nature: "Men think they are better than grass" ("The River of Bees"). But nature will avenge men who "made up their minds to be everywhere because why not / everywhere was theirs because they thought so" ("The Last One"). Man has also created a ludicrous, albeit murderous, political world. In several poems Merwin writes of contemporary atrocities in Asia as a pattern throughout history as well as his own personal act: "I / all that / has become of them / clearly all is lost." The political liberal mocks himself in "I Live Up Here": "… a little bit to the left / And I go down only / For the accidents." American society encourages its own collapse in "Unfinished Book of Kings." Merwin's despair for America's future resounds in "News of the Assassins": "An empty window has overtaken me / After the bees comes the smell of cigars / In the lobby of darkness."
Opening the Hand is an exquisite collection that traces the poet's childhood experiences, especially with his father, and his awakening to the world of time and change, abundance and mystery. The volume expresses Merwin's reconciliation to the facts of silence and isolation and his celebration of the occasional knowledge that all things touch and are touched by every other thing. The opening poem, "The Waters," is a beautiful evocation of the moment of finality, of what he elsewhere calls "nothingness," and it is written in a spirit of exaltation and epiphany reminiscent of Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium." The music of the lines, also reminiscent of Frost, and the purity of his language reinforce a deeply felt affirmation toward the balance of all things: "I was the whole summer remembering / more than I knew / … joys and griefs I had not thought were mine / woke in this body's altering dream / knowing where they were / faces that would never die returned / toward our light through mortal waters."
A remarkable simplicity, lyricism, poise, and joy also mark The Rain in the Trees. Merwin again talks of his childhood and family, but he more prominently celebrates the ultimate ignorance and yet exaltation he feels for having survived a wondrous but mysterious world through the power of human love. The volume is strikingly simple in language and syntax; there is not the slightest trace of weighty metaphor or allusion, and the lines have an easy and hypnotic grace. Despite the continuing difficulties of translating experience into language, of locating or identifying himself in and through history, and of understanding his youth and middle years, the poet is grateful to his beloved for the comfort he now and at last feels in the vast universe: "we wake together and the world is here in its dew / you are here and the morning is whole / finally the light is young / … now we have only the age that is left / to be together / the brief air the vanishing green" ("Before Us"). Even in the face of the harshest realities, he is appreciative of whatever time and love remain for him. The spirit of the volume is underscored in a poem in which he states his need to say thank you despite the terror that remains: "the forests falling … / the words going out like cells of a brain / with the cities growing over us." All the same, he continues, "we are saying thank you faster and faster," even though there is "nobody listening."
Travels returns to the narrative myths of Merwin's earlier work to concentrate on a variety of historical figures, each blinded by an impossible dream given the limitations of the self and the world. As Merwin portrays his gallery of heroes, each one's goal has been ultimately to save, create, or define "living things / with no value that we know." The poet honors their quests, as he sympathetically notes the variety of motives driving them and the inevitable failure at the end of each one's journey. Of the twenty-one-year-old Rimbaud, he writes that "suddenly … / with his poems already … / fed to the flames," he traveled throughout Europe, tried his gift at the piano, but remained "useless, / unwelcomed and unloved." Merwin similarly marks the frustrated poetic activity of two Native Americans ("Lives of the Artists"). He describes the isolating and physically scarring and debilitating travels of Manuel Córdova. Most of the narratives focus on naturalists like Marini and John and William Bartram. Speaking in the voice of the "grass man"—David Douglas, the Scot for whom the fir tree was named—he says, "I could not have believed how my life would stop / all at once and slowly like some leaf in air / and still go on neither turning nor / falling any more."
Merwin is always in love with nature, and the volume includes lyrics that resound with his familiar lament about human dissolution as, at the same time, they exalt nature's nurturing qualities. "A Summer Night" conveys Merwin's enlightened appreciation of nature's dependably recurrent cycles: "The cloud brightens in the east / the moon rises out of the long evening / … the smell of roses waves through the stone room / … So long I have known this that it seems to me to be mine … / I have carried it with me without knowing it was there." One of the most beautiful poems is the opening "Cover Note." The poet reveals his most intimate insecurities: "I hope I make sense to / you in the shimmer of / our days while the world we / cling to in common is / burning for I have not / the ancients' confidence / in the survival of / one track of syllables / nor in some ultimate moment of insight that / supposedly will dawn / once and for all upon / a bright posterity."
Travels reveals language at new levels of purity, as though the word existed in its own right. Merwin omits punctuation entirely and enjambs both lines and stanzas; stanzaic end rhymes provide a foundation through which verse mirrors the existential condition. As such, with flawless and haunting musical cadences, Merwin's chaste forms convey the distance between the speaker and the spoken, the individual and his fate.
Ted Hughes called The Folding Cliffs a "truly original masterpiece, on a very big scale." This fictionalized poetic and historical narrative takes on the dimensions of an epic; at the same time the poet destroys the myth of Hawaii as a paradise. Merwin focuses on a chaotic and dangerous Hawaii in the 1870s and 1880s when leprosy, among other Western diseases, spread through the islands. He traces the vigorous official attempts—and subsequent persecutions and executions—committed by Europeans and Americans in their determination to place families in leper colonies, and he focuses on the resistance of one family in particular. His tenderness toward the victims separated from family and friends is striking, and he spares little in rendering the inhumanity of the soldiers and white settlers.
Merwin's descriptions of Hawaii's ecological abundance and peril parallel the plight of both the victims and victimizers. As the fugitives sought remote parts of the island, for example, he writes, "The wind had lashed at them here / … / the sky had filled with dark clouds and the rain had found them / they had leaned against the cliff / wall in the racing fog / the water spilling over them as / they crept forward / scarcely able to move but afraid of / being caught there." The volume is permeated with Merwin's descriptions of human despair in the environment in which it is experienced: "Born on the land the shore grass / hissing while the night slips / through a narrow place a man is / born for the narrows / a woman is born for where the / waters open / the passage is for a god it is not / for a human."
As its title suggests, The River Sound returns to one of Merwin's favorite subjects and symbols; it also returns to his recurrent reevaluation of old myths and legends. "The Stranger," as the poet tells us, is about a Guarani legend recorded by Ernesto Morales. The tour de force of the volume is the fifty-eight-page "Testimony," an autobiographical poem that lists various people to whom he would leave the treasures of a lifetime, now "the year I would be seventy." To one friend he would leave "this late spring / with its evenings in the garden / all the years of it beginning / from the moment I met her in / Fran's living room and the veiled green / leaves were young that we walked under …" To another he would leave "the morning as it is / clear and still with the bell from down / across the valley reaching us / to say the hour over again / so that we can pay attention …" Names like Galway Kinnell, Richard Howard, and Alastair Reid are on his list, but most are his closest friends with unfamiliar names. The poem concludes with the moving statement that in the vast empire of time that which we call our own is "only / as thick as one stamp that might be / on a post card but we would see / none of that where we were today / … I had not seen / where would the card be going to / that the stamp was to be put on / would I see what was written down / on it wherever it was sent / and the few words what would they mean / that we took with us as we went."