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Critical Essay by Mark Christhilf
SOURCE: "A Mythic Image of Humankind," in W. S. Merwin: The Mythmaker, University of Missouri Press, 1986, pp. 61-75.
Christhilf is an educator, poet, and critic. In the following excerpt, he examines various themes in Merwin's poetry, particularly his focus on such mythic elements and concerns as mortality, immortality, and the poet's calling.
Merwin's poetry from The Moving Target through Opening the Hand presents a mythic image of humankind. As mythmaker he answers the root questions of existence by imagining the origin, end, and destiny of the human being. Combining images from Christian, Classical, and pantheistic mythologies, Merwin's account of the human condition is traditional: it portrays the life of the individual as part of an encompassing Creation with a transcendent pattern of meaning. Yet mankind in Merwin's myth is also a unique being set apart from the natural world: he is a restless seeker possessing freedom of choice and bearing responsibility for the creation of his own identity. In this respect, Merwin's account is modern and has affinities with the existentialist image of mankind projected by such thinkers as Søren Kierkegaard, Nicolas Berdyaev, and Martin Heidegger. An existentialist note is also heard in Merwin's myth by virtue of his effort to participate through poetry in what he conceives to be the archetypal life. He is able to imagine his poetic vocation in terms of human destiny.
Mankind's origin is spiritual in Merwin's myth of the human condition. Like the world, each human being comes forth from the source of all being—from the numinous world of possibility and pure freedom. This infinitely creative dimension contains all possible human identity: like a huge ocean of spiritual being, it harbors the souls of the dead and the unborn. These invisible spirits wait to become human in Merwin's "Divinities," in The Lice; in fact, this poem restates the mythic theme that gods live mortal lives. As Merwin imagines them, they exist in pure uncircumscribed freedom, because they have yet to enter the objective world:
Having crowded once onto the threshold of mortality
And not been chosen
There is no freedom such as theirs
That have no beginning.
Mortal existence in Merwin's tale is objectification—a fall from the original condition of freedom and spirit. At birth each person takes on a body, becoming subject to the limitations and necessities of objective being in time. Yet each remembers the original freedom by virtue of imagination, which for Merwin is the spiritual part of the human being. As though it were a piece of the original freedom, imagination continues to touch the source of existence, to conceive the possibility of immortal being. For this reason each person lives a divided life, having both mortal identity and immortal being. On several occasions in his career Merwin characterizes mankind's divided nature, reformulating the traditional human duality of body and spirit. Stressing mortal identity as contingency in nature and immortal being as creative imagination, Merwin claims in his essay on Dylan Thomas that the human being is "man the creature-creator" ("The Religious Poet"); later, in "Notes for a Preface," he refers to "man, the animal and the artist." Like Wallace Stevens, Merwin regards imagination as the supreme faculty—the divinity in each human being.
In Merwin's story mortal existence is a span of time after which one returns to the original condition. At the end of life one encounters death not as a total annihilation of identity but rather as a return to life at the level of immortal being. Merwin imagines his own death in these terms in his well-known poem in The Lice, "For the Anniversary of My Death." On the day of death, he claims, his life will be extinguished as if it were one flame in a universe of fire; but part of him will continue, setting out like a "Tireless traveller / Like the beam from a lightless star." Merwin also imagines death as reunification: in death one rejoins the community of spirit composed of ancestors who preceded one on the earth. In "Wharf," in Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, he describes the experience of death as both an end and a beginning in which one recovers an original unity:
… our gravestones are blowing
like clouds backward
through time to find us
they sail over us through us
back to lives that waited
and we never knew.
For Merwin the dead play an important role in the individual's mortal existence. Even in this life communication with them is both necessary and possible. This motif brings to light the traditional emphases in his story, and in fact he is repeatedly inspired by premodern conceptions of death and afterlife. Death, for tribal peoples, is not an event in which the spirit goes far away to another land or heaven. Rather, the spirit remains near the community of the living either waiting to reenter a body being born or lurking in trees or clouds, where it serves as an intercessor for its mortal relatives. Just on the other side of the appearances of things, the dead ask for favors (such as rain) from the great, uncreated god who remains a mystery. In Merwin's story the dead exist within and behind things—in the creative dimension of depth—and he uses the motif of walls or doors to indicate their separation from their mortal brethren. In "February," in The Carrier of Ladders, for instance, he is explicit about the presence of the dead behind the world:
… the ends and the beginnings
are still guarded
by lines of doors
hand in hand
the dead guarding the invisible
each presenting its message
I know nothing
learn of me.
Communication with the dead in Merwin's story occurs through use of the imagination. Because imagination is freedom and spirit, it can penetrate the wall or door separating the dead from the living. It is the task of imagination to rejoin the dead and to seek their community, and a number of poems in Merwin's later work are based on such an act of communication with dead relatives or friends. "To My Brother Hanson" in The Moving Target is one notable example, in which Merwin speaks to his brother who was stillborn; "Voice" in The Carrier of Ladders is another, in which he imagines a dead friend, Jane Kirstein, existing on the other side of the wall of appearances. Most often, however, Merwin's imagination seeks community with the anonymous multitude of dead ancestors—with the "long line of ghosts" that he feels passing through him in "Meeting" of Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment. To imagine all the dead is to participate in the total community of human spirit: it is an act both instructive and painful, for one grasps the fact that one's mortal identity is merely one instance of an infinite number of human possibilities. What the dead would have us learn in Merwin's story is that we are not whole or complete by ourselves and must recognize our dependence on the past community of beings. In Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, Merwin's "A Wood" expresses his tale of mortal existence as separation from a community of spirit. "I have stood among ghosts of those who will never be / because of me," he claims.
"A Wood" also reveals the estrangement and angst that for Merwin inform mortal existence. Even though imagination conceives unity of being, the individual person cannot feel complete merely because he exists. Since it is impossible for matter to become spirit, each is bound to feel a painful sense of division and fragmentation in mortal life. In Merwin's story mortal existence and imaginative being are associated with paired motifs expressing life's division and its contradictory impulses. Existence is grief: it is feeling incomplete. To exist is to realize that one is bound to the earth and is consequently subject to error and limitation. In contrast, imaginative being is hope: it is a feeling of wholeness and perfection. To hope is to feel the reality of immortal being conceived by imagination. Merwin also associates mortal and immortal being with the mythic motifs of falling and flying. To exist is to fall: after the original fall at birth, each person continues to fall away from the source of being and from memory of it. But to imagine is to fly—to escape mortality's falling and to return to the source in an act of self-renewal. In imagination one attains a godlike perfection of being transcending the actualities of objective identity.
Merwin also uses the mythic symbol of wings to refer to life at the level of imagination. In his image of the human being each one has a wing with which to hope and to fly. Yet when Merwin uses the wing as an image, he usually undercuts the possibility of pure flight. In "Foreword" in Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, he tells a tale of human origins, making mankind "the orphan" with only one wing: "everything here has two wings / except us," he relates, suggesting the limitations of mortality. "Is That What You Are," a poem in The Lice, brings together images of hope, grief, and flight to express life's division and the impossibility of ultimately surmounting it. In this poem Merwin characterizes mankind as a being who has two wings: one of hope, the other of grief. The poem is addressed to a ghost who appears before the poet, seeming to encourage him to use his wings to fly. Yet when he tries he finds flight impossible:
New ghost is that what you are
Standing on the stairs of water
Hope and grief are still our wings
Why we cannot fly
What failure still keeps you
Among us the unfinished.
The presence of the new ghost in Merwin's poem suggests a crucial theme. However impossible it may be in this life to transcend the limitations of mortal existence, it is the destiny of each human being to continue making the effort. For Merwin human identity emerges in the confrontation between spiritual being and mortal existence. As the spiritual side, imagination challenges the mortal being, urging him to go beyond what he factually is or what he has achieved as a historical creature. Imagination conceives perfection of identity because it touches on the source of infinite human potential, and it demands that each mortal being become perfect by making actual all his possibilities. In the course of life, identity is realized, as one historicizes as much as possible of one's spiritual being. That human identity is dynamic constitutes the moral dimension of Merwin's tale.
Merwin structures a number of interesting poems on the confrontation of spiritual being and mortal existence. In them the confrontation takes the form of a dialogue as he addresses one side of himself or the other, echoing such Yeatsian poems as "A Dialogue of Self and Soul." In "Finally," a poem in The Moving Target, he addresses the mortal side of himself, expressing dissatisfaction with the accumulated weight of habit and of error to which it is subject. Wishing to transcend this mortal identity and to achieve a pure and more perfect mode of being, he declares as the poem begins: "My dread, my ignorance, my / Self, it is time. Your imminence / Prowls the palms of my hands like sweat." Stating that he will place between himself and his mortal identity "the old knife" that symbolizes their continuous struggle, the speaker implores the mortal self to be reconciled to the possibilities of the best self. "Come," he asserts, "Let us share / Understanding like a family name." Merwin's "Animula" in The Carrier of Ladders is similarly structured, yet this poem clearly expresses the division of human nature as one between body and soul. Using the traditional term soul, Merwin yearns for immortal being—for the experience of self-unity that is beyond being in time. "Look soul / soul / barefoot presence," he declares in the opening lines. "I will take you," he continues, to "the river we / know"—to the spiritual river of being—where "the nights are not separate."
Because spiritual being is inexhaustible possibility, the challenge of realizing identity is never completed in this life. No sooner is an action taken to secure identity than the spirit creates another possibility and demands its realization. In Merwin's story this perpetual challenge makes life a voyage or journey. The moment of birth is the moment of departure in which one begins to move through life in time in search of the spirit. In "On Each Journey," in Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, Merwin imagines the spirit as silence: "on each journey there is / a silence that goes with it / to its end." In other poems he conceives the body as a boat in which to sail forth in pursuit of spiritual being. This mythic motif is heard in "For Saying that It Won't Matter," a poem in Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, which, like "Animula," is structured on the dialogue between existence and immortal being. Speaking as the spiritual part of himself, Merwin addresses his own bones. He imagines the hour of death when they will separate and he will leave his body "on the empty shore." "Bones of today I am going to leave you," he warns: "you are voyaging now through the half light of my life / let us talk of this while the wind is kind / and the foam rustling on your bows."
In Merwin's tale it is the spirit that is the true voyager. Conceiving new possibilities of identity, the spirit seems to be always escaping and going before the mortal being, out into the future. As the demand of future identity, the spirit seems literally to call: it is the calling being who is always ahead—beyond the time and place in which one finds himself. In Merwin's "Late Night in Autumn" in The Carrier of Ladders, the call comes from the poet's soul in order to remind him that his identity is incomplete and his journey unfinished. Thinking of the passing of time and of those who are satisfied with objective identity, Merwin claims:
the year will soon be home and its own hear it
but in some house of my soul
a calling is coming in again off the cold mountains
and here one glove is hanging from each window
oh long way to go.
These lines also reveal the demands of Merwin's poetic vocation. The calling comes both from the soul and from "the cold mountains" because it is the eternal song given to the poet to create. Over and over, imagination hears this inexhaustible freedom and possibility from which all things come to be. For Merwin it is the ultimate good that can never be fully conceived or named by the human mind. Poetic vocation is to make this limitless reality into poetry as often as is possible for one mortal being. Through imagination, the imagemaking faculty, one names it repeatedly by describing its presence in the visible world. In this act one becomes immortal, for art, in Merwin's myth, immortalizes the poet. Art is the record of his imaginative life—of his unity with the creative dimension. In it he ceases to exist as a mortal, achieving an identity beyond time and place and taking a position in human culture—in the mind of the world.
In Merwin's mythic self-conception, a poet must live the life of an immortal being. Like the divinities, he must obtain for himself conditions insuring pure creative freedom. In order that imagination be free to move toward all that is unrealized, it must be protected from the distractions and the inhibitions that are normally part of mortal existence. Finally, creative freedom requires that a poet purge imagination of all culturally determined images: these are the names given to the creative dimension by one's nation or religion and learned as a part of one's mortal condition. To secure this freedom, Merwin has avoided the mode of life associated with American poets after World War II. Shunning academic positions, he has not taught in a university, and he has spoken out against the proliferation of creative writing programs as a way of learning how to write poetry. He has also refused to write much criticism and to partake in poetic movements. In Merwin's conviction all such activities are objectifying: they delimit creative imagination and threaten to obscure what he terms "the 'freedom' that accompanies poetry at a distance" ("On Open Form").
Merwin has also followed through on his conception of the immortal poet as an exile. Like Robert Graves or Samuel Beckett, he has lived apart from his homeland, residing since 1978 in Haiku, Hawaii, and returning only occasionally to the American mainland. In the last analysis Merwin's effort to preserve creative freedom discloses in his personality a hereditary Protestantism. Despite conscious rejection of his father's creed and his antipathy to its narrowing orthodoxy, he was apparently influenced by the root principle of Protestant thought—by its original premise of reform. The impulse of Protestantism is radical change and reform because it does not believe that any man-made creed can circumscribe the unconditional reality that is god. Eventually it abolishes all myths and creeds in the vision of a god who is "wholly other," to use the words of the Protestant theologian Karl Barth.
Merwin mythicizes personal identity in his poems to express his conception of the poet as an immortal being. He creates two mythic identities that are variations on the theme of the immortal poet. The most prominent identity is that of the pilgrim-traveler: the poet is one who passes through life in search of the higher truth. For Merwin travel means creative freedom. To travel is to transcend mortal existence and to escape the domestic life that through habit and custom blunts imagination's capacity to see the world anew. In his earliest volume, A Mask for Janus, Merwin asserted this mythic theme by prefacing it with an epigraph from the American writer John Wheelwright: "Habit is evil, all habit, even speech / And promises prefigure their own breech." In later career Merwin is explicit: it is the poet's fate to travel. "I am the son of farewells," he declares in "Fourth Psalm," in The Carrier of Ladders; and in "Nomad Songs," in Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, "my cradle / was a shoe." Through the title of his second volume of prose, Houses and Travellers, Merwin calls attention to his sense of himself as world-traveler: he is the poet who journeys around the world, stopping to make houses—a symbol for constructions of imagination that become part of human culture.
The mythic identity of the traveler also expresses Merwin's need to resist self-complacency. The most dangerous inertia is inward, arising from success as a poet—from what Merwin terms in "Lemuel's Blessing" the "ruth of approval." After publication every poem or book contributes to mortal identity; bringing recognition as a poet, it leads one to believe that one has achieved vocation. For Merwin, however, the call to be a poet is never-ending because there are innumerable possibilities of expression. The immortal poet will regard each book as a kind of death: as an encrustation on pure freedom that must be left behind so that the next one can be written. This concept of an inward pilgrimage to realize one's possibilities is heard in such poems as "Travelling" in Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment and "Envoy from D'Aubigne" in The Carrier of Ladders. Written on the occasion of publishing a book, the latter poem portrays the mortal poet ceaselessly dissolving identity so that the immortal poet might create in freedom: "I think of all I wrote in my time / dew / and I am standing in dry air."
Merwin also characterizes immortal being in poetry through the mythic identity of the mountain climber. Like flying, climbing is a motif that expresses the human capacity for rising out of the confusion and desire of mortal experience. Using mountains and plateaus as actual images, Merwin casts himself as one who rises to accept the challenge of spiritual being: like a god on Mount Olympus, he embraces the cold and rarified air of the heights. This episode in his story derives from the Asian myth … in which a magic mountain joined earth to heaven. At the summit of this mountain creation began and from there it continued spreading outward; this was the locus of the original world where gods, men, women, and animals existed in harmony. Merwin also uses the North American Indian myth that the mountain peak was the abode of gods and spirits; the Indians buried their dead high up the slopes in a village of the dead. Merwin alludes to this belief in "Ascent," a poem in The Carrier of Ladders. "I have climbed a long way," he claims as the poem begins. It is clear that in this climb he has transcended mortal identity, for he directs the reader's attention to his shoes far below, which "wait there looking up." His goal is to reach the high slope—"the bare meadows"—in which there is community of spirit. There he will know himself seen "by the lost / silent / barefoot choir."
In Merwin's latest poetry there is a retreat from the posture of the immortal poet. The Compass Flower, Finding the Islands, and Opening the Hand initiate a new phase in his career in which poetic identity is based on mortal existence. To be sure, Merwin occasionally claims mythic identity. "One Night," in Opening the Hand, begins with his declaration: "I ride a great horse climbing / out of a rose cloud / onto a black cinder mountain." Furthermore, almost all Merwin's latest work continues to be inspired by the myth of a transcendent creation threatened by the destructive progress of modern history. Yet when Merwin faces either nature or the sociohistorical world, he expresses his subject less and less as myth: he allows his imagination less creative freedom with which to transfigure and reorder what appears. Instead actual events are realistically described, and frequently these events are occasions in the personal life of the poet. Depicting a sociable poet who often shares the poem's experience, Merwin's latest poetry is "occasional": it is produced from the poet's senses and from his conscious mind.
Much of Merwin's later poetry moves further toward explicit self-revelation and autobiography. In The Compass Flower he begins to demonstrate interest in himself, the well-known poet W. S. Merwin: he falls back on the fact that there is an audience who would like to read about his personal life. Such poems as "Ferry Port" and "Masts" concern travel, yet the act of traveling has no inward necessity. Instead Merwin merely relates his itinerary. "Ferry Port," for instance, begins with this revelation from the mortal poet: "We will be leaving now in less than a week / meanwhile we are / staying in a house in the port." The tendency of the poet simply to describe continues in poems like "Visitation" in Opening the Hand.
Finding the Islands includes a section of thirteen poems that concern Merwin's domestic life with an intimate loved one. The presence of this woman in his life is first felt in poems of The Compass Flower, but in them Merwin mythicizes the relationship. He eliminates specific details of their life together and identifies the woman with the Earth-goddess, who offers unity of being. In Finding the Islands Merwin's treatment of love is confessional: he casts himself as a man who feels love and desire rather than as a cold immortal being. "When we get home / from wherever it is / we take off our clothes," he asserts in "Living Together"; in "At Home," he states, "I find you cooking / in your torn / underpants worn low."
In Opening the Hand Merwin appears more as a mortal being than ever before in his career. In this volume there is an initial section of nineteen poems that are based on personal memories of his family. The poems ought to be read in conjunction with his third prose volume, Unframed Originals (1982), a series of six autobiographical memoirs of his boyhood life in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Merwin's design in the poems, as in the prose, is to be more "open"; hence the title Opening the Hand. He has suspected for years that he is too retiring and reticent, especially since, through implication, he has been so accused by his commentators. In the latest work he looks for this character trait in his family, and in what he regards as an oppressive paternal influence. Having exposed his father's mother as the typical American puritan, Merwin portrays his father as a poser and social climber. To Merwin his father's ways were harsh and tyrannical, and he feels that his father failed to appreciate his special talent of imagination—a fact evident in his poem "Houses" in Opening the Hand. Further, Merwin blames his father for hiding from him the details of the family's history, especially those that were less than socially proper. His father suppressed his knowledge of life's gaiety and color, to the point of preventing contact with vivacious and fun-loving relatives. This indictment emerges in "Birdie," a poem about Merwin's aunt, whom his father never fully accepted, and who therefore epitomizes "the way we grew up to hide things from each other."
Yet Merwin seems uncertain about becoming an "open," mortal poet. The form and style of his three latest books suggest this uncertainty. While such volumes as The Lice were stylistically homogeneous with all poems contributing to a unity of effect, in the latest there is a range of experimentation with both line and stanza; there is also a division of each book into sections of poems organized around different themes. More explicit uncertainty can be heard in such poems as "The Truth of Departure" and "Emigre" in Opening the Hand. In the latter poem Merwin addresses a "you," who is clearly in one sense himself. He wonders about the value of his self-exile and the impact it has had on his use of language. Revealing that America has become to him "a category," he broods on the question, "what is your real / language." Implicitly he poses a more encompassing question: does pure freedom from one's culture undermine verbal communication which is based upon community? In this long self-revealing poem that is its own subject, Merwin also questions the value of his most recent poetic subject—personal memory. Here the value of self-revelation in poetry is implicitly being debated:
what of the relics of your childhood
should you bear in mind pieces
of dyed cotton and gnawed wood
lint of voices untranslatable stories
or should you forget them
as you float between ageless languages
and call from one to the other who are you.
Merwin's uncertainty about poetic identity, and about the place of personal experience in the poem, reflects an uncertainty characteristic of American poetry in the post-modern era. Originally the post-modern movement sought to recapture experience of the world. As a continuing reassertion of Romanticism, it reacted against the overcivilized human consciousness—against "academic poetry" having little to do with actual experience. Writers such as Bly, James Wright, and Merwin himself were successful in realizing postmodern theory, which held that the artist would break down artificial barriers between the human subject and the world. From the beginning, however, heavy emphasis fell on the human subject rather than the world. In one main direction of the postmodern movement, poets concentrated on personal identity and activity in a familiar human realm. Represented by such poets as Robert Creeley, this direction became dominant in the 1970s: with the "personalization of poetry" the poet rendered his actual, everyday experience without allusion or mythification. Personal experience as the subject of the poem was its own justification, as poets said by implication to their readers: "I am my own myth" [A. Poulin, Jr., "Contemporary American Poetry: The Radical Tradition," in Contemporary American Poetry 1971].
Cheri Davis on Merwin and American Poetry:
To the extent that Merwin's work has affinities with those poets we identify with specific schools of contemporary American poetry, he comes closest to Robert Bly, James Wright, Galway Kinnell, and the Deep Imagists, in his creation of a series of complex poetic images emanating from the depths of the psyche, often never emerging into consciousness in the poems. Merwin's unquestioning acceptance of perception serves paradoxically to call into question the very structure of perception as it is traditionally understood. In this he is like the poets named above. In his work the images often remain deeply submerged, awaiting the reader's intuitive, if not intellectual resolution. The reader climbs around amid the words, pauses, and images as one climbs rocks underwater; one is never certain where the next step will carry him. But Merwin is more spiritual and less down-to-earth than the Deep Imagists.
Cheri Davis, in her W. S. Merwin, Twayne Publishers, 1981.
This direction in American verse is not surprising. In democratic nations poetry tends toward autobiography. It is produced from the familiar contents of consciousness and concentrates on human customs and on the surface of life. As de Tocqueville suggested in the 1840s, the democratic poet will be a mortal being. He will be a familiar, casual person, not a man searching mountains for his soul. Merwin's latest work is in step with this literary direction. Undoubtedly he is aware that if he is to immortalize himself through poetry his work must be read and appreciated. Yet in terms of quality his latest poems are not distinguishable from the bulk of contemporary American poetry. Merwin's poetic talent—his potential as a major poet—is based on "conditions of mythology." As these conditions involve transformation of the world, they are rarely actual or familiar.
This section contains 4,906 words
(approx. 17 pages at 300 words per page)