W. S. Merwin | Critical Review by Ben Howard

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of W. S. Merwin.
This section contains 948 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Ben Howard

SOURCE: A review of Travels, in Poetry, Vol. CLXIII, No. 3, December, 1993, pp. 167-70.

Howard is an American educator and poet. In the following mixed review, he remarks on the style and themes of Travels.

With the publication of The Lice in 1967, W. S. Merwin brought a bold style and a fresh sense of the numinous to contemporary American poetry. Since that time, he has perfected his distinctions—the luminous image, the immaculate phrase, the power to make things strange. Writing in a fluid unpunctuated style, void of conventional syntax and traditional prosody, he has imbued his abiding motifs—water, silence, trees, and stones—with a dreamlike desolation and an aura of imminent departure.

In Travels, an assortment of lyric poems, narratives, and verse biographies, Merwin continues his familiar pursuit, investing a wide variety of settings and subjects with a mood of elegiac sadness. Merwin's settings range from South America to southern France to the Pennsylvania of his childhood. His speakers include a Russian botanist, a Native American artist, The Blind Seer of Ambon, and, presumably, the poet himself. But whatever their settings or subjects, these fluent, delicate poems evoke a sense of loss, whether the agent be cultural amnesia, or natural decay, or some imagined future extinction. "[T]imepieces can be / bought," the poet observes, "but not the morning the waking / into the wish to stay and the vanishing / constants I keep returning to…." Naming those vanishing constants, he commemorates them, even as he doubts the efficacy of his endeavor. "[F]or I have not / the ancients' confidence," he confesses, "in the survival of / one track of syllables / nor in some ultimate / moment of insight….

Merwin's obsession with transience appears most prominently in his imagery, which is largely one of movement and change. "Among Bells" opens with an image of "stones hollowed by feet so far ahead / that nothing of them would ever / be known" and ends with trains "arriving / on time without a sound and just / leaving." "The Morning Train" describes "a silence through which the minute hand / overhead can be heard falling." And "On the Old Way" evokes the pathos of inexorable change:

       After twelve years and a death
       returning in August to see the end of summer
       French skies and stacked roofs the same grays
       silent train gliding south through the veiled morning
       once more the stuccoed walls the sore
       pavilions of the suburbs glimpses
       of rivers known from other summers leaves
       still green with chestnuts forming for their
       only fall out of old dark branches and again
       the nude hills come back and the sleepless
       night travels along through the day as it
       once did over and over for this was the way
       almost home almost certain that it was
       there almost believing that it could be
       everything in spite of everything

Dense, sensuous, and exact, Merwin's images elegize changes that have occurred just at the edge of the poet's awareness—or outside of it altogether. Similarly, in "For the Year," he belatedly celebrates the turning of the year, which had "slipped through our words / and hands and was gone / and the year was new / / without our having / seen how it happened …" Alert though he is to change, Merwin seems always to be arriving just after it has happened. The effect is to enhance the mood of regret and the tone of unrequited longing.

Changes on a larger scale occur in Merwin's lengthy verse biographies, which examine the inner lives of European explorers, naturalists, and adventurers, who live uneasily among the natives in exotic places. In "Marin," Don Francisco de Paula Marin learns the "names for leaves that are new to [him] / and for ills that are everywhere the same." In "The Real World of Manuel Córdova," the hero lives among cannibals, learning their language and entering with them "into / the dream flowing through / the forest." In "After Douglas," the Scottish naturalist David Douglas, killed in Hawaii after falling into a bull trap, pays a posthumous visit to the scene of his death:

       there I go on alone without waiting and
       my name is forgotten already into
       trees and there is McGurney's house that I have forgotten
       and McGurney telling me of the dug
       pits on the mountain and there unchanged
       is the forgotten bull standing on whatever I had been

The Douglas fir takes its name from David Douglas. Here that tribute becomes a form of amnesia, its place in posterity another kind of loss.

To dwell so intently on dissolution, on loss and its aftermath, is to risk both sameness and romantic cliché. For all their lyricism and felicities of phrasing, Merwin's poems do suffer from a sameness of tone, augmented by the absence of punctuation and the erasure of syntactic demarcations. In Merwin's long narrative poems, which run for many pages, that absence and those erasures can grow tedious and numbing, and one can long for a period or comma. For this reader, the pleasures of Travels lie mainly in Merwin's short lyric poems, where flawless phrasing and fluidity of movement honor the transience of things:

       How bright the blues are in this latter
       summer through which news keeps vanishing
       without having appeared but we know
       the days as we know the clouds not by name
       nor by where they are going the gardens
       of the old are like that where every hope
       that brought them together is no
       more to be seen the stones raised beside
       water not after all signifying
       length of life but the untouchable
       blue place beyond us in which stones are
       days as you can see watching the old
       at work in their gardens that are never
       what they appear to be but already
       perfect and transparent as the day is
                                        "Looking Up"

Here is Merwin at his frequent best—the artist of evanescence, the poet of vanishings and incipient removals.

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This section contains 948 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Ben Howard
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