Merwin’s verse often gives the impression of language scavenged from the elements, its power reckoned only as its meanings assemble, phrase by phrase, against the white of the page. Simple astonishment, one of the rarest of all literary experiences, is the most potent outcome; in Merwin’s best poems, he seems brought up short by his own discoveries. It is another advantage of his style that it can end without ending, as it does in “James”:
News comes that a friend far away
is dying now
I look up and see small flowers appearing
in spring grass outside the window
and can’t remember their name
The beauty of this elegy is in its pair of mirrored participles, “dying” and “appearing”: the mind toggles between memory and perception, between the “far away” but emotionally pressing matter of the friend’s death and the close but suddenly blurry appearance of the flowers, which now have a new name, James. The flowers and the friend exist in a permanent reciprocity established by this little lyric. An instant later, perhaps, Merwin remembers the flowers’ actual name; the poem suspends us between recollection and forgetting, right in the spot where elegy is most poignant and effective.
Merwin’s poems seem made from a kit, a highly personalized but weirdly plain repertoire of details: rain, light, mountains, water, wind. Since his fundamental stance is passivity, Merwin’s language can’t feel as though it were summoned from too much effort of learning, or from casually gleaned perception or overheard conversation, which would concede the existence of actual other people. The “I” finds itself, instead, in the combination of those primeval elements: wind across the water, light on the mountain. This “I” has emotions, but they drift in from elsewhere; the vessel is empty until sadness, or grief, or expectation blows in and settles briefly inside it.
It is not hard to imagine how this kind of writing could go awry, and Merwin’s attempts to expand his range of subjects to the social or the overtly political often expose his limits. But a sly ars poetica, “Song of Man Chipping an Arrowhead,” makes his case:
Little children you will all go
but the one you are hiding
The “little children” here are mortals too young to exist woefully in time, but also shards of flint that “go” in service of the core function of the stone. As with any art of imposed constraint, we look for the moments when the constraints are defied. Once you carve the arrowhead, it can “fly” on its own; its nature as a stone has been transformed, just as the nature of these words, bought for nothing, is transformed. When Merwin’s poems don’t move along this axis of transformation, when they start too broad or loquacious, they lose their power.
Yet anybody who wants to learn about Merwin’s hardscrabble, very American childhood as the son of a violent minister, or his time as a scholarship student at Princeton, or his successful forays into the worlds of American and European peerage should read his wonderful prose memoirs. My favorite is “Summer Doorways,” which is mainly about his time in France, where he keeps a home. Merwin’s prose is lush, companionable, and funny, alert to the ironies of everyday life and utterly unlike his flinty poems. You surmise, reading his memoirs, that poetry is for him a quite distinct animal, specialized, like an arrowhead carved from stone, from every use but its intrinsic one. As he has held poetry to its essence, he has deepened it. And his poems in old age attain a special kind of power only available to an artist who works the same furrows over and over.
Merwin’s recent work often recalls his monitoring intelligence from its mission in the landscape to the wreck of his own aged body, itself now a part of the world of matter so resistant to human transformation. The fresh appraisal of his old face, in “To the Face in the Mirror,” draws on the tradition of mirror poems extending from Shakespeare to Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and John Ashbery. The eye you see in the mirror is lit up by the sight of you; the mind, revelling in the transaction, records it, but in the process involves itself inside the exchange:
so how far
away are you
after all who seem to be
so near and eternally
out of reach
you with the white hair
now who still surprise me
day after day
staring back at me
out of nowhere
past present or future
you with no weight or name
no will of your own
and the sight of me
shining in your eye
how do you
know it is me
The poem reminds us, as the image in the mirror reminds Merwin, of how much has gone on inside the mind and how little trace its activity leaves on the material world. Merwin’s insistence on a poetry of imaginative utility, against the encroachments of decades of literary fads, has succeeded in giving his imagined worlds some of the tangible pleasures and horrors we associate with real ones. Like Stevens, whose old-age poems are perhaps the greatest ever written, Merwin can say he “recomposed” the constituents of his vision. But he also planted and tended a palm forest that is now permanently protected and open to the public. His poems, like that forest, are a kind of time preserve. Until you can make it to Maui, the poems will have to do. Many of them will be around as long as the palms. ♦