Swimming Up Into Poetry

The Atlantic's poetry editor reflects on the career of W. S. Merwin, whose long association with the magazine spans great distances of geography and art
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Poetry and Audio: "Twelve Poems"
Merwin reads his work aloud

Over the past twenty-five years the poems of W. S. Merwin have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly's pages more frequently than those of any other poet. The editors have been deeply attracted to the vivid movement and activity of his poetry, which seem to flow up from an underground river that lies beneath mere speech, as though written in some pre-verbal language of which all later languages have proved to be a mere translation. Here's a sample from a 1970s poem called "The Dreamers":

a man with his eyes shut swam upward
through dark water and came to air
it was the horizon
he felt his way along it and it opened
and let the sun out

Merwin's work has followed his life. Born seventy years ago in Union City, New Jersey, he was raised first in a Presbyterian rectory looking across the Hudson toward the towers of New York and then later in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He graduated in 1947 from Princeton University, where he learned from John Berryman, and set out for Europe to encounter the Romance languages. During the early 1950s he lived as a translator of Latin, French, Spanish, and Portuguese on Majorca (where he tutored the children of the poet Robert Graves) and in Spain, Portugal, and England. He eventually settled in the south of France and headquartered there during most of the 1960s, though after a time he spent parts of nearly every year in New York. Later he wandered into Mexico for several years. Since 1975 he has resided in Hawaii, where he maintains a miniature forest of trees and plants of species that are threatened elsewhere in the world.

Merwin's early poetry was formal and medieval in its overtones, shaded by the influence of Robert Graves and of the medieval poetry Merwin was translating. He was awarded the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1952 by W. H. Auden. In his fourth book, The Drunk in the Furnace (1960), he turned toward American themes, after spending two years in Boston, where he got to know Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Adrienne Rich, Donald Hall, and other poets who were breaking out of the rhetoric of the 1950s. With The Moving Target (1963), The Lice (1967), and The Carrier of Ladders (which won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1970), he began exploring the hazy and animate forms of poetry for which he is famous. Merwin's poems from here on tend to escape from punctuation; they search beneath the surfaces of incident and feeling to the depths of our understanding, a territory of comprehension that anticipates language, that catches perception at the point where it has not yet wholly located words, encountering thought and feeling as they hesitate in the process of formation. In The Carrier of Ladders, for example, the character of a ladder is taken to reside not only in its rails and rungs but in the spaces between them, and the poet carrying it takes responsibility for all the dimensions of a ladder, not only for its character as a climbing contraption.

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Peter Davison was The Atlantic's longtime poetry editor.

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