W. S. Merwin’s Poems of Ethical Care

The Pulitzer Prize–winning poet, who died last week at 91, found an enduring language to express his anguish at what human exploitation has done to the world.

Matthew Valentine

W. S. Merwin, who died last week at age 91, wrote in a lyric register to capture the epic brutality and organized violence of the 20th century. His poems are promontories from which readers can see, in one panoramic view, the catastrophic storm that sweeps together the Nixon era with the Trump era. Merwin’s poetry found its visionary calling in the late 1960s and 1970s as an indictment of U.S. militarism. Today’s readers can recognize in Merwin’s work the lamentations for what humans have done to the world, as well as the exhortations of ethical care for the nonhuman and those no longer living—which for Merwin might include lost loved ones, clear-cut forests, and endangered or extinct species.

There are many W. S. Merwins to remember. Like several other U.S. poets born in the late 1920s, Merwin began by writing an intensely crafted and sometimes elusive formal verse. A shift came in the late 1960s—just as it did for John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, and James Wright—and Merwin’s poetry took on a vatic power and a prophetic tone. Vietnam and anti-war activism catalyzed the change in style for Merwin, although the historical context alone falls short of explaining the earthly fables of destruction and celestial incantations of despair that fill The Lice (1967) and The Carrier of Ladders (1970). Later still, there is the Merwin who became the 2010 poet laureate, best known for his conservancy and for his love of trees. The poems from the late 1960s are the ones where Merwin finds an enduring poetic language and a repertoire of images adequate to his anguish at a disappearing world.

These poems align themselves with historical and political realities, but not usually by commenting directly on events. The poems make themselves known instead by imitating a spoken, improvisatory urgency. Take “How We Are Spared” (1967), which comprises three lines:

At midsummer before dawn an orange light returns to the mountains
Like a great weight and the small birds cry out
And bear it up

Like many of Merwin’s poems, these lines are oblique and mysterious, yet relatively straightforward in language and precise in their vision. In giving primacy to observation and to image, they fall within a prominent tradition of U.S. poetry that I would characterize as one of receptive hospitality rather than of consumption or extraction.

It’s a longing for less impact on the world, rather than dominance over it, that’s encapsulated in Merwin’s 1964 allegorical poem “The Last One,” in which a nameless group of people cut down everything in sight: “Everywhere was theirs because they thought so.” Such a longing might also describe the poet’s lifelong advocacy for environmental causes. The Maui conservancy where he planted “more than 3,000 trees representing over 400 species of endemic, indigenous and endangered palms” enacts institutionally what Merwin’s poems do aesthetically—that is, finding in encounters with the nonhuman the artistic means for self-recreation.

Perhaps another version of non-mastery or withdrawal from control appears in Merwin’s poems from the late ’60s, which are most noticeable for their lack of punctuation. One such example is the poem “Come Back” (1967), which toward its end comes nearly undone with grief. Phrases pile up and break on one another without any regard for the emotional bulwarks usually set up by syntax and punctuation:

Oh come back we were watching all the time
With the delight choking us and the piled
Grief scrambling like guilt to leave us
At the sight of you
Looking well
And besides our questions our news
All of it paralyzed until you were gone

In his preface to The Second Four Books of Poems, published in 1993, Merwin explains that the decision to remove punctuation was a reaction against “the rational protocol of written language.” In a broader sense, however, the places where stable patterns of language are interrupted—like that stanza from “Come Back”— might be the places where the dead hover closest to the living. In classical epics, a journey to the land of the dead—Book 11 of Homer’s Odyssey, or the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (whose Purgatorio Merwin translated)—brings a character into direct contact with the falsity of the way he knows the world. The purpose of these moments in the plot feels like a mysterious acknowledgment of the authority the dead have. Similarly, Merwin’s poetry is haunted by the presence of death; for instance, his poem “For the Anniversary of My Death” begins by shivering at the awareness that “every year without knowing it I have passed that day” when he will die.

Not just the dead, but also the dying, wounded, silenced, and unacknowledged gain voice in Merwin’s work. To read his poetry is to feel the truth the dead know and the wrongs they’ve endured almost entering into human song. His 1967 poem “The Hydra” includes these lines:

And you the dead
You know the names as I do not
But at moments you have just finished speaking

His attempts to find a poetry adequate to the position of history’s losers, excluded from the official narrative of events, extends to the planet and its creatures as well as to the injured companies of the human dead. In his poem “In Autumn,” for example:

The extinct animals are still looking for home
Their eyes full of cotton
Now they will
Never arrive
The stars are like that

These animals’ seeing eyes have been replaced by a material used to stop bleeding wounds; they are like the dead stars from which light still emanates. It is as terrifying an image for this age of the sixth extinction as might be found.

Merwin’s poems warn readers that the remaining barriers to human exploitation of the world are rapidly disappearing. His life’s work insists that the political thrust of poetry can sometimes emerge most vividly in the defamiliarizing force of language instead of in the citation of familiar abstractions. (Some of the rage in The Lice (1967) is directed toward these hypostatized concepts, as in “The Moths”: “It is cold here / In the steel grass / At the foot of the invisible statue / Made by the incurables and called / Justice.”) Poetry like Merwin’s can help immerse those who read it, for a short time, in the vital revelations of language—of simple astonishment, of prophetic insight, of “an underground river that lies beneath mere speech.”

When I first read Merwin at any length, I was in graduate school, and had virtually stopped writing poetry in the effort to write a dissertation that was then focused on a different “invisible statue” called Ethics. But after reading The Lice, I wrote dozens of poems in the following weeks, trying to describe the small animals and plants inhabiting the liminal spaces between tide and shore and between the mountain canopy and the forest floor. Judging from the testimonies on social media since Merwin’s death, my experience—my awakening—was a common one.

Learning to write poetry often involves getting caught up in the music of a poet that it feels useless to resist. But that’s not exactly what happens while reading Merwin; his voice, restrained as it is, doesn’t take over and drown out yours. Instead, the very power of Merwin’s poetry is that it passes on its power to its readers, in the same way that it amplifies the voices of the dead and silent. Perhaps Merwin’s gift to his readers was to make it seem possible to write poetry without needing to understand fully where the compulsion to write comes from. Since this is very hard, and likely useless, and all is nightmare and catastrophe, I’ll begin singing and crying, says the entirety of Merwin’s corpus, and then you can join in.