The Poet of Premature Endings

In his work for The Atlantic, W. S. Merwin often wrote about time slipping away and goals remaining just out of reach.

Audrey McAvoy / AP / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

The former U.S. Poet Laureate W. S. Merwin died last week at the age of 91. His writing career was exceptionally long and decorated: It spanned nearly seven decades, generated hundreds of poems and translations, and garnered rare honors, including two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award. But even in the early years of his career, with dozens of poetry collections and awards still ahead, Merwin’s writing for The Atlantic was weighted with melancholy expectations of a premature ending.

“Send me out into another life / lord because this one is growing faint / I do not think it goes all the way,” he wrote in “Words From a Totem Animal,” first published in the January 1969 issue. This feeling—that life, and with it the chance to reach some undefined goal, is slipping away—permeates his poetry. “A Door,” published in 1971, anticipates that “long after I have gone … / there in front of me a life / would open.” In 1967’s “Fly,” a pigeon is found “in the dovecote dead” before it can learn to fly or to protect itself. A sun sets; an era ends; a dark figure passes by. Meanwhile, Merwin’s speakers wait, often fruitlessly, for something essential to arrive.

Sometimes, the sense of loss Merwin writes of doesn’t come from death, but simply from standing still in a moving world. In “Chord,” published in The Atlantic’s July 1987 issue, he envisions progress outpacing another poet, John Keats, who “lay with the odes behind him” as “an age arrived when everything was explained in another language.” In his reflective 1967 poem “In the Winter of My Thirty-Eighth Year,” Merwin describes his own hollow sensation of being left behind by the march of time:

There is nothing wrong with my age now probably
It is how I have come to it
Like a thing I kept putting off as I did my youth …

Of course there is nothing the matter with the stars
It is my emptiness among them
While they drift farther away in the invisible morning.

Yet Merwin’s work finds meaning in the apparent emptiness of lost time and fruitless striving. Writing about Merwin’s 1970 poetry collection, The Carrier of Ladders, in The Atlantic, the magazine’s poetry editor, Peter Davison, observed: “As [the] title reveals, a man who carries a ladder holds not only the rungs and sidepieces but the spaces between them, and the ladder enables us to use those very spaces to rise.” Merwin built rhythm and structure not only with words, but also with white spaces by omitting punctuation. He marshaled frustrated moments of stillness toward action and clarity of feeling.

Even as the goals in his poems go unrealized—the sound isn’t heard; the door doesn’t open; the pigeon doesn’t take flight—some understanding or hope often grows out of the attempt to achieve them. In the middle of his search for a unified self in “Words From a Totem Animal,” he considers: “Maybe I will come / to where I am one / and find / I have been waiting there.” It’s a pattern of circularity that recurs throughout his poetry. In his 1995 poem “Green Fields,” Merwin describes a farmer who holds on to his belief in heaven as the world around him deteriorates, and ultimately finds in the afterlife an echo of his earliest years:

the wall by his bed opened almost every day
and he saw what was really there and it was eternal life
as he recognized at once when he saw the gardens
he had made and the green fields where he had been
a child and his mother was standing there

In 1999’s “Term,” Merwin writes a similar ending to the search for just the right word: “who would ever have thought it was the one / saying itself from the beginning through / all its uses and circumstances to / utter at last that meaning of its own.” Again and again, his speakers seek an elusive revelation, only to find that what they sought was present all along.

In a sense, the familiarity of these endings renders futile all the searching and waiting that Merwin describes; to return to Davison’s metaphor, the poet climbs a ladder only to come back to the same place. But the ending also redeems the empty steps that came before it. If Merwin, at 38, regrets putting off his life and letting the stars drift away from him, then discovering a heaven that reflects his childhood or a perfect word that he’s always known gives new significance to those apparently hollow or unremarkable experiences. Instead of climbing over his past toward a higher point, he sees his whole past elevated to the height he aspired to reach.

He also finds a kind of melancholy hope in the promise of continuation—of the climb going on, in a sense, after he’s left the ladder. A door opens in the space he no longer occupies, or Keats’s poems are still read in an age with a new language. In “Direction,” first published in 1979, Merwin wrote about a lecturer imparting wisdom to his students, “giving them his every breath        to take with them like water / as they vanished / nobody was coming back that way.” And in 2001’s “In the Open,” he imagined looking up at the night sky and seeing long-dead stars that “by then / were nothing but the light that had left them”—a light “that had traveled so long ... / to become visible / to us.”

Merwin’s body of work remains, after his death, as its own hopeful continuation. The poet is no longer writing, but he’s survived by his poems: his own kind of light, traveling beyond him into the dark.