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IN this issue we publish a small anthology, “Three French Poems,”by the distinguished poet and inveterate wanderer W. S. Merwin. Merwin has owned a stone house in Quercy for four decades, and the house and its surroundings have provided the setting for much of his writing, including the poems in this issue. And yet Merwin came into maturity as a poet not overseas
but during a remarkable few years spent in Boston beginning in 1956. As he recalled recently, “Robert Graves had said that you had to find your own poetry, but you had to go somewhere completely different before you did it; and he thought that Americans went back to America.”
Those words of Merwin’s come from an interview with Peter Davison, The Atlantic’s poetry editor, in Davison’s new book. The Fading Smile, a chronicle of
the poetic renaissance centered in Boston during the late 1950s. Besides Merwin, the poets discussed include Richard Wilbur, Maxine Kumin, Donald Hall. Philip Booth, Anne Sexton. Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, L. E. Sissman, Stanley Kunitz, and Robert Lowell. “Some of them.” Davison writes, “have been my teachers and masters, some have been friends and more than friends.
But all of them, alive or dead, were my companions on a voyage, one of the most exciting poetic ‘surges,’ to use Philip Booth’s word, ever to take place in America.”
Davison interprets the work produced during this time with the supple confidence of an intimate. Vignettes abound, by turns evocative and haunting: of an aging Robert Frost in his Cam-
bridge living room, “the fragrance of it, a little like dusty patchouli”; of Robert Lowell, on the verge of one of his breakdowns, cowering before his hushed students in a corner of a classroom window But perhaps the most affecting passages of all describe Davison’s own evolution into someone “no longer timorous about bringing poetry into a truthful embrace with the most powerful emotions I could feel.”
One is conscious of The Fading Smile as a book whose silent but essential co-author is the passage of time. As W. S. Merwin writes in this issue: “It was only as the afternoon lengthened on its / dial and the shadows reached out farther and farther / from everything that we began to listen for what / might be escaping us. . . —THE EDITORS