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

Also see:

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.

Merwin's recent poetry, to borrow the words of Robert Frost, may be thought of as "the tribute of the current to the source." During the 1980s and 1990s Merwin has gradually allowed his mind and language (which in a poet are especially hard to separate) to range across the wide regions of his own reading and travelling, while also plumbing the feelings and reasonings that arise from his deeply held beliefs. He is not only profoundly anti-imperialist, pacifist, and environmentalist, but also possessed by an intimate feeling for landscape and language and the ways in which land and language interflow. The Rain in the Trees (1988), Travels (1993), and The Vixen (1996) take the reader inside the implacable intentions of conquistadors, naturalists, and explorers, across the Pacific to the ravaged jungles of the Philippines, into the gentle tilt of a Pennsylvania pasture, to the flicker of health in a New York hospital or the business of a weasel in the wall of an old French farmhouse. Increasingly he has been arrested by an intensely sensuous involvement with place. His beautiful prose work, The Lost Upland (1992), and The Vixen are both book-length eulogies to the ancient farming country above the Dordogne River that Merwin left thirty years earlier—written in Hawaii about France, a tremendous expedition through time and space to encounter the remnants of our medieval past. And listen to this recollection in another prose work, Unframed Originals (1982):

The smell of barns drifted even through the market towns that were themselves not much larger than villages, and in the evenings cows swayed through the streets guided by peasants with the same long sticks. Pigs grunted behind arched cellar doors, and were butchered in back alleys, with groups of experts standing around, and the cobbles running blood. The farm dogs appeared to be a random mix, but many of them had one pale and one dark eye. They knew their jobs. They ate soup. The language on the farms was a patois descended from a Languedoc tongue older than the French of Tours and Paris.

The intentions of Merwin's poetry are as broad as the biosphere yet as intimate as a whisper. He conveys in the sweet simplicity of grounded language a sense of the self where it belongs, floating between heaven, earth, and underground. The tone and directness of his intentions are clearly declared at the outset of Travels in a poem called "Cover Note":

...reader I do
not know that anyone
else is waiting for these
words that I hoped might seem
as though they had occurred
to you and you would take
them with you as your own

It's that ingratiating tone that Merwin's poems take—confiding, in the most private way, the most generous of concerns—that has made him so welcome and frequent a visitor to The Atlantic Monthly's poetry pages.