Where to begin commemorating the accomplishments of poet-translator-fictionist-essayist W.S. Merwin? His translations (of Dante, Mandelstam, Neruda and others) alone constitute a proud life’s work. His literary honors include the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, two Pulitzers, the National Book Award, the Tanning Prize, the Bollingen Prize, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the PEN Translation Prize, a Poetry Consultancy to the Library of Congress, Poet Laureate of the Unites States and the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award. His poetry, as Edward Hirsch noted at an October 21, 2019, tribute hosted by New York’s 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center, was remarkable for its “commitment to clarity and mystery at the same time.” During a particularly tense period in history, his unrhetorical, haunting, image-fraught lyrics made other experimental verse seem blusterous by comparison.
Over a career that spanned seven decades, Merwin’s poetry encompassed rhymed, blank, free and syllabic verse. His voice modulated through a range of registers, from formal (A Mask for Janus, 1952) to medieval (Green with Beasts, 1956) to affectless (The Lice, 1967) to political (The Carrier of Ladders, 1970) to haiku-inflected (Finding the Islands, 1982) to environmental (The Rain in the Trees, 1988) to reflective (Present Company, 2005). My favorite Merwin poems include the resonant biographical narratives in Travels (1994)—“The Blind Seer of Ambon,” for instance, whose speaker is “betrayed into my true calling” by an earthquake that kills his family (3); or “The Hills of Evening,” a poem whose jump cut between “the fine single stroke/ of the new moon drifting across the valley” and a sickle lying in wet grass conveys the course of a romance—and perhaps a life (11).
The more conventional poetry of his later years sustains this humane lyricism. “To My Brother” (Present Company), a poem premised on the speaker’s discovery of a letter his deceased mother had written during pregnancy to his older brother, who lived only moments after birth—“you never saw the letter/ and she never saw you”—is quietly jolting (60). The nostalgic “To Billy’s Car” summons up “. . . the smell of your mildewed velvets/ and the mica hue of the world/ through your windows . . . ,” only to hedge that sensual recollection with another: the “model airplanes/ I suppose were no longer turning/ on their strings under the ceiling” in Billy’s dead brother’s room (40). Accessible as his work became, however, its path-breaking phase with its signature style calls out, even now, for context.
American poetry in the mid-1960s had ceased to be the impersonal, academic affair it was for much of the two decades following World War II. Alternative poetics had begun to erode that modernist tower. The confessional poets had bucked T.S. Eliot’s ideal by airing personal narratives. The Black Mountain poets had sidelined pentameter. The New York poets had sported humor and spontaneity. The Beats had shucked an ironic register for vatic, vernacular and demotic utterance. But in 1967 a poetry more elusive and unsettling than these whipsawed readers and establishment poets alike: Merwin’s The Lice.1 Many critics found its stygian imagery and stylistic ticks puzzling and its vision vague or formulaic. But its poetry is both of its time and beyond time.
The book’s style puzzled for many reasons. It wasn’t simply that the poems lacked punctuation—though that was unsettling, like being in a hotel whose rooms aren’t numbered. The poetic voice itself was disorienting. Who was speaking such lines as “In new rocks new insects are sitting/ With the lights off/ And once more I remember that the beginning/ Is broken” (“Whenever I Go There,” 24)? The strangeness of the images and metaphors, moreover, and the vision they embodied, stunned: One line of “Pieces for Other Lives” reads: “Your life a small animal dying in a bottle” (21).
The Lice was to mainstream poetry what a petroglyph is to postmodernist painting. Here, by way of contrast, is the opening poem of formalist standard-bearer James Merrill’s Nights and Days (1966), called “Nightgown”:
A cold so keen My speech unfurls tonight As from the chattering teeth Of a sewing machine. Whom words appear to warm, Dear heart, wear mine. Come forth Wound in their flimsy white And give it form.3
Merrill’s poem is built around a metaphysical conceit Eliot would have relished (speech as a sewing machine’s chatter; poetry as a nightgown being stitched). It is symmetrically rhymed and metered. Its dramatic situation, like its diction, is conventional: a speaker addresses his “Dear heart”—self-reflexive though the usage is. The subject is the [poetic] process of “giv[ing] . . . form.” The poem is, to retrieve Cleanth Brooks’s term, a well-wrought urn.4
Here is “Looking East at Night,” from The Lice:
Death White hand The moths fly at in the darkness I took you for the moon rising Whose light then Do you reflect As though it came out of the roots of things This harvest pallor in which I have no shadow but myself (36)
There’s no recognizable form, no domestic trope. The elemental diction—moth, darkness, moon, roots, shadow—summons up an oneiric underworld. The dramatic situation, like the speaker, confounds. The enjambment in the opening lines (death-white hand? death: white hand?) sows confusion from the start, a confusion furthered by the mysterious light. That the speaker has “no shadow but myself” suggests he’s a spirit. If, as the title says, he is “Looking East,” then his standpoint is the West, the land associated (like the moth, like night) with death. But what does the ghost mean by asking Death, “Whose light then/ Do you reflect”? The one conventional, reassuring image in the poem—the moon—is presented only to be withdrawn, intensifying the eerie contiguity of the moths, the hand, the “harvest pallor,” the shadow-less speaker. Unmoored in nocturnal space, these images chill and mesmerize.
Many of the poems in The Lice operate similarly. Core images—the list, already previewed, includes ice, snow, sky, stones, bones, birds, light—come and go like Tarot cards. The collection is further unified by an affectless tone, a syntax of simple declaratives, and a scrim of mythical (“Hydra”) and biblical (“The Unfinished Book of Kings”) outlines. Besides punctuation, the poems for the most part lack social or historical context, rhetorical thrust, meditation, modulation, detailed description, consequential narrative. Their minimalism is achieved as well as reflected by their style. In a 1982 interview with Ed Folsom and Cary Nelson for the Iowa Review, Merwin said, regarding the absence of periods and commas, that they “staple the poem to the page.”5 But omitting them does more than let the poem levitate: It imposes a monotone in keeping with the poems’ flat declaratives; it telegraphs a narratorial indifference suited to the world of the poems, in which communication, though apparently futile, goes on reflexively, like the post mortem growth of fingernails.
The prologue to The Lice, let me suggest—the poem that ought to have appeared as a preface to the others—is “For the Grave of Posterity,” from The Moving Target (1963). It reads:
This stone that is not here and bears no writing commemorates the emptiness at the end of history listen you without vision you can still hear it there is nothing it is the voice with the praises that never changed that called to the unsatisfied as long as there was time whatever it could have said of you is already forgotten6 (71)
The lines invoke a post-apocalyptic limbo. The poems of The Lice elaborate this dramatic situation, as if written in shell shock and from the far side of human history.
The Lice reads like the poetic offspring of Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring (1962) and the Cuban missile crisis (1962), midwifed by one of Giorgio de Chirico’s green-sky-deserted-plaza-long-shadows canvases. “The bird tracks end like calendars,” says the speaker of “After the Solstice” (44). “The Last One” is a parable of cutters who denude the earth, spawning an inexorable shadow. The final section of “Pieces for Other Lives” resembles a doomsday video: “At one stroke out of the ruin/ All the watches went out and/ The eyes disappeared like martins into their nests” (22). Several titles reinforce a sense of global catastrophe: “Some Last Questions”; “December among the Vanished”; “When the War Is Over”; “For a Coming Extinction.” Writing from such a mindset posed, to say the least, an aesthetic dilemma:
When you look back there is always the past Even when it has vanished But when you look forward With your dirty knuckles and the wingless Bird on your shoulder What can you write (“It Is March,” 17)
“Most of the time that I was writing The Lice,” Merwin has admitted, “I thought I had pretty well given up writing, because . . . There was probably no one to write it for, . . . for very long.”7
Paradoxically, The Lice captures the anxious mood of its era without, for the most part, holding up social or historical markers. There are a few exceptions—and they are all that are needed. “The Asians Dying” announces its mid-20th century moment. Its lines “The ghosts of the villages trail in the sky” and “The blood vanishes into the poisoned farmlands” (63) summon up the Vietnam War, and the title carries a whiff of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “The Plaster,” meanwhile, will haunt readers who remember a time when school children were issued dog tags (New York City, 1954) and unnerved suburbanites dug backyard fallout shelters:
This is now the house of the rain that falls from death ………………………………………….. There is still a pile of dirty toys and rags In the corner where they found the children Rolled in sleep (40)
In his next, less severely honed collection, The Carrier of Ladders (1970), Merwin would address aspects of American and world history less coyly in poems like “Fear,” “Homeland,” and “Psalm: Our Fathers.” The Lice, though, whose title refers, by way of a classical riddle, to the aftermath of a purge, is the more unsettling book—in part because of its long perspective, its near refusal to peg itself to the here-and-now of discrete bloodlettings.8
At their most powerful, these poems convey a sense of time untethered from history—“The clock strikes one one one” (“News of the Assassin,” 28). But several poem titles, by contrast, refer almost obsessively to calendar and season: “April,” “In Autumn,” “New Moon in November,” “December Night,” “After the Solstice,” “Early January,” “Dusk in Winter,” “A Scale in May.” This pastoral counterthrust generates expectations for renewal that the poems’ content routinely disallows: “How easily the ripe grain/ Leaves the husk/ At the turning of the planet/ There is no season/ That requires us” (“The Widow,” 34). A stylistic element reinforces this tension. Although punctuation is absent, the literary convention of beginning each line with a capital letter remains:
The gods are what has failed to become of us Now it is over we do not speak Now the moment has gone it is dark What is man that he should be infinite The music of a deaf planet (“The Gods,” 30-31)
This prosodic vestige builds in a sense of reflexive beginnings that, like the turning seasons, jars with, then heightens, the “it is over” finality of a planet gone dark.
Other poets would employ similar styles to work their own shadowy streets. Mark Strand’s Darker (1970), Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares (1971) and Gregory Orr’s Burning the Empty Nests (1973) are powerful examples from roughly the same period. But the deep imagery of these books tends to reflect private demons. By contrast, the interior landscapes in The Lice are—as Richard Howard said of The Moving Target—intimate but not private.9 They seem culled less from personal traumas than from the anxieties of the times. Now, as the Cold War’s banked coals flare, heads of state brandish nukes and talk trash, and the Doomsday Clock inches ever closer to midnight, the book reads as fresh as one of those daisies in Lyndon Johnson’s infamous 1964 presidential campaign ad—the ones the little girl is picking when the bomb falls.
1 W.S. Merwin, The Lice (New York: Atheneum, 1979; first pub’d., 1967). Future citations will appear in parentheses in the text. By 1967, a few other poets had begun experimenting with what would be called deep imagery. At midcentury, Theodore Roethke had been writing lines like “The bones of weeds kept swinging in the wind/ Above the blue snow” (“The Lost Son”). His influence and that of the Spanish surrealists (Federico Garcia Lorca, Antonio Machado, Cesar Vallejo) blossomed in the 1960s. Robert Bly in Silence in the Snowy Fields (1962), James Wright in The Branch Will Not Break (1963) and James Tate in The Lost Pilot (1965) employed dislocated images. Merwin himself did so in several poems in The Moving Target (1963). But The Lice was less regionally and culturally rooted than Bly’s or Wright’s volumes, less whimsical than Tate’s, more unrelieved and reticent than his own previous book.
2 Paul Breslin remarked Merwin’s obsession with the word “stone” (“How to Read the New Contemporary Poem,” The American Scholar [summer 1978], 357-70, 366). Hayden Carruth found Merwin’s deep-image poetry portentous and vague (“Kabir, Bly and Merwin,” New York Times Book Review, June 19, 1977, 15). Tom Disch found it, in the main, “formulaic rather than incantatory” (“Rhyme and Reason: Reading Poetry for Pleasure,” in Book World, Washington Post, May 22, 1988).
3 James Merrill, Nights and Days (New York: Atheneum, 1966), 3.
4 Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1947).
5 Ed Folsom and Cary Nelson, interview with W.S. Merwin, in American Poetry Observed: Poets on Their Work, ed. Joe David Bellamy (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988; first published, 1984), 180.
6 W.S. Merwin, The Moving Target (New York: Atheneum, 1976; first pub’d., 1963), 71.
7 Folsom and Nelson, interview, 174.
8 The book’s epigraph is by Heraclitus and reads as follows:
All men are deceived by the appearances of things, even Homer himself, who was the wisest man in Greece; for he was deceived by boys catching lice: They said to him, “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.”
9 Richard Howard, Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States since 1950 (New York: Atheneum, 1971; first pub’d., 1969), 376.