W. S. Merwin in The New Yorker
The former U.S. Poet Laureate W. S. Merwin, who was known for his antiwar and ecological activism, died on Friday in his home in Maui at the age of ninety-one. Between 1955 and 2014, Merwin published over two hundred works of poetry and prose in The New Yorker that speak to the breadth and singularity of his monumental career.
Although Merwin’s earliest contributions to the magazine, such as “Low Fields and Light,” are of a mode that he would later leave behind, they evince concerns that would drive his poetry for decades: communion with the natural world, and with the lives and labor that it sustains, but also that world’s erosion by time, modernity, and manufactured violence. He had already begun to grapple with the poet’s position, his role and responsibility as observer and scribe. The speaker of “The ‘Portland’ Going Out,” reflecting on his proximity to a boating accident, notes, “In no time at all . . . / All of disaster between us: a gulf / Beyond reckoning,” implicating himself in his distance from the event.
The early sixties saw Merwin begin to strip away punctuation and move toward a sparer, less straightforward, more opalescent style that hits its stride in such powerful, oracular poems as “The Wave,” “The Child,” and “The Asians Dying,” which would later compose “The Lice,” his 1967 collection written in response to the horrors of the Vietnam War. There is an arcane, fateful quality to this work; the author’s voice opens like a vessel for his entire era to echo through, even as it rings Biblical, apocryphal, as in “The Widow,” for example:
And you weep wishing you were numbers
You multiply you cannot be found
Not that heaven does not exist but
That it exists without us
The poems of Merwin’s next book, “The Carrier of Ladders,” which would win him his first Pulitzer Prize, continued to experiment with breath and the line, fragments and run-ons. Engaging questions of memory and loss, as in “Edouard,” “The Old Room,” and “The Judgment of Paris,” they also further demonstrate his now-established poetics of conscience, of witness to indelible environmental and historical trauma. Poems like “The Free,” which ends, “and when we have gone they say we are with them forever,” negotiate the palpable presence of what has been effaced and destroyed and the failure—even hypocrisy—of any attempt to immortalize it.
The New Yorker also published a great deal of Merwin’s short prose—much of which troubles genre boundaries—starting with an uncanny, speculative 1969 piece titled “The Remembering Machines of Tomorrow,” which appears to anticipate the invention of smartphones. Merwin imagines “remembering machines” that “no longer retain mere symbols in an arbitrary system but something which can pass, at least, for whole experiences—intellectual, sensual, visionary, ” whose “development . . . will come to be regarded as an important next step in man’s evolutionary progress—something at once inevitable and worth anything it might cost. When the machines become small enough so that every person can have—then must have—his own, the day will be celebrated as the beginning of a new age of the Individual.” He continues:
The machines will retain, in flawless preservation (though the
completeness of what they remember will occasion some dispute, for a
time), not only what their owners experience but what their owners
think they have experienced, and will sort out the one from the other.
More and more, such distinctions will be left purely to the machines.
And it will be noticed that the experience to be retained is itself
becoming a dwindling fauna, clung to by sentimentalists, from afar,
who still lay aside their machines for days at a time and secretly
yearn for the imaginary liberties of the ages of forgetting.
Many of these works, such as “The Roofs” and “The Fountain,” read like parables or fairy tales, with some—such as “The Devil’s Pig,” “A Fable of the Buyers,” and “The Chart”—echoing the surreal, philosophical manner of Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges. Merwin’s prose, whether closer to fiction or to memoir, is an oddly complementary contrast to his poetry and offers a trove of surprises, delights, and revelations. So, too, do his translations, which the magazine printed in the seventies, from the Russian, of Osip Mandelstam, and, from the Spanish, of Roberto Juarroz.
Well through the turn of the twenty-first century, Merwin continued to hone his poetic vision, which extended the tradition of American Transcendentalism. In 1994’s “Vixen”—which Matthea Harvey read on The New Yorker’s poetry podcast, in 2015—the delineations between poet, poem, and subject dissolve. “I have waked and slipped from the calendars / from the creeds of difference and the contradictions / that were my life and all the crumbing fabrications,” Merwin writes, imploring, “let my words find their own / places in the silence after the animals.” He won a second Pulitzer Prize for his 2008 collection, “The Shadow of Sirius,” which contains “The Nomad Flute,” “A Letter to Su T’ung Po,” and “A Single Autumn,” which James Richardson discussed on the poetry podcast, praising Merwin’s “need to live in a world where the simplest things had stories, where the stones in the garden were growing things for themselves.” “The Shadow of Sirius” also includes “Rain Light,” which portrays “the washed colors of the afterlife / that lived there long before you were born,” imploring us to “see how they wake without a question / even though the whole world is burning.” That final line provides the title of a documentary about Merwin and his cultivation of a palm-tree forest in Hawaii, which, along with his literary legacy, is protected by the Merwin Conservancy. In 2017, writing on “The Essential W. S. Merwin,” Dan Chiasson remarked that “his poems, like that forest, are a kind of time preserve. . . . Many of them will be around as long as the palms.”
Indeed, Merwin’s last poems in The New Yorker are committed, above all, to the question of what lasts, and how, in a world essentially characterized by impermanence. In “A Message to Po Chu-I,” the poet becomes the custodian of an ancient tradition but has no one to pass it along to. “I have been wanting to let you know / the goose is well he is here with me,” he writes, “but I have never known / where he would go after he leaves me.” In 2014’s “Living with the News,” whose title refers both to what “is not mentioned on the front pages / but somewhere far back near the real estate” and to “what the doctor comes to say,” the author asks, “Can I get used to it day after day,” confessing, “this is not the world that I remember.” Merwin’s final poem in the magazine, “The Blackboard,” relates a projection of his childhood, finding that “The question itself has not changed / but only the depths of memory / through which it rises.” Yet, in the end, he lets go, the stuff of the poem and the poet falling away, as if, at last, to rejoin the elements: “and where are they now the sins of omission / where is the cloud the schoolyard the dream / even now I am forgetting them.”