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Good Letters

On March 15, acclaimed American poet W.S. Merwin died at age 91. Merwin wrote in other genres as well: four prose books, three plays, and twenty volumes of translations of poetry. But it’s for his own poetry that he has long been celebrated. In the 1960s, his poems against the Vietnam War brought him wide recognition. In 1971 he won a Pulitzer Prize for his next poetry volume. Then his 2008 collection, The Shadow of Sirius, filled with nature poetry, won him another Pulitzer. Though I’m grateful for Merwin’s anti-war and environmentalist poems, there’s another dimension of his poetry that interests me more: its fixation on disappearances.

I hadn’t expected to be drawn into this aspect of Merwin’s work. But another death, a more personal one, led me last fall to immerse myself in Merwin’s lifetime of poetry. My friend Marv had died, and at his funeral his son read Merwin’s poem “Thanks.” It is rich with images of specific things (many unexpected) to give thanks for.

Moved by this poem, over the next few months I determinedly got to know more and more of Merwin’s poetry: an almost endless task, as he published nearly thirty collections over sixty-four years. And as I kept reading, I started to sense that maybe there were more images in “Thanks” than in all of his other poems combined. What I gradually came to see was that Merwin’s favorite themes were variations of absence: like forgetting, loss of communication, time’s erasure. And it’s hard to image absence. I mean, if a poem offers rich imagery, then there’s that presence: the images.

So, for instance, in “This Time” (in the 1999 volume The River Sound), reflecting at age 72 on the play of time through his life, Merwin writes:

there were faces I knew for years
and the nearness of them began only
when they were missing

Things (mostly intangible) and memories go missing all through Merwin’s verse. Sometimes they’re forgotten, as in “Far Along in the Story” (in The Shadow of Sirius, 2008):

… at

that moment he remembered who he was
only he had forgotten his name

This volume contains so many iterations of the phrase “I do not know any more” and its variants that I stopped counting, they came up so often.

A related motif throughout Merwin’s verse is the loss of communication, the need to speak in a “foreign” language. Takes these lines from various poems in The Rain in the Trees (1988):

and the book was closed
and taken on a journey
into a country where no one
knew the language


when there is a voice at the door it is foreign
everywhere instead of a name there is a lie

or the entire poem “Witness”:

I want to tell what the forests

were like

I will have to speak
in a foreign language

Or a sound is incomprehensible, as in “The Wren” (The River Sound):

once more I hear it without understanding

I said above that Merwin’s poetry is generally bereft of images, but that’s not quite true. Images from the natural world abound, especially in his later poems. So, in “Wild Oats” (in The Moon Before Morning, 2014), he meditates on memory this way:

All night in the dark valley
the sound of rain arriving
from another time

And on the absence of communication in the universe:

Here is the full moon
bringing us

I call that singing bird my friend
though I know nothing else about him
and he does not know I exist

I like how poet Dan Chiasson puts the essence of Merwin’s poetry, in a review in The New Yorker (September 18, 2017): he says that the poems “make their mark on the world by recording its effacement.”

What often gets effaced, erased, is time itself. From a fairly early collection, there’s this intriguing way of suggesting time’s dislocation:

The future
Splits the present with the echo of my voice.

(from “Noah’s Raven” in The Moving Target, 1963)

Then in Merwin’s final volume, Garden Time (2016), we find many musings on the mystery of the present moment. In fact, the book’s very first and last poems evoke this, though in strikingly dissimilar ways. The opening poem, “The Morning,” begins: Would I love it this way if it could last, then runs through other “if”s until ending:

would I love it this way if I knew
that I would remember anything that is
here now anything anything

Then how differently we encounter the present moment in Garden Time‘s final poem, called in fact “The Present,” with (so unusual for Merwin) its narrative form and its play on a biblical episode. The poem has an angel speaking to Adam and Eve as they leave the Garden:

I am to give you this…

I do not know what it is
or what it is for
what you will do with it

you will not be able to keep it
but you will not be able

to keep anything
yet they both reached at once

for the present
and when their hands met

they laughed

The pun on “present” as gift and present moment is meant to be obvious—and fun. But also thought-provoking: as Adam and Eve enter time, they enter inevitable loss. They (and hence us, all of humankind) will be unable to keep not only the present moment, but “anything.”

So W.S. Merwin leaves us this fascinating legacy: profound and loving reflections on whether even a legacy can last.

I think his legacy will last, though. His human body is no longer with us, but the wealth of his body of writing remains as our present.

Image courtesy of the Merwin Estate. 

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Peggy Rosenthal

Peggy Rosenthal writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See her Amazon Author Page for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

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