Winter Books Issue - 2005

In good company

The soft-spoken septuagenarian strikes again
Winter Books Issue - 2005 /

Present Company
W.S. Merwin
Copper Canyon Press, 2005, $22

Migration
W.S. Merwin
Copper Canyon Press, 2005, $40

There’s something about autumn–the aching, cat-gut growl of late Billie Holiday over, say, the nimble scat of young Ella Fitzgerald. Or the voice of 70-something poet and Maui resident W.S. Merwin, which over the years has grown more itself. There’s something about a poet in full possession of his powers: the clarity and dimension and carefully gleaned hum of his words.

Merwin’s recent poems gather in Present Company, a lyric nugget that comes on the heels of Migration, his long-awaited collection of poems that’s been nominated for a 2005 National Book Award. Present Company’s 101 apostrophes address the things, ideas and people that occupy Merwin’s present–from an airport thief to the poet’s own mistakes.

Present Company is an ironic title for a book aware that the ephemeral world is known through fleeting observation and memory. Tropical rain falling, which Merwin so well conjures, can only be understood this way. Slippage is the rule; in ‘To Forgetting,’ forgetting–’sovereign of terrible freedom’–masquerades as memory.

There are quibbles, too, with language, which doesn’t always get things right. ‘To a Dormouse’ likens the animal’s imprecise naming to gossip by those who don’t really know us. ‘To the Words’ reflects on language’s failure to express the inexpressible and its paradoxical imperative to do so.

Despite–or because of–such inadequacies, poets testify. Utility wires may not notice that the swallows, after years of returning to perch, are absent; the poet does. ‘The way back’ may not understand that it becomes obscure to us on our one-way paths. But the poet does, and notes elsewhere: ‘Even longing/does not need memory/to know what to reach for.’

Merwin writes without punctuation, stripping language to bare syntax and line. Rhythm becomes more powerful, syntax more plastic, attention deeper, breath more intimate and incandescent. What’s most present here is the spirit’s weight–its questions as varied and persistent as the mysteries it queries. To Merwin’s credit, these poems largely resist collapse under–and are illuminated by–that pressure.

Also present is humility and awe toward human experience within a phenomenal cosmos, which spins before and after and despite the punctuation of our lives. Present Company is abstract stuff in its best sense–both quest for what’s unknown and grounding within what’s more solid: a dormouse, teeth, migratory patterns of birds.

Migration samples half a century of Merwin’s work, culling from volumes such as his watershed The Lice, Pulitzer prize-winning The Carrier of Ladders, and Hawai’i-inspired The Rain in the Trees. For those unfamiliar with Merwin, Migration is a rich, solid starting place.

As in every ’selected works,’ something is lost. Migration delineates Merwin’s transition from old-school to new, from conventional verse to distilled, crystalline spareness, but can’t deliver the subtleties of tenor and vision that entire individual volumes can. And to read a selected poems volume means missing the inadmissible–such as the stellar epic, The Folding Cliffs, a book-length poem set in Hawai’i.

Still, there’s much to celebrate in Migration, and as is true with Present Company, one couldn’t do much better for company.


Czeslaw Milosz wrote that poetry that does not save nations or people is ‘a connivance with official lies.’ What is the responsibility of poetry–if any?

I believe that the responsibility of poetry is to listen as accurately as possible to the sound of human experience–that’s what I think of as saving people, saving nations…One should never say that poetry shouldn’t deal with public and historical and political things. On the other hand, there’s no obligation to write political poetry. If one is really paying attention to experience around them, and to what one hears of experience, of life–it has dimensions that our rational minds don’t even know. If we’re really paying attention to those, we can speak not only for ourselves, but for others too–that’s salvation.

Your work questions human arrogance and its agents. Is this generation active enough in challenging authority, what it’s been told to be and believe?

I’ve just come from a trip across the States, and I’m shocked at the apathy of many. Some are very good students, and some are very upset, particularly older people in their 30s and 40s; but I happened to run into a great many who don’t seem to pay much attention to what’s going on in the world at all.

Why do you think that is?

I don’t know. I think watching too much television has something to do with it, has something to do with your attention span: all those little sound bites, one on top of the other…If one grows up watching this kind of thing, it must have a bad effect. Beyond that, if American students grow up and all they care about is self-indulgence and comfort, maybe that’s what it is…People seem much more concerned about the price of gasoline than about thousands of people dying in an earthquake in Pakistan, or dangers like global warming. I may be quite wrong about that; I hope I amÖI don’t know the answers. I can see how it’s driven by very old and crude human drives–hungers and greed.

What do you think of slam poetry?

Any kind of poetry that wakes people up to it and makes them like it is a good thing; there’s no point in judging or making categories for it. Nobody is going to like every kind of poetry, and nobody is going to be turned on by every kind of poetry…When people have poetry pushed at them, it turns them off. If they do it as a duty, like getting dressed up for a funeral, it’s not going to be any fun; and it ought to be fun–it ought to be fun the whole way…

You’ve come to write without punctuation. How has that evolution altered your poems?

I began to feel in my early 30s that punctuation was of the written word, that poetry’s primary allegiance was the spoken word….I gradually realized that if a poem didn’t have punctuation, you had to hear it, listen to it–otherwise it didn’t make any sense. When I started doing it, I didn’t have any idea that I would go on doing it all the time. But I came to realize that was the way I wanted to write, for those reasons….Using no punctuation becomes a form, just like a metrical or stanzaic form; it determines the writing in ways that could be an impediment, but should be an empowerment. The sonnet didn’t get in Shakespeare’s way; it allowed him to write poems that couldn’t have been written any other way.

What things have been left unsaid in your work? What would you still like to articulate?

Sometimes, to tell you the truth, I feel that I haven’t said anything [laughs]. So everything has to still be said. But every day the world is new, isn’t it? And I would like to say what’s there–how it appears to me, how it feels to me.

Is there something imperative that occupies your mind now?

All poetry, probably all of life, has to do with our feelings about experience. Language probably evolved because we had this tremendous urge to express something that couldn’t be expressed any other way. I imagine it came out of intense feelings and very possibly grief. You know, that wail of grief that follows a terrible loss, which you see when you see victims of an earthquake or bombing. That mouth wide open, that’s just one long vowel–something like that is where language begins. One of the differences between prose and poetry is that prose is really about what can be expressed, can be said, can be talked about. Poetry addresses itself to what cannot be said. All of one’s own inner feelings are never fully expressed, are they?

What advice would you give to a young poet?

The real treasure that each of us has is our attention. Everything is about attention. Reading a poem is about attention. Writing a poem is about attention. Making love is about attention. Being angry is about attention, or about having something go awry with one’s attention. One of the dangers of the media is it’s tinkering with our attention all the time. The advice to someone young would be to prize your own attention, pay a good mind to it, don’t let somebody else take it from you. Pay attention to your own life; it’s all there is–there’s not going to be something else added to it. The way to really see it, hear it, be one with it, is to respect and pay attention to it. Everything you do.