A Close Look at W.S. Merwin: What’s At Stake?

Until Everything Is Continuous Again: American Poets on the Recent Work of W. S. Merwin 
Edited by Jonathan Weinert and Kevin Prufer

By Deborah Bacharach

W.S. Merwin is one of the most influential poets writing in America today. He has written over twenty books of poetry, twenty books of poetry translation, and won nearly every poetry award possible starting with the Yale Younger Poets Prize, the National Book Award, and two Pulitzers.  Oh yes, he was the 2010 United States Poet Laureate.  For editors Jonathan Weinert and Kevin Prufer, Until Everything Is Continuous Again: American Poets on the Recent work of W.S. Merwin fills what they see as a void in Merwin scholarship.  These fifteen essays, approximately ten pages each, focus on the later half of Merwin’s oeuvre.  They range from close readings of individual poems, to placing Merwin in a political, cultural, and artistic context, to an interview with Merwin himself.  Should you read this collection?  That depends on who you are.

If you are a literature scholar, this book was written for you.  The essayists presume a strong background in literary history and vocabulary.  As a literary scholar you are familiar with Dante’s Inferno, Merwin’s exploration of “absence” in his early work, and Emmanuel Levinas’s notion of illeity.  You probably don’t have to go look up (as I did) words like “agon,” “plangency,” and “somatic.”  These essays are solid scholarly research that increase my respect for Merwin’s craft and philosophy – they develop arguments based on close readings of the poems, address counter-arguments, and connect these arguments to the greater discussion of Merwin and poetry in general. If nothing else, all poetry scholars should read H. L. Hix’s essay, “Prolegomena to Any Future Reading of The Folding Cliffs”, which lays out a helpful and fascinating grid of questions that develop when scholars let go of “Is the poem good?” and try out “What’s at stake?”

However, the writers are occasionally incomprehensible.  I don’t understand Debra Kang Dean when she writes, “[…] a reader must bring the vehicle to the poem, whose form gives shape to the tenor” (50). Or this one, “In a sense ‘the present’ makes everything possible through the art of attention, and Merwin’s art here presences itself with the perception of the entire universe in its evolution” (Irwin, 39). Or phrases like, “in-the-moment visionary rhetorical praxis” (Spaar, 24). It might be that I don’t have the background knowledge or I’m just not smart enough to get it, but I prefer to think these writers have indulged in academicese: the use of stock phrasing, Latinate word choices and strung together prepositional phrases to make something sound important and meaningful when perhaps it is not. I seriously object to sentences like this because they make me feel stupid and fooled. Since the most egregious cases occurred in the first few essays, I almost stopped reading there.  That would have been a mistake.  After reading the entire book, I believe these hot air pockets are not a systematic attempt to trick the reader but an occasional failure of editing.  Scholars are so used to this type of bad writing that they probably don’t even register it, and if you are one of the other readers addressed below, I urge you to not feel stupid when you come to a sentence you truly cannot understand.  Assume it is not your fault and keep going for the good stuff, which is there, I promise.

If you are a Merwin devotee, it’s all good stuff.  The essays aren’t quite fawning, but they are deeply respectful and appreciative.  (All except for Mark Halliday who sardonically trashes Merwin.) The authors are intimate with Merwin’s entire oeuvre and sympathetic to his goals and assume you will be the same. Forrest Gander writes, “Other poems light the way to page 56, to the poem called ‘Substance.’  Do you remember the way, the landscape of this book?” (73).  Of course you do, and that allows Gander to jump in to a fascinating and close reading of how form and sound convey meaning in this poem.  Because many of the essays cover the same books or even the same poems, the reader has the fun of layering different perspectives.  It’s like being in a really good seminar where everyone is prepared and focused.

But if you have come to this seminar hoping to learn how to be a better poet, you will leave disappointed.  Of course, thinking like a literature scholar will make you a better poet, but this collection won’t help you extract how-to’s. In the books these essayists discuss, Merwin eschews punctuation, leans heavily on enjambment, and manages to get away with not always being clear about who or what his pronouns are referring to.  The authors certainly address poetics but usually in terms of their artistic merit and historical place, not how the reader could try this at home. Sarah Kennedy mentions in passing how she uses Merwin’s poems to teach techniques in her classes, but she does not teach us.  This is a missed opportunity given that all the authors are working poets.

If you are not one of the audiences mentioned above, it probably wouldn’t occur to you pick up a book of scholarly research.  I understand that.  I can’t recommend this book the way I would my favorite mystery author.  But as long as you accept that you’ll probably have to read slowly and carefully with a dictionary and literary reference in hand, the treasures in this book are not to be missed.    These essays open the door to an important poet, both artistically and politically.  Of course, you could just go read Merwin on your own, but you’ll appreciate his work so much more when you have someone guiding you through it.  After reading Jeanie Thomson’s essay, “To Shine After It Has Gone: Resonance in W.S. Merwin’s The Vixen”, my own appreciation for Merwin’s work shifts:

“The line is organic, taking shape in patterns that evoke the passage of time, memory, self-revelation, confession, and ecstatic union.  Key to all of these is the notion of resonance–that an image continues to live after we have heard it or seen it initially, that a line resonates in the way that stuck bell sounds, in waves that move out from the original object into time and our imaginations, and that our lives continue in our own memories as reconstructed and relived moments.  Of course, a line of poetry resonates for us each time we reread it, and the construction of Merwin’s lines teaches us how to be still and listen.” (89)

To be still and listen is a life lesson, something this book is full of. Gander concludes his essay by saying, “Merwin’s poetics express the possibilities of a deep investment in attentiveness; they disclose a quality of awareness through which we might imagine the potential of our lives in the world among others–human and not human–who call forth our responsibility as ethical beings.” (76)  The values expressed here – of an attentiveness that engages us as ‘ethical beings’ – belong to Merwin and, like so many of the analyses in this collection, are illuminated by Gander’s critique.

When we say a poet is “great” or “important” part of what we are saying is that the poet teaches us how to be in the world.  By looking carefully at Merwin, this book of essays also helps us understand how to be in the world. If that’s something you are looking for, this book is for you.

Deborah Bacharach is a poet and writing consultant in Seattle.  She has published in The Antigonish Review and Arts & Letters among many others.  Find her at atcwrites.com.

Until Everything Is Continuous Again: American Poets on the Recent Work of W. S. Merwin
Edited by Jonathan Weinert and Kevin Prufer
Wordfarm, August 2012
Price: $22.40
Pages: 210
ISBN:  978-1-60226-011-5

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