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?” Continue reading