Early Merwin: 1952 to 1973One of the most accomplished poets of our time, W. S. Merwin has had a long, prolific and varied career. His first volume of poems A Mask for Janus, was chosen by W. H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets series, and his first four volumes introduced a poet of great talent. They are volumes of traditional form and structure barely containing the elemental nature of the work. His second four books of poems provide us with stark visions written in minimalist style. These volumes are those which made him a leading poet of his time. They are unique and inspired. James Dickey responded to The Moving Target with amazement: “What matters most, though, is that these poems are so incomparably the author's best as to make the reader inadvertently believe that Mr. Merwin's previous books were by somebody else. . .There is a feeling of imaginative daring here, a sense of pushing-out, of going-beyond, of linguistic adventurousness that was the main missing ingredient in the author's other poems. Critic Charles Molesworth described the movement of Merwin’s poems:
A Mask For Janus. Yale University Press, 1952.Chosen by W. H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Series, the 25 year old Merwin’s first book of poems is the work of an accomplished formal poet. He uses a wide variety of traditional forms, including the ballad, ode, sestina, carol, sonnet and rondel. The elegant work in this volume illuminates the tension between the elements and man’s consciousness, and between chaos and understanding. Merwin’s fascination with the elemental is signaled by his diction, which emphasizes words such as stone, light, darkness, wind. A Mask for Janus has a millennial air to it, and is tinged with reference to medieval and renaissance poetry. In his preface to the book Auden opined that the book was shadowed by “the feeling which most of us share of being witnesses to the collapse of a civilization, a collapse which transcends all political differences and for which we are all collectively responsible, and in addition feeling that this collapse is not final but that, on the other side of disaster, there will be some kind of rebirth, through we cannot imagine its nature.” Auden’s remark emphasizes the duality, the Janus like quality found throughout the book.
The Dancing Bears. Yale University Press, 1954.In his second book Merwin continues to investigate the mystery of form, adding a new vehicle, the Provencal love song, or Canso, to his arsenal of poetic tropes. Merwin’s struggle with language is reflected in the epigraph for the book taken from Flaubert:
Green With Beasts. Knopf, 1956.Merwin’s third book is divided into three sections, the first part being poems for a bestiary, the second personal poems and the third poems of seascape and nature. The various meditations on animals in the first section is a welcome addition to the whole of Merwin’s work, as are the personal poems and the sea/seascape poems. Green with Beasts veers away from the impersonal myth driven poems of his first two books. However it does continue to expound on the mystery of being:
The Drunk in the Furnace. Hart Davis, 1960.Merwin’s fourth volume begins with 12 poems of the sea, exploring that landscape and the place of man in it. They are significantly dark and windy poems, sometimes full of terror and angst. This volume also closes with a number of poems about Merwin’s family, particularly his grandparents in Eastern Pennsylvania. This signals a new direction for his poetry . The landscape of these poems is one of failure, exhaustion and impoverishment. He writes from an emotional distance, even alienation. The last and title poem of the book, puts an ironic almost comic period to much of the poets previous writing. Most of the poems in this volume were written in Europe, where Merwin served as a tutor to the children of a Portuguese Princess and where he was also a part of the household of the English poet Robert Graves. He returned to the United States in the early sixties after this book was published. Poet Robert Bly praised these poems compared to those of Merwin’s early volumes: “The new poems exist in a real landscape and the people are real, not shadows out of a book.”
The Moving Target. New York, Atheneum, 1963.One of the most important books of poetry published in the Sixties, Merwin’s The Moving Target signaled a huge change in his writing. The writing is more particular, more urgent, more linguistically challenging than in his earlier books, and the quest and questions more indecipherable. The poet interrogates himself through the self reflexive nature of the writing, and along with this comes an increasingly despairing interrogation of the world. Robert Bly, writing in the New York Times commented that
The Lice. New York, Atheneum, 1967.Like The Moving Target, The Lice is a departure for Merwin’s work. It received more praise than its predecessor, and has continued to be discussed to this day. Most obviously the poems in The Lice are spare and lean, with no punctuation. Many of them seem to float up from the page. Some of Merwin’s most famous poems are in this Collection, including “The Animals,” “The Asians Dying,” “The River of Bees,” “For a Coming Extinction,” and “For the Anniversary of My Death.” Both political and ecological events are, in a distant manner, alluded to in many of the poems. Edward Hirsch has perhaps to insistently characterized the poems: “In the 60's and early 70's he radically stripped down his style, dropping punctuation and creating a compelling quasi-Surrealist imagery and vocabulary of darkness and loss. The poet of urbanity and wit became a cryptic visionary of the void, an anguished prophet of apocalypse. . . . . His work has always had an ecological consciousness, but these poems explicitly take up our desperate vulnerability and our plight as a species, our relentless drive to exterminate ourselves and our environment. One poem begins: ''My friends without shields walk on the target.'' Another ends: We are the echo of the future On the door it says what to do to survive But we were not born to survive Only to live. The voice in these poems seems inscribed on the wind - it echoes with little hope.”
Selected Translations 1948-1968. New York, Atheneum, 1968.“When I was nineteen, and obsessed with the craving to write poetry and to learn something about how to do it, I visited Ezra Pound in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, and he urged me to translate, as a way of learning something about the use of language”
The Carrier of Ladders. New York, Atheneum, 1970.At the same time as The Carrier of Ladders culminates Merwins’s poetry from the sixties, it marks a change in Merwin’s work. Many of the poems are less abstract than his earlier work, and evoke a presence which is both more hopeful and more concrete, at least momentarily so. Critic Charles Altieri comments on the new attitude in the book:
Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment. New York, Atheneum, 1973.Continuing the concerns of the ground breaking volumes which precede it, Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment provides an even more pared down, minimalist style. Thomas Byers comments on the concerns of the book: “. . .metaphysics and social criticism coalesce in a jeremiad now familiar precisely because of its originality and power in the sixties books. Moreover, these poems deplay many of the peculiarly disembodied icons previously developed: doors, birds, glass, clouds, eyes, hair, ash, dust, statues, wings, water, stone, feet, bells, fire, veins.” The books that follow this one begin to develop a new consciousness, of love and nature and are embodied in fuller and more narrative structures.