W. S. Merwin

March 15, 2019

William Merwin was one of my first poetry heroes. I loved his poems and he seemed to me a model of a life devoted to poetry. I also admired the fact that half of his published work is translation of other poets into English–an invaluable gift. He had the equivalent of perfect pitch for language, so that when he began to write unpunctuated poems, and then poems with caesuras, they weren’t hard to follow. The absence of visual clues simply means you have to lean in and listen more closely. One of my favorites is “Strawberries,” in which the speaker describes a vision after his father’s death, one that includes a boy driving a wagon loaded with strawberries, and then a dream when he finally falls asleep. Near the end of the poem he wakes from the dream:

up in the morning       I stopped on the stairs
my mother was awake     already and asked me
if I wanted a shower       before breakfast
and for breakfast she said        we have strawberries

And this opening of the poem “Yesterday,” a dialogue between two men talking about their fathers that could be an opera duet, music made of words and white space:

My friend says I was not a good son
you understand
I say yes I understand

he says I did not go
to see my parents very often you know
and I say yes I know

even when I was living in the same city he says
maybe I would go there once
a month or maybe even less
I say oh yes

he says the last time I went to see my father
I say the last time I saw my father….

Another favorite is “Fly,” featured on this blog June 21, 2018.

I was lucky enough to know Merwin a little. I first met him in the early seventies when he came to Boulder, Colorado, to stay with the poet Bill Matthews. I opened the door one day, and there he was standing on the step, smiling, his face surrounded by dark curls. He had a small cloth bag slung over his shoulder, everything he’d brought with him. He was smart, kind, funny, supportive. Over the years we had some lovely conversations. I was delighted when I met Paula, who was a loving companion but didn’t take any guff. I’m glad they had so many years together.

He had a beautiful reading voice, hypnotic. I have it on vinyl, tape, and cd, and I’m sure you can find it all over youtube. I’m going to be going back to favorites, and to poems I haven’t read (I joked that he could write faster than I could read), but right now I’m inevitably hearing his beautiful poem “For the Anniversary of my Death.” The first time I read it I thought, “Oh! Why did I never think of that?” Because I’m not W. S. Merwin. Please share your memories and favorite poems here.

FOR THE ANNIVERSARY OF MY DEATH

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

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6 Comments

  • Avatar
    Reply Ernest Hebert March 15, 2019 at 9:35 pm

    Many thanks for these posts.

  • Avatar
    Reply Corey Mesler March 16, 2019 at 7:52 am

    He was The Master. We were so lucky he had a long life. So many favorites. One I remember, “Lackawanna,” from Carrier of Ladders, with its beautiful opening lines, “Where you begin/in me/I have never seen.” When he came to read at Memphis State in 1991 I had dinner with him and a small group of fans and writers. It was a memorable night.

  • Avatar
    Reply Susan Wood March 16, 2019 at 9:16 pm

    A loss, for sure, but as Corey said, we were lucky to have him for so long. That generation is almost gone from this earth–it’s been a sad few years–but I’m thankful to have the poems. I think FOR THE ANNIVERSARY OF MY DEATH was one of the first Merwin poems I encountered and loved. In my 20’s, I decided to educate myself on American poetry, so I checked out a copy of Richard Howard’s ALONE WITH AMERICA. (I was able to keep it for a long time because no one else wanted to check it out in Commerce, Texas, in 1970..) I would read one of the chapters on an individual poet and then I would check out as much of the poet’s poetry as I could find. That’s where I first began to read Merwin. What a master, indeed, and what a kind person, a mensch. That sweet smile.

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    Reply sharonbryanpoet March 16, 2019 at 9:26 pm

    Yes, that smile. And the voice. I think I started with THE LICE, and then went back. I love THE DRUNK IN THE FURNACE. I too worked my way through ALONE WITH AMERICA, and you make me want to go back now, to see how it looks from here. I miss the common ground we had, and the history. But people every age seemed to know something of Merwin’s work.

    • Avatar
      Reply Susan Wood March 17, 2019 at 5:44 pm

      Yes, I’d like to look at “Alone With America” again, too. I really have very little memory of it now. In other contexts, I don’t always agree with Richard but almost always find him interesting.

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    Reply Pat Collins March 17, 2019 at 10:34 am

    A lovely post on a favorite poet. Thank you.

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