As editor at Copper Canyon Press I must respond to your review of W.S. Merwin’s Migration [“Iron Man,” November 2005].
I find it particularly frustrating that your reviewer would bemoan anyone’s attempt to make a life of poetry by actually writing it. W.S. Merwin is one of the very few writers who has managed to make his living as a poet. Heaven forbid he should be so crass as to actually publish books filled with his labors. In likening Merwin to a “Depression-era kid” who hoards cans of beans, I’ll grant that the reviewer is partially right. Save a few august institutions, the poetry world is economically lacking, and within this world Merwin writes as his primary labor. Further, his poems are nutritive and filling. Yet I wonder if the reviewer just saw the cans on the shelf and never bothered to open them, preferring to dine on his own presumptions. His criticism is largely based on issues that have little to do with the poetry itself. It seems poets can’t win for losing; Americans, particularly American poets, don’t like too much success.
To say it simply, W.S. Merwin is a professional poet whose work is not a side hobby. It is his life. He is a poet first and foremost—not a teacher, not a businessman or day-laborer. Is it anathema for your reviewer to consider that the man writes for his living? Merwin has steadfastly devoted himself to being a poet, perhaps unlike anyone else in contemporary poetry. What seems to make those beans stick in your reviewer’s craw is that Merwin actually receives awards and acknowledgment for living fully as a poet. Can we not imagine someone who actually writes serious poetry for a living? It seems absurd to find in Poetry’s pages, of all places, a review tearing down a book representing fifty years of work as well as a man who has dedicated himself fully, and unwaveringly, to poetry.
The reviewer’s other inane argument dresses Merwin down for not being selective enough in what he has chosen to include in Migration. A quick look through the all-inclusive First Four Books and Second Four Books, and Flower & Hand (without even venturing into the later single volumes), will show that Migration is indeed carefully selected and by my count has omitted over three hundred typescript pages from those three books alone. The “super-size it” analogy is as snarky as the books-as-canned-beans metaphor and strikes me as a cheap shot. If fault is to be found with the book being overly inclusive, it might likely fall at my feet as an overactive editor. The original manuscript for Migration was shorter, but many personal favorites were missing, and I lobbied for their reinsertion. To use myself as a model: I came to Merwin’s work in my early twenties, after reading the now long-out-of-print Selected Poems and The Rain in the Trees. I did not start with The Lice or The Carrier of Ladders, and yet the books that served as my introduction to Merwin changed how I read poetry, and in line with Tolstoy’s notion of art changing lives, they changed my life. Those two books would in turn lead me to other masterful volumes. To see more poems included in Migration was an editorial urge to serve a new generation of Merwin readers.
Adding pages to a book is not akin to adding another shot of syrup to your Big Gulp. Whenever a publisher adds pages, it significantly drives up the cost of production, as well as the cost a reader will ultimately pay at the till—so Copper Canyon Press doesn’t encourage such things casually. The full oeuvre is indeed daunting. To buy just half of it (via the three comprehensive volumes, The First Four Books of Poems, The Second Four Books of Poems, and Flower & Hand) would be more expensive than Migration. We felt it was important to represent as much of the work as possible. After many years of attending to his backlist, when Copper Canyon embarked upon publishing Merwin’s frontlist, we considered that earlier Selected Poems (praised by the reviewer but now out of print for fifteen years). We asked ourselves, why simply reprint a dated, out-of-print selection when there are plenty of subsequent poems deserving of a new audience? That edition also lacked an index, so by your reviewer’s logic, perhaps we should have left our index out too? There are many reasons to argue for a larger volume, and the argument of it being “too much” for your reviewer to digest seems to pale in comparison.
Editor, Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, Washington