Essay

Reading a Dysfunctional World

Why Merwin’s The Lice is needed now more than ever.
Black and white image of the poet W. S. Merwin circa 1960s.

The Lice, W.S. Merwin’s sixth and possibly most iconic collection of poetry, was published in 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War. When the book first appeared, some readers shuddered: its confluence of mythology and ugly physical reality struck a nerve with a world shaken politically and environmentally to its core. The book “perfectly captured the peculiar spiritual agony of our time,” Laurence Lieberman wrote in The Yale Review. Today, on its 50th anniversary rerelease by Copper Canyon Press, the book feels eerily of the moment: these are poems charged with uncertainty, written in a world on the brink of environmental meltdown torn by tyrants. Yet what continues to draw poets and readers to The Lice is ultimately not its content but its form. The Lice is relevant politically and environmentally, but more important, it is revelatory aesthetically. The Lice neither shies away from current events nor falls so deep into the weeds that it feels dated. We need The Lice now not because it is a record of a specific time and place but because it gives us a mode to experience a dysfunctional world.

The year 1967 was a watershed for American poetry. Poets who had cut their teeth on Modernism and New Criticism reading practices that took the poem out of its historical context found themselves turning more and more to political activism. Poets such as Robert Lowell, who had already turned from the early austere formalism of Lord Weary’s Castle to the confessional Life Studies and For the Union Dead, began to open their personal lives into the political. Also in 1967, Gwendolyn Brooks attended the Second Black Writers’ Conference at Fisk University in Nashville, where she met poets and artists such as Amiri Baraka, who inspired her to become much more closely involved in black cultural nationalism, creating a cosmic shift in her poems as well as her personal life. In 1967, Merwin wasn’t living in the United States––several years earlier, he had moved to a farmhouse in the South of France, where he wrote most of The Lice. Though he was removed from US politics, he was deeply moved and disquieted by news reports and what he witnessed from afar. The distance gave him perspective, but it also disturbed him, and this combination of isolation and immersion led to a radical shift in his work.

Merwin began his career deeply steeped in canonical poetry. After graduating from Princeton, where he studied with R.P. Blackmur and John Berryman, Merwin traveled through Europe and tutored the son of the poet Robert Graves. W.H. Auden selected Merwin’s first book, A Mask for Janus, as the winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets. His first four books reflect his classical training––they’re lyrical and technically gifted and adroitly draw on literary influences––but nothing in them is recognizable as particularly innovative, either in form or content.

After his first four books, which politely hearken back to earlier masters, Merwin’s poetry radically changed. Merwin’s aesthetic became ethical. His fifth book, The Moving Target, published just before The Lice, started to shift to a spare, haunting style, and by the end of the collection, punctuation was nearly extinct. When The Moving Target was published in 1963, readers realized that a different Merwin was emerging. The Lice was a new beast altogether; Merwin discovered a different way of being political in poetry: the politics of negative capability.

Most of the 63 poems are short, ranging from a few sentences to a page or two. Though many gesture toward conventional forms—several are sonnet-ish in length, and others riff on lists, proverbs, and haiku––they are not recognizably rigidly formal in structure. Merwin ranges in topic from grief (“For the Anniversary of My Death”) to myth (“Unfinished Book of Kings”) to nature (“The Dragonfly”) to politics (“Caesar”), yet every poem braids the political, the environmental, and the personal. The speaker is frequently a ghostly “I” or “we,” hovering in limbo between a physical person and an omniscient, godlike voice. In The Lice, Merwin became Merwin.

In The Lice, Merwin abandons punctuation altogether, a gesture that would mark his poetry throughout the rest of his career. Losing punctuation in The Lice allows Merwin to loosen the relationship between sense and syntax. The line break is not standardized: in some, the sense is enjambed across the line break; in others, the line break marks a pivot to a different direction. “For a Coming Extinction” begins, “Gray whale / Now that we are sending you to The End / That great god / Tell him / That we who follow you invented forgiveness / And forgive nothing.” Is “That great god” the same figure as “The End”? Is “forgive nothing” an imperative, instructing the “great god” to forgive nothing, or a description of what “we” do? There is just enough connective tissue to hold all possibilities at once without the poem’s falling into ambiguous mush, but there is not one definitive reading; the lack of punctuation keeps readers in perpetual suspension—stable instability.

The Lice stands out, both in 1967 and in 2017, for its terrifying prescience. Merwin does not use propaganda or current events to promote an agenda; rather, he immerses the poems in the world’s brokenness from within and from afar. Poems such as “The Asians Dying” speak from the era in which they were written but with the concerns of today’s headlines:

The nights disappear like bruises but nothing is healed
The dead go away like bruises
The blood vanishes into the poisoned farmlands
Pain the horizon

The repetition of “like bruises” offers a haunting paradox. For bruises to disappear, readers must first feel the violence, then the bruises, then feel them go away––and then, with the repetition of the image, undergo the same torture all over again. Simile is no refuge from reality. Imagery as escape fails again in the following lines, when the line break turns “pain” into an imperative: the speaker, bruised and brutal, orders the blood, instead of painting the town red, to “pain” the horizon. That dropped t from paint to pain wipes away the possibility of metaphor to heal or soothe.

What feels particularly prescient in the poem is also ancient: the biblical conflagration of the world itself reverberating with the terrible effects of human warfare. Those “poisoned farmlands” could be Syria under chemical attack or forest fires sweeping the American West or T.S. Eliot’s rain-starved “The Waste Land.” The most frightening aspect of The Lice is its brutal cyclicality. We have felt these bruises before, felt them disappear, and then been re-bruised.

The Lice foreshadows our current political climate, as though Merwin were somehow reflecting from the future. “The judges have chains in their sleeves / To get where they are,” he writes in “Bread at Midnight.” “Caesar” ends with a ghastly image of a dictator who is both tyrant and puppet. The speaker has the horrific job of transporting the leader, “Wheeling the president past banks of flowers / Past the feet of empty stairs / Hoping he’s dead.” Those banks of flowers call our attention to the hellscape that the environment has become. If these banks of flowers are natural, they’re in stark contrast to the president, forcing his control and reign over the world. More likely, they’re banks of flowers planted where they don’t belong, heaped in forced, funereal abundance in celebration of a tyrant.

The Lice is also prophetic in its environmentalism and its forewarnings about human destruction of the planet. Merwin activates a deep, unsettling connection between military force and environmental rupture. In “Avoiding News by the River,” for example, humans disrupt the natural cycles of life and death by forcing unnatural blood into the world: “I am not ashamed of the wren’s murders / Nor the badger’s dinners / On which all world good depends / If I were not human I would not be ashamed of anything.”

In the decades since first publishing The Lice, Merwin has become a well-known conservationist. Over the past several decades, he has created an enormous botanical garden in Hawaii and has preserved many nearly extinct plant species. In 2010, the Merwin Conservancy was founded to honor Merwin’s literary and environmental legacies. At Merwin’s property, everything returns to nature. Michael Wiegers, the executive editor of Copper Canyon, told me that when he visited Merwin in Hawaii, Merwin was carrying a large stack of papers to the compost pile. The papers, it turned out, were manuscripts that poets had sent to Merwin to read. Once he had finished them and taken notes, Merwin took the manuscripts to the compost heap. At first, Wiegers was slightly horrified, but then he realized that Merwin was giving these poets the ultimate honor. “These poets have contributed back to the soil, the land, the trees, making this home where he’s written some of his most beautiful poems,” Wiegers said. The poets had seeded the paper with their emotions and ideas, and the paper would now return to its original state.

The Lice resonates today not because of what it discusses but because of how it expresses the world. Merwin’s speaker is at once just above and deeply within the situation: the speaker has the perspective of an omniscient god, but every sensation is experienced viscerally. Everything is interconnected, but this heightens, rather than muddles, sensations. Poems such as “When the War Is Over” highlight the inextricable connection that Merwin traces between politics and the environment. “When the War Is Over” is a single eight-line stanza that operates like the first octet of a sonnet unmoored from the counterpoint of a sestet, making a harrowing claim and dangling us off a cliff without yanking us back to comfort. The final three lines:

The dead will think the living are worth it we will know
Who we are
And we will all enlist again

The last line loops immediately back to the beginning, without the declarative stop of a period. We can run the last line back into the first; the poem is a single sentence, but the sentence never actually concludes, instead joining back into itself like an ouroboros. Each line spills into the next, creating images that seem as though they are going in one direction yet tilt across the line break. The starkest zeugma crosses the center of the poem, when we learn that “the salmon / And the silence of heaven will migrate more perfectly.” “The salmon” is a double-headed image: the fish come out of the “water” naturally in the fourth line, yet they also allow us to see the migration of the silence of heaven as a concrete action. We can “do” a physical salmon migration in our heads, which prepares the mind to be able to “do” the more abstract migration of a silence.

“When the War Is Over” is a broken echo of Yeats’s “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” the famous World War I poem in which a soldier faces his situation with equanimity: enemies, friends, death, life—all are interchangeable to the soldier. Yeats wasn’t buying Horace’s words, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” [It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country]. This is not a warrior martyring himself in a blaze of glory for his country but a man so entrenched in the despair of war that every choice seems the same. Yeats’s poem is remarkable in its balance in form as well as content. The first sentence ends after line eight, the second at the end of the poem. The third-to-last and penultimate lines emphasize that both the future and the past are a “waste of breath”; the final phrase, “this life, this death,” sets the two opposing concepts in exact balance. In “When the War Is Over,” Merwin cuts Yeats’s form in half to create an infinite loop: rather than envisioning war as a set of scales in which life and death, enemy and friend, are all equal, Merwin reflects a world in which the war is not only unjustified but also never over. War should never have begun, but now it has become a state of nature.

The Lice reveals ruptures that have been building for a long time, both politically and environmentally. Merwin’s speaker is a presence hovering somewhere between the real and the spiritual: neither an all-powerful nor a completely passive figure but a presence that empathetically absorbs and reflects.

In “For the Anniversary of My Death,” Merwin reinvents the sonnet for an unsteady world:

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

Though the poem is 13 lines long, just shy of a sonnet, we hear that space between the fifth and sixth lines as not so much a stanza break but a line filled with silence, a full pause. The turn comes before, rather than after, the octet, flipping the traditional sonnet structure. The inversion unmoors us: we begin from a position of certainty and find ourselves in uncertainty, rather than beginning with a proposition and answering it through the course of the poem.

The poem opens with a musicality that seems natural and perpetual. As we read, we realize that this naturalness is not only not inevitable but also fragile and can be taken away. The first five lines introduce an undulating, conversational music, the meter ebbing and flowing. However, toward the end of the poem, the meter both oscillates toward and fights against formal regularity. Uneasiness increases. The penultimate line crams five stressed beats at awkward angles, jerking the ear from primarily three-beat and four-beat lines to a sudden drumming: “HEARing the WREN SING and the FALLing CEASE.” Hearing “falling cease” isn’t a natural sound; we’re listening to a present absence. The next line shifts into graceful anapests––“and BOWing not KNOWing to WHAT”—but this regularity on the heels of such an irregular line is terrifying. The smoothness on the ear is no longer the inevitable product of the natural world but an imposed control from an external force.

On the surface, this poem seems to be more personal, occupied with the speaker’s mortality. Yet for Merwin, the personal is always deeply political. Perhaps foreshadowing his later Buddhism and his conservation efforts, Merwin emphasizes that we can’t separate our individual lives from the world. Merwin himself might be removed from the war in a farmhouse in France, but emotionally, its horrors are always present.

In his preface to the compendium volume The Second Four Books of Poems, which gathers Merwin’s fifth through eight collections, Merwin writes, “Poets have been known to be smug about their fine uselessness, but the Vietnam War led many poets of my generation to try to use poetry to make something stop happening. We will never know whether all that we wrote shortened that nightmare by one hour, saved a single life or the leaves on one tree, but it seemed unthinkable to many of us not to make the attempt and not use whatever talent we had in order to do it.” Today, in the midst of political, environmental, and humanitarian crises, poets and readers are finding in The Lice a voice for an urgency that has only grown stronger and more desperate over the past 50 years.

Wiegers, the Copper Canyon editor, told me he initially had the idea to rerelease The Lice not because of its all-too-prescient political and environmental concerns but because he heard a young intern gushing about it in the office. “It’s the book that always rises to the surface as being so important to poets,” he said. Indeed, when Matthew Zapruder, who wrote the introduction to the anniversary edition, discovered The Lice as a graduate student, he thought he had unearthed an unknown treasure, only to discover that it was everyone’s best-kept secret: “Where has this been all my life? And everyone’s like, of course. It’s The Lice.”

On the inside cover of Copper Canyon’s edition, which reproduces pages from Merwin’s notebooks, we see a scratched-out alternative title for the collection: “Trying to Love, Not to Hate, America.” This impulse—to try to love in the midst of hate—is what propels The Lice and what keeps poets returning to it generation after generation. The world might seem more wasteland than Eden, but The Lice shows us that we can regenerate.

Originally Published: July 24th, 2017

Adrienne Raphel is the author of What Was It For (Rescue Press, 2017), winner of the Rescue Press Black Box Poetry Prize, and the chapbook But What Will We Do, winner of the Seattle Review Chapbook Contest. She writes for the New Yorker online, and her work has also appeared in the Paris Review Daily, the Atlantic online, and Lana Turner Journal, among other publicationsRaphel...