Poetry News

Dan Chiasson Revisits W.S. Merwin (From Afar)

By Harriet Staff
W. S. Merwin

At the New Yorker, Dan Chiasson provides a sterling reevaluation of W.S. Merwin's poetry... and island-lifestyle. The well-anthologized poet, who turns ninety this year, "has for decades written his scanty, unpunctuated poems from a palm forest on the remote north shore of Maui," Chiasson explains. From there: 

Merwin bought the property in 1977, and began restoring the ancient trees lost when loggers and the commercial pineapple and sugar farmers started to move in more than a century ago. “After an age of leaves and feathers / someone dead / thought of this mountain as money,” Merwin writes in “Rain at Night.” He has reclaimed the mountain, and much else, for poetry. His poems, written in an environment refashioned by his hard restorative work, are adjuncts of that work, and operate according to their own stringent verbal restrictions. Wallace Stevens called his collected poems “The Planet on the Table”; Merwin’s work is more like a terrarium on the table, its elements balanced and tended in an eerie simulacrum of reality.

“The Essential W. S. Merwin” (Copper Canyon) condenses the poet’s nearly seventy-year career into a single volume. Merwin’s poems, like his Maui conservancy, make their mark on the world by recording its effacement; they reveal what a person finds when he imagines himself as having been superseded. Here is perhaps his most famous poem, “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

The poem’s power is clinched by its title and opening line; almost anything could follow that bracing conceit. It must have been a struggle, once Merwin had come to this startling idea, to decide when and how to deploy it. 

Continue at the New Yorker

Originally Published: September 12th, 2017