Audio

50 Years of The Lice

July 5, 2017

Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, 50 years of The Lice. Over the course of his long career, W.S. Merwin has published many books of poetry. He’s turning 90 this year and he’s still going strong. 50 years ago, Merwin published a book of poems with a rather unsavory title; The Lice. There’s no poem in the book that bears that title, though. The only explanation comes in the epigraph from the book from Heraclitus.

 

Craig Morgan Teicher: All men are deceived by the appearances of things, even Homer himself, who was the wisest man in Greece; for he was deceived by boys catching lice: they said to him, “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.”


Curtis Fox: That passage from Heraclitus was read by Craig Morgan Teicher who joins me to talk about Merwin’s book and why it’s so powerfully relevant today. Craig is a poet and essayist and a frequent guest on this podcast. Craig, going back to the epigraph, the boys say about lice: “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.” In other words, they have lice. Are we supposed to think the poems in this book are the lice that Merwin the poet couldn’t catch or kill and he brings around with him? What do you make of that?

Craig Morgan Teicher: I don’t know. It’s a book about having gone past giving up a little bit. It’s a book about having gone past defending yourself. I feel like the lice are this kind of end of days pestilence that he feels has infested discourse, the language, the poems and obviously America, the world at that time.

 

Curtis Fox: It’s a daring title for a book of poems. It’s not something that’s going to go leaping off the shelf when you see a title called The Lice. Let’s hear one of the poems from the book before we really get talking about it. This is one of the most famous poems in a book that has a number of famous poems. It’s called “For the Anniversary of My Death”. Do you want to say anything about this one before we hear it?

Craig Morgan Teicher: It’s one of those greatest hits poems that people are always pulling out like “Read this great poem!”


Curtis Fox: I’ve done that to people, yeah.

 

Craig Morgan Teicher: Yeah, it’s like think about it man, you could’ve died today, later. For me, there are poems in this book that I love a lot more. This poem always strikes me as anomalous in this book, and accessible for it.

 

Curtis Fox: Alright, but it’s still a great poem. Here’s Merwin reading it.

 

W.S. Merwin:

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

 

Curtis Fox: That was “For the Anniversary of My Death” from a Cadman recording. Craig, the conceit is one that other poets have exploited; that every year we have a death day — we don’t know it because we haven’t died yet — and it forces the poet to think about his life in terms of death. What stands out to me here is the stark elemental qualities of the language itself. “When the last fires will wave to me / And the silence will set out / Tireless traveler / Like the beam of a lightless star”. It’s beautiful language, elemental, almost biblically beautiful.

 

Craig Morgan Teicher: Yeah. One of the major things that happens in this book for Merwin and the book that precedes it, and one of the reasons we remember it so much, is that he’s been kind of whittling away at the complexity of his language. This is his sixth book.

Curtis Fox: He’s mid-career at this point.


Craig Morgan Teicher: Yeah, he’s really resetting and restarting himself as a poet in the 60s, but he really began as a kind of late pre-Raphealite. The early books are ornate. They’re deeply referential; you want to read them with a compendium alongside. He’s spent a few years really trying to figure out how he could strip those habits away from his writing. Throughout the lice in this poem, you see images like the last fires, there’s lots of crows, lots of branches, symbols that clearly stand for themselves or dark feelings, ominousness.

 

Curtis Fox: And they’re elemental. Stars, silence, fires. Then incredibly interesting and beautiful last line, “And bowing not knowing to what”. That’s reverence for the created world.

 

Craig Morgan Teicher: And for whatever’s after it. It’s a marvelous exit from a poem. It leaves the poem so open and yet points it at death in this way that’s celebratory, which is pretty rare I think.

 

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

 

Curtis Fox: There’s no punctuation, this is a very typical Merwin poem, that becomes typical later in his career. No punctuation, you have to figure out the pauses as you read through it. Elemental, as it were.


Craig Morgan Teicher: Yeah. The dropping out of punctuation is probably the most obvious stylistic innovation and change that he made in the book that precedes this one and this one. He just decided no more punctuation. I’m going to make the sentences have to punctuate themselves with rhythm and with line breaks and just how they operate.

 

Curtis Fox: Now that poem could’ve been written almost anywhere in his career from this point on, but many of the poems in this book seem to come out of a specific moment in history. It was published in 1967; the Vietnam War was raging, Merwin was actively engaged against the Vietnam War. There was tremendous social upheaval in the country, not unlike today in some ways. But frame this book for us in terms of the larger world that he’s responding to.

Craig Morgan Teicher: I was reading an interview last night just to get ready, and he was at a place where he felt this is it, this is the end, it can’t get any worse. He was basically thinking there’s no point in writing poems, there’s no point to do anything, the world is going to — we’re about to break it permanently. he talks about these poems as having come upon him or ceased him when he wasn’t looking, and that they just uttered themselves. I do think it was a time like this time, the political and global sphere seems to just be untethered. This was the last time it felt like that to that extent. I think this book is going to feel very familiar.

 

Curtis Fox: Speaking of familiar, I want to get you to read a poem called “For a Coming Extinction”. This poem seems so far ahead of it’s time in terms of it’s environmental awareness. It blew me away reading it again. This is “For a Coming Extinction”.

 

Craig Morgan Teicher:

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

 

I write as though you could understand

And I could say it

One must always pretend something

Among the dying

When you have left the seas nodding on their stalks

Empty of you

Tell him that we were made

On another day

 

The bewilderment will diminish like an echo

Winding along your inner mountains

Unheard by us

And find its way out

Leaving behind it the future

Dead

And ours

 

When you will not see again

The whale calves trying the light

Consider what you will find in the black garden

And its court

The sea cows the Great Auks the gorillas

The irreplaceable hosts ranged countless

And fore-ordaining as stars

Our sacrifices

 

Join your word to theirs

Tell him

That it is we who are important

 

Curtis Fox: That was “For a Coming Extinction”. He really twists the knife at the end. “Tell him / that it is we who are important”. The we being the humans who are causing the extinction of the great whale, as well as the ox and the gorillas and the sea cows and all these other creatures the great whale is supposed to meet in the beyond. The poem reads like an indictment of humanity.

 

Craig Morgan Teicher: It’s so strange, it asks this favor. It treats the whale like an ambassador. This nice innocent ambassador. There’s this funny intertwined guilt and pride that it is we who are important. As some level guilt for destroying the earth, pride for having been able to destroy the earth and be able to admit it and articulate it. I don’t know. He’s making fun of that pride in a way, but it’s very dark.

 

Curtis Fox: On one level, can’t you read it as an attack on the biblical idea that the world and all the creatures in it were made for man? It seems to be taking a very different point of view there. It’s satirizing that point of view.

 

Craig Morgan Teicher: Yeah. Definitely. Certainly if they were made for man, they weren’t made for man to just utterly destroy, and quickly.

 

Curtis Fox: There’s one passage in here that strikes me as very compelling and odd. “I write as though you could understand / And I could say it / One must always pretend something / Among the dying”. That sort of pretend something in the face of death, what do you make of that? It’s as if civilization is pretending something in the face of a coming calamity.

 

Craig Morgan Teicher: I can’t help but think about, it’ll all be okay. You’re sitting at somebody’s bedside and you say we’ll be fine after you die, though we’ll miss you, or you say you’re going to heaven and it’s going to be great, or like at the end of Saving Private Ryan, “You lived a good life”. That seems like a much more devastating thing to say in light of “the world’s coming to an end because we broke it, but it’ll be okay”.

 

Curtis Fox: “One must always pretend something / Among the dying”. That’s one of the most memorable lines. I’d like to get you to read another poem. It was one that puzzled me and I think I finally have a handle on it. It’s called “I Live Up Here”. It’s about politics and one’s engagement with politics. I won’t say anything more than that, but it took me a while to arrive at that after a couple of readings, so it might be helpful to listeners as they’re hearing the poem.

 

Craig Morgan Teicher:

I live up here

And a little bit to the left

And I go down only

 

For the accidents and then

Never a moment too soon

 

Just the same it's a life it's plenty

 

The stairs the petals she loves me

Every time

Nothing has changed

 

Oh down there down there

Every time

The glass knights lie by their gloves of blood

 

In the pans of the scales the helmets

Brim over with water

It's perfectly fair

 

The pavements are dealt out the dice

Every moment arrives somewhere

 

You can hear the hearses getting lost in lungs

Their bells stalling

And then silence comes with the plate and I

Give what I can

 

Feeling It's worth it

 

For I see

What my votes the mice are accomplishing

And I know I'm free

 

This is how I live

Up here and simply

 

Others do otherwise

Maybe

 

Curtis Fox: Now when I first read that poem I was quite confused by what he was getting at, and then I of course reread it. By the third reading I got it and I felt really guilty. I felt it was a personal indictment of my own political positioning from removal. He begins the poem “I live up here / A little bit to the left”. He means the political left, there’s no other way to read that. “And I go down only / For the accidents and then / Never a moment too soon”. So when there’s a political emergency as we’ve experienced in this country recently, we get involved. “Just the same it's a life it's plenty / The stairs the petals she loves me”. In other words, I still have my personal life. I still have all these good things in my life. “Nothing has changed”.

 

Craig Morgan Teicher: The petals is such a wonderfully haunting image. Somehow he never pulls every other petal that says she loves me not.

 

Curtis Fox: He’s got it going on up there. “Nothing has changed / Oh down there down there / Every time / The glass knights lie by their gloves of blood”. So there’s an image of violence and destruction. Glass does not reconstitute itself. It is a jab at someone who’s interested in politics but not totally engaged in the importance of what the political project is.

 

Craig Morgan Teicher: Even a jab at designating the political project as opposed to life. I feel like five months ago, six months ago we were all kind of saying this poem to each other. Certainly the left has been whipped into a frenzy of activity. Whether it would overcome the high bar this poem sets, I don’t know. I think everyone would feel a little judged by this poem.

 

Curtis Fox: Don’t you?

Craig Morgan Teicher: Totally! “I love what my votes the mice are accomplishing”.

 

Curtis Fox: That’s a wonderful image. “what my votes the mice are accomplishing / And I know I’m free”. In the last poem he stuck the knife in humanity, and now he sticks it in the liberals. He really does. There’s one poem in The Lice that you told me before we did this podcast is one of your favorite poems of all time. It’s a long poem, it’s called “The Last One”. It’s too long for the podcast but I wanted to give you a chance to give it your shot, to convince people to go to Poetry Foundation’s website, click on this poem, or buy The Lice or Merwin’s poems and read this poem because it’s pretty great. What do you love about “The Last One”?

 

Craig Morgan Teicher: It’s this poem about basically this population of Adams and Eve’s, or it starts with an Adam and Eve like couple and they chop down the last tree after having chopped down all the other trees. Out from under that tree, this shadow grows that over the course of the poem, as they try to get rid of the shadow, as they try to bury it, ignore it and get rid of it, it keeps growing and growing and growing and eventually gets on everything until it’s sort of consumed everything. It’s just the most basic and encompassing metaphor I’ve ever encountered. The shadow represents this comeuppance, or this revenge of the world that we have broken.

 

Curtis Fox: Can you read the very beginning of the poem? Because the language is also elemental and biblical sounding and fable like.

 

Craig Morgan Teicher: Yeah, and it’s also one of the only poems in the book where he does punctuate. Every line ends with a period, which feels again elemental. Each statement is kind of the end. It opens with one of the most wonderful uses of the word “Well” that’s I’ve ever come across.

 

Well, they’d made up their minds to be everywhere because why not.

Everywhere was theirs because they thought so.

They with two leaves they whom the birds despise.

In the middle of stones they made up their minds.

They started to cut.

 

Well they cut everything because why not.

Everything was theirs because they thought so.

It fell into its shadows and they took both away.

Some to have some for burning.

 

Curtis Fox: Read a little bit more.

 

Craig Morgan Teicher:

Well cutting everything they came to the water.

They came to the end of the day there was one left standing.

They would cut it tomorrow they went away.

The night gathered in the last branches.

The shadow of the night gathered in the shadow on the water.

The night and the shadow put on the same head.

And it said Now.

 

Curtis Fox: And the poem develops in about seven to eight more stanzas, and the shadow takes on a bigger role in the poem. It’s a devastating poem, and again feels like an indictment of all of us.

Craig Morgan Teicher: Part of what’s so sinister about the poem is it’s so pleasurable to read. It’s funny, mechanically he makes the shadow feel really organic and right. That’s what a shadow would do, it would get on you. You’re enjoying it so much and then you just feel horrible.

 

Curtis Fox: It’s not a despair — I don’t read The Lice and I don’t feel despairing when I read it, although I recognize that’s where it comes from. So make the case for why we should go back and read the book 50 years later. What’s it going to do for us?

Craig Morgan Teicher: At some level, what makes it not despairing is it’s also a little funny. It’s gallows humor, jokes the dead would tell or something. I think it comes out of the necessity to figure out how to find ones life for a set of time when one really has given up hope, maybe for good reason. Or one looks to ones leaders and sees them not leading, or sees them leading everyone astray. I think for a lot of people that’s how this moment feels. I think this book has a lot to say about how to manage those feelings. It’s certainly not meant to take those feelings away. It’s meant to amplify them, it’s meant to focus them. It’s a book that is moralizing without exactly being prescriptive. It basically says be better, be a better person, but it doesn’t have much faith that you will. Maybe on the other side of it, you don’t want to give up there, so you keep going.

 

Curtis Fox: And Merwin himself definitely kept going and still going strong today. very very active environmentalist. He lives out in Hawaii on an island and has been a force for environmental consciousness for a very long time. Thanks Craig.

 

Craig Morgan Teicher: Yeah, yeah.

 

Curtis Fox: Craig Morgan Teicher is a teacher, essayist and editor. You can read some of his prose on our website where you can also find a healthy number of poems by W.S. Merwin, including “The Last One”, that whole poem. Do let us know what you think of this podcast, email us at [email protected]. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.

 

A deep look into W.S. Merwin's influential book, which speaks to our moment 50 years after its publication.

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