"The Essential W.S. Merwin beautifully demonstrates why Merwin has been one of America's most decorated and important poets for more than 60 years."--The Washington Post "Merwin is one of the great poets of our age."--Los Angeles Times Book Review "Merwin has become instantly recognizable on the pa≥ he has made for himself that most difficult of all creations, an accomplished style."--Helen Vendler,New York Review of Books "It is gratifying to read poetry that is this ambitious, that cares about vision and the possibilities of poetry, by a poet who is capable of so much change."--The Nation The Essential W.S. Merwin traces a poetic legacy that has changed the landscape of American letters: seven decades of audacity, rigor, and candor distilled into one definite volume curated to represent the very best works from a vast oeuvre, from his 1952 debut,A Mask for Janus, to 2016'sGarden Time.The Essential W.S. Merwin includes favorite poems from two Pulitzer Prize-winning volumes; a selection of iconic translations; and lesser-known prose narratives. As the formalism of Merwin's early work loosens into the open, unpunctuated style he developed later in his career--when urgent times demanded innovative modes of expression--readers can trace the evolution of one voice's commitment to moral, spiritual, and aesthetic inquiry. Across the decades, beyond headlines, policies, and trends,W.S. Merwin's poems point to the lessons that hide in the shadows of sentience. "Poetry is a way of looking at the world for the first time."--W.S. Merwin Noah's Raven Why should I have returned? My knowledge would not fit into theirs. I found untouched the desert of the unknown, Big enough for my feet. It is my home. It is always beyond them. The future Splits the present with the echo of my voice. Hoarse with fulfillment. I never made promises. Since launching his career by winning the Yale Younger Poets Award 1952, W. S. Merwinhas authored dozens of books of poetry, prose, and translation. A beloved voice in American literature, Merwin is a former U.S. Poet Laureate and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Hawaii, within the palm forest where he wrote, "On the last day of the world I would want to plant a tree."
I never found it easy to navigate Merwin's other poems, and often gave up trying to understand them because I just didn't have the time or the patience. To be fair, relatively early in his career, he gave up punctuation except for the capital letter at the beginning, and though his poems are in complete sentences it requires careful reading, re-reading (and usually, reading aloud) to find out how they progress. That deliberately cryptic habit can be daunting.
I resolved this year to read something that is not social media first thing in the morning, and decided on this chronologically-arranged anthology, which I had bought in the hopeful belief that I could investigate Merwin with the respect I thought he might deserve. I took the book, a pencil, and my phone downstairs with me, opened the book at the beginning, and began to make my own attempts at reading carefully and closely.
I just completed reading it, now have 20 more "favorite" Merwin poems, and am sorry the journey is over. I learned a great deal about poetry in general, and specifically about Merwin's poetry, and it was time well spent.
The selected poems in this book span his career. I could have done without the translations, but they are representative of Merwin's interests (he is a prolific translator).
His earliest poems show knowledge of poetic forms, tremendous erudition, virtuosity, and self-importance, as I suppose the early poems of a young poet should. They cover many of the themes that appear in his later work, but they're sometimes overwrought. I loved "On the Subject of Poetry" and the macabre "Burning the Cat."
Beginning with "The Lice," he began to write without punctuation but with the passion of the 1960s about war, the destruction of the environment, and the human bewilderment about mortality. "The Last One" and "For the Anniversary of My Death" are here. Though he continued to experiment throughout his career, his voice began to steady and his treatment of the more general themes that drew me to him were expressed with greater and greater lucidity and music.
I usually read one or two poems in depth every morning, and glanced at the next.
When I glanced, I began by scanning. I asked: How long is it? How long are the lines? What is its shape? What jumps out at you? And then I put it aside. That initial encounter is simply like shaking the birthday present to see what's inside.
For the in-depth attack, I usually read the poem aloud to myself (Merwin's craft is far more apparent when you hear it). With a pencil, I marked the poem into sections (Merwin makes masterful use of turns) and asked, "Who is speaking? To whom? What does it remind me of? (His simplicity of diction is deceptive; the poems are laden with allusions to all manner of literature and life, even though he often uses a restricted vocabulary of recurring signs and motifs). Marking it into sections allowed me to see how he was developing the poem and bringing all its forces to bear on the often astonishing final lines.
Then I looked up the poem. Merwin's often-inscrutable, occasionally riddling style has attracted plenty of analysis by poets, critics, academics, and bloggers. Often, I found that someone else wrote about this particular poem, or that Merwin himself read it aloud in a videotaped or recorded interview and talked about it. I wrote more in the margins, and dogeared pages of poems I wanted to remember.
Merwin is not for everyone. He's bleak. I have said elsewhere that he is a "minor major poet" meaning that he doesn't have the popular appeal of those who are more famous, but as a former Poet Laureate and recipient of many major prizes he is without a doubt a major literary figure. It occurs to me that Merwin never made his living as a teacher, unlike many of his colleagues, and so lacks the efforts of acolytes that have promoted others. Also, (as of this writing) he is not dead and so cannot be properly laid to rest by would-be summarizers of his career. Despite his lifelong fascination with the possibility of mortality, the man kept going and kept writing poetry. This anthology was published in 2016 and the last selections are from Garden Time, also published in 2016 and full of gentle wonder that he is still here.
In short, the book is highly recommended, if you love poetry and if you take your time.