Merwin’s Turn

13 06 2011

A recent issue of The New Yorker contains a new poem by W. S. Merwin, called “Turning.”

The publication of “Turning” draws attention (as we will see, once again) to the fact that the turn is vital to this major poet.

Much has been made of the fact that Merwin has a very specific poetic vocabulary.  In “The Present Voices: W. S. Merwin since 1970” (in W. S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry, edited by Cary Nelson and Ed Folsom), Thomas B. Byers notes that Merwin deploys a particular set of “disembodied icons,” including “doors, birds, glass, clouds, eyes, hair, ash, dust, statues, wings, water, stone, feet, bells, fire, veins” (251).  And, in their introduction, Folsom and Nelson note that “[Helen] Vendler identified a ‘Merwin dictionary’ of word-talismans” (14).  Most of the lists drawn up of Merwin’s word-talismans are lists of nouns, of things.  However, were one to include in these lists verbs (or words that are most often used by Merwin as verbs) deployed by Merwin, “turn” would definitely make the cut. 

“Turn” and derivations of the word (“turns,” “turned,” “turning”—not to mention all the versions of the word “return”) are conspicuously present in Merwin’s poetry.  Dozens of Merwin’s poems employ the word, or derivations of the word, “turn.”  Many of Merwin’s poems employ “turn” or its derivations multiple times; an incomplete list of these poems includes: “Song” (The First Four Books of Poems 62-3), “On the Subject of Poetry” (First Four 109), “Canso” (First Four 131-35), “River Sound Remembered” (First Four 190), “Fog” (First Four 212-13), “The Frozen Sea” (First Four 227), “Sailor Ashore” (First Four 228), “Blind Girl” (First Four 257-8), “Cuckoo Myth” (The Second Four Books of Poems 200-201), “A Door” (Second Four 245-7), “Fox Sleep” (The Vixen 3-6), “Gate” (The Vixen 7), “End of a Day” (The Vixen 25), “The Shortest Night” (The Vixen 57), “The Marfa Lights” (The Pupil 11-13), “Migrants by Night (The Pupil 14-15), “To the Morning (1)” (Present Company 71), “To a Friend Turning Fifty” (Present Company 118-19), “To Paula” (Present Company 131), and “Near Field” (The Shadow of Sirius 83).  Additionally, the second section in Finding the Islands, named for one of the poems in the section, is called “Turning to You,” and Travels contains another poem called “Turning” (135).

Turning has multiple meanings for Merwin.  Turning very often is an important part of the subject of Merwin’s poems.  For the Buddhist Merwin, turning—the turning of the world from day into night into day again, the turning seasons, transformation / turning into, returning / turning back, and the way in which turning away invariably turns into turning toward—is an essential part of the transient, ever-changing world.  

Turning in Merwin’s poetry also often means formal turning.  Merwin’s poems, like almost all poems, turn at the end of their lines to the beginning of the next line—it is precisely this movement that allows poetry to be called “verse.”  (The formal turn is perhaps more palpable in Merwin’s poems than in the work of most poets due to the unpunctuated run of his lines—the line break’s turn, thus, is clearer because punctuation creates no other competing breaks in the line.)

However, while Merwin’s formal accomplishments, including his mastery of formal turning, have been widely commented on, much less commented on has been the structural turning of Merwin’s poems: the turn in Merwin’s poem also often refers to the enactment of a major shift in a poem’s rhetorical and/or dramatic trajectory. 

Sometimes, Merwin even acknowledges this kind of turn by employing the word, or, again, derivatives of the word, “turn” as he makes this kind of structural maneuver.  Such self-reflexive turning occurs in poems such as “Proteus” (First Four 110-12), “Fog” (First Four 212-13), “Sailor Ashore” (First Four 228), “The Different Stars” (Second Four 136-37), “Ascent” (Second Four 188), “To the Hand” (Second Four 267-8), “The Flight” (Flower & Hand 66), “To the Dust of the Road” (Present Company 48), “To the Margin” (Present Company 75), and “To the Morning (2)” (Present Company 121).

It is time we follow Merwin’s lead, and recognize more consistently how invested in the structural turn he is.  Of course, some critics already have recognized this aspect of Merwin’s craft.  Helen Vendler and Marjorie Perloff, each recognize Merwin’s tendency to turn and skill with structural turning. 

In her review of The Shadow of Sirius, Vendler feels moved to see some of that book’s poems—“One of the Butterflies” and “Youth in Grass”—as sonnets even though, formally, the poems, of 13 and 15 lines, respectively, are not sonnets.  Vendler recognizes these poems as sonnets in part because they look like sonnets but also because they act like sonnets, because they have structural turns, which, in sonnets, are called voltas.  Of “One of the Butterflies,” Vendler notes, “I could print these thirteen lines as a quasi-sonnet…thereby suggesting it European lineage and its division into a problem (the timing of pleasure) and a conclusion (its elusiveness past and present)” (37).  And Vendler describes “Youth in Grass” as “a fifteen-line sonnet-like meditation…on the rapidity with which…a year turns from spring to autumn” (38).  Vendler states, “The most salient aspect of the Merwin mind in meditation is its tenacity to its perplexity.  Nothing can interrupt it once it has located its chosen difficulty—whether in perception, in thought, in human relations, or in memory” (38).  I think Vendler’s insight is accurate; I would only add that a major part of Merwin’s tenacity is the accomplishment of the turn.

In her own way, Marjorie Perloff makes a similar case.  In her 1987 essay “Apocalypse Then: Merwin and the Sorrows of Literary History,” Perloff critiques the notion that Merwin’s work might accurately be linked to or described with “phrases like ‘prophecy’ or ‘negative mysticism’ or ‘naked poetry’ or ‘the opening of the field’” (Essays 143).  Instead, Perloff makes the case that Merwin’s poetry “carried on the tradition of the well-made poem,” a kind of poem marked by “authorial control” (134).  While Perloff comments on Merwin’s formal control, she consistently roots Merwin’s authorial control in structural control, in the management of turns.  For example, Perloff initiates her examination of the “strong sense of closure” in Merwin’s “For the Anniversary of My Death” by discussing the structural motion of the poem, stating, “The first stanza (five lines) describes what happens “Every year”; the second (eight lines) refers to “Then” (when I will be dead)” (134).  Further on in her analysis, Perloff makes the case that “[t]he poem’s closure is reflected in its formal verse structure” (135).  Perloff concludes her analysis with the claim that “‘For the Anniversary of My Death’ is thus a very elegant, well-made poem; it has a finish that would be the envy of any number of poets…” (136). 

And the other two poems Perloff scrutinizes also have turns.  Perloff makes this clear in her discussion of “Beginning of the Plains,” about which she notes that the first line of that poem’s final stanza “marks the turn” (140).  And “Dusk in Winter,” the poem that Perloff suggests is exemplary of Merwin’s accomplished work, also contains a clear turn, one that pivots at the beginning of the fourth line, on the transition from day to night: “The sun sets in the cold without friends / Without reproaches after all it has done for us / It goes down believing in nothing / When it has gone I hear the stream running after it / It has brought its flute it is a long way” (qtd. in Essays 142).

What is it that Merwin is after with his deployment of structural turning?  Surprise.

Surprise is vital to Merwin.  In a 1947 letter to Ezra Pound, Merwin offers the reason he prefers Personae to The Cantos, claiming that there is more “sheer poetic magic” in Personae, and he defines poetic magic as “that element of perpetual and delicious surprise” (qtd. in Essays 358).  And surprise is a key element of Merwin’s poems.  In “Reading Merwin Semiotically,” Robert Scholes, who states that a semiotic reading, in part, views the poem as “achieving poetic status by violating certain kinds of expectation” (Essays 65), reads three earlier poems by Merwin and shows the way in which they all deliver (often multiple) surprises.  In a discussion of some of Merwin’s earlier poems in his Understanding W. S. Merwin, H. L. Hix notes that these poems employ myth “as a set of expectations to subvert” (33).  In Merwin’s “To Dido,” what the poem is made out of–or what the poem is–is, in part, “a still place of perpetual surprise” (First Four 139).  Merwin’s “The Blind Seer of Ambon,” in which the blind seer is a figure for the poet, concludes: “everything takes me by surprise / it is all awake in the darkness” (Travels 4).

W. S. Merwin is one of the great poets of the turn, of structure and surprise.  I’m at work on developing these ideas in an essay, focusing on Merwin’s The Shadow of Sirius, which I’m co-authoring with Mark Halliday for a book on Merwin’s more-recent poetry, a book edited by Kevin Prufer and Jonathan Weinert, forthcoming from WordFarm Editions.  I hope you’ll check it out.

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