Look at how notfunny this short poem from The Shadow of Sirius is:
The old grieving autumn goes on calling to its summer
the valley is calling to other valleys beyond the ridge
each star is roaring alone into darkness
there is not a sound in the whole night
Look at that frightening poem, with its themes of isolation and ineluctable death. I couldn’t stop laughing when I read it. And you know why? Because it’s on page 103 of the book, and after 102 pages of serious, high-minded, mysterious orphic utterances, when I got to another serious orphic utterance like “the old grieving autumn goes on calling to its summer,” I was either going to throw the book onto a pile of burning (autumnal) leaves or let myself laugh at W. S. Merwin online–if only for a second, and if only to demonstrate my own idiocy.
Yes, he’s a great poet. A serious and seriously great poet. There’s a lot to admire in such a man, and in such work. But his consistently quiet, grave, hushed tone undoes the book. His utter consistency makes it hard for me to take him seriously. I wish he would undermine his own authority. I wish he would contradict himself. (Not that I can imagine the speaker of these poems raising his voice, but it would be great if he would cling to the top of a rare palm tree and yawp “I am large! I contain multitudes!”) Instead I have before me this book, which is large and contains Merwitudes. e.g. I have come back through the years to this / stone hollow encrypted in its own stillness
I’m not asking for jokes (What did one black dog say to the other black dog? –I never laugh. I’m Sirius.) No, absolutely not. But humor, yes. In this book especially, which sometimes reads as a compendium of losses, humor would have provided another, an alternate release. Byron: If I laugh at any mortal thing / Tis that I may not weep.
In the end, maybe what we love to read is as personal as who we fall in love with. I have loved some unwaveringly serious people, and poems, for days. But over years and hundreds of pages, it is the people and poets meeting serious subjects in varied voices, in more humorous and therefore more human ways whom I love. Stevie Smith.
And it’s also maybe not simply a question of personal taste. Can any modern book of poetry with such a narrow register be truly great? Can we take a modern body of work that has little or no humor seriously?