3 Scoops of Merwin: I’m Weak; The Wages of Syntax; Darkness, My Name

Zach Savich
October 12, 2010
Comments 2

I’ve spent the last few days in New Orleans, visiting with student poets at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, The Lusher School, and Tulane University, where I’ll read my own poems aloud tonight. A great trip, if with mangey access to the Net. So, I haven’t been able to consider (or comment on) our Merwin Online Book Discussion as avidly as I’d like.

I’m eager to do so when I return north, back into fall. For now, here are three little melon balls scooped out of my Merwin airplane thoughts, Merwin French Quarter thoughts, Merwin yelling at motorcycles with my friends’ young daughter thoughts.

What’s Merwin’s effect on me?

I first read Merwin passing out. Recovering from surgery in a basement in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood in the months before I started college, I didn’t have the strength for prose, for the plots Darcie mentioned last Monday. I knew the Merwin poem “Berryman” from an anthology and bought his >The Second Four Books of Poems at one of the best bookstores, Open Books. I read through the volume slowly on convalescent walks around Green Lake, watching water from a stuck-on drinking fountain bend in line with a heron’s neck, stopping frequently to read a few airy lines then take a nap, no choice but to snooze wherever I fell.

This is how I wish to read Merwin always, passing out just as the final line ends, feeling, through such exhaustion, my strength coming back. With Merwin, you don’t pass out like a body falls, dead, in Dante, but as one who falls and stays aloft on the tips of the grass.

You can still watch the rowers carrying their boats, racing toward the water, their strapping figures everything yours, healing, is not. I don’t mean that his poems are best for lyric weaklings who lack the constitution for robust prose, but that his lines extend with a delicacy that–if they are antennae, helping us receive, they have branching extensions of horned foil grafted on so carefully that the music they receive could shake them loose. This extending happens through–

What is Merwin’s language to me?

There’s a word-by-word sort of composition in much of Merwin that can feel nearly mechanical, as though his typewriter (a large humanoid typewriter?) doesn’t have letters but whole words. Not whole phrases, as bad novelists use, but words that come from a similar poetic pool, one rife with rivers, light, eyes, “almost,” “toward,” and the stillness of a bird that “lies still while the light goes on flying” and bridges that “are still reaching across / the wide sound of being there.”

At the same time, his syntax expands across and through sentence and line. Given infinite time, Merwin isn’t a poet who’d employ every word in English but who’d refine toward a core vocabulary, or sort of vocabulary, even as his syntax bifurcates quicker than the angular Spanish moss on the live oaks in this city, even as his “standard” syntax does figure eights (“Even the right words if ever / we come to them tell something / the words never knew”; “It may have survived to this day somewhere / in another life / where they speak of its age as a measure of unimportance / not realizing that is was always as old as it is now / something I understood”). Macrobiotic vocab; many elaborate dishes.

I’ve been thinking about other options for a poet. Last week, I mentioned John Ashbery, who, despite sometimes standing in for what some readers find confusing in contemporary verse, often uses steadier syntax than Merwin does; like Stevens, Ashbery’s lines frequently use loose pentameters, complex but complete sentences, and idiomatic sentence sounds, while his field of reference, his Wordle world, runs through cities and pop culture and myth. Merwin as core diction, rangey syntax; Ashbery with core sorts of syntax, rangier diction. But what happens if a poet has syntax that casts with the sleight of enjambments and word-by-word turns of Merwin’s but fishes from another core sort of word sort?

Perhaps, we get something like these poems by Heather Christleor Ben Lerner’s work with motif and variation in Mean Free Path? And what if a poet uses expanding syntax with an expanding word harvest? Maybe–we see something like Mark McMorris’ work in Entrepot or Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, which I re-read every autumn, as one finds a new corn maze each year in a familiar field? This may be a Chatty Blog Thought more than a True Poetry Thought, but I think it connects to–

What is Merwin’s overall aesthetic effect on me?

Let me speak of a certain slant of prettiness that a Merwin poem often tilts toward me with. It has familial resemblance to the phrasing and mood of Duncan’s “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,” cummings’ “somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond,” and Creeley’s “Yesterday I wanted to speak of it.” A kind of coastal hovering nostalgia which becomes present air that breathes you, often gliding toward endings that conclude not with the rhetoric of a door shutting but a window opening (“and only the clouds are there / and the sounds of the late tide”; “listening to what I remember / while the night flies on with us into itself”; “but that we always wanted to believe”).

I want to draw a graph in which this prettiness interacts with “clarity” and “darkness” of the type Caryl mentioned. Clarity with the true roots of the word–not easily comprehensible but “luminous” and “to call or to low,” senses of the word in which the senses are present: clarity is luminous to the eye, as calling lowly is to the ear, so what is perceived is also perception itself, not because a subject doesn’t exist but because it sits at a limit. Merwin’s alternately pulsing and steadying language suggests such limits, heaving toward them, which locates and preserves them; his artfulness imbues these limits with grandeur, so we see their obstructions, their opacities, not as failures of perception but its fulfillment.

The other tree in the forest I am sketching, that I realize I have in mind when in mind of Merwin, is the Tree of Darkness. In the middle of a poem from The Incognito Lounge,which recalls Merwin in how it shifts through dense fogs between a window and grief, Denis Johnson says, “Darkness, my name is Denis Johnson.” This impulse is throughout Merwin’s The Shadow of Sirius, particularly in the final section, packed with “the dark in empty houses,” “the leaves darkened now but staying on,” “dog grief and the love of coffee” which “lengthen like a shadow of mine,” and late summer that “arrives in the dark.” It freights with morphine the book’s prettier mists.

Darkness, this is a kind of dampness you perceive first as light, as light caught in air, more as a odor than a feel on the skin, starting more hardily in your forebrain than in your flannel shirt (I’m picturing Seattle, again–let’s go to the guitar).

Find me in New Orleans tonight? 6 PM, Cudd Hall, Tulane campus.

2 thoughts on “3 Scoops of Merwin: I’m Weak; The Wages of Syntax; Darkness, My Name

  1. Thanks, Darcie–but then in other moods, with some of the poems, I feel (do you feel this?) that the syntax is similarly whittled, not “complex” but fairly regular, appearing a little blurred because there isn’t punctuation–but one can usually see where a comma and a period would go to normalize it all, which is why not having punctuation, in Merwin, can seem like a marker of “simplicity” and “wisdom” rather than experiment?

    And then I wonder if he uses elemental nouns and patterned phrasing like Mount Rushmore uses presidents’ faces (they make you really appreciate the sky behind them)?

  2. Zach– Thanks for talking about what his language means to you. I was getting frustrated with his whittling down–of the dictionary itself it seems–and so I really appreciated reading your explanation of his infinitely varied syntax: “Given infinite time, Merwin isn’t a poet who’d employ every word in English but who’d refine toward a core vocabulary, or sort of vocabulary, even as his syntax bifurcates quicker than the angular Spanish moss on the live oaks in this city, even as his “standard” syntax does figure eights…” good luck in yr. reading tonight!

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