I am perhaps not the reader W. S. Merwin wants.
I should say not reader but listener. Merwin says poetry begins and ends with listening.
But he is so quiet I can barely hear him. Look at Shadow of Sirius–all that white space! Do all poetry books have those meadow-length margins?
But isn’t that the point of poetry? To quiet and carve us white space?
The books by my bed are all novels. I like to be lost in plots. For poems, I love the messy precariousness of Stevie Smith, the piles of sentences of Brigit Pegeen Kelly, the hapless characters of James Tate. I love thinginess and wordiness and specifics and playfulness and humor. Merwin, from afar, seems serious and spare and general. He once compared poems to proverbs, aphorisms, and riddles, saying that in all four there was an urge to finality of utterance. I love indecision. I don’t typically trust precision.
Yesterday the only thing I found time to read was the NYT Magazine’s portrait of Glen Beck, which quotes a Fox executive discussing Beck’s changing persona: I think what he’s realizing is you have to be careful not to just be part of the noise. You have to transcend the noise.
Tonight, this observation of that conservative character somehow (I don’t think I’m the reader Merwin wants) also seems like a very good window into Shadow of Sirius.
The sound of the waterfall from my daughter’s white noise machine is coming right through her bedroom door tonight. It drowns out the Providence traffic and neighbors bouncing Meat Loaf off nearby concrete. A host of personal um situations are ringing through intermittently on my cell phone. The newspaper is asking me why I’m not out in the streets with loud fists. Before bed tonight, I have to grade 14 more papers, probably with a Cohen Brothers movie on (softly!) for company. This is a life–though I’m usually tired and always foolish–that I pretty much love. But it’s the opposite of how Publisher’s Weekly describes the poems in Merwin’s latest book: fresh and awake with a simplicity that can only be called wisdom.
I imagine this is how Merwin’s life must be too. Simple. Sometimes wise?
I imagine this because of something he said in the last post‘s video: Writing poetry has, to me, always had something to do with how you want to live.
And because of something that he wrote decades ago: I began to be pursued by the thought that if, in all this madhouse, someone were to ask me what I thought would be a good way to live, I would not have a very clear answer, and it seemed to me that it was time to try to find one.
How to live! I can, I do, hear that question. In fact, the only Merwin poem I knew before this experiment (“The River of Bees“) contains it: I took my eyes / A long way to the calendars / Room after room asking how shall I live
It’s not too much to want from a book an answer on how to live.
Four weeks to learn how to listen to Merwin’s poems…is…not too much either. But maybe if some out there would help me–