Spring/Summer 1997, Volume 14.2
Lost Origins: W. S. Merwin's Poems of Division
Jane Frazier (Ph.D., U of Mississippi) teaches English at East Georgia College. She has published essays in South Dakota Review and Style and in an interdisciplinary textbook on Native Americans.
Over the last forty years W. S. Merwin has produced dozens of volumes of poetry and translations, as well as collections of prose poems, stories, and memoirs. His essays and reviews have been widely published in journals and magazines from The Nation (where he was once poetry editor) to Sierra, and in his earlier career he scripted radio and television plays for the BBC. There is hardly an award for poetry he has not won. Beginning with the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1952, he has garnered honors including the Pulitzer Prize, the Bollingen Prize, the Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets, and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. In style and content he has been diverse, seemingly absorbing and assimilating the various literatures and cultures he has experienced through translating and living abroad. Recurring subjects appear in Merwin's work, however, and the most prevalent of these is the natural world.
In an essay entitled "The Forms of Wildness," Hayden White asserts that the perception of society as a fall away from natural perfection, from a providential rather than savage nature, can be found in Locke, Spenser, Montesquieu, and Rousseau, among others (28). In present-day America, poets who take up this topic are rarely encountered. Perhaps perceived as too romantic a notion, most contemporary poets record the phenomena around them and avoid comparisons to earlier states. But vexed with the loss of nature in our lives and the loss of an original self, W. S. Merwin has produced several poems of this type. To Merwin, the ideological and physical distance between ourselves and nature that we have increasingly created has divided us from our most important psychic resource and the basis of our Being. Humans are a part of a collective universe, and by shaping the world to accommodate our immediate desires we have gone far toward eliminating the original world, or origin, that we need for a complete, healthy environment.
Egocentrism has helped lead to "forgetting," a key problem with Merwin's humans. An original self once existed, a self that was in harmony with the universe and was a positive, functioning part of it. But with the advance of human knowledge and pride has come a decline in original understanding. And, as we have become more and more separate from the natural world with our buildings and technological advances, recognition of the origin becomes less likely. At times, "forgetting" is a positive word in the Merwin dictionary since it
entails the forgetting of useless and often destructive human modes of thought. But the forgetting of origin is the forgetting of part of ourselves and has made people less than whole. Modern humans especially are fractured selves, divided from their beginnings and the ecosystem which has managed to survive around them, although it exists in great danger. Without the system of nature to base ourselves upon, without seeing ourselves as part of a larger physical context, there is nothing to sustain Merwin's humans. Adding to the problem is our own ignorance of what has caused our rootlessness, which in turn prevents us from seeking to retrieve our former bonds with nature. Book VII of Wordsworth's The Prelude, "Residence in London," describes a sense of chaos amid urban clutter and distraction from unity. Wordsworth's city blinds the eye by captivating its onlookers, by obstructing the vision of the natural; in Merwin it is more closely the "modern" which obfuscates the "original." To be specific about the poetry I am including under the category "division," I would like to define the division poems as those works which lament or long for a lost, original world while emphasizing our present distance from it. Only a selected group of Merwin's poems meet this criteria, yet I believe they are vital to the development of Merwin's outlook toward nature and his poetic attitude in general.
Another topic, which presents a world of voids, of humans cut off spiritually from the phenomenal world (with no implications of an origin of which they were once a part), has probably generated more criticism on Merwin than anything else. We find these poems repeatedly in the second four books—The Moving Target, The Lice, The Carrier of Ladders, and Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment. Emptiness, alienation, and their synonyms became, in the 1960s and early 70s, a popular topic in essays about Merwin. Yet the poet's hope of finding his place in creation was also often recorded in these books and grew markedly within the time frame, making the temper of these volumes not easily definable. The more recent criticism of Edward Brunner and Mark Christhilf attests to this ambiguity. The poems of division, like the scattered poems of origin we find in these books, indicate Merwin's desire for his own re-establishment of natural ties, a desire which was necessary for the production of the belief-filled The Compass Flower in 1977. If there is division, it is because humans have made it so, and, since the living world still exists, there is the possibility for overcoming division to some extent. But before we jump ahead to possibility, let us examine the reasons we have drifted away from origin.
As Merwin's poetry of an original world moves temporally backward to what must be called pre-history, so do his poems of division. By imaginatively constructing a single and distinct initial moment of the psychic severing of the human/nature ties, division is shown as a conscious act in "Beginning" from The Carrier of Ladders: it is no accident that has befallen humanity. In an interesting twist of imagery, Merwin uses a natural object, a crane, to beckon humans to exercise their power to order the world in their own way. The "king of the black cranes" arises on a white landscape "Long before spring," or before the first spring has ever come about (123). The white landscape in juxtaposition to the blackness of the bird points to the degree of the impending differences between man and the natural world. The crane observes the scene with his turning head and justifies the imposition of human ego upon it. When the crane's survey determines that on the polar-like surface north lies in all directions, the possibilities for human domination are unlimited: "the crown turns / and the eye / drilled clear through his head / turns / it is north everywhere / come out he says" (123). The call to humans to "come out" represents humanity's own ambition calling to itself. Satirically, Merwin tells us that the world is full of potential for conquest if only we will leave behind our inhibitions. Our inhibitions, which may better be called respect, give way to larger goals as history records.
The final directive of the crane is for humans to come forward with their civilization and to bring with them their "nights," or those darker parts of the psyche which they obviously cannot leave behind (123). "Nights" here stands in opposition to the whiteness of the landscape in the same way that the black crane does. The "beginning" which serves as the title is ironically no beginning to be wished for but the beginning of the end. (Ironies, turnarounds, and twists, we should observe, are as much a part of Merwin's technique as are his noted ellipses and spareness of language.) "Beginning" goes about handling the issue of division in a unique way since, typically, the poet muses upon division long after it has begun and when its remedy seems nearly impossible. In this poem, the foundations of our current situation are delineated. With arrogance and opportunity we have both controlled and divided ourselves from the phenomenal world; however, another sort of opportunity does exist, the opportunity for recovery, at least in part.
The opportunity for restoring original knowledge exists because of the presence of images and elements that bind us to nature. "Bread," from Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, offers physical realities from the life of the earliest humans as a forgotten knowledge of modern humans. In primitive life, humans had natural places for shelter, and the narrator ponders if the directionless people he passes on the street can have completely left behind these early bonds: "have they forgotten the pale caves / they dreamed of hiding in / their own caves / full of the waiting of their footprints" (27). The "bread" which early humans sought was something which nourished them in a spiritual manner—"the heart of bread / to be sustained by its dark breath" (27). The risk the poet runs, and, runs into, is that for most readers "caves" conjures unpleasant associations with darkness, dampness, and the unknown. The cave imagery, I believe, fails on the emotive level due to its eeriness. Yet in a striking coincidence where Thoreau mourns the obstruction of nature by buildings, he relates caves to our primal selves: "Who does not remember the interest with which when young he looked at shelving rocks, or any approach to a cave? It was the natural yearning of that portion of our most primitive ancestor which still survived in us" (Walden 2324). And Merwin's "The Horizons of Rooms" offers a similar context with a similar reference to memory: "the first room was made of stone and ice / and a fallen tree // once there is a room / we know there was something before" (The Rain in the Trees 7273).
Unique about "Bread" in comparison to other division poems is that it is not essentially a vocal critique of society. Primarily, a primitive yet vital life is depicted in detail for its value alone. The poem's closing stanza offers one of the most romantic images we can find in Merwin—humans are pictured alone, "before a wheat field /raising its radiance to the moon" (27). I cite this stanza not as a standard representation of the poet's attitude, but rather as evidence of Merwin's belief in the deep-rooted need of human beings to live as a part of the original natural framework.
That there are tangible factors still connecting us to the original world gives us further reason to make the case that in Merwin's poetry loss has not given in to utter hopelessness. Merwin spoke of his belief in a unity of experience, along with its relationship to poetry, in a 1989 interview:
I think that the thing that poetry has in common with all the arts is it's an expression of faith in the integrity of the senses and of the imagination. And these are what we have in common with the natural world. The animals have no doubt about the integrity of their senses, you know, they're essential to them. And whatever the animal imagination may be, we can imagine it as being connected with their senses. And ours is too. And our remaining connections with the natural world, with the whole of lifeI don't mean, I don't even like using the word "natural world," because that makes a distinction. I don't think there is this distinction. I think that life is a whole and that we are a part of it, and we must never ever forget that. And the thing that comes out of that, the only things in many of our urban lives that still come out of that are our dreams, some of our erotic life, if we're lucky, and any sensual experience that we can still find faith in and we can still believe in. (Moyers 17) In the poems of division, Merwin will sometimes imaginatively present nature actively endeavoring to restore original connections with humankind. "The Current" and "The Clear Skies" best depict this situation. But despite the overtures from nature, humans are generally stubborn. In the same way that our ego led us to separate from origin, we will no longer listen to any original voices. We have convinced ourselves that the order we have imposed upon the world is of a superior kind and that we no longer need the voices of the past, especially of such an early past.
When asked about his possible relation to Robinson Jeffers in a 1982 interview, Merwin answered with a statement about our attitude of superiority over nature and the situation it has caused:
The one thing I feel close to is his sense of our self-importance as a species, which I think is one of the things which is strangling us, our own bloated species-ego. The assumption that human beings are different in kind and in importance from other species is something I've had great difficulty in accepting for 25 years or so. To me, it's a dangerously wrong way of seeing things. If we make the distinction in a too self-flattering way, if we say we are the only kind of life that's of any importance, we automatically destroy our own importance. Our importance is based on a feeling of responsibility and awareness of all life. (Bourne 15)
Thus, the effort we as a society need to put forth is perhaps of the most difficult variety; what is needed is a change in our way of perceiving our place in the world. In the poems of division, only the narrators hear the voice of origin, which comes quietly. These speakers are able to hear the voice precisely because they have a proper perspective of their role in the universe. Speakers, however, do not constitute the majority of the population at large. Within Merwin's canon, a notion inheres that most people do not have a balanced sense of the human/nature mix. For whatever reasons—religious, political, economic, or simply as a need we have ascribed to the egonature has been psychologically separated from human life and put into service for our imagined gain.
If any one volume illustrates the concept of division, that would be Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, from which we have already examined "Bread." Numerous other poems from the volume—"The Clear Skies," "The Current," "The Distances," "Looking Back," and "Spring"—unmistakably deal with this topic. Particularly focusing on the conscious refusal of humanity to acknowledge origin is "The Clear Skies." Clouds in the poem represent a part of the world which we could once see and see by: "The clouds that touch us out of clear skies // they are eyes that we lost / long ago on the mountain" (15). As humans, we make excuses for the division by deeming ourselves modern and denying our need for the natural: "and because we lose them we say they are old / because they are blind we say / that they cannot find us" (15). In "The Current," our ignorance may not be quite as volitional, yet the result of indifference is the same. Stuck in a mire, we "lie in the marshes like dark coats / forgetting that we are water // but the eels keep trying to tell us / writing over and over in our mud / our heavenly names" (24).
Our ideology represented in the division poems has further implications. It becomes the basis for the destruction of the natural world in the poet's environmental poems. If we do not regret the rift between ourselves and nature, then how can we feel any compunction about altering or annihilating it? Both "The Current" and "The Clear Skies" establish the first step in a way of viewing the world that will lead not just to separation and loss for humans but also to the depletion of the planet. Human logic, deified by its authors, often fails in not recognizing its limits. This fallacy for modern humans perpetuates the state of division: "because we have lost whoever / they are calling / we say that they are not calling / us" ("The Clear Skies" 15). As the "clouds" try to reestablish communication with humans, so a "thin cold current" in the self is always awake and is constantly being called to by origin: "then cloud fish call to it again / your heart is safe with us // bright fish flock to it again touch it" ("The Current" 24). The tragedy of both poems is that we refuse to listen. In "The Current," the stream which signified original selfhood ultimately becomes the waters of forgetfulness and of destruction when ignored: "yes and black flukes wave to it / from the Lethe of the whales" (24).
Such division of the modern world does not exist in Walt Whitman's poetry, even though he is thought of as a "nature" poet. Whitman's address to the sea in Song of Myself may best demonstrate the difference between Merwin's attitudes about our relationship to nature and the attitudes of poets like Whitman who find no barriers: "Sea of the brine of life! Sea of unshovelled and always-ready graves! / Howler and scooper of storms! Capricious and dainty sea! / I am integral with you…. I too am of one phase and of all phases" (Leaves of Grass 46). Here, we can see a fundamental conceptual difference between Merwin and Whitman. Merwin cannot typically declare that he is at "one" with the world; unity may only be desired. And just as important, although nature may occasionally try to beckon us in Merwin's poems, a pathetic fallacy on his part, it never depends on a human mate for completion as Whitman would have it: "Earth of the limpid gray of clouds brighter and clearer for my sake! / Far-swooping elbowed earth! Rich apple-blossomed earth! / Smile, for your lover comes!" (45).
To Whitman, the "clouds" are all the more vivid for his "sake," a statement which indicates a dependency of the earth upon the human, that the earth needs humanity to make it come alive. While we as humans do need the rest of nature for our physical and psychic lives, to assume our presence as necessary for its existence or condition is a fault of the ego. As the history of the environment has shown, the supposed primacy of the human among all other things ultimately perceives the world as a tool for our own uses. Whitman praises nature, but it is nature seen through his eye, and the continent he extols, with its increasing population and increasing industry, becomes a projection of the human mind.
Often, our loss of a natural sense may be witnessed through our relationship to animals. "From many turnings / between the ways of men / and men" the animals in "Shoe Repairs" are ultimately divested of their being and arrayed on racks (The Carrier of Ladders 66). But Merwin reminds us of their former lives and with an atypical pun—"soles" (souls)—seems to conjure up for them an original existence equal to any human native society: "soles / eyes of masks / from a culture lost forever" (66). The comparison, no doubt, is intended to weaken mental demarcations between ourselves and the animals; we are meant to understand that theirs was once a life among their own kind too. But, strangely, these comparisons anthropomorphize the animals, the same practice Merwin condemns in Green with Beasts. Although this does not defeat the poem's impact, it nevertheless restricts the animals to our own paradigms, and the tropes would have been better left out.
Finally, the poem shifts us into an imagined future. Using Noah's ark, Merwin projects a scene where humans, shoeless, remember the animals they had once extinguished: "We will know the smell / in another life / stepping down / barefoot into this Ark" (66). The ark to come will be devoid rather than full of animals: "seeing it lit up but empty," and although we have put them into our own false couplings, they nevertheless will have died "each alone" (66). Their individual deaths to a certain extent defeat the control we thought we could have had on them, and the prophecy here concerns humankind as well as the animals. We will be the losers when thoughtlessness has taken us to the point of eliminating our closest relatives on the planet. So the message is not for a fictional future, but for the present day. The "ways of men" with which we cannot see the animals except as something to use and with which we cannot envision them as any sort of group with their own right to existence create the opportunity for abuses. Some readers have charged that the poems of Merwin often fall into didacticism. In the case of the poems of division and the poems of environment (which "Shoe Repairs" both partakes of) they are correct. But, it is a charge he obviously is willing to accept since he continues to write explicitly on these issues. His purpose is to try to make us aware of ways of thinking and ways of behaving which are psychically and physically destructive.
Numerous critics have noted the post-apocalyptic situation of much of Merwin's poetry, and this is an important characteristic of the poems of division. In most of these poems, ages have apparently contributed to the space between humanity and nature, and the narrator is left to reflect upon the outcome. Like a survivor of a faraway disaster who can only relate the facts of the event in his tale, the speaker, in contrast to his society, has knowledge of the import of the tragedy, but little or nothing can be done for its rectification. But by telling the tale, by a public confession of man's wrongdoing—that is, by the poem itself—the poet discloses his hope. Few poems will be found that overtly offer promise—"my mind infinitely divided and hopeless" (The Carrier of Ladders 3)—"dust gathers all day on our closed lids" (Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment 24)—typify the locutions of the narrators. Yet the mere fact that this loss is important enough to recite over and over, about and for the society we are in, reveals an implicit desire and chance for restoration.
Merwin's concern for humanity is that we have created an environment which is becoming more and more hostile to us and is more and more depleted of value. Like the passenger on an airliner in "Plane," "We hurtle forward and seem to rise," but our journey is only toward loss (The Carrier of Ladders 3). Modern technology would do away with all mythology, which would ground humans in something larger than the self: "where is no / vision of the essential nakedness of the gods / nor of that / nakedness the seamless garment of heaven" and simply leave us with the "air" (3). "Plane" illustrates what Wendell Berry terms "the machine metaphor" (56). Now, in modern times, that we have placed ourselves in charge of creation, it has been reduced to the equivalent of a raw material for use by our machines: "The Modern World would respect the Creation only insofar as it could be used by humans. By means of the machine metaphor we have eliminated any fear or awe or reverence or humility or delight or joy that might have restrained us in our use of the world" (56). Berry also notes the participation of pre-modern peoples in the cycles of life and death, as we saw in the closing stanza of "Bread," where the circle of human, arth, and universe constituted a real and a mystical foundation for living (56). In contrast, Berry states, "Our 'success' is a catastrophic demonstration of our failure. The industrial Paradise is a fantasy in the minds of the privileged and the powerful; the reality is a shambles" (56).
These statements well summarize many of Merwin's feelings on our modern condition. Living in climate-controlled buildings, transporting ourselves by machines, and communicating by electronics, we have pushed away the need for any sense of mystery about the natural world and the need for knowledge of our essential place within it. Merwin would agree with J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur's eighteenth-century dictum in Letters from an American Farmer that "Men are like plants; the goodness and flavour of the fruit proceeds from the peculiar soil and exposition in which they grow" (71). And, further, the environmental loss in The Lice and The Rain in the Trees demonstrates the real-world consequences of this split. But our lives still contain original connections and always will contain these since we are aspects of nature—and this notion, too, finds its place in the poetry. Merwin's despair falters at moments when conscious effort can restore the vision of origin: "the eye must burn again and again / through each of its lost moments / until it sees" (Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment 46).
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____. The Rain in the Trees. New York: Knopf, 1988.
____. Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment. New York: Atheneum, 1973.
Moyers, Bill. "Where the Soul Lives." The Power of the Word. Public Affairs Television. 20 October 1989.
St. John de Crèvecoeur, J. Hector. Letters from an American Farmer. Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America. 1782. Ed. Albert E. Stone. New York: Penguin, 1988.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. New York: NAL, 1960.
White, Hayden. "The Forms of Wildness." The Wild Man Within: An Image in Western Thought from the Renaissance to Romanticism. Eds. Edward Dudly and Maximillian Novak. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1972. 338.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. 1855. Ed. Malcolm Cowley. Harmondsworth, England: Viking, 1959.