… has never done much for UD. Many of his poems seem to her mere statements, and rather self-righteous ones at that. No humor, no wit, no surprising emotions. Wholesome poetry for right-thinking people.

I think William Logan’s appraisal is more or less right: Dreary, a village explainer.

[H]is poems are a species of prose … In his poems the writing is … wordy and lifeless … This run-on, the-sentence-is-everything-that-is-the-case style (like Molly Bloom on Prozac) is an aesthetic decision, not mere laziness. It just looks like laziness.

Merwin and Wendell Berry (about whose withdrawal of his papers from the University of Kentucky I’ve written here) are often written of together as ecopoets, and it’s true that they do a similar sort of agrarian nattering. Berry is a fine prose stylist, but his poetry, if you ask UD, doesn’t come across….

Here’s a Merwin poem dedicated to Berry.


for Wendell Berry

Each face in the street is a slice of bread
wandering on

somewhere in the light the true hunger
appears to be passing them by
they clutch

have they forgotten the pale caves
they dreamed of hiding in
their own caves
full of the waiting of their footprints
hung with the hollow marks of their groping
full of their sleep and their hiding

have they forgotten the ragged tunnels
they dreamed of following in out of the light
to hear step after step

the heart of bread
to be sustained by its dark breath
and emerge

to find themselves alone
before a wheat field
raising its radiance to the moon


This seems to UD a very sketchy sort of narrative, a little pit stop at Epiphany. Its main emotion is condescension toward people who can’t transcend a life of physicality, can’t lift themselves up to the radiance of the wheat field. They just stand there clutching a piece of bread.

They’ve lost touch with their own depths, with the source of their bread. They’ve abandoned the rigors of the search for the sacred.

Perhaps the dark mysteries of spiritual life frighten them. Perhaps they’re conformists, more comfortable in the crowd than in the challenging aloneness of the radiance.

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2 Responses to “W.S. Merwin, our new Poet Laureate…”

  1. Richard Says:

    He’s not as interesting as another W.S. poet (are there more ?), the Cornishman W.S. Graham – ineligible in several insurmountable ways (being underground not the least of them) for the post.

    The only Merwin I own and have read is his translation of Dante’s ‘Purgatorio’, which I only bought (I must admit) for the gasp-drawing handsomeness of the Doré cover. It has some frighteningly bland, curiously faint, and even lazy, terms of praise from Harold Bloom on the back: ‘Once again Merwin demonstrates that he is a courteous and generous troubadour whose poetic gift is copious and heartening’. ‘Courteous and generous troubadour’ makes him sound like a waiter.

  2. Andrew Says:

    It’s true that Merwin has become a prosy eco-scold over the last twenty years, but as his best he’s a more-than rewarding poet. Here are a couple of strong and strongly rhythmic poems I was able to find online.

    Berry too has a lot of different modes, and I agree that at times he can be a preachy, flat, and a nature sentimentalist. At his best, he has a tough, mystical, plain-spoken lyricism that seems enduring. Can’t find online the poems of his I love, though. If I were at home, I’d type a couple out for you.

    For the Anniversary of My Death

    by W. S. Merwin
    Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
    When the last fires will wave to me
    And the silence will set out
    Tireless traveler
    Like the beam of a lightless star

    Then I will no longer
    Find myself in life as in a strange garment
    Surprised at the earth
    And the love of one woman
    And the shamelessness of men
    As today writing after three days of rain
    Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
    And bowing not knowing to what

    Lemuel’s Blessing—W. S. Merwin

    Let Lemuel bless with the wolf, which is a
    dog without a master, but the Lord hears
    his cries and feeds him in the desert.
    —Jubilate Agnos, Christopher Smart

    You that know the way,
    I Bless your ears which are like cypresses on a mountain
    With their roots in wisdom. Let me approach.
    I bless your paws and their twenty nails which tell their own prayer
    And are like dice in command of their own combinations.
    Let me not be lost.
    I bless your eyes for which I know no comparison.
    Run with me like the horizon, for without you
    I am nothing but a dog lost and hungry,
    Ill-natured, untrustworthy, useless.

    My bones together bless you like an orchestra of flutes.
    Divert the weapons of the settlements and lead their dogs a dance.
    Where a dog is shameless and wears servility
    In his tail like a banner,
    Let me wear the opprobrium of possessed and possessors
    As a thick tail properly used
    To warm my worst and my best parts. My tail and my laugh bless you.
    Lead me past the error at the fork of hesitation.
    Deliver me.

    From the ruth of the lair, which clings to me in the morning,
    Painful when I move, like a trap;
    Even debris has its favorite positions but they are not yours;
    From the ruth of kindness, with its licked hands;
    I have sniffed baited fingers and followed
    Toward necessities which were not my own: it would me
    An habitué of back steps, faithful custodian of fat sheep;

    From the ruth of prepared comforts, with its
    Habitual dishes sporting my name and its collars and leashes of vanity;

    From the ruth of approval, with its nets, kennels and taxidermists;
    It would use my guts for its own rackets and instruments, to play
    its own games and music;
    Teach me to recognize its platforms, which are constructed like scaffolds;

    From the ruth of known paths, which would use my feet, tail and
    ears as curios,
    My head as a nest for tame ants,
    My fate as a warning.

    I have hidden at wrong times for wrong reasons.
    I have been brought to bay. More than once.
    Another time, if I need it.
    Create a little wind like a cold finger between my shoulders, then
    Let my nails pour out a torrent of aces like grain from a threshing machine;
    Let fatigue, weather, habitation, the old bones, finally,
    Be nothing to me,
    Let all lights but yours be nothing to me.

    Let the memory of tongues not unnerve me so that I stumble or quake.
    But lead me at times beside the still waters;
    There when I crouch to drink let me catch a glimpse of your image
    Before it is obscured with my own

    Preserve my eyes, which are irreplaceable.
    Preserve my heart, veins, bones,
    Against the slow death building in them like hornets until the place
    is entirely theirs.
    Preserve my tongue and I will bless you again and again.

    Let my ignorance and my failings
    Remain far behind me like tracks made in a wet season,
    At the end of which I have vanished,
    So that those who track me for their own twisted ends
    May be rewarded only with ignorance and failings.
    But let me leave my cry stretched out behind me like a road
    On which I have followed you.
    And sustain me for my time in the desert
    On what is essential to me.

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