Thursday, 15 July 2010

snow geese in migration

W S Merwin is the new Poet Laureate for the USA. He will serve in this post for only one year and will receive, it has been reported, the sum of $35,000 for his troubles and that is as it should be. The English laureateship, or the office of Queen's Canary, as Dylan Thomas dubbed it was originally for life, but with the appointment of Andrew Motion was reduced to 10 years. The incumbent is rewarded with a few cases of wine from the royal cellars. And that is not as it should be. A laureateship should not be lightly undertaken. There is much more to the job than composing royal birthday rhymes for bottles of plonk. Or there should be. And one year in the gilded cage is long enough. Or it should be.

Migration is a selection of W S Merwin's poetry spanning the period 1952 - 2001. In addition there are several new poems (from 2004) in the back. The book's New & Selected Poems subtitle is slightly misleading. The selected number more than 500 pages and the new a mere 9 pages. But that little deception aside it is a good book. A good selection let us say.

The poet gives us some insight into how he sees the work of a poet such as himself. The poem ON THE SUBJECT OF POETRY (from THE DANCING BEARS pub.1954) begins:

I do not understand the world, Father.
By the millpond at the end of the garden
There is a man who slouches listening
To the wheel revolving in the stream, only
There is no wheel there to revolve.

And so Merwin, early in his career, takes his tools to the garden. This is what I'm going to be about he says. I'm going to listen to the wheel which is not there and see if I can understand the reason why I do not understand.

FOR A COMING EXTINCTION (from THE LICE pub. 1967) is one of a series in which Merwin explores how men are deceived by the appearances of things. In this poem we are deceived by our own inflated sense of self-importance:

Gray whale
Now that we are sending you to The End
That great god
Tell him
That we who follow you invented forgiveness
And forgive nothing

. . .

Tell him
That it is we who are important

I like the poetry of W S Merwin because it makes me think deeply about what I'm reading.

The title poem MIGRATION (from THE COMPASS FLOWER pub. 1977) is one of the shortest poems in the book. There are only 7 short lines. Only 32 wonderful words.

Prayers of many summers come
to roost on a moment
until it sinks under them
and they resume their journey
flying by night
with the sound
of blood rushing in an ear

MIGRATION is a winner of the National Book Award for Poetry. With it W S Merwin joins an elite list which includes such names as William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, W H Auden, Robert Lowell, Philip Levine, Frank O'Hara, Allen Ginsberg and C K Williams. The NBA Judges' Citation reads: The poems in MIGRATION speak from a lifelong belief in the power of words to awaken our drowsy souls and see the world with passionate interconnection.

And almost finally a short extract from Merwin's last words on MIGRATION. They are on the back jacket:


When it happens you are not there

O you beyond numbers
beyond recollection
passed on from breath to breath
given again
from day to day from age
to age

. . .

you that were
formed to begin with
you that were cried out
you that were spoken
to begin with
to say what could not be said

Poet-in-Residence congratulates William Stanley Merwin (1927- ) and Copper Canyon Press on this exceptional selection of poetry.

Migration New & Selected Poems
by W S Merwin
pub2005: Copper Canyon Press
Port Townsend, Washington


  1. thank you for this wonderful insight and view. I have read a bit of his work, but not studied it.

    deeply precisely moving in the heart.

  2. Thank you Dianne, I'm like you in the respect that I'd "read a bit of his work" but when I saw that he'd been selected as laureate at the age of 83 or whatever I thought I'd better take a closer look. I was pleased I did. So that's why I shared it. Pleased you got got something from it. He's certainly a poet worth getting to know.

  3. Again, thank you for the intro/review again, Gwilym.. read a few of his works, but not Migration...The Amercan Centre has a few of Merwin's works :)


  4. Thanks for those poems Gwilym - I had never heard of him but I do see what you mean - there is a lot of thinking to be done in order to get the best from his work - that is the kind of poetry I like (and the kind I would love to write but find impossible.)

  5. Devika,
    I've just discovered that "Bill Moyers Journal : Watch and Listen PBS Internet Explorer" has some Merwin video.
    Pat, it's what I like too, something to think about - your friend Joan Cairns (88) is just 5 years older than Merwin, and she's good too!
    wishes (yes, I like that expression) to you both,


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