The First Composer: On Merwin's Migration: New and Selected Poems and Present Company

Copper Canyon Press, 2005

A review by Chris Dombrowski

“don’t lose your arrogance yet…/” Berryman famously tells a young Merwin, “you can do that when you’re older / lose it too soon and you may / merely replace it with vanity” (“Berryman”). Author of a stiflingly huge body of work - 24 books of poems, 22 translations, 7 prose books - and recipient of countless prizes including the Pulitzer and National Book Award, Merwin asserts with Migration that he has lost over the last half-century none of Berryman’s requisite boldness, and has found no room in his lines for vanity.

Although a practitioner of formal verse in his early years (Auden selected A Mask for Janus — only one poem from the volume is included in Migration — for the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1952) and linked with the Deep Image poets of the 70’s, Merwin, who said in a 1998 Paris Review interview that “writing is something I know little about,” is our indisputably campless master. Here are the first stanzas of two poems written fifty years apart:

             TO THE SOUL

             Is anyone there
             if so
             are you real
             either way are you
             one or several
             if the latter
             are you all at once
             or do you
             take turns not answering



             There will be the cough before the silence, then
             Expectation; and the hush of portent
             Must be welcomed by a diffident music
             Lisping and dividing its renewals;
             Shadows will lengthen and sway, and, casually
             As in a latitude of diversion
             Where growth is topiary, and the relaxed horizons
             Are accustomed to the trespass of surprise,
             One with the mask of Ignorance will appear
             Musing on the wind’s strange pregnancy.

The reader less familiar with Merwin’s work (he dispensed with poetic punctuation in 1963 stating later that he “wanted…the movement and lightness of the spoken word”) might wonder which of the poems was published during the Korean War, and which during the current U.S invasion of Iraq. It’s curious, anyway, to note how much “Dictum,” (1952) with its density, dialogism, and formalistic leanings, resembles a good deal of what’s popular in poetry today. “To The Soul,” (2005) on the other hand, with its curious, short-lined directness, recalls Neruda’s 1954 Odas Elementales, many of which Merwin translated.

Appearing in the “New Poems” section of Migration, “To the Soul” also shows up in the 134-page volume Present Company, a collection of addresses to people (“The Surgeon Kevin Lin”), objects (“Zbigniew Herbert’s Bicycle”), places (“That Stretch of Canal”), abstractions (“Lingering Regrets”), and other nouns. Limpid, void sometimes of images, open in their form, many of these intimate pieces show Merwin at his visionary best. But as Louise Gluck has said of her own process, “What begins as vision degenerates into mannerism,” and the rhetoric of address, even when delivered by one of our finest poets, begins to age after eighty pages or so. What the reader will likely find most enduring and endearing in these poems is their infinitely generous central-consciousness; they are, like so many of Merwin’s poems, offerings: “…I do / not know that anyone / else is waiting for these / words that I hoped might seem / as though they had occurred / to you and you would take / them with you as your own” (“Cover Note”).

At the heart of Merwin’s work is a pervading sense of connectedness—to an other, be it the reader, a lark, the light in September—that links it undeniably to prayer. But not prayer in the conventional Western sense which, as Merwin has stated “is usually construed as making a connection. I don’t think that connection has to be made; it’s already there. Poetry probably has to do with recognizing that connection.” The ease with which the poet realizes this link, both perceptively and prosodically (“if you find you no longer believe/ enlarge the temple”; “every moment/ arrive somewhere”) will remain one of his work’s many major feats.

Logistically, Migration’s major feat is its length; at 529 pages, it could have been much longer — the seminal Second Four Books of Poems, for instance, totaled 300 pages when originally published. As with all such massive collections, the reader inevitably reaches a point where the poem he’s reading begins to sound much like one he read a dozen pages previous. There are many occasions in Migration where the poet “look(s) up to see” or is found “at a bright window” where “all at once” something happens, but just when the reader thinks she has the poems’ endings—with their often winged- or shadow dappled-hush—pinned, Merwin surprises with something stabbingly ironic like this from “Questions to Tourists Stopped by a Pineapple Field”: “do you think there is a future in pineapple”.

“What survives of the artist,” Renoir said, “is the feeling he gives by means of objects,” and while Mewin’s objects—birds, light, stone walls, leaves, water, hills—appear recurrently, his range of emotion is limitless. With all its fluidity, grace, and fleetingness, Merwin’s poetry reminds us that it is, like the world it bows to, “always beginning as it goes” (“To This May”). In the brief “Memory of Spring” (originally published in The Carrier of Ladders and not included in Migration), Merwin hints at the privacy and devotion such a poetry requires of its maker: “The first composer/ could hear only what he could write”.


W.S. MERWIN was born in New York City in 1927 and grew up in Union City, New Jersey, and in Scranton, Pennsylvania. From 1949 to 1951 he worked as a tutor in France, Portugal, and Majorca. He has since lived in many parts of the world, most recently on Maui in the Hawaiian Islands. He has written many books of poems, prose, and translations. He has been the recipient of many awards and prizes, including the Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets (of which he is now a Chancellor), the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, and the Bollingen Prize in Poetry; most recently he has received the Governor's Award for Literature of the state of Hawaii, the Tanning Prize for mastery in the art of poetry, a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writers' Award, and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Merwin was recently awarded the 2005 National Book Award for Poetry for his collection Migration: New & Selected Poems.


CHRIS DOMBROWSKI’S work appears or is forthcoming in Crazyhorse, Green Mountains Review, Mid-American Review, Neo, Seneca Review, and others. He lives with his family in Missoula, Montana.