About the Poet
A mystic symbolist, mythmaker, and master of dense verse, poet William Stanley Merwin concerns himself with America’s isolation and rootlessness. Through careful compartmentalization, he reflects on the future by absorbing himself with preliterate people, primal sources, pacifism, pollution, and the themes of fragmentation, loss, and social and moral regression. His writing is never trivial. Elegant and freighted with warning, his verse combines passionate focus, logic, and lyricism in a consistent flow that engages as generously as it stymies and unnerves the unwary.
A New Yorker born September 30, 1927, Merwin grew up in Union City, New Jersey, where he wrote hymns at age five. When his family relocated to Scranton, Pennsylvania, he came to love landscapes not yet strip-mined, fouled, and plundered, a focus of his despairing laments. At age 18, Merwin met a poetic giant, Ezra Pound, whose eccentricity struck him as original and unshakable. The meeting preceded Merwin’s own development into a unique seer. Like the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, he began speaking a message terrible and forbidding to his contemporaries.
On scholarship at Princeton, Merwin found what he had been seeking while reading poetry in the library and combing the outlying area for horses to exercise. He completed a B.A. in English at age 20. Poet John Berryman and critic R. P. Blackmur encouraged his early writings. During seven years of residency in Europe, he translated Spanish and French classics for the BBC’s London office. In 1956, Merwin settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as playwright in residence at Poet’s Theater, issuing Darkling Child (1956), Favor Island (1958), and The Gilded West (1961). He served Nation as poetry editor and, in 1961, edited West Wind: Supplement of American Poetry for the London Poetry Book Society. In the mid-1960s, he was on staff at Roger Planchon’s Theatre de la Cite in Lyons, France.
Merwin’s A Mask for Janus (1952), a collection of traditional songs, ballads, and carols, earned the approval of W. H. Auden and the Yale University Younger Poets series. The Dancing Bears (1954), a volume rich with fable, probes alienation, as does Green with Beasts (1956), a bestiary, or animal book, expressing lessons learned from animals. More family-oriented is The Drunk in the Furnace (1960), a collection of verse portraits. After an unproductive period, Merwin recaptured his poetic voice for The Moving Target (1963), an experiment in flowing rhetoric that employs a halting line marked by long pauses, but uninhibited by punctuation. A cult favorite, The Lice (1969), predicts the destruction of those who lose their connections with divinity and nature. Composing these harsh poems was so devastating to Merwin that he feared he would never write again. He reclaimed his vision with Animae (1969) and a Pulitzer Prize winner, The Carrier of Ladders (1970), a tribute to history’s role in self-redemption. He refocused on the present in Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment (1973), followed by a somber work, The Compass Flower (1977).
After shifting residence to Hawaii in the late 1970s, Merwin took heart in new encounters with seascapes and native culture, as displayed in the adapted haiku of Finding the Islands (1982). Returning to boyhood, he issued Opening the Hand (1983), which preceded another somber work, The Rain in the Trees (1987), and Travels (1993). In addition to anthologies, he published prose stories, essays, and vignettes in The Miner’s Pale Children (1970), Houses and Travelers (1994), and Unframed Originals: Recollections (1994). Winner of the PEN translation prize, he also published Selected Translations: 1948-1968 (1979), as well as translations of the Cid, Sanskrit love verse, medieval epics, and numerous other literary works.
Merwin’s “The Drunk in the Furnace” (1960) is a meditation on a sleeper in an abandoned smelting furnace in the Pennsylvania hills. The poet balances his narrative within four pentameter quatrains, each begun and ended with half-lines of two or three beats. In the first stanza, the setting of the hat-like “hulking black fossil” alongside a “poisonous creek” points to the locals’ ignorance, implying both lack of education and the original Latin meaning of “don’t know.” By the second stanza, a wisp of smoke awakens the unidentified observers to an intruder capable of “a pale / Resurrection,” a playful hint at the viewers’ shortsighted Christianity.
Drawing on his youth in a Presbyterian rectory, Merwin prolongs the play on fundamentalism in the last two stanzas, noting that the source of the drunk’s “spirits” is mysterious. Drunk on alcohol, he falls “like an iron pig” on car-seat springs, a contrast of dead weight against buoyancy. Again, the poet bolsters meaning with the implied image of pig iron, a product of Pennsylvania’s smelters. The conclusion links hell with the furnace, an earthly damnation of those who pollute nature. Returning to the image of springs, Merwin concludes with the viewers’ “witless offspring,” the Pied Piper’s rats who scurry to the source of singing. A witty play on words, “agape” describes their rapt faces as well as the Greek concept of love freely offered.
In an unusual form of celebration, Merwin imagines the annual date of his demise in “For the Anniversary of My Death” (1967). To typify the opposite of life, he envisions silence traveling into space “like the beam of a lightless star.” In the second stanza, the experience of non-being allows him to flee the surprising qualities of earthly life, which drapes him like “a strange garment.” Among memorable experiences, he singles out “the love of one woman,” an unfinished statement that leaves questions in the reader’s mind about its obviously private significance. When the speaker is refined into spirit and no longer answers to life, he can truly know divinity — the source of “three days of rain,” a wren’s song, and clearing weather.
Grimly regretful of human waste, “For a Coming Extinction” (1967) expresses Merwin’s pessimism about the earth’s future. Line lengths vary from double beats in lines 1 and 4 to longer statements of four or five stresses. Addressed to the gray whale, an endangered species, the four-stanza poem honors the animal as an emblem of all endangered nature, including the “seas nodding on their stalks.” The absence of punctuation creates uncertainty, as with the ominous conclusion of stanza 3: “the future / Dead / And ours.” As though atoning for loss, the poet-speaker promises the whale that it will have company among long-extinct beings, “The sea cows the Great Auks the gorillas,” who predicted the eventual extinction of other living beings. He concludes with a repetition of “Tell him” and stresses that humanity has hastened nature’s death out of arrogance.
Similarly heavy with evanescence, “Losing a Language” (1988), one of Merwin’s most famous poems, responds to a fragility in human communication in the first line, which focuses on the single breath that transmits sentences. The loss of sensitive forms of expression precipitates misunderstanding. Language tethers slip away, leaving gaps between people. Dismissing the message of the old, the youngest members value fewer experiences. The fifth couplet mourns changes in children, whom the outside world urges to devalue their elders “so that they can be admired somewhere / farther and farther away.” At the poem’s climax, line 16, the poet-speaker states the terrible outcome: “we have little to say to each other.”
The remaining six couplets express the failed interactions of a language-dead society. The new find the old “wrong and dark.” Reflecting the warnings of H. G. Wells’s “1984,” the apprehensive poet-speaker warns that the collapse of language prefaces an atmosphere of lies. In an evolving Babel, “nobody has seen it happening / nobody remembers.” Lacking the means to prophesy mounting chaos, people can no longer discuss the elements of life that are slipping away.
Discussion and Research Topics
1. What does the furnace in “The Drunk in the Furnace” symbolize?
2. Characterize the townspeople in “The Drunk in the Furnace”. Is Merwin critical of them? If so, how does he show this criticism in the poem?
3. What role does the drunk play in “The Drunk in the Furnace”. How does Merwin characterize the drunk?
4. What is the speaker’s opinion of death in “For the Anniversary of My Death”? Does the speaker fear or accept death? What in the poem supports your answer?
5. Is Merwin a pessimistic poet? Cite his poetry to support your answer. Also, contrast Merwin, T. S. Eliot, and Adrienne Rich as sentinels on the frontiers of doom. Determine which poet is most spiritually uplifting and why.
6. Summarize Merwin’s opinions on language and human communication in “Losing a Language.” Does he suggest a way to improve communication?