The work of some poets -- Ted Berrigan or Frank O'Hara, for instance -- seems to vibrate with a sense of their distinct, quirky natures. Even when they are not being autobiographical or "confessional," a feeling for them as people comes across in their poems. But W. S. Merwin is more like a ghost, a bodiless voice always "facing something we cannot see" ("November"). He is aware of this: "Before there was a body/an eye wandered in a forest/to see how it would be" ("The Deluge").
This is not to say that Merwin's work is unsuccessful, but only that its success does not depend on whether his life and personality are interesting. His poems work when the language is striking, and Merwin has written enough first-rate -- and occasionally great -- poems to prove his abilities in English.
The Compass flower , Merwin's first book since Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment was published four years ago, includes some fine work. The book's opener, for example, a poem called "The Heart," is quint-essential Merwin -- mysterious but precise. In a number of other poems, most especially a piece called "Talk of Fortune," he uses an uncharacteristic flat, colloquial style which works beautifully.
In his work, Merwin has always been attracted to traditional tensions: youth/age, day/night, the world/some other unseen world. The Compass Flower is no exception. In fact, one of the book's crucial interests is the relationship between the city and the world of nature.
The love poems are the weakest work in the new book. Merwin's personal has been disembodied for far too long to be practiced at the passion, intensity, and physical sense required of good love poems. His work is paradoxically more sure of itself in the world of "What is unseen" ("Vision") than in the world of love and sex. (Atheneum, paperback, $4.95)