W.S. Merwin has inspired poets of his own generation and subsequent ones with the purity of his lyric gift: "lyric" meaning a physical energy coursing through the sounds of words and sentences, fitted together so the effect is a little like singing, or as though the consonants and vowels were part of a stringed instrument, the lyre of speech. In the unpunctuated grace of his lines, Merwin may be the living poet whose imagination is most purely -- and with the most reliable illusion of ease -- poetic. He can seem to think and perceive poetically, as though with no intermediate stage of writing between perception and poem.
In his new volume, Present Company, each poem is addressed, ode-style, to a person ("To A Friend Traveling," "To My Mother," "To Paula," "To Myself"), an abstraction ("To Grief," "To the Present Tense," "To the Next Time") or an object ("To My Legs," "To Billy's Car," "To Glass"). The emotion expressed throughout is skeptical wonderment: The poems convey that these topics are animated yet unknowable. Each addressee has something like a soul (including "To the Soul"), and each soul remains more mysterious than comprehended. So the poem "To Prose" concludes:
only scattered fragments of you
glimpses of birds in bushes
gestures in car windows
of which we forget
at once almost everything
you define us
we are the ones who need you
we can no longer tell
whether we believe
anything without you
or whether we can hear
all that you are not
O web of answer
sea of forgetting is it true
that you remember
These lines illustrate how, in the world of Present Company, everything -- even prose, the way of understanding defined by not being poetry -- has its own mysterious, poetic aura.
If we can "no longer" hear all the things that prose is not, if we have misplaced kinds of meaning that escape the prosaic "web of answer," then our knowledge is radically defective. The poem implies that without the poetic, we cannot perceive the coloration of prose; our own willingness to distort or forget will masquerade as something innocent or transparent. Memory, then, depends on the poetic. Without that other, non-prosaic way of understanding, we drown in the "sea of forgetting."
This is Merwin's quiet, oblique way of celebrating poetry, or the psychological need for poetry. The poetic makes absent or invisible things present, animating the departed along with the minimal, the fragmentary, the defective, the elusive -- all those remote shards or tiny motes of the nearly forgotten or half-understood, like bits of glittering mica. Merwin's particles of elegy demonstrate the power of imagination to restore conviction. That power is demonstrated all the better when it crosses distances, as the light from far-off stars can confirm certain principles in astrophysics. That simile is more or less explicit in "To My Grandfathers," which begins by defining how faint, remote and defective this particular human connection is:
You who never laid eyes on each other
only one of whom I met only once
and he was the one whose wife could never
forgive him neither would most of their sons
and daughters for the red list of his sins
This drinking and abandoning man and the other grandfather, known even less, represent the way in which elements that indirectly form us and determine our fates go mostly unperceived:
and you who died when my mother was four
with your fond hopes your wing collar and your
Bessie there was nothing you had to say
to each other to form an influence
soundless as that of planets in their distance
The intimacy of the second-person address in this book yearns across distance. The poems speak much less frequently to actual people than to ideas or objects or the departed. Often, as with the grandfathers, imagining a conversation is a way of acknowledging that it cannot take place. Even when Merwin addresses the living, his subject is things not present. Speaking in wonderment at how many things are invisible or absent yet full of "influence," the poems imagine speaking as a process of understated incantation: marveling at the unseen, and in a soft voice summoning its presence.
(W.S. Merwin's poems "To Prose" and "To My Grandfathers" are from his book "Present Company." Copper Canyon. Copyright © 2005 by W.S. Merwin.)