W. S. Merwin

6 posts

The Poetry of Questions (and Possible Answers)

Poetry serves many purposes, but one of my favorites is as facilitator of questions and possible answers. Why? Because the answers are often novel concepts. Even better, they’re often new questions in answer’s clothing. Sure, they might not pass muster with a scientist, but who’s worried about scientists when reading poems? Not this guy.

The late W. S. Merwin provides a nice example of the Q&A model with his poem “Old Man At Home Alone in the Morning.” As is true with all Merwin poems, the first hurdle is reading for rhythm, specifically the rhythm lost by his habit of forsaking my favorite writing prop, punctuation.

Once you have that figured out, you can better notice how the age of wisdom (read: old age) both is and isn’t so wise. Or at least the narrator seems to conclude here. Let’s don our poetic bathing suits and jump into his stream of consciousness:


“Old Man At Home Alone in the Morning”
W.S. Merwin

There are questions that I no longer ask
and others that I have not asked for a long time
that I return to and dust off and discover
that I’m smiling and the question
has always been me and that it is
no question at all but that it means
different things at the same time
yes I am old now and I am the child
I remember what are called the old days and there is
no one to ask how they became the old days
and if I ask myself there is no answer
so this is old and what I have become
and the answer is something I would come to
later when I was old but this morning
is not old and I am the morning
in which the autumn leaves have no question
as the breeze passes through them and is gone


I think we can agree that the narrator has figured out a few things about life, and one of them is that we’ll never figure out everything about life. One pearl of wisdom is knowing what questions not to ask anymore, either because you’ve come to learn the answers through experience or because you’ve come to the conclusion, “Why bother?”

Then there’s that mirror thing, namely those questions that reflect the asker. According to the speaker, these are questions…


…I return to and dust off and discover
that I’m smiling and the question
has always been me and that it is
no question at all but that it means
different things at the same time


Got it? You are the question, but it is not a question, and it holds multiple meanings. Here the poem takes on the character of a koan.

Then comes the paradox of age: how an old man or woman always holds within the young boy or girl, both simultaneously alive in one form.

Finally there’s an admission: Though the answer is incomplete and always will be, arriving to an advanced age seems a partial solution.

The poem “turns” (as many good poems do) in the 14th line with that heavy-lifting conjunction “but.” Despite all the deep, head-scratching thoughts about life, the narrator knows this much for sure (and it’s a novel concept, the kind poetry is uniquely positioned to pose):


…but this morning
is not old and I am the morning
in which the autumn leaves have no question
as the breeze passes through them and is gone.


If you’re Buddhist, you’re finding the familiar in this thinking: Let’s focus on the present. Sure, I’m old, but this morning (like all mornings) is not old and “I am the morning.”

Hot damn. Ponce de Leon spent all that time hunting the Fountain of Youth in the Everglades, and all he had to do is become the morning, which sat on his doorstep each dawn.

Sounds easy, right? But not so fast. The last two lines place this poetic meditation in the season of autumn. Note that the leaves have no questions. Note that the breeze (our short lifetimes on Earth) “passes through them and is gone.”

To return, the speaker implies, because that’s what winds and seasons do. The circle thing. Samsara. The old mouth-eating-tail metaphor of questions and answers.

The Special Day We Don’t Know (Yet)

From an early age, we are attuned to our special day, our birthday. We remember nothing of that perilous journey, of course, but our mothers will be happy to fill in all the missing details.

Over time, birthdays devolve into a familiar ritual of well-wishes, birthday gifts, and a fiery cake accompanied by a monotonous ditty. They also become reminders of the approaching other.

Think about it. Each year we lap another special day on the calendar, our birth date’s dark cousin (a. k. a. “the other”). Each year it smiles as we pass, nodding its head in that knowing way. This would be that patient trickster known as our death day.

After both are revealed, commemorating one special day over another can be a problem. The Kennedy family, for instance, would prefer that people not remember President John Fitzgerald Kennedy by the date of his assassination: November 22nd. They’d prefer people celebrate JFK’s life on his birthdate: May 29th. Unfortunately, people of an age (read: “old”) only think of the man on 11-22 because of ’63.

W. S. Merwin wrote a poem about the special day allotted to each of us — the one we choose to ignore. It is called, appropriately enough, “For the Anniversary of My Death.”


For the Anniversary of My Death
W. S. Merwin

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveller
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what


The first stanza is the living speaker, the second the speaker familiar with his formerly secret “deathday.” Stanza one offers some alliteration (“will wave” and “Tireless traveller”) as well as a rather oxymoronic contrast via simile: “Like the beam of a lightless star.”

I like how silence is depicted as a tireless traveller happy to never break its silence for eternity. If you’ve ever been frustrated by the dead’s refusal to yield up their secrets, you can identify.

In the second stanza, we get the wonderful metaphor of life as a “strange garment,” which makes sense given we exist for an eternity before birth and will exist again for an eternity after death. Clearly non-existence is the more familiar of garments.

As for life, it’s the mere blip between. In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, a man attuned to his approaching secret day, pounds away at this fact of death (you thought I was going to say “life”?).

Merwin remains in the abstract with the “love of one women” and “the shamelessness of men” (something news readers and students of history can relate to). Then he shifts to the concrete with the last three lines.

Here we have three days of rain. Here we have a wren singing and “the falling cease / And bowing not knowing to what.” The word “falling” is nifty in that it ostensibly refers to the aforementioned rain but works just as well for the more Biblical falling of man. You know, the broken contract, wherein Adam & Eve lost their franchise, The Garden of Eden, and got stuck with this problematic death thing along with a host of other woes. Thanks, Adam & Eve.

As for “not knowing to what,” that brings us around to the great mystery again, the driving force behind all great literature: death. And yes, death will have its day.

Anyway, it’s a small outing for Merwin written in his characteristic, no-punctuation style, but I like how it reminds us of the thing we prefer to ignore, especially in modern day. Death was more a part of living in olden times. People were waked in the living room (ironically) of their homes, then buried by family.

Now the dying are hustled out of sight into nursing homes and hospitals. Funeral parlors are paid outrageous sums to take care of everything so the living can continue to pretend that they are immortal, even though they logically know they are not.

Birthday, Deathday. We should all wish ourselves a happy one of each and remind ourselves we’ll be blowing out the candles for good come “the other.”


The Wake of Li Po’s Little Boat


From across the ages and continents, Chinese poet Li Po is still inspiring. What a delightful surprise to find him on p. 26 of W.S. Merwin’s penultimate collection, Garden Time.

When reading poetry collections, you live for these moments. No collection is filled to the gunwales with wonders, but good ones hit you with a few along the way — about all you can ask from a full book of poetry.

Merwin’s homage to Li Po is one of those good poems. At least its smallness spoke to me in a big way. Sure, I’m a sucker for poems about time, the enduring and the fleeting, and this one touches all those buttons, but still… in only nine lines! Whew!

Take a look-see yourself. Whether a fan of Li Po’s or Merwin’s, you’ll enjoy, I’m sure:


“River” by W.S. Merwin

Li Po the little boat is gone
that carried you ten thousand li
downstream past the gibbons calling
all the way from both banks and they
too are gone and the forests they
were calling from and you are gone
and every sound you heard is gone
now there is only the river
that was always on its own way


Sometimes personification, the little stepchild of figurative language, can work in unexpected and subtle ways. This would be one of those times. Catch my drift?

R.I.P. W.S. Merwin

The poetry world lost a big one in W.S. Merwin today. What’s amazing is how much an obituary teaches you about a person. Palm gardens. Walden on the Pacific. Hawaii!

Oh, and poetry, too. So much poetry. Not to mention essays, short fiction, a memoir (Summer Doorways, which I enjoyed last year), and copious amounts of poetry, which would win him a National Book Award once and the Pulitzer twice.

Not bad for a day’s work.

You can read a fine obituary on W.S. Merwin here, on the New York Times’ website.

Fare thee well, William Stanley. You will be missed!


W. S. Merwin’s “Remembering Summer”


We are but 11 days away from the shortest day of the year and the start of winter, December 21st. What better day to celebrate a new Merwin poem called “Remembering Summer”?

It’s found in W.S.’s (that’s William Stanley’s to you) newest collection, Garden Time, the title itself a reminder of summer, at least here in the northern, freeze-your-hey-nonny-nonnies-off zone.

The poems in Merwin’s latest book take a page out of the Pole Zbigniew Herbert’s stylebook. Meaning: The first word of each poem is capitalized, as is the pronoun “I” (which looks admittedly foolish and adolescent when it’s lower-cased) but, beyond that, all letters are lower case (as in the e’s in cummings) with no punctuation to speak of (just don’t speak of it to your 6th-grade English teacher).

The subject of summer made me reminisce, and I quickly found similarities in the season’s effects on us, as seen first here, then there:

“Summer’s End” by Ken Craft

In the dog days, when Altair and Deneb
set toward western waters, Vega
flaring in their starry wake, the song
of peepers and crickets melds liquid
to languid; the first maple leafs ripen
and curl to red fists; pine needles spread
gold scripture across the water;
nuthatch feet circle three trunks–
gentle scriveners
scribing the dawn of dying days.


“Remembering Summer” by W. S. Merwin

Being too warm the old lady said to me
is better than being too cold I think now
in between is the best because you never
give it a thought but it goes by too fast
I remember the winter how cold it got
I could never get warm wherever I was
but I don’t remember the summer heat like that
only the long days the breathing of the trees
the evenings with the hens still talking in the lane
and the light getting longer in the valley
the sound of a bell from down there somewhere
I can sit here now still listening to it

Ah, yes. The hens. The bells. I’m not sure where Merwin lives and writes, but I have a feeling New York City isn’t it. And if he did, would he really want to remember summer in such skyscrapered, police-sirened environs?

Summer only stretches out and sleeps in its true languorous loveliness in the country, it seems to me. In “Summer’s End,” I’m writing from a Maine lake, and in “Remembering Summer,” Merwin writes from his summer hideout, wherever that may be.


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Milosz on Merwin’s “Utterance”


I’ve been reading a book of poems edited by Czeslaw Milosz and enjoying his commentary before each poem as much as the poems themselves. Called A Book of Luminous Things, the volume will forever enjoy a special place in my heart because I bought it in a distant town that  I was visiting and had never visited before and, as we all know, books purchased on our travels gain pedigree by the memory running through their veins alone. In this case I was in New York’s Hudson Valley in a town called Rhinebeck. The store? Oblong Books & Music, thank you.

Anyway, the poem. It’s brief but memorable, written by W. S. Merwin. In his commentary, Milosz writes, “At any moment in our life we are entangled in all the past of humanity, and that past is primarily language, so we live as if upon a background of incessant chorus, and of course it is possible to imagine the presence of everything which has ever been spoken.”

To see what Milosz means, you need only read Merwin’s eight-line meditation:


Sitting over words
very late I have heard a kind of whispered sighing
not far
like a night wind in pines or like the sea in the dark
the echo of everything that has ever
been spoken
still spinning its one syllable
between the earth and silence

Between the earth and silence. I think that’s where I want to be–today, at least. And I hope, as an important piece of time and humanity, you find a place there, too.