There is nothing more alien in tone to the poems in W. S. Merwin’s 2008 collection The Shadow of Sirius than the prophetic works of William Blake. Where Blake is strident, public, overtly political, epic, symbolic, dense, muscular, and resistant to interpretation, Merwin is subtle, private, intimate, obliquely political, lyric, non-metaphorical, relaxed, airy, and, at least on the surface, remarkably transparent to sense. If Blake is a full-sized orchestra complete with brass and timpani, Merwin is a modest chamber ensemble, or a wind harp. Blake is Rintrah roaring and shaking his fires in the burdened air (Blake 1993, 143). Merwin is “the stillness after the rain ends” where “nothing is to be heard but the drops falling / one at a time from the tips of the leaves / into the night” (“Nocturne II,” 2008: 93).
Despite the obvious differences, I read some essential similarities that link the two poets across the centuries. Like Blake, Merwin considers the imagination to be among the highest of human faculties. Blake saw the imagination as an emanation of the divine, a means by which to transcend “the world of generation” in order to apprehend “the world of eternity”:
The world of imagination is the world of eternity. It is the divine bosom into which we shall all go after the death of the vegetated body. This world of imagination is infinite and eternal, whereas the world of generation is finite and temporal. There exist in that eternal world the eternal realities of everything which we see reflected in this vegetable glass of nature. (Blake 1982, 555).
In my reading of Merwin, the imagination in contrast represents the means by which the human individual can arrive at the world of nature or generation, and apprehend an intimate interconnection both with the natural world and with other human beings. “There is an individual relationship between the human imagination and all of life,” Merwin remarked before a reading in May 2011, “and that relationship is the basis of human compassion” (“A Reading…”).
That relationship is enacted, and the imagination is made effective, by language. To know Merwin as the great poet of silence is to attend to exactly one half of his sensibility and to overlook the crucial role that singing and speech play in his work. Indeed, The Shadow of Sirius begins with human song—the ancient Han Dynasty poems of Cai Wenji, whom “The Nomad Flute” apostrophizes—and ends, in “The Laughing Thrush,” with birdsong “tumbling upward note by note out of the night” (“The Laughing Thrush,” 2008: 113). The poems engage with language and speech as much as they engage with its absence; there are at least a dozen poems in which figure books (a dictionary, an old favorite volume from childhood, a codex) or writings (letters, poems, notes).
Three poems in The Shadow of Sirius deal explicitly with words and their derivations. The first of these, “Raiment,” begins as a meditation on clothings and coverings, then opens out, through a consideration of the origins of the words “habit,” “custom,” “costume,” and “decency,” onto surmises about words and what lies beyond them:
apparently we believe
in the words
and through them
but we long beyond them
for what is unseen
what remains out of reach
what is kept covered
with colors and sizes
for what is undoubted yet dubious
(“Raiment,” 2008, 26)
This passage echoes persistent concerns about language that have appeared in Merwin’s poems throughout his career. But Merwin’s doubts regarding the efficacy of language to express “what is unseen / what remains out of reach” have never taken the form of fashionable postmodernist hand-wringing about the disconnection of signifier and signified. In fact, rather than criticizing language for failing to satisfy its most fundamental claims, Merwin criticizes the users of language for failing to apprehend its deepest implications. For Merwin, the fault is not in the language, but in ourselves.
Merwin has been pointing to the possibility of a higher order of language, one whose words have the power to enact a deep and resonant sense of interconnectedness, at least as far back as Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment (1983). In that book, the poem “The Unwritten” speculates that ordinary pencils contain an essential text composed of words that would grant its readers the ability to “make out the real names / of everything.” They may be hidden away, but the words that compose that text really are there. What is in doubt, it turns out, is the ability of the human imagination to access and interpret them:
even when the dark has worn away
they’ll still be there
hiding in the air
multitudes in days to come may walk through them
be none the wiser
what script can it be
that they won’t unroll
in what language
would I recognize it
would I be able to follow it
to make out the real names
maybe there aren’t
it could be that there’s only one word
and it’s all we need
(“The Unwritten,” 1983, 40–41)
A similarly crucial but inaccessible text appears in the poem “History,” in The Rain in the Trees (1988). In that poem, a note is written on a page of “a book full of words to remember.” The book is then closed, taken into a foreign country where no one can read the language, and lost—that is, it is hidden from its potential readers by at least three removes. But the books and the words it contains really are there. The implication, however unlikely and paradoxical it may seem, is that an extraordinary act of memory or imagination can recover them—or if not recover them, at least invent a way in which it is possible to “manage without them” (“History,” 1988: 37). I cannot think of a better, or more practical, account of where poetry may begin.
Authentic language, and its loss, is one of Merwin’s great themes. In a 2010 interview in The New York Times, Merwin said that he wanted to use his tenure as US Poet Laureate, to which he had just been appointed, “to emphasize his ‘great sympathy with native people and the languages and literature of native peoples’” (Cohen 2010). Unsurprisingly, Merwin often locates authenticity in indigenous languages, fundamentally figurative and metaphorical languages which have not been degraded by the imperatives of commerce and scientific analysis. The type of authentic language in The Rain in the Trees is native Hawaiian, which is in the process of being rendered extinct through the predations of American English and contemporary business culture. In “Losing a Language,” the native language, the language of the elders, is capable of expressing subtle and resonant apprehensions not available in a language that disparages metaphor and figuration. But “the young,” who have been persuaded through a program of total assimilation “that it is better to say everything differently,” have lost not only the words that can describe such experiences, but also the very ability to believe in and therefore have such experiences:
many of the things the words were about
no longer exist
the noun for standing in mist by a haunted tree
the verb for I
(“Losing a Language,” 1988: 49).
The diminishment of language is either the cause or the effect of a diminishment of consciousness, which entails the loss of the ability to imaginatively sense one’s connection to “the universe and everything living” (Cohen 2010). As a result, the young confront a dead world from which they are exiled, a world that is owned and used rather than felt and understood: “everywhere instead of a name there is a lie.” Jan Zwicky defines the imagination as the capacity to sense resonant connections in the world, to pay attention to the thisness of the world as an act of love. “Lyric thought is a kind of seismic ontological exploration,” Zwicky writes in Wisdom and Metaphor. “Ontological attention is... the antithesis of the attitude that regards things as ‘resources,’ mere means to human ends” (Zwicky 2008, sections 44, 52).
Blake considered oppositions such as “the world of generation” and “the world of eternity” crucial and creative, and called them “Contrarieties.” “Without Contrarieties is no progression,” writes Blake in the opening argument of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell—a book whose very title encodes the fruitful interrelationship of an essential binary (Blake 1993, 143). The world that Merwin’s poems imagine is also composed of oppositions and contraries, although Merwin tends to collapse such oppositions without abolishing them. In The Shadow of Sirius, for instance—a book whose title invokes a binary system like The Marriage of Heaven and Hell—the world of generation is the eternal world. Eternity is not a separate realm; rather, it is this realm apprehended in its totality, as in the poem “Just This,” in which all of time stands together in an endless now which embraces all motion but does not itself move:
When I think of the patience I have had
back in the dark before I remember
or knew it was night until the light came
all at once at the speed it was born to
with all the time in the world to fly through
not concerned about ever arriving
and then the gathering of the first stars
unhurried in their flowering spaces
and far into the story the planets
cooling slowly and the ages of rain
then the seas starting to bear memory
the gaze of the first cell at its waking
how did this haste begin this little time
at any time this reading by lightning
scarcely a word this nothing this heaven
(“Just This,” 2008: 112)
Merwin’s title here typically cuts in several directions at once. There is “just this” one world and no other, the entire history of the world amounts to “just this” little time, all the labor of poetry comes to “just this” little understanding, which is “scarcely a word.”
“Collapsed opposition” is a perfectly good definition of paradox, and paradox is the means by which Merwin often reaches beyond apparent contradictions to describe experiences and apprehensions that cannot be reduced to conventional categories of thought. “Just This” does not attempt to resolve the paradox on which it lands—“this nothing this heaven.” The phrase “this heaven” neither revises nor replaces “this nothing”: both stand together, both are given equal weight, both are simultaneously true. We begin to approach the nature of things, the poem seems to be saying, when we can see the truth of both statements at the same time without losing the sense of their contradiction.
When awareness of paradox gives rise to situational irony, as it often does, Merwin tends to respond with bemusement or an understated (and often overlooked) wry humor. Here, the speaker’s sense of his own patience seems first astonishing in relation to his own long lifetime, then absurd in relation to the vastly incommensurate lifetime of the universe. In a neat reversal, the lifetime of the universe first seems astonishing for its inconceivable length, then astonishing for its inconceivable brevity. The light that emerges from darkness and flies throughout all eternity is, at the same time, a flash of lighting; the lifetime that is nothing more than a flash of lightning extends, through its participation in the lifetime of the universe, to the beginning of time.
In a 2009 interview with Terry Gross on the National Public Radio program Fresh Air, Merwin talked about an important legacy left to him by his parents, who died within a few months of each other:
[O]ne of their great gifts to me was that neither of them turned out to be afraid of dying at all. And in quite different ways, they died without any expression of anxiety or of dread or of clutching at anything else. And that’s a great gift to be given, that feeling of no fear, and I think I inherited it from them very early. (Merwin 2009)
Shadow and its analogues absence and silence have figured prominently in Merwin’s poems since The Moving Target (1963) and earlier. Where they were once predatory, encroaching, and annihilating—especially in the insatiable swallowing shadow of “The Last One” (1967: 10–12)—they have become, in the recent work, embracing, refreshing, intimate, and full of potential. In The Shadow of Sirius, Merwin confronts shadow and absence more personally than he ever has before. He addresses his own mortality, his own inevitable absence, and the silence into which his voice must fall, with the absence of anxiety and dread that was his parents’ gift to him.
Rather than seeking for some amelioration or compromise, Merwin refuses to retreat from the full purport of his vision, and he begins to imagine the journey into silence and shadow as a sort of adventure. “When the moon has gone I fly on alone / into this night where I have never been,” he writes in “The Curlew”; and later, in “Nocturne II,” “I lie in the dark / listening to what I remember / while the night flies on with us into itself” (2008: 59, 93). The journey into shadow is also a kind of homecoming:
night is a dream you know
an old love in the dark
around you as you go
without end you know
(“Good Night,” 2008: 46)
These lines, so quiet and so apparently casual, accord with the cosmography that Merwin’s enterprise inscribes. By collapsing the worlds of generation and eternity, by affirming that there is “just this” world, the only direction in which Merwin can go is straight on ahead, into that portion of time in which he no longer appears as a living individual. His beloved chows, elegies for whom comprise the brief second section of The Shadow of Sirius, having gone on before him, show him the way, which is headlong into the darkness: “When it is time I follow the black dog / into the darkness that is the mind of day” (“By Dark,” 2008, 43), and again, “o closest to my breath / if you are able to / please wait a while longer / on that side of the cloud” (“Into the Cloud,” 2008, 48).
As in the Tao, the Kabbalah, and other religious philosophies, Merwin’s vision identifies shadow and silence as both source and destination. “Eye of Shadow” figures shadow as an originary presence, a guardian of the wellsprings of being, a prince in a beggar’s dark rags, a guide and seer and herald:
Sentry of the other side
it may have watched the beginning
without being noticed in all
that blossoming radiance
the beggar in dark rags
down on the threshold
a shadow waiting
in its own fair time
all in its rags it rises
revealing its prime claim
upon the latter day
that fades around it
while the sky is turning
with the whole prophecy
o lengthening dark vision
reaching across the faces
across colors and mountains
and all that is known
or appears to be known
herald without a sound
leave-taking without a word
guide beyond time and knowledge
I touch the day
I taste the light
(“Eye of Shadow,” 2008, 66)
The closing declarations of “I”—“I touch the day / I taste the light / I remember”—repeated three times as in a fairy tale, or like the tolling of a bell, assert the persistence of the personal self (both the I and the eye) in the face of the shadow which must swallow it, counter night with day, balance darkness with light, and match obliteration with memory. But this is not Merwin raging against the passing of the light; rather, this is Merwin affirming that the light and the darkness come and go together, that the self and the self’s absence are equally part of what is, like the visible star Sirius A and its unseen companion, Sirius B.
Ever since Walt Whitman opened his most famous poem with the line “I celebrate myself and I sing myself,” American lyric poetry has tended to foreground the personal ego and its desires. Even a poet as apparently self-effacing and opposite in sensibility as Emily Dickinson worries about the subject of selfhood, its ambiguities and uncertainties: “I felt my life with both my hands / To see if it was there—” writes Dickinson in poem 351. In the 1960s and 1970s, Merwin appeared to be the poet par excellence of the terror of personal annihilation, and his poems the site not of the personal ego and its passions, but of disembodied voices who could not satisfy their legitimate desires.
The project of Merwin’s poetry up to The Shadow of Sirius reads like an attempt to establish and inhabit the self in a specifically named and imagined place. Merwin’s discovery of such a place in his poems coincides with his arrival in Hawaii, which has been his primary home since the mid-1970s. By The Rain in the Trees (1988), Merwin had transitioned from a spare and oracular style to a relaxed and colloquial style, and he had started to import his personal history directly into his poems as subject matter. Concurrently, Merwin opened his poems up to larger historical subjects and began experimenting with longer narrative forms not previously attempted in his work.
Across all of these periods, however, Merwin continued to write short lyric poems, sometimes in meter, sometimes in syllabics, sometimes with subtle rhyme schemes or repeating end words or end sounds. Although it has gone through many changes over the years, Merwin’s voice is unmistakable, and the strength of that voice has led many casual readers to imagine that Merwin has been writing the same sort of poem over and over again for decades. The fact is that Merwin has a sort of horror of repeating himself. Despite evident similarities in tone and diction, the poems of, say, The Vixen (1996), with their alternating indented lines, lengthy enjambed sentences, and complexly layered meditations on the passage of time over certain landscapes in the southwest of France, could not be more different from the poems of Present Company (2005), apostrophes to the things and notions and imaginations of ordinary life, mostly in short lines and often in syllabics, with a surprising number of Italian sonnets, each exhibiting a variant rhyme scheme, as if Merwin were trying to exhaust the possibilities of the form.
The short lyrics of The Shadow of Sirius are something new again. These poems are not highly orchestrated nor are they especially dramatic. They are not rigged to detonate, they are not metaphorical except in the most expansive definition of the term, and they do not necessarily leap or turn or try to dazzle. Rather, they are cast in the intimate and unadorned voice of a close companion who speaks softly and urgently, as it were, into one’s very ear. Their directness and simplicity is neither accidental nor easy, but rather results from a vigorous program of distilling and paring back speech.
In The Shadow of Sirius, Merwin does not reverse his project of situating, rooting, and satisfying the desires of the personal self. Instead, he attempts to move beyond it, to contact the place where the self can register and recognize energies and forces that originate outside itself while remaining embodied. Here is the poem “Falling”:
Long before daybreak
none of the birds yet awake
rain comes down with the sound
of a huge wind rushing
through the valley trees
it comes down around us
all at the same time
and beyond it there is nothing
it falls without hearing itself
there is anyone here
without seeing where it is
or where it is going
like a moment of great
happiness of our own
that we cannot remember
coasting with the lights off
(“Falling,” 2008, 104)
The situation and disposition of the hearing self is suppressed in favor of what the self hears: the rain falling loudly and blindly through the trees, within an enveloping silence and darkness. By implication, and by the accumulation of similar situations in other poems in the book, the speaker and his companion can be seen in bed in the middle of the night, listening. The simile that begins in the poem’s fourth-to-last line connects the sensual experience of the rainfall, and the more abstract thoughts about its unselfconsciousness, with the personal experience of “a moment of great / happiness of our own.” Even here, the personal ego gives way to an experience that can only exist in an exchange between two people/ Furthermore, that experience persists only in the speaker’s recognition that it must have happened, since it cannot be remembered. The speaker’s consciousness, then, becomes the site of various forms of unconsciousness, and he discovers his connections to the world and to his companion precisely to the degree that his personal ego is emptied out.
Can there be a lyric poetry that enacts the emptying out of the self, the relinquishing of desire? The poems in The Shadow of Sirius pose, and begin to answer, this question.
Jonathan Weinert’s first book of poems, In the Mode of Disappearance, won the 2006 Nightboat Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. He is co-editor, with Kevin Prufer, of Until Everything Is Continuous Again: American Poets on the Recent Work of W. S. Merwin (Wordfarm, 2012).
Blake, William, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” in The Early Illuminated Books. David Bindman, ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.
Blake, William. “A Vision of the Last Judgment.” In The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake, David V. Erdman, ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.
Cohen Patricia. “W. S. Merwin to Be Named Poet Laureate,” The New York Times, June 30, 2010.
Merwin, W. S. “A Reading by U. S. Poet Laureate W. S. Merwin.” Phillips Academy, Andover, MA, 6 May 2011.
_____. “The ‘Sirius’ Side Of Poetry.” Interview with Terry Gross. Fresh Air, NPR (21 April 2009).
_____. The Shadow of Sirius. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 2008.
_____. The Rain in the Trees. New York: Knopf, 1988.
_____. Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment. New York: Atheneum, 1983.
_____. The Vixen. New York: Knopf, 1996.
_____. The Lice. New York: Atheneum, 1967.
Zwicky, Jan. Wisdom and Metaphor. Kentville, Nova Scotia: Gaspereau Press, 2008.