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There are three key differences between those poets the academic establishment consider major versus their minor brethren: major poets are prolific, their work has marked change, and they have influenced leagues of poets and likely future major poets. W. S. Merwin has two of three and time will tell if he hits the major poet trifecta.
Merwin is prolific; he has published scores of books and is probably best known to the casual reader as the translator of the wildly successful Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He also knocked out a wonderful translation of Dante’s Purgatorio even though he monkeyed with the terza rima, which, being a form whore, I find to be rather important.
And Merwin used to be a form whore himself. His first book, A Mask for Janus, is flowery and ornate and was selected by W. H. Auden in 1952 for the Yale Younger Poets Prize. (Merwin took a turn as a judge for the prestigious prize in the ’90s.) He then busted free of the shackles of received form in the sixties (along with everybody else) after Robert Lowell changed the game with Life Studies. And now he writes verse totally free of punctuation though, like all former formal poets, you can still hear the beats; his poems tend to have an iambic backbone. So Merwin has the big change in poetics.
Is he influential? I’m not sure. I’ve never heard anyone mention him as an influence (and personally I don’t consider him an influence though I like his poetry). The Lice is considered by many as one of the best books of poetry from the 20th century. But Merwin doesn’t have a cadre of imitators the same way Ashbery has now or Eliot or Stevens or Yeats had, some of whom developed into major poets (like Auden, like Lowell). Sadly, sometimes a poet needs to die before his or her full impact can be felt.
Merwin has travelled extensively and harbors a deep respect for the natural world and its denizens. So it’s not surprising that landscapes figure prominently in his work and that we run across one in the poem appearing in the November 3, 2008, issue of the New Yorker. In this case it’s Alba, Italy, home of the Fighting White Truffles.
“Alba” is fairly representative of a Merwin poem; hear the iambic thumping, nary a punctuation mark (sans the apostrophe that gives the mule its shod hooves). It moves elliptically but is wrapped up neatly, with a bow, with a toothpick.
We find the speaker climbing a terraced, ag-heavy mountain shrouded in mist in Northern Italy when he comes upon a field of broad beans in bloom with its fragrant flowers and there he heard the creaking harness and clickety-clack hooves of the mule working the field and the farmer singing in a low voice in a foreign tongue to the mule and the speaker of the poem watches the mist flow from their breaths. It’s a nice image and entirely too easy to summarize; good poetry resists summary.
And it’s beyond me the value of lines three through seven. They’re descriptive, sure, but they don’t advance the meaning of the poem and could be cut and nobody would miss them. The meaning of the poem? When a poet climbs a mountain, more often than not that mountain is Parnassus, home of the Muses and poetic inspiration. So here the poet climbs the mountain in darkness, in mist and sees THE FIELD IN FLOWER at first light and then hears the jingle and crack and song of hard labor, but understands none of the song: there are no answers at the top of the mountain.
This poem is thematically typical of Merwin too: a rooted emptiness courses through his work. Cultural death is also a big theme too and I get the sense the speaker of the poem is pleased that he can’t understand the farmer’s song. And Merwin, who presumably knows a great deal of Italian translating Dante and all, may be overjoyed to have this run-in with a regional dialect (if that’s what it is).
And whenever I read Merwin, I can’t help but think of Elizabeth Bishop’s fantastic poem that touches on hypotaxis and parataxis (“everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and'”). Everything is connected; everything is equal.