W. S. Merwin’s Migration: New & Selected Poems (2005)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 6/7, which was published circa mid-2006.


W. S. Merwin's – MigrationAt last, I have found it. I have found the one book that I want with me on the deserted island where I am stranded forever — W. S. Merwin’s Migration: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press). Migration, singular, because, as Merwin wrote on postcard to me, “each of us is alone.”

But why this book for the deserted island? Because, in part, this selection of poems has substance. In fact, the selections are such that a reader can actually get a genuine, though not complete, feel of each book from which the poems were pulled. You can almost sense Merwin in his entirety. For me, I can, for my life time on the deserted island, be enamored by the poems giving something that is present, but that may not actually be there, or by the noting of the presence of an absence. I can feel the breathless continuation of intimate detail, not unlike book two of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which Merwin also translated.

I can read & re-read “The Mountain,” which is what I want to talk about here. This is my favorite poem that has not failed to stimulate me in my numerous readings & listenings to it. (And if you are lucky enough to find W. S. Merwin: Reading a Selection of His Poetry (a CD from Copper Canyon Press), get it. You will hear more clearly & crisply the pauses, the tonal shifts, and the syntax of Merwin’s mind.)

And it is in “The Mountain,” a poem from very early in Merwin’s career, where I can hear Merwin begin to develop. It is from this poem where I can find a base for Merwin’s perceptions & thinkings – that is, either we can perceive a part of something from close proximity, or we can perceive the whole but only from a distance too far away, where we cannot see it. Consider these lines from “The Mountain”:

                  It is believed that if one could see it 
   Whole, its shape might make this clearer, but that 
   Is impossible, for at the distance at which in theory 
   One could see it all, it would be out of sight.

And notice the interjection – “at which in theory / One could see it all” – delays the completion of the thought, but not without regard to the thought, for here the momentum slows, the tone lowers, & Merwin produces another moment, where none could be anticipated, a momentary stay against confusion within the momentary stay. And he gives us the possibility of seeing the Mountain in its fullness but only to realize that one could not see the mountain, for it would lose its “slope,” its dignity from the point at which one could see it all.

And then consider this line from later in “The Mountain,” “Shadows are not without substance.” Can you hear what poem that is calling up? Merwin’s “The Last One” (among others, I suppose). Can you hear how it presents the thing without matter & gives it matter — a substantiality? And its from here I can make a leap into the understanding of a maturer Merwin, who does not use punctuation. He has said he does not use punctuation because “the mind does not think in punctuation.” For Merwin, it seems, the poem is never more than an extension of syntax. But the syntax is there, despite its absence – you can hear it, you breathe it. By not using punctuation, by the use of caesuras & line breaks, he creates a punctuation we readily understand. I think, for Merwin, that punctuation puts an anchor on the imagination. (I know it does for me.) The punctuation limits the presentation of the whole, limits the imagination in intimate connection. The punctuation creates a relationship that is either too close or too far; without the punctuation, the imagination can wrap around what it perceives — at least more fully. It can bend language into perception instead of compromising perception for language. But consider these punctuated lines from “The Mountain.”

   Only on the rarest of occasions, when the blue air, 
   Though clear, is not too blinding (as, say 
   For a particular moment just at dusk in autumn) 
   Or if the clouds should part suddenly 
   Between freshets in spring, can one trace the rising 
   Slopes high enough to call them contours; and even 
   More rarely see above the tree line. Then 
   It is with almost a shock that one recognizes 
   What supposedly one had known always: 
   That it is, in fact, a mountain, not merely 
   This restrictive sense of nothing level, of never 
   Being able to go anywhere 
   But up or down, until is seems probable 
   Sometimes that the slope, to be so elusive 
   And yet so inescapable, must be nothing 
   But ourselves; that we have grown with one 
   Foot shorter than the other, and would deform 
   The levelest habitat to our misshapen 

Read “punctuation” or “standard-English syntax” in place of “clouds”, then perhaps you will see what I am suggesting above. Now consider:

                        Of course to each of us 
   Privately, its chief difference from its peers 
   Rests not even in its centrality, but its 
   Strangeness composed of our own intimacy 
   With a part of it, our necessary 
   Ignorance of its limits, and diurnal pretense 
   That what we see of it is all.

(Notice that beautiful pause between “its” & “Strangeness”.) I think it is in this poem that Merwin begins to break through, & is telling himself on some level that he can’t see it all unless he cleanses his lens of perception from standard-English syntax. But Merwin can see it all (or at least more than us) – he can be intimate, & you can be intimate with Merwin in your alone reading of Migration: New & Selected Poems – an experience of meeting Merwin when he is not there, even though he is. //




Merwin, W. S. Migration: New & Selected Poems. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2005.//

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