October 8, 2009

W.S. Merwin - I Have Lost None Of It

I had read poems by W.S. Merwin before I actually heard him read in person. But seeing and hearing him at one of the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festivals is what really got me to get his books and read the poems.

Last June, he did an interview on the Bill Moyers Journal and talked about that Dodge appearance which Moyers recorded and turned into several books and videos, including Fooling With Words.

Merwin’s book, The Shadow of Sirius, won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in poetry, and it is one of my favorites of his. Maybe that's because much of it is poetry of later life - loss, memory, time - and the backward and forward of what we see, feel, and remember.

This childhood memory at the intersection of past and present is part of the poem “Still Morning."

It appears now that there is only one
age and it knows
nothing of age as the flying birds know
nothing of the air they are flying through
or of the day that bears them up
through themselves
and I am a child before there are words
arms are holding me up in a shadow

This book that is named for the Dog Star has a good number of poems about Merwin’s own dogs. His poem, “Dream of Koa Returning,” has Merwin walking and looking at the river and trees
and all at once you
were just behind me
lying watching me
as you did years ago
and not stirring at all
when I reached back slowly
hoping to touch
your long amber fur
and there we stayed without moving

In that interview, Moyers wondered:

Now, Sirius is the dog star, the most luminous star in the sky, twenty-five times more luminous than the sun. And yet, you write about it's shadow. Something that no one has never seen. Something that's invisible to us. Help me to understand that.

and Merwin relplied:

That's the point. The shadow of Sirius is pure metaphor, pure imagination. But we live in it all the time. We are the shadow of Sirius. There is the other side of-- as we talk to each other, we see the light, and we see these faces, but we know that behind that, there's the other side, which we never know. And that — it's the dark, the unknown side that guides us, and that is part of our lives all the time. It's the mystery. That's always with us, too. And it gives the depth and dimension to the rest of it.

In the poem "The Nomad Flute"

You that sang to me once sing to me now
let me hear your long lifted note
survive with me
the star is fading
I can think farther than that but I forget
do you hear me

do you still hear me
does your air
remember you
o breath of morning
night song morning song
I have with me
all that I do not know
I have lost none of it

and Moyers asked, "What — how do you carry with you what you do not know?"

W.S. MERWIN: We always do that. I think that poetry and the most valuable things in our lives, and in fact the next sentence, your next question to me, Bill, come out of what we don't know. They don't come out of what we do know. They come out of what we do know, but what we do know doesn't make them. The real source of them is beyond that. It's something we don't know. They arise by themselves. And that's a process that we never understand.

And there is this poem, which I am selfishly attracted to because it is about a teacher and teaching.

The Pinnacle

Both of us understood
what a privilege it was
to be out for a walk
with each other
we could tell from our different
heights that this
kind of thing happened
so rarely that it might
not come round again
for me to be allowed
even before I
had started school
to go out for a walk
with Miss Giles
who had just retired
from being a teacher all her life

she was beautiful
in her camel hair coat
that seemed like the autumn leaves
our walk was her idea
we liked listening to each other
her voice was soft and sure
and we went our favorite way
the first time just in case
it was the only time
even though it might be too far
we went all the way
up the Palisades to the place
we called the pinnacle
with its park at the cliff's edge
overlooking the river
it was already a secret
the pinnacle
as we were walking back
when the time was later
than we had realized
and in fact no one
seemed to know where we had been
even when she told them
no one had heard of the pinnacle

and then where did she go

from The Shadow of Sirius (Copper Canyon Press)

1 comment:

Gwil W said...

Much good luck to Mr Merwin in his appointment as poet laureate. You Americans are lucky. The committee, or whoever, couldn't have made a better choice. I say 1 year renewable, yes definitely renewable! In the UK we're still in the Victorian age, or not much moved on. It's basically 10 years of HRH birthday poetry for a few bottles of royal plonk. Not long ago it was ven worse; a life sentence.