Written by Matt Haviland
The first assignment from my Intermediate Poetry Writing professor was to explore our course book, The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry: Second Edition. As we were getting settled for the next class period, I heard someone ask, “Did you read ‘The Animals’?” She smiled like she had a juicy secret. “At first you’re like, ‘What?’ And then you’re like, ‘Oh my god.’” Of course, this brought me to read “The Animals” by W. S. Merwin — one of many, many poems featured in Migration: New & Selected Poems. There are ten short lines with barely any clear description of what’s going on (“All these years behind windows / With blind crosses sweeping the tables”). Depending on whether you’ve embarked on a shamanic vision quest before, this poem will be unlike anything you’ve ever read.
Some things—the Dark Tower series by Stephen King, the archives of Roger Ebert, or The Collected Works of William Shakespeare—are embarrassments of riches. These are collections of bookmarks that you can keep going back to and sinking deeper and deeper within. Migration: New & Selected Poems presents generous helpings from more than a dozen collections by former United States Poet Laureate W. S. Merwin and seems like sifting through five hundred pages of dreams and nightmares. The early collections feature muscular modernist poetry full of shipwrecks, gray skies, and strong syllables. One poem is a conceit from the viewpoint of Saint Sebastian as he faces flying arrows and “Thy kingdom that on these erring shafts comes.” Then the punctuation drops away and the poems become dreamlike collages that resemble celluloid of unfilmed David Lynch pictures, but dreamier, softer, more spacious: “For a long time some of us / lie in the marshes like dark coats / forgetting that we are water.” But then the darkness begins to break and the light shines through collections of nature poems. Longer lines fill their pages with shifting indentations, left to right, that look and feel like the tide: “as the oldest got up first taking a coil of rope / down and disappeared into the sound then we / went after him one by one stepping into the cold pull / of the current to feel the round stones slip farther.”
Migration: New & Selected Poems won the National Book Award in 2005. Three years later, Merwin’s The Shadow of Sirius, which reads like sunlight and dust motes, won the Pulitzer Prize. The first award was a lifetime achievement award of sorts. The second was a fresh round of applause fifty-six years after Merwin’s first collection was published. His output has been called “wisdom poetry.” These are poems that resonate deeply with something that you explore when words drop away. Reading them is like listening to the spacier parts of songs by The Doors. Think Jim Morrison under strange lights.
Another time in college, in another poetry course (this one about reading, not writing), I had to select a poem to read to the class. I found one in Migration: New & Selected Poems called “Touching the Tree,” which builds from the denial of a black river (“watching everything from one side”) and that of a father and mother to the song of streetcars (“singing to themselves I am iron”) and the racket of metropolitan commerce (“but at the foot of the tree in the fluttering light / I have dug a cave for a lion”). When I was done, someone asked who wrote that, again. I spoke with a bashful lack of clarity, and she asked again and wrote down the name. Reading W. S. Merwin is like sitting at a bonfire with someone who knows magic and they’re telling you how to create smoke from snapping your fingers. How to harness wind