Friday, August 5, 2016

In the Goodness of Time: The Poet and "The Great Work"

W.S. Merwin in his garden on Maui        (The Merwin Conservancy)
          Recently, I read an article about Wallace Stevens in the New Yorker. In it Peter Scheldahl declares that for him the best poem of the 20th century is The Idea of Order in Key West.

          I re-read the poem after many years, and yes it is beautifully crafted and mythic, about a She and the Sea and it has the power and repetition of waves - but it is a poem written from a metaphysical sky. There is a line in the poem that tells us « She was the single artificer of the world/In which she sang », and I thought the word ‹ he › could be substituted for ‹ she › and it would describe the poet.

         Perhaps I responded this way because I’m reading W.S. Merwin’s Moon Before Morning and the ease and truth and quietness speak to me so sweetly. When he writes of the earth, he is of the earth, and when he writes of the past it is present for him, and when he writes of the Ark you think you can smell the animals.  
Merwin's House
         The Idea of Order in Key West is a peony of a poem, perhaps and entire  peony bush - no it has to be larger - the tree of huge red flowers in front of a temple in Laos that I can’t identify by name. A tree that blooms year round and holds its canopy up proud as a god.

        Merwin has been planting Pritichardia palm trees, native to Hawaii, on his property in Maui for 40 years. His poems are palms, either quietly climbing toward starlight, or they rustle seductively when the wind blows. Or the poems are the small startling flowers of the tropics like the low growing butterfly pea flower - not the brilliant blue variety, but the candid white.  I am enamored of the poems particularly because they present the sense of timelessness and presence that one wants age to enable:

                    Dew Light
Now in the blessed days of more and less
when the news about time is that each day
there is less of it I know none of that
as I walk out through the early garden
only the day and I are here with no
before or after and the dew looks up
without a number or a present age

The Merwin Conservancy

         Those 19 acres, 2740 palms, are the work of reclamation the world so badly needs to do - as Thomas Berry describes it in The Great Work. The palms, along with bananas and mangos and papaya were planted on land that was damaged first by logging, then pineapple rows were planted vertically so most of the soil washed away.  What was left of the soil grew grasses so bitter that an experiment in grazing failed when the cows’ lips curled in disgust.

         The work of reclamation is what there is when the age of conquering the world is over. Or let us say that reclamation and renewal are the new adventure.  What if our own or the world’s losses connect us rather than embitter or force us to turn us aside?

        Merwin has been aware of what has been happening to our planet for a long time. His great poem For A Coming Extinction was published in The Lice in 1967, which makes me feel like a Jenny-come-lately to environmental concerns. In 1967 many of us were working and writing against the Vietnam War,  and so was he - but he was able to step out of the headlines and into the world to come, which he knew was already there. For A Coming Extinction laments:  

“Gray whale/ Now that we are sending you to The End/ That great god/ Tell him/ That we who follow you invented forgiveness/ And forgive nothing.”

The Merwin Conservancy
In an interview with Joel Whitney, Merwin talked about the story of Noah:
« I loved that story so much. And I had this fantasy of building an ark in the back yard, because when the rains came, I said, you know, nobody believed Noah. Nobody will believe us either. We can build this boat, but [smirking] where are we going to get the animals? »

         Merwin has alternated originality, translation and reclamations since his 30s. I was aware of his long poetic narrative on the history of the Hawaiians, The Folding Cliffs, but I did not know that he had once translated the poetry of the Native American Crow people. In an interview with Edward Hirsch in 1986 Merwin said:
« And I had very much the feeling about the Crow, along with American Indian poetry in general, and many other non-literate poetries, too— that even as we talked about it, it was disappearing. And I think of it as of comparable importance to, say, the burning of the library at Alexandria. »

          That comparison. A lessening of scale, a tale of equivalence. Not a diminishing of what we have achieved, but the recognition that others have done as well, and their work is just as significant. This too is the great work.

The Merwin Conservatory

 Insurance Man
The Life and Art of Wallace Stevens

The New Yorker
May 2, 2016

Joel Whitney interviews W.S. Merwin
February 15, 2011

The Lice, Atheneum, 1967










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