I recently gave what may be my last business presentation at a conference in Austin. It was about finding a sustainable career path, and I ended it with this poem by W. S. Merwin (last year’s US Poet Laureate).
To me it exemplifies what is wonderful about his work–the thought provoking concept, the spareness of the language, the little leaps it takes that you can’t quite follow logically, but that make intuitive sense, like “the beam of a lightless star,” for example, and the ending a sort of wonder at what we don’t know: “bowing, not knowing to what.” I like how simple the words and structure seem, and yet the complexity of the journey they take us on:
For the Anniversary of My Death
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Like the beam of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what
This poem is a more philosophical version of Steve Jobs speech at the Stanford Commencement; the idea of one’s death as an fulcrum to balance the choices we make each day.
I attended a talk between Bill Merwin and Bob Hass at the Wells Fargo Auditorium in Santa Rosa, about five years ago. Generally I don’t care for “X in conversation with Y” evenings. They have a forced, phony feel. But this one was delightful, and interspersed with readings of poems and parts of poems. Bob told a story about inviting Merwin to read at SUNY when Bob taught there early in his career. The honorarium was $3,000, which at that time was about half Bob’s annual salary. But to get paid, you had to sign a patriotic pledge that you were against communism. These were common in the 50s and early 60s. Bill said simply, “No problem, I won’t sign and you don’t have to pay me.” Bob said it became a model for him of the moral position.
And here’s another Merwin poem, from a book published seven years earlier than the previous one. This one is less abstract, but it, too, distills language and makes a clear statement. For example: “Woman with the caught fox / By the scruff.” He leaves out “of the neck.” He doesn’t need it. And I love the way the poem turns on the almost last line:
(As at first hand I have learned), the humility of that:
Plea for a Captive
Woman with the caught fox
By the scruff, you can drop your hopes:
It will not tame though you prove kind,
Though you entice it with fat ducks
Patiently to your fingertips
And in dulcet love enclose it
Do not suppose it will turn friend,
Dog your heels, sleep at your feet,
Be happy in the house,
It will only trot to and fro,
To and fro, with vacant eye,
Neither will its pelt improve
Nor its disposition, twisting
The raw song of its debasement
Through the long nights, and in your love,
In your delicate meats tasting
Nothing but its own decay
(As at first hand I have learned)
Kill it at once or let it go.
W. S. Merwin
The language is fresh, with a lot of internal rhyme, but very spare–not one extra word, text pared down to almost a prayer. In some of the more recent work, the language becomes so spare as to lose me, but in these earlier poems, I am right there, cheering.