W. S. Merwin

W. S. Merwin
Reading of His Work

The Jean & Bill Lane Lecture Series
Kresge Auditorium, Stanford University
Monday, April 26, 2004, 8:00 pm-9:15 pm

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Preface: I attended a W. S. Merwin poetry reading at San Jose State University around 1987. I was learning how to write free verse back then and bought several of Merwin's books— The Carrier of Ladders, A Mask for Janus, The Compass Flowers, and Finding the Islands. Merwin autographed all these books for me. I also attended one of his workshops at the time, even though my poems were not selected to be critiqued. I just wanted to learn from him as he analyzed other poets and their works. Since then, Merwin has published prodigiously more poems and translations. My favorites are his translations of Dante's Purgatorio (2001) and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2002). So it's a great pleasure to hear him again. I got to Kresge early and found a seat in the second row near the podium. Eavan Boland, Director of the Creative Writing Department at Stanford, thanked Bill & Jean Lane for sponsoring the Lecture Series. She then introduced Merwin: “No one in contemporary poetry has the wide range of W. S. Merwin. He was born in New York City and grew up in Union City, New Jersey and Scranton, Pennsylvania. He now lives in Maui, Hawaii. He has published more than 40 books, among them Rivers of Sand, The Rain Forest, Carrier of Ladders which won a Pulitzer [1971]. My favorite Merwin's book is The Folding Cliffs [1998] a narrative of 19th-century Hawaii with the theme that 'compassion and imagination go together'. In addition to his Pulitzer Prize, Merwin has been the recipient of the Bollinger Prize, the Tanning Prize, and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. His 2003 Dartmouth Honorary Degree citation says 'From your first book of poems [A Mask for Janus] in 1952, selected by W. H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets, to your most recent work, you have demonstrated the magic of language. As translator and essayist, surely, and as poet, emphatically, you have quietly challenged our minds and inspired our hearts. Your books and other publications, the awards and recognitions all attest to your impact. You have a poet's ear for the sound of words, the scholar's understanding of their meaning, and the passionate activist's recognition of their impact and consequences. From your work to safeguard the natural landscape of your Maui home, to your translation of Dante and your writings on the exploits of Sir Gawain, you have protected and passed on so much of our shared legacy. And by your own poetry you have expanded that legacy.' It's a honor and pleasure to have W. S. Merwin read to us tonight.”

Merwin: May I borrow a copy of my latest book The Pupil from the audience. I'll read in chronological order. Eavan is from Ireland. My name is Welsh. My ancestors came from Wales seven generations ago. While translating Sir Gawain I was hearing the Welsh language within me. David Jones [1895-1974] is one of the most underrated poets of the 20th century. He was a painter and a Welsh poet. [Note: Merwin read 24 poems and I tried to jot down their titles and the first and memorable lines of each poem read. If the poem is available on the web, I've transcribed them here with links to the original site. Poems not posted on the web were typed from Merwin's books located in the Stanford Library. Poems not faithfully transcribed are denoted "Incomplete" until the complete version of the poem is located.]
1) This poem is about a 12th century Welsh poet, Cyndelw Brydydd Mawr


The key is turned the lock
Let me have a look at you.
I would not...
Here I am out in the cold
Promise to me
Where are you?

2) This is a poem in several voices.

YESTERDAY [from Opening the Hand (1983), pp. 20-21]

My friend says I was not a good son
you understand
I say yes I understand

he says I did not go
to see my parents very often you know
and I say yes I know

even when I was living in the same city he says
maybe I would go there once
a month or maybe even less
I say oh yes

he says the last time I went to see my father
I say the last time I saw my father

he says the last time I saw my father
he was asking me about my life
how I was making out and he
went into the next room
to get something to give me

oh I say
feeling again the cold
of my father's hand the last time
he says and my father turned
in the doorway and saw me
look at my wristwatch and he
said you know I would like you to stay
and talk with me

oh yes I say

but if you are busy he said
I don't want you to feel that you
have to
just because I'm here

I say nothing

he says my father
said maybe
you have important work you are doing
or maybe you should be seeing
somebody I don't want to keep you

I look out the window
my friend is older than I am
he says and I told my father it was so
and I got up and left him then
you know

though there was nowhere I had to go
and nothing I had to do

3) HISTORY [from The Rain in the Trees (1988), pp. 14-15]

Only I never came back

the gates stand open
where I left the barnyard in the evening
as the owl was bringing the mouse home
in the gold sky
at the milking hour
and I turned to the amber hill and followed
along the gray fallen wall
by the small mossed oaks and the bushes of rusting
arches bearing the ripe
blackberries into the long shadow
and climbed the ancient road
through the last songs of the blackbirds.

passing the last live farms
their stones running with dark liquid
and the ruined farms their windows without frames
facing away
looking out across the pastures of dead shepherds
whom nobody ever knew
grown high with the dry flowers of late summer
their empty doorways gazing
toward the arms of the last oaks
and at night their broken chimneys watching
the cold of the meteors

the beams had fallen together
to rest in brown herds around the fireplaces
and in the shade of black trees the houses were full
of their own fragrance at last
mushrooms and owls
and the song of the cicadas

there was a note on a page
made at the time
and the book was closed
and taken on a journey
into a country where no one
knew the language

no one could read
even the address
inside the cover
and there the book was
of course lost

it was a book full of words to remember
this is how we manage without them
this is how they manage
without us

I was not going to be long

4) THE SOUND OF THE LIGHT [from The Rain in the Trees (1988), p. 32]

I hear sheep running on the path of broken limestone
through brown curled leaves fallen early from walnut limbs
at the end of a summer how light the bony
flutter of their passage I can
hear their coughing their calling and wheezing even the warm
greased wool rubbing on the worn walls I hear them
passing passing in the hollow lane and there is still time

the shuffle of black shoes of women climbing
stone ledges to church keeps flowing up the dazzling hill
around the grassy rustle of voices
on the far side of a slatted shutter
and the small waves go on whispering on the shingle
in the heat of an hour without wind it is Sunday
none of the sentences begins or ends there is time

again the unbroken rumble of trucks and the hiss
of brakes roll upward out of the avenue
I forget what season they are exploding through
what year the drill on the sidewalk is smashing
it is the year in which you are sitting there as you are
in the morning speaking to me and I hear
you through the burning day and I touch you
to be sure and there is time there is still time

5) Here are two poems from Hawaii

HEARING THE NAMES OF THE VALLEYS [from The Rain in the Trees (1988), p. 60]

Finally the old man is telling
the forgotten names
and the names of the stones they came from
for a long time I asked him the names
and when he says them at last
I hear no meaning
and cannot remember the sounds

I have lived without knowing
the names for the water
from one rock
and the water from another
and behind the names that I do not have
the color of water flows all day and all night
the old man tells me the name for it
and as he says it I forget it

there are names for the water
between here and there
between places now gone
except in the porcelain faces
on the tombstones
and places still here

and I ask him again
the name for the color of water
wanting to be able to say it
as though I had known it all my life
without giving it a thought

6) The fictions historians have to live by
Fiction— something happens, then another thing happens
In reality, everything happens, then everything else happens.
We think one thing is superior to another.
Is one Mozart note superior to another?
They're all essential.

CHORD [from The Rain in the Trees (1988), p. 66]

While Keats wrote they were cutting down the sandalwood forests
while he listened to the nightingale they heard their own axes
        echoing through the forests
while he sat in the walled garden on the hill outside the city they
        thought of their gardens dying far away on the mountain
while the sound of the words clawed at him they thought of their wives
while the tip of his pen travelled the iron they had coveted was hateful to them
while he thought of the Grecian woods they bled under red flowers
while he dreamed of wine the trees were falling from the trees
while he felt his heart they were hungry and their faith was sick
while the song broke over him they were in a se the forest
        the size of a foreign ship
while he groaned on the voyage to Italy they fell on the trails and were broken
when he lay with the odes behind him the wood was sold for cannons
when he lay watching the window they came home and lay down
and an age arrived when everything was explained in another language

7) All the poems in The Vixen (a female fox) arose out of the first poem.
All metrically in the same form and in the same place (southwest France)
The region of this poem is near the Lascaux Caves

FORGOTTEN STREAMS [from The Vixen, p. 20]

The names of the unimportant streams have fallen
      into oblivion the syllables have washed away
but the streams that never went by name never raised the question
      whether what has been told and forgotten is in
another part of oblivion from what was never remembered
      no one any longer recalls the Vaurs and the Divat
the stream Lherm we do not speak the same language
      from one generation to another and we
can tell little of places where we ourselves have lived
      the whole of our lives and still less of neighborhoods
where our parents were young or the parents of our friends
      how can we say what the sound of voices was or what
a skin felt like or a mouth everything that the mouths did
      and the tongues the look of the eyes the animals the fur
the unimportant breath not far from here an unknown
      mason dug up a sword five hundred years old
the only thing that is certain about it now
      is that in the present it is devoured with rust
something keeps going on without looking back

8) There is a wonderful pun in the title of this poem:

PRESENT [from The Vixen, p. 21]

She informed me she had mirabellas
she promised me a mirabella
It was a cold garden
... summer eve

9) There are several poems in The Vixen about troubadour poets
who lived in Southern France. Their poems were highly stylized
They paid attention to the writings of the Arabs
Operas turned them into riduculous figures

FRANÇOIS DE MAYNARD (1582-1646) [from The Vixen, p. 27]

I saw the wolf in the winter watching on the raw hill
I stood at night on top of the black tower and sang
I saw my mountain
I was a child
I sang the best songs in the world
I was the best... I was the world's fool
I have seen
what's not there. I have sung its songs. I have breathed
its day and it was nothing to you where were you.
Where were you?

10) SUBSTANCE [from The Vixen, p. 56]

I could see that there was a kind of distance lighted
behind the face of theat time in its very days
touching the warm lichens

11) The last poem is addressed to Vixen herself.

VIXEN [from The Vixen, p. 69]

Comet of stillness princess of what is over
    high note held without trembling without voice without sound
aura of complete darkness keeper of the kept secrets
    of the destroyed stories the escaped dreams the sentences
never caught in words warden of where the river went
    touch of its surface sibyl of the extinguished
window onto the hidden place and the other time
    at the foot of the wall by the road patient without waiting
in the full moonlight of autumn at the hour when I was born
    you no longer go out like a flame at the sight of me
you are still warmer than the moonlight gleaming on you
    even now you are unharmed even now perfect
as you have always been now when your light paws are running on
    the breathless night on the bridge with one end I remember you
when I have heard you the soles of my feet have made answer when
    I have seen you I have waked and slipped from the calendars
from the creeds of difference and contradictions
    that were my life and all the crumbling fabrications
as long as it lasted until something that we were
    had ended when you are no longer anything
let me catch sight of you again going over the wall
    and before the garden is extinct and the woods are figures
guttering on a screen let my words find their own
    places in the silence after the animals

12) This poem is in the voice of a man, Georg Eberhard Rumpf [1627-1702]
He was a contemporary of Ben Jonson and Shakespeare. He lived most of his life
in the Dutch East Indies. He lived to a ripe age and wrote 6 volumes of
Flora of the Indies

THE BLIND SEER OF AMBON [from Travels (1993), pp. 3-4]

I always knew that I came from
another language

and now even when I can no longer see
I continue to arrive at words

but the leaves
and the shells were already here
and my fingers finding them echo
the untold light and depth

I was betrayed into my true calling
and denied in my advancement
I may have seemed somewhat strange
caring in my own time for living things
with no value that we know
languages wash over them one wave at a time

when the houses fell
in the earthquake
I lost my wife
and my daughter
it all roared and stood still
where they were in daylight

I named for my wife a flower
as though I could name a flower
my wife dark and luminous
and not there
I lost the drawings of the flowers
in fire

I lost the studies
of the flowers
my first six books in the sea

then I saw that the flowers themselves
were gone
they were indeed gone
I saw
that my wife was gone
then I saw that my daughter was gone
afterwards my eyes themselves were gone

one day I was looking
at infinite small creatures
on the bright sand
and the next day is this
hearing after music
so this is the way I see now

I take a shell in my hand
new to itself and to me
I feel the thinness the warmth and the cold
I listen to the water
which is the story welling up
I remember the colors and their lives
everything takes me by surprise
it is all awake in the darkness

13) ORIOLES [from The River Sounds]

14) WAVES IN AUGUST [from The River Sounds (1999)]

There is a war in the distance
with the distance growing smaller
the field glasses lying at hand
are for keeping it far away
I thought I was getting better
about that returning childish
wish to be living somewhere else
that I knew was impossible
and now I find myself wishing
to be here to be alive here
it is impossible enough
to still be the wish of a child
in youth I hid a boat under
the bushes beside the water
knowing I would want it later
and come back and would find it there
someone else took it and left me
instead the sound of the water
with its whisper of vertigo
terror reassurance an old
old sadness it would seem we knew
enough always about parting
but we have to go on learning
as long as there is anything

15) OVERTONE [from The Pupil (2001), p. 19]

Some listening were certain they could hear
through the notes summopned from the strings one more
following at a distance low but clear
a resonance never part of the score
not noticed during the rehearsals nor
prayed into the performance and yet here
with the first note it had been waiting for
holding silent the iced minors of fear
the key of grief the mourning from before
the names were read of those no longer there
that sound of what made no sound any more
made up the chords that in a later year
some still believed that they could overhear
echoing music played during a war

16) Anger is one of the toughest subject to handle in poetry

FEAST DAY [from The Pupil (2001), p. 71]

Almost at the end of the century
this is the time of the pain of the bears
their agony goes on at this moment
for the amusement of the wedding gurests
though the bears are harder to find now
in the mountain forests of Pakistan
they cost more than they used to which makes it
all the more lavish and once they are caught
their teeth are pulled out and their claws pulled out
and among the entertainments after
the wedding one of them is hauled in now
and chained to a post and the dogs let loose
to hang on its nose so that the guests laugh
at the way it waves and dances and those
old enough to have watched this many times
compare it with other performances
saying they can tell from the way the bear
screams something about the children to be
born of the couple sitting there smiling
you may not believe it but the bear does

17) TO THE GODS [new poems to be published by Copper Canyon Press]

When did you stop telling us what to believe
Let us believe
how the beginning began
you let us believe that
you were stories
Listen to us
Want— believe in us.

18) The media manufactured the name 9-11 to trivialize this day of agony.

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001 [new poems to be published]

When it happens, you were not there
from age to age
charred with knowledge
you knew nothing
you that were found
to you, helpless me—
Say it

19) TO MY TEETH [Atlantic Monthly, June 2002]

So the companions
of Ulysses those that were
still with him after
the nights in the horse the sea lanes
the other islands the friends
lost one by one in pain
and the coming home one
bare day to a later
age that was their own
but with their scars now upon them
and now darkened and worn and some
broken beyond recognition
and still missing the ones
taken away from beside them
who had grown up with them
and served long without question
wanting nothing else

sat around in the old places
across from the hollows
reminding themselves
that they were the lucky ones
together where they belonged

but would he stay there

20) TO THE SOUL [new poems to be published]

Is anyone there?
Are you one or several?
Do you take turns and not answer
How does it begin?
sound of ignorance to go by

21) TO MYSELF [new poems to be published]

Even when I forget you
I go on looking for you
I believe I would know you
I keep remembering you
sometimes long ago but then
other times I am sure you
were here a moment before
and the air is still alive
around where you were and I
think then I can recognize
you who are always the same
who pretend to be time but
you are not time and who speak
in the words but you are not
what they say you who are not
lost when I do not find you

22) THE NOMAD FLUTE [new poems to be published]

You say to me
the stars fading
Do you hear me?
Night carry memory sing
I lost humming
I will listen when the flute...

23) MY DOG [new poems to be published]

Where... I can
Not looking back
It is the black dog
that I trust now
leading me
to the blinding stairs

24) JUST THIS [new poems to be published]

When I think the patients I had
the gathering of the stars
how this hast begin?
it's heaven.

Postscript: After Merwin's reading, many Stanford students went forward to get their Merwin books autographed. I had Merwin sign the newspaper ad and a flyer of his Poetry Reading. I told him about attending his San Jose Poetry Workshop and Reading back in 1987, when I was learing the craft of modern poetry. Somehow we got on the topic of Allen Ginsberg and Merwin asked me whether I know Ginsberg's Tibetan Guru, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Since I knew of Merwin's negative experience with Trungpa at Naropa Institute, I told him about my experience with Trungpa: "He came to Brandeis University for a talk around 1972, and my friend Prof. Larry Rosenberg told me that I could get a "One-on-One Interview" with Trungpa in his office after his lecture. However my polypeptide research experiments in the Biochemistry Department went on longer than usual, so I missed the interview. Trungpa told me that I could get a ride with him and three of his disciples from Waltham to Boston where he was staying. I accepted the offer. Trungpa was in the passenger seat up front. I was in the backseat with a young couple. As the car sped along the Massachusetts Turnpike, Trungpa asked "Where is the beer?" The driver pulled out a 6-pack of Budweiser and passed it around. I declined saying that I don't drink alcohol and was concerned that the Highway Patrol may pull the car over for drinking while driving. But Trungpa was not in the least worried, asking me about my background in China. Meanwhile the young couple to my right were drinking, laughing, and doing some heavy petting and smooching. This was my first meeting with Trungpa and his disciples. I was reminded of Christ's "You shall know true Teachers by their fruits (students)." Afterwards, I declined all invitations by Trungpa's disciples to attend their events and lectures, even though their center was just a block away from where I lived." Merwin seemed delighted hearing this story, saying "That shows Trungpa was not a real master." I had a chance to shake hands with Bill Lane as his wife Jean went up to get Merwin autograph his book. Bill & Jean Lane sponsor the Writer's Reading & Colloquium program which brought many renowned poets and writers to Stanford, so I had a chance to thank them personally for this priceless gift.

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© Peter Y. Chou, WisdomPortal.com
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: peter@wisdomportal.com (4-26-2004)