Wide Waters

Reading Room: offering up the palace bards —


Richard Hundley. "The Astronomers" (1959). An epitaph, based on an inscription found in Allegheny, PA.

Rafting Adrift – thirsty, we all wander along the space-time continuum, plumbing the nature of being and the relationship between the two worlds we experience: the inner (i.e. the life of the mind) and the outer – that is, the life we observe through our physical senses. We tend to look outward, toward waterless places — our unmet thirsts simultaneously give rise to art, religion, and science. While science struggles to meet our physical thirst, it does little to address our metaphysical thirst; religion, on the other hand, while attempting to address our metaphysical thirst, does little to assuage it. Art, however, not only represents these thirsts, but responds to them, whetting our appetites, exposing wells, slaking our thirsts with mouthfuls drawn from hidden springs.

Steerage – poetry (as indeed all forms of artistic expression) is fashioned by the artist’s conscious “sail-making” from the canvas of the unconscious. According to Carl Jung, the “collective unconscious” is shared by all humanity, an assertion which might lead us to conclude that there are certain “threads” of inquiry which matter to all of us equally. Indeed, these very threads, the most inexpensive of ship “tickets” become more than mere passage in the poetic imagination of W.S. Merwin. Out of the blue, they are transformed, (and we, along with them) from dredge to the oars that power the seemingly effortless song of a “maritime” master.

Darkening Seas – for instance, three such lines of artistic inquiry paddled out into the headwaters of Doheny Library’s Lecture Hall like proverbial (though tacit) “elephants” in the room, surfing in the company of an immersed audience on Wednesday afternoon (Feb. 16, 2011). Having been duly warned of “admiralty on deck,” we suddenly find ourselves unfurling monumental riggings: namely death, the recognition of “self,” and a love for Nature’s kingdoms (especially the animal kingdom) – no less formidable work than the poet’s own acumen, as he peals his magnificent stories from a deeply resonant bass. Like his themes, Merwin’s corpus, or body of work, looms large in our imaginations, a stature earned in nearly seven decades’ sweat; his generosity of spirit conferred on the spot, as he gingerly side-steps a few unforeseeable “banana peels” (borne in the acute, exacting experience of the moment) despite the English Department at USC’s best laid plans to administer a dignified presentation of the current U.S. Poet Laureate as part of its Boudreaux Reading Series.

Debris-Splintering Foam – modestly undaunted by accolades, Merwin opens his talk by telling us that poetry is a matter of listening well. Granted, we choose what we listen to. Poetry, however, depends on listening closely to any of the vast number of voices we choose to hear, and honoring not only their sound, but what they say to us. We float in our awareness of sound, swimming in the wide waters of our literary traditions as we struggle to navigate (or make sense of) its channels, each of us perpetually hauling around our own anchor(s) in words.

Shafts – the final line of a poem entitled “Youth” (from his most recent collection, The Shadow of Sirius) offers up one such anchor for our contemplation: “from what we cannot hold the stars are made” (39). A hallmark of Merwin’s work, the line telegraphs the unseen, the intangible. We may speculate that among the things we cannot hold are melodies, the spoken word, gases (noble and ignoble), not to mention time – any number of ephemera. However, it becomes more and more apparent as he reads aloud to us from his written word, that perhaps what he is really getting at is the phenomenon of memory. It occurs to me that the very act of writing, of committing oneself to paper through the medium of words, is in and of itself, an act of memory loss – a disclosure in print that is, in fact, a self-limitation, another type of “closure.”

Through Cloud-Break – moving forward, it seems, if one takes Merwin at his word, is a gesture of gracefully learning to admit all sorts of small closures. As he pays homage to his literary “ancestors” through the widening conversation of translation, he tells of his scholarly research into (among others) the French poet, François Villon, reciting Villon’s lines from memory (in French!) He goes on to recount how he came to recognize (after many years’ study) a viable English translation of a “one hit wonder” penned (if we are to believe the scant historic record left to us from antiquity) by no less stately a figure than the Roman emperor, Hadrian: “Little soul little stray/ little drifter/ now where will you stay/ all pale and all alone/ after the way/ you used to make fun of things” (51). I recognized this “little elegy” immediately, as lines from it are quoted, interspersed in another elegiac poem, “Elegy with Falls Last Filaments” by Chris Dombrowski, which I recently encountered.

Rays Negotiate – always detecting the immanent in the immediate, Merwin’s intellectual curiosity runs the gamut of all kinds of experience, and the longer we listen to him, the more we find the past located in the present. In Merwin, we audit the embodiment of the griot, or professional oral historian. Not only does he speculate on the words of French poets and Roman emperors, but tales from Greek mythology (Arachne) and the curious relationships between man and animal. He wonders if we domesticated wolves, or if dogs domesticated us, and postulates that we wouldn’t have become hunters or farmers without dogs. He fascinates us with the often contentious history of the specific breed he is most fond of — the Chow — and reads “Search Party,” a tender ballad on how he spent three weeks looking for his beloved lost pet, the haunting refrain, “I do not know where Maoli is” repeated at the close of each stanza. And then, by request, he rouses the entire audience with “The Chain to Her Leg” – a disturbing testament that decries animal cruelty, as the speaker reminds us again and again (lest we forget) that, given an elephant’s long memory, “if we forget Topsy/ Topsy remembers” each and every assault.

An Oar – Even as I write this, (from memory, since I took no notes during Merwin’s reading) a question begs: is memory a servant, or a master? Should we struggle to keep it, or simply let it drift back into the unknown from which it arises?

And then, a funny thing happened as Merwin read his closing selection from (as yet) unpublished work – an announcement blared over the loudspeaker: Would the owner of the dog tied up outside Doheny Library please attend to your animal? He’s barking loudly.” After the uproar died down (the audience burst into spontaneous, albeit uncomfortable laughter — after all our guest had just been talking on the subject of how we treat animals) the interrupted poet posed another question, “Well, what should we do? Pick up where we left off? Or start over?” Consummate in his precision, he graciously decided for us: “Start over. I’ve already forgotten the thread.”


7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Louise A. Muise on February 21, 2011 at 7:04 am

    On a lighter note, while visiting the gifr shop of the Baltimore Museum of Art yesterday, saw a greeting card which read:
    Next to a dog, a book is man’s best friend.
    Inside a dog, it is too dark to read.


  2. Posted by clint on February 20, 2011 at 6:42 pm

    i’d just like to mention the persistent engagement with world ecology mr. merwin continues to offer us. before he began his reading he lectured about the ways we continually misunderstand and mistreat the earth. “The Chain to Her Leg” reveals that not only is the elephant chained to Man, and his grotesque inhumanity, but the Earth is chained to the same Man, being treated with the same grotesque inhumanity on a disturbingly larger scale. these things are not always done out of spite, neglect or sport, though; as merwin said, it is a sort of terror of human’s want of “convenience” that plagues the planet and all its life.


    • Yes! All, I think, stemming from an utter disregard for the Spirit; too much focus on the immediate, visible aspect of our humanity, i.e. the physically present. I think we overlook the other half of our nature, and pay (rather than exact) a heavy price (i.e. terror)…


  3. Posted by jim hodge on February 20, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    Congrats – your latest made the WASHINGTON POST (-8


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