Merwin’s “Summer Doorways”

by F.

I generally don’t like things that defy explanation, but W.S. Merwin’s poetry is the exception.

I really don’t know why I love it so much or what makes it work. It is a bit too elegiac at times—there’s a constant feeling of loss and decay and not enough humor—but I know of no poet who can make you dream while awake like Merwin can. I bought a good CD of him reading some of his poems, and it’s nice to imagine his voice speaking to you as you read. I got it from Copper Canyon Press. Not sure if they’re still manufacturing it. I hope so.

My wife brought home Summer Doorways for me last night and once I started it I couldn’t put it down. Why read made up stories when there are memoirs like this to be found? Unlike much of the poetry, this one has humor, which makes me want to go back and re-read his poems because I have a feeling I missed that part of his voice on my earlier reads.

See also Merwin’s historical narrative poem about Hawaii, The Folding Cliffs. You will be sobbing at the end. Sobbing. It is the most moving thing I’ve ever read. Not for everyone, since the text doesn’t have any punctuation. In any other writer, this would seem a stylistic tic. But with Merwin it enhances the reading experience because you have to hear the words spoken in order to process the page of text. You have to slow way, way, way down, and once you read a few pages and figure out how to listen, you’re inside the dream.

We were at a party a while ago with a bunch of lawyers and the conversation turned to books, as it tends to. People were talking about “the styles” of various novelists, as if that was the only thing that mattered in a novel. Someone asked me who I thought was the preeminent prose stylist today. My opinion is worth no more than anyone else’s, of course, but I said Cormac McCarthy—an answer I still think is probably right. He is stylish. The problem with his books is the rest of it. Why pick through all that shit for a few diamonds? Ditto for Updike or any other stylish writer.

Style? Read the good poets, like Merwin. Better style, better allocation of time. Merwin, James Merrill, Heaney. That’s where style is.