On the life and work of W.S. Merwin, who died on March 15, 2019, at the age of 91.
edited by Michael Wiegers
Copper Canyon, 338 pp., $18.00 (paper)
by W.S. Merwin
Copper Canyon, 71 pp., $24.00
by W.S. Merwin
Copper Canyon, 121 pp., $17.00 (paper)
The farther the past retreats from Merwin, the more his love surges forth, even for his unhappy American childhood (“middle-class and in every sense provincial,” he once wrote). A late poem, titled “Antique Sound,” mingles nostalgia for turntables with an awareness that the miracle of recorded music is undermined by the errancy of materials, which no innovation can entirely forestall:
There was an age when you played records
with ordinary steel needles which grew blunt
and damaged the grooves or with more expensive
stylus tips said to be tungsten or diamond
which wore down the records and the music receded
But as in a fairy tale, the child Merwin and his friend “had it on persuasive authority/that the best thing was a dry thorn of the right kind,” which they scour a forest to find. The thorn is not only a subversion of technological innovation—this is a regression, of course—but it will necessarily encode the nonhuman music of the forest, which takes decades or centuries to mature:
an earthly choir of crickets blackbirds finches
crows jays the breathing of voles racoons
rabbits foxes the breeze in the thickets
the thornbushes humming a high polyphony
When the boys finally retrieve the magic object and listen “to Beethoven’s Rassoumoffsky/quartets echoed from the end of a thorn,” we find that in a very short space Merwin has harmonized the myths of the suffering composer, Christ (the god with the crown of thorns), Philomel (the nightingale who sang her best song with a thorn in her breast), and Orpheus (the poet whose lyre domesticated wild animals and made stones leap up in accompaniment). These ghosts from the history of the art don’t intrude, and you can ignore them, but you can’t ignore that thorn, that intractable thorn, touching down into the musical groove.
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Read also: Windows to the World: At WS Merwin’s Old French Farmhouse
Filed under Biography, News
Today is the anniversary of the publication of Robert Frost’s iconic poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” a fact that spurred the Literary Hub office into a long conversation about their favorite poems, the most iconic poems written in English, and which poems we should all have already read (or at least be reading next). Turns out, despite frequent (false) claims that poetry is dead and/or irrelevant and/or boring, there are plenty of poems that have sunk deep into our collective consciousness as cultural icons. (What makes a poem iconic? For our purposes here, it’s primarily a matter of cultural ubiquity, though unimpeachable excellence helps any case.) So for those of you who were not present for our epic office argument, I have listed some of them here.
NB that I limited myself to one poem per poet—which means that the impetus for this list actually gets bumped for the widely quoted (and misunderstood) “The Road Not Taken,” but so it goes. I also excluded book-length poems, because they’re really a different form. Finally, despite the headline, I’m sure there are many, many iconic poems out there that I’ve missed—so feel free to extend this list in the comments. But for now, happy reading (and re-reading):
Filed under History, News, Study
“AND NOW HIS BLOOD COMES OUT SINGING.”
In the five years since the Republic’s founding, leftist administrations had carried out a series of ambitious reforms aimed at transforming and modernizing Spain: legislation to increase rights for women, new agrarian laws to reduce the suffering of the landless poor, changes in the educational system to free it from the dominance of the Catholic Church, and restructuring of the armed forces to decrease the influence of the military. Such attacks on the traditional structures of Spanish society earned the reformists, as well as the Republic itself, a committed bloc of enemies, from loyal monarchists to conservative Catholics, from wealthy landowners to the Spanish fascist party, the Falange. Now these groups united under Franco and other generals. They hoped to take back Spain and return it to its former imperial greatness, which in many cases meant eliminating perceived foes, such as Lorca.
Born in 1898 to a well-off family in a village near Granada, Lorca had grown up to be a gifted musician, pathbreaking poet, theater-filling dramatist, and unparalleled party guest. His personality was so contagious that when a young Salvador Dalí first met Lorca in college, the painter would literally run away from him to battle in private his jealousy of the Granadine’s charisma. By the time he was in his mid-thirties, Lorca was one of the most beloved Spanish-language writers alive. Alongside his literary peers, the Generation of ’27, he reinvigorated Spanish poetry, bringing artistic innovations from the rest of Europe into harmony with Spain’s folkloric traditions, especially that of his native Andalusia with its rich gypsy influences. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote of his friend Lorca: “I have never seen grace and genius, a winged heart and a crystalline waterfall, come together in anyone else as they did in him.”
Behind that shimmering waterfall, however, Lorca inhabited a fragile, shadowy inner world. As a gay man in a steadfastly homophobic society, he was never able to express his true self in all its complexity, perhaps the worst fate imaginable for someone as torrentially expressive as Lorca. His pain fueled poems of melancholy longing and stage tragedies of disastrously failed love. Yet if the country that created Lorca failed to accept him during his life, this didn’t stop him from cherishing Spain all the way down to its darkest impulses.
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Excerpt from The Age of Disenchantments by Aaron Shulman. Copyright 2019 by Aaron Shulman.
Filed under History, News