Matthew Zapruder on W.S. Merwin February 1, 2010 – Tags: , , ,

This is the third of a series of guest posts on Book Patrol featuring the four poets who will be sharing the stage with W.S. Merwin at the upcoming “W.S. Merwin and Friends” benefit for Copper Canyon Press at Seattle’s Town Hall.

Matthew Zapruder is the author of two previous collections of poetry. His last The Pajamaist was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2006. CCP will also publish his next book, Come On All You Ghosts later this year. Zapruder’s work has appeared in numerous publications, from The New Yorker to The Believer, and along with fellow poet Joshua Beckman runs the editorial side of Wave Books, one of the newer shining stars in the poetry publishing galaxy.

Zapruder on Merwin:

One thing that really blew me away when I first started reading Merwin was that he didn’t use punctuation. It seemed so natural, unlike a lot of other stylistic things you notice with poets, like weird broken up spacing all over the page, the old lower case letters especially “i” trick, etc. This lack makes the poems feel kind of ghostly and disembodied:

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
Tireless traveler
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

There’s an “I” in the poem of course, but it’s more like a very attentive spirit, moving through various sorts of different concerns of being a human being, rather than a particular person.

Of course the real-life Merwin is a particular person. He lives in Hawaii, and is apparently an expert on palm trees. And one of our great living poets. I’ve never met him, and if you ask me how I feel about reading at this upcoming tribute with him, my answer would have to be, more than a bit superfluous. I have had my own relationship with his work for probably about 15 years now, and I’m grateful for that. I carry his sense of what a poem is deep within me, and it’s had as much influence over what I think as anything else.

Merwin’s poems are dedicated to the absolutely clear, unrelenting yet also compassionate delineation of the moments when we are truly awed by what we cannot know. It’s what absolutely blasted me when I first started reading him, and which continues to. Total negative capability, emphasis on capable. It seems to me the essential urge to get close to that thing we can never know is central to the spirit of poetry. And Merwin’s relentless gentle attitude of clear questioning is to me as close as you can get to what poetry is all about.

One of my favorite of his books is the 1996 volume The Vixen. In the book a speaker writes about her, that “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” The vixen is a sentient creature endowed with both a totally modern mind as well as deep old foresty knowledge, and so is the consciousness of the poems themselves. Reading them we feel physically brought up in ourselves the ancient pain we all have of being separated from the natural world, as well as our sin, of needing not just to see but actually to possess that gorgeous emblem of nature, the vixen.

How Merwin’s poems avoid what Keats called the egotistical sublime — the unpleasant tendency of not just Wordsworth (to whom he was referring) but of so many of our own contemporary poets of nature to pretend to be humbly praising nature, when what they are actually bringing forth for our awed approval is their own poetic sensitivity — might be one of the great mysteries, and accomplishments, of 20th century poetry. I think it’s connected to the sometimes icy, even occasionally terrifying absence of self familiar to any reader of Merwin. Yet somehow the poems are also really warm, sometimes funny, always full of human life. I have no idea how he does it.


Tickets for the event available here

Previously on Book Patrol:
W.S. Merwin & Friends: Four Poets Share the Stage and Their Thoughts
Ben Lerner on W.S. Merwin
Valzhyna Mort on W.S. Merwin

A New Wave of Political Poetry
BP Post on the anthology of contemporary political poetry, State of the Union : 50 Political Poems, published by Wave Books in late 2008.

American Linden Zapruder’s first book was published by Tupelo Press.

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