"Lament for the Makers":
W. S. Merwin, from The River Sound [Knopf, 1999]

    A Review by Cooper Renner

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Merwin first published "Lament for the Makers" three years ago in his anthology of the same title, which also included poems by the poets whose life and work his poem honors. Now, republished in his newest collection "The River Sound," the poem offers itself to us as a poem rather than as an extended epitaph, a situation which allows us-- maybe even encourages us-- to look at it outside its original context. As an introduction to an anthology, the poem was a relatively sweet, perhaps slightly mawkish affair, a combination of autobiography and commemoration. As a poem in its own right, "Lament for the Makers" fares somewhat worse.
     First, it is impossible not to note the ungainliness of the meter, Merwin's version of the tetrameter of William Dunbar's 500-year-old "Lament for the Makaris Quhen He Was Sek." Because the quatrains rhyme AABB, thus splitting into a pair of couplets, the verse tends automatically toward singsong. Merwin tries to avoid this effect both by roughing up the iambic and by running the sentences beyond the rhymes and stanzas, but the stumbling iamb won't surrender-- thus the clumsiness.

    I that all through my early days
    I remember well was always
                     the youngest of the company
                     save for one sister after me

The first line works perfectly well, beginning with its emphatic metrical inversion, but the second line is a rhythmic disaster. Are we to read it "naturally," thus replacing all the iambs with trochees, and virtually removing the rhyme by throwing it into an unaccented syllable? Are we to force the iambs, thus butchering "remember" and especially "always"? Or should we try a middle ground, a more or less natural rhythm until we reach the final word, which insists on two accented syllables? But this compromise ruins the tetrameter. The second couplet succeeds where the first fails, but introduces a second problem.

As an introduction to an anthology, the poem was a relatively sweet, perhaps slightly mawkish affair, a combination of autobiography and commemoration. As a poem in its own right, "Lament for the Makers" fares somewhat worse.

The stanza ends with the word "me", as does every subsequent stanza. This again is a nod to Dunbar's original in which every fourth line is "Timor mortis conturbat me"-- "The fear of death confuses me" [or perhaps "throws me into confusion or disorder."] But in Dunbar's poem the personal note conveyed by this admission is rendered almost non-personal [and certainly non-confessional] by its appearance in Latin rather than English. The Latin draws into the poem an ecclesiastical feel, almost as though both Dunbar and Dunbar's readers are participating in a funeral mass as they read. Thus "me" becomes the universal human, rather than any particular individual.
     In Merwin's poem, on the other hand, "me" is clearly Merwin himself, as even the first stanza makes obvious. As the stanzas roll on, the poem accumulates a sense of authorial self-importance. Are these poets worth commemorating for their work [and lives?], or rather because they have had an impact on Merwin's life? The question sounds silly, but it begs to be asked, especially as the manner in which Merwin leads us to each final "me" is sometimes so frivolous. In the case of Dylan Thomas, for example, the first of the dead makers to be noted, we read--

    then first there was Dylan Thomas
    from the White Horse taken from us
                    to the brick wall I woke to see
                    for years across the street from me

Even if Merwin intends the wall across the street metaphorically, as an image of everyman's eventual death, it seems an incredibly inept way to end the stanza, and it reduces Thomas' death-- alcoholic tragedy that is was-- to the mundane. But I contend that Merwin is speaking literally here, of a literal wall he used to see, because-- if it were the wall of death-- then it would still be before him, not a thing of the past [unless Merwin has been granted immortality?] Plath likewise receives a "neighborhood" finale-- "in the house a few blocks from me"-- as though the death is primarily notable because Merwin was nearby.
     But the inane is perhaps to be preferred to the grotesque, as when we read--

    then the sudden news that Ted
    Roethke had been found floating dead
                    in someone's pool at night but he
                    still rises from his lines for me

I am frankly surprised at the implied [if unintended] image of a drowned Roethke stepping out of the pool to recite poetry. But at least the third and fourth lines of the stanza scan: the first line of the stanza, though, is missing a syllable, and the second stanza either demands 5 stresses [Roeth- had- found- float- dead] or three unstressed syllables in a row [ke- had- been].
     Another problem is the prevalence of imagery and/or sentence structures which become so convoluted that I, at least, cannot make any real sense of them. The twelfth stanza begins a sentence which continues for fifteen lines [unpunctuated, of course!] during which we go from the initial clause, into an appositive noun phrase which may refer to either the subject of that clause or to the object of a preposition in an adjective phrase and which contains two subordinate adjective clauses, followed by three more subordinate clauses, also acting as adjectives, the second of which contains a prepositional phrase modified by yet another subordinate clause which concludes with two verbal phrases, the latter of which holds two more subordinate clauses. The place at which this fatiguing sentence seems to end, as well as I can tell, comes within a line, thus giving no hint [since Merwin does not punctuate] that the sentence has actually ended until the reader is far enough into the following sentence to realize that the grammar is suddenly not working at all unless there is, somewhere, a stop he has missed. [And you thought my sentences were twisted!] The tangle of grammar in this labyrinth the tangled imagery Merwin gives us-- telling us of a secret which is also a breath [or is it the air in which that secret is "safe" which is actually the breath?] which sang to Merwin when he was a child and "caught [him] helpless to convey it" with nothing but words, though the words rang to him with a tone he has been listening for ever since, hearing it vary "endlessly" as he has tried to find its source and "to what words it may come." Huh? And what is this all-important secret that has apparently motivated all his verse? Is it simply that he is the youngest? That he is always moving into crowds older than he is and to which he has to prove himself? As silly as it sounds, that is all that I can deduce from the context.
     On the other hand, the poem has an inviting and relatively direct tone, unusual for Merwin, which perhaps makes it seem more remarkable than it truly is. Add to that the feeling one has that he is being ungenerous to criticize a memorial, and the poem acquires a sort of "untouchable" aura-- it becomes a poem that we are required to admire, or else to keep silent about.

The sheer anonymity of those memorialized raises a specter-- the near certainty that, before too many centuries [or decades?] have passed, the poets Merwin laments will also be forgotten.

     But how much more powerful is the now archaic diction of Dunbar's original; how much less self-aggrandizing his introductory rumination, which focuses not on his own history but rather on the power of that very thing-- death-- which so confounds and disarrays him. And his roll call of the dead, in which he remembers as many as three writers per stanza, attends not at all to their connections to him, but rather to the irresistible majesty of the executioner and, occasionally, to the poets' works. These stanzas have the strength of the Homeric "inventories", and their sheer foreignness as well-- because the poets Dunbar so mourns are men, for the most part, utterly lost to us. It is a testimony to Dunbar's skill that we still read the poem, long after the poets he commemorates are forgotten, and the sheer anonymity of those memorialized raises a specter-- the near certainty that, before too many centuries [or decades?] have passed, the poets Merwin laments will also be forgotten. What is not likely, however, is that anyone 490 years hence will be reading those mostly forgotten names in Merwin's poem-- because Merwin's poem itself will long have been set aside. If you wish, on the other hand, to look at work by Merwin that may indeed still be alive in the 25th century, turn to his [currently nearly forgotten] 1956 volume, Green with Beasts, to the longish meditations on myth-- "The Prodigal Son," "The Annunciation" and "The Mountain"-- and you will soon enough forgive the weaknesses of "Lament for the Makers" and applaud instead his deft touch and vivid way with language.
     [Green with Beasts, Knopf, 1956; also contained in The First Four Books of Poems, Atheneum, 1975]

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About Cooper

Cooper Renner also reviews books and engages in various critical activities for the online magazine 'elimae', under the name b. renner. He is a published poet and a very eclectic fellow.