Poetry Book Society Recommendation
W.S. Merwin was arguably the most influential American poet of the last half-century – an artist who transfigured and reinvigorated the vision of poetry for our time. An essential voice in modern American literature, he was United States Poet Laureate in 2010-11.
Merwin composed the poems of Garden Time as he was losing his eyesight. When he could no longer see well enough to write, he dictated the poems to his wife, Paula. In this gorgeous, mindful and life-affirming book, he channels energy from animated sounds and memories to remind us that ‘the only hope is to be the daylight’.
This late collection written in his late-80s finds him deeply immersed in reflection on the passage of time and the frailty and sustaining power of memory. Switching between past and present, he shows us a powerful and moving vision of the eternal, focusing on images of mornings, sunsets, shifting seasons, stars, birds and insects to capture the connectedness of time, space and the natural world.
In a poem about Li Po, ‘now there is only the river / that was always on its own way’. In another poem he dreams that ‘the same river is still here / the house is the old house and I am here in the morning / in the sunlight and the same bird is singing’. He remembers when ‘dragonflies were as common as sunlight / hovering in their own days’ and recalls ‘a house that had been left to its own silence / for half a century’. In a poem of wonder entitled ‘Variations to the Accompaniment of a Cloud’, he writes: ‘I keep looking for what has always been mine / searching for it even as I / think of leaving it.’
Perception and memory of taste and sound become more heightened as his eyesight fails. He sits and listens to sounds from past summers. In ‘December Morning’, he writes:
I am almost blind and I see the piles
of books I was going to read next
there they sit like statues of sitting dogs
faithful to someone they used to know
but happiness has a shape made of air
it was never owned by anyone
it comes when it will in its own time
‘Now aged 89, [Merwin] composed the poems of Garden Time when he was going blind. His graceful, often stunning poems have been one of the pleasures of poetry readers for decades. At a time when insularity and identity politics seem, daily, to be set upon reducing and simplifying the complexity of the world, his new work again shows off the cosmopolitan virtues of this great American poet. Focused brilliantly on what we see and how we are seen, he is as urgent and perceptive as ever.’ – John McAuliffe, The Irish Times
'There are few great poets alive at any one time, and W.S. Merwin is one of them. Read him while he is still contemporary' – Fiona Sampson, Guardian
W.S. Merwin talks about writing poetry and about meeting Ezra Pound when he was 18 and still at college and Pound was in the psychiatric ward at St Elizabeth's Hospital. He then reads 'Late Spring', a poem included in his Bloodaxe Selected Poems. This film is from the Academy of American Poets DVD The Poet's View: Intimate Profiles of Five Major American Poets, which features Kay Ryan, John Ashbery, Louise Glück, Anthony Hecht and W.S. Merwin: