17 November 2010

Five-Minute Merwin

Here's another "five-minute book review"; I have piles of books I'm supposed to review on this blog, but very little time in which to do it. So, I'll set my timer for 5 minutes every now and then, write my first thoughts about the book, and share them with you. Enjoy!

Five-minute review

The Shadow of Sirius by W. S. Merwin

This is Merwin’s newest volume of poetry. As part of the “Where are we now” series, I’ve been asking poets who their favorite poets are, and reading works by both my interviewees and the poets they consistently recommend. To that end, I’ve read poems, chapbooks, and full-length books by Kelly Cherry, Ned Balbo, Barbara Crooker, and Heather Thomas. Several interviewees recommended Merwin.

So I read him all through my amazing NYC trip a few weeks ago: on the bus, on the train, in Barnes & Noble, in Starbucks. Then I continued reading him at home, at the hair salon, at school. It was slow going. Slower than I expected. I discuss this in an upcoming piece for Curator--I’ll link there when it’s published—but this particular book presented an astonishing challenge: There’s no punctuation. Not one period, semicolon, or even comma in the entire book. And I’m disappointed to find my poetry-reading power weak enough that that was a huge distraction. I found the poems, and the accumulation of them, exhausting. They have to be read slowly, out loud, over and over again to be understood.

And that’s fine. Poetry ought to take a lot of time. But I get the sense that these poems are really, really, really good; so I wanted to be able to appreciate them.

And finally, I started to. I read them over and over and over, and then started to sink in. They’re beautiful. They’re powerful. They’re important. The book as a whole is beautiful, powerful, and important. Merwin has that blessed talent to simultaneously see Nature and see through Nature to significance. The poems are soft, but without anything saccharine. They’re careful and graceful at once. They all seem wreathed in gray. My only concern is how quickly they will fade from my memory.

My favorites in this volume include:
“Far Along in the Story”
“The Odds”
”Youth of Grass” (really clear and perfect!)
“One of the Butterflies” (encapsulates the book, I think)
“Grace Note”
“Lake Shore in Half Light”


Annelise Holwerda said...

This is amazing poetry. I understand what you mean about the punctuation; it feels like surface tension, hindering such potent, fluid poetry from seeping in to mind's imagery or memory. It's a beautiful technique, though. I like how, somehow, the work that my mind has to do in punctuating the ideas allows me to participate more fully in the matter.

Merwin's poetry seems to sum up well the point in your In Praise of the Book. It is very rich, even in that it is so raw; brilliant. I want to read more :)

I love the article too. So interesting, the question about quality enjoyment of literature and art vs. the constant and increasing snippet-exposure. There seems to be so little time for real immersion in literature, but it is so worth the effort and the choice regarding lifestyle. Our memories, our ability to perceive and communicate and our depth of self would be much greater if we could become more restrained with this bombardment of empty information on TV, Facebook, newspapers etc., etc.! The virtual world might then be a useful part of the real world, deliberately traveled, instead of a wearying and consuming state of consciousness.

It's a bit old-fashioned, but I do think the choices in our audienceship seem to define who we are, and so much of how we see. It is possible to choose, to swim more strongly in the stream. This postmodern world seems to consider older notions of 'quality' and canon to be narrow and condescending... But while there is truth in that, it's interesting that both we and that older generation in this modern, blindly industrious world have been grappling with things. The distraction from good things is fairly universal, and there is plenty of advice in medieval and ancient work which- if we would or could sit and read it!- would help and encourage us deeply.

Annelise Holwerda said...

*grappling with similar things.