Saturday, March 05, 2011

On WS Merwin's 'Home for Thanksgiving'

I’ve badly misjudged WS Merwin. I’d read only a few poems by him, mainly written in the last decade or so, and these hadn’t done anything for me, so I paid him no attention, not until a week ago when I wandered into a charity shop in Edinburgh’s Gorgie Road and found Merwin’s 1963 collection, The Moving Target, a 1966 hardback reprint to be exact, from Atheneum Books, New York. What route it took from New York in the 1960s to Edinburgh in 2011 is anyone’s guess, but I’m glad to be its latest recipient.

It contains plenty of good poems, but I was immediately struck by the opener, Home for Thanksgiving (full text at this link), which is well worth printing out and reading carefully. My first thought was that it would have been a more conventional poem, the kind of poem commonly written by many, many decent poets, if he had begun at the third stanza, the memories of women and the regrets at how things had panned out. I wonder if that’s how the poem began life, if the dramatic opening stanzas arrived later and then went on to affect those following. Impossible to know, of course.

In any case, the first two stanzas employ astonishing imagery – the streets opening like “long/ silent laughs”, the “knowing wires and the aimed windows”, the “crusty/ unbarbered vessel”, and this brilliant combination on the limitations of freedom:

...the months of plying
Between can and can, vacant as a pint in the morning,
While my sex grew into the only tree, a joyless evergreen,
And the winds played hell with it at night, coming as they did
Over at least one thousand miles of emptiness.

He’s come back from all that, from all that promised happiness, which never really was open to him. Or, at least, the promise might have been real enough, but the reality was that possibilities proved vacant, the evergreen proved joyless, and (from the third stanza) Vera had a “small fat dog named Joy” and Gladys had “watery arms”. The refrain, “well this is nice,” suggests ironically that coming back from it all isn’t nice either, even if the billboard informs him that things have “now improved”. The regions of pure hope had proved an illusion and nothing can alter the natural imperfect human state. The best he can do is half-hearted dishonesty, to say things are “nice”. Happiness couldn’t have come from these particular women – he knows they would have drunk his bottle (the same one that launched his hopeful boat in the first stanza) dry or smashed it to pieces. Instead he’s left with misery (repeated three times!), which fits him perfectly, and he even makes it painfully plain that he’s thankful (it is thanksgiving after all) for this discovery, that he’s done “the right thing after all.”

The structure of the poem elevates it above the typical memories and regrets poem and instead sets it within an existential struggle – one human being (who is all of us) against all the forces which conspire to snuff out hope, a man resigning to the perfect fit of misery. But the resignation is also the site of discovery. “I bring myself back...” he keeps saying – back home, back to his senses, the one place where he can begin from truth, reality as it actually is. This is, of course, his own perception of himself, reality through the narrator's lenses.

Another way to read it might be that he saw only the bad points of imperfection and ended up wrapped in his misery like a comfort blanket as a result, whereas he could have done better to settle for an imperfect happiness. The final "I did the right thing after all" then reads as unconscious irony. It's his own attitude that keeps him locked up in misery rather than reality itself, the fear of letting go of his comfort blanket. I guess we all know people whose misery gets them attention, and they prefer the devil they've become over-familiar with. To his credit, Merwin doesn't judge the issue and I think either reading could at least be partly correct.

The vocabulary is straightforward, nothing you’d need a dictionary for, but there’s no way you could confuse this poem with prose. The syntax plays a part in that. Merwin spins out sentences like little webs – the word “from” in the first line keeps finding new nouns to govern throughout the stanza. The same goes for the same word, “from”, in the second stanza where it makes its first appearance in line five. It means the reader needs to stay awake but rewards are well and truly there for doing so. He also keeps sentences going by using commas when full stops would have been technically ‘correct’, as if to keep things flowing with the required intensity. The rhythms also aim to capture the reader with their intensity, right from the first line and a half:
I bring myself back from the streets that open like long
Silent laughs

The strong stresses are woven between weak stresses, almost anapaestic, until “long/ Silent laughs”, the line-break adding emphasis to the heavy enjambed spondee, and suggesting immediately that these laughs aren’t the kind to chuckle merrily along with, silently or otherwise. And so it proves, although black humour survives the misery; some of the descriptions are priceless, although my favourite is probably the aforementioned billboard, “Which says NOW IMPROVED and I know what they mean.”

A terrific poem, I think, and not the only really good one in the collection, which I am currently halfway through.

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