MERWIN V. WALCOTT IN THE MIDWEST/SOUTH

W.S. Merwin, who just finished serving out his Poet Laureateship, was born in NYC.  But Scarriet put him in the South bracket because Merwin is associated with Robert Graves (early Fugitive) and with Princeton—where Southern Fugitive and Agrarian, Allen Tate, started one of the nation’s first Poetry workshop there in the early 40s.  The New Critics—who sprang directly from the Agrarians in Tennessee—hatched the Creative Writing Industry, and agrarianism, or environmentalism, for some odd reason, is tied up with the origins of the writing workshop industry: think of conservationist Wallace Stegner, the first Writing Workshop director in the west, and his student Wendell Berry, for instance.  Merwin has eco-creds and poet-creds galore, and Merwin has to be seen as part of this early agrarian movement.  When Merwin came of age as a poet in the 50s, the editor everyone worshiped was John Crowe Ransom, the leader of the agrarians/turned New Critics.  Berryman (at Princeton) and Lowell (a student of Ransom and Workshop teacher) were part of this clique, as well. Merwin’s friend Robert Graves preached psychodelic mushroom consumption when he was professor of Oxford in the 60s. American intellectual life and British hippie philosophy cohere in many ways, and Merwin is nothing if not a back-to-the-earth hippie.   The South/Midwest brackett was dominated by black poets this year, because Rita Dove put them in her Penguin anthology.  Now we have Merwin, the one white player in this division, trying to enter the Final Four and win the Midwest/South—against Derek Walcott, the Nobel poet of Caribbean lore.   If 19th century poetry featured introspection, beauty, and the sublime, 20th century poetry was mostly about nature, place and transience.

Walcott sings of the classical, but from the fringes, where his poetry bodies it as if it still exists.  The following is an excerpt from Walcott’s long poem, Omeros, and appears as it does in Dove’s anthology.  “Another River” is Merwin’s.

Good luck, gentleman.  One of you will advance to Scarriet’s 2012 Final Four.

from Omeros, Book VII

I sang of Achille, Afolabe’s son,
who never ascended in an elevator,
who had no passport, since the horizon needs none,

never begged nor borrowed, was nobody’s waiter,
whose end, when it comes, will be a death by water
(which is not for this book, which will remain unknown

and unread by him). I sang the only slaughter
that brought him delight, and that from necessity—
of fish, sang the channels of his back in the sun.

I sang our wide country, the Caribbean Sea.
Who hated shoes, whose soles were as cracked as a stone,
who was gentle with ropes, who had one suit alone,

whom no man dared insult and who insulted no one,
whose grin was a white breaker cresting, but whose frown
was a growing thunderhead, whose fist of iron

would do me a greater honour if it held on
to my casket’s oarlocks than mine lifting his own
when both anchors are lowered in the one island,

but now the idyll dies, the goblet is broken,
and rainwater trickles down the brown cheek of a jar
from the clay of Choiseul. So much left unspoken

by my chirping nib! And my earth-door lies ajar.
I lie wrapped in a flour-sack sail. The clods thud
on my rope-lowered canoe. Rasping shovels scrape

a dry rain of dirt on its hold, but turn your head
when the sea-almond rattles or the rust-leaved grape
from the shells of my unpharaonic pyramid

towards paper shredded by the wind and scattered
like white gulls that separate their names from the foam
and nod to a fisherman with his khaki dog

that skitters from the wave-crash, then frown at his form
for swift second. In its earth-trough, my pirogue
with its brass-handled oarlocks is sailing. Not from

but with them, with Hector, with Maud in the rhythm
of her beds trowelled over, with a swirling log
lifting its mossed head from the swell; let the deep hymn

of the Caribbean continue my epilogue;
may waves remove their shawls as my mourners walk home
to their rusted villages, good shoes in one hand,

passing a boy who walked through the ignorant foam,
and saw a sail going out or else coming in,
and watched asterisks of rain puckering the sand.

ANOTHER RIVER

The friends have gone home far up the valley
of that river into whose estuary
the man from England sailed in his own age
in time to catch sight of the late forests
furring in black the remotest edges
of the majestic water always it
appeared to me that he arrived just as
an evening was beginning and toward the end
of summer when the converging surface
lay as a single vast mirror gazing
upward into the pearl light that was
already stained with the first saffron
of sunset on which the high wavering trails
of migrant birds flowed southward as though there were
no end to them the wind had dropped and the tide
and the current for a moment seemed to hang
still in balance and the creaking and knocking
of wood stopped all at once and the known voices
died away and the smells and rocking
and starvation of the voyage had become
a sleep behind them as they lay becalmed
on the reflection of their Half Moon
while the sky blazed and then the tide lifted them
up the dark passage they had no name for

Both of these poems are enveloped in nature and celebrate nature, more so than even in the works of Wordsworth— who seems a man standing apart from nature, compared to the effusions of these two poets, who are washed away by the waves.

Walcott is a little more skilled in depicting nature and putting charm in his verses.  Merwin is plainer and writes almost with a hushed address, as if his voice were intentionally small and far away. 

Walcott 81 Merwin 77

DEREK WALCOTT MAKES THE FINAL FOUR!

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5 Comments

  1. bill said,

    July 5, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    Thanks for posting these fine passages. I haven’t made much headway with Omeros. I can see I’ll have to give it another try.

    My favorite Merwin is his fine translation of El Cid. Based on this, I’ll look into his recent book-length poem of Hawaii, The Folded Cliffs.

  2. Seth said,

    July 8, 2012 at 1:57 am

    “The New Critics—who sprang directly from the Agrarians in Tennessee—hatched the Creative Writing Industry…” This is in every possible respect historically wrong. It is the opposite of right in the way that East is the opposite of West, and North of South. Check out the recent essays on The Suburban Ecstasies for all the research debunking this claim. The New Critics were the first “MFA killers” — they abhorred “creative writing” and tried to destroy it for decades. And failed. –S.

    • thomasbrady said,

      July 10, 2012 at 2:02 pm

      Hi Seth,

      I’m thrilled at your interest in this and happy to see you researching diligently.

      But you are wrong. The whole nub of the matter is when you write that the Fugitives rebelled against the “core curricula” of literary studies and met on their own to ‘workshop’ each other. Precisely. The actual study of literature and literary history was replaced by vanity, self-promoting circles of poets—this is the MFA and its history which you are defending, Seth!!

      Paul Engle knew Ransom and Robert Lowell, who left Harvard to be with Tate and Ransom, was the first celebrity Workshop teacher at Iowa! Tate founded the writing program at Princeton in the early 40s. Maybe it wasn’t called MFA at that point, but to pretend that we have to look at the late 1960s after Iowa is silly.

      Tom

  3. Seth said,

    July 13, 2012 at 4:52 am

    Tom, my aim (and in this we differ) is neither to attack or defend the MFA degree. I’m researching what it is and where it came from and how it has developed. It’s absurd that one can study WWII without being called a Nazi sympathizer but should anyone — heaven forbid! — encroach upon this entirely concocted history MFA detractors are so gleefully invested in, well, voila! an MFA sympathizer. I’m not going to argue facts with you, particularly when the best you have is that both Paul Engle and John Crowe Ransom knew Robert Lowell, who of course knew basically _everyone_ in the literary world in America in the 1950s. And Tate is on record — as well you know — as being a staunch opponent, as all the New Critics were, of “creative writing” generally and certainly MFAs specifically. If Tate had such a hankering for MFAs you’d think that, 122 years after the workshop was invented, the University Tate spent most of his life toiling for would have an MFA or _any_ intention of creating one. Same with Ransom’s Vanderbilt, Lowell’s Harvard, or any of the other universities associated with that gaggle of New Critics who did _nothing_ to advance graduate creative writing programs in the half-century they had all the authority and influence in the world to execute even their most esoteric administrative and programmatic desires. (And incidentally, a low-credit “minor” track within an undergraduate English major is _not_ a “program” by any definition of the word). Look, I’m sorry that you are wrong, but there we are. The best thing to do now is ask yourself why you’re so invested in invoking from thin air a connection between two entirely unrelated historical movements whose juxtaposition is in no way essential to your fundamental objections to the MFA. I don’t see how such counter-historical recalcitrance benefits you in the slightest. If you wish to rail against MFA programs, rail away — but stick to the facts. Otherwise, you’re merely a crank, and I for one think/know you have more to offer than that. –S.

    • thomasbrady said,

      July 13, 2012 at 5:45 pm

      Seth,

      I’m writing up a Scarriet post on this, so I’ll be brief.

      I know that you don’t want to seem too pro-MFA because you want to be part of the avant-garde and they are generally anti-MFA. I understand why you have to walk a fine line, Seth, and that’s OK.

      I am more cynical about the avant-garde, so I can be more blunt on the subject.

      It’s all about connecting the dots. It’s not just that Robert Lowell knew Engle and Ransom, it’s that Lowell left Harvard and threw in his lot with Ransom and Tate and gave a terrifically important cred to Iowa: “Come study at the feet of the great poet Robert Lowell!” Lowell was encouraged to leave Harvard by his psychiatrist who was a member of the Fugitive circle. The Creative Writing model was very difficult to get accepted. There was a lot of resistance to it. It had to be carefully cultivated and built up. The New Critics were smart businessmen. They favored whatever model would get them and their Modernist friends canonized, and in this sense you are right: Creative Writing/MFA was not their ultimate goal. Creative Writing was merely one of the softening agents towards that end. They had two basic goals: get into the academy and get the new writing into the academy. A limited Creative Writing model was all they needed. You are right to say the New Critics would not be in favor of the current (and growing) democratic numbers of the MFA.

      Tom


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