The Lice serves as a pinnacle of experimental lyric poetry. Merwin, who in years past wrote several collections dominated by the narrative form, examples include Dancing with Bears and Green with Beasts, doesn’t necessarily change poetry altogether with his radical shift in style, but he does allow for the play and movement of craft so often seen today from poets like Daniela Olszewska and Zachary Schomburg.
What I find both thrilling and immensely terrifying are the vast differences between Merwin’s first four books, which are by and large “project” books (those rooted in singular themes) and the next four. With the name removed, a reader might well see two different poets at work. But, of course, that begs the question, doesn’t it? Who reads Merwin now? Who would want to a read a nearly fifty year-old book?
The Lice is unpunctuated and nearly absent of complete narrative thread. The poems are able to stand alone under the umbrella of thematic constructions of despair for a falling world contaminated by war and struggle, as well as the losses of self and happiness associated with violence and grief. Simply describing this book is a war in itself, but it’s one worth fighting. Reading the book, which is of average poetry collection length, is no easy task, but every second spent will improve the mind. If you are a writer, this book will make you want to write.
Merwin himself, as Reginald Shepard notes on his blog, “is widely esteemed and honored, but not widely read.” And while this is a sadness in itself, the sheer movement poetry has made since Merwin’s most acclaimed work, The Lice, is not something current writers should overlook. A quick look at Merwin’s biography will grant any reader of poetry a glimpse at one of the most prolific writers of our time. He is a poet considered with respect among young writers, but have they read him? If the answer from an aspiring writer is “yes,” I would be very much interested in knowing to which book the “yes” refers.
Harold Bloom writes in The Anxiety of Influence that a writer who seeks to master the craft must “devour” a precursor (poets like Shakespeare and Milton). They have to, in other words, become greater (if the task sounds impossible, that’s the point). While Bloom looks heavily to an ancient canon, it is my firm belief that Merwin should be considered a new precursor, though still living and writing, of contemporary American poetry. If we are to, as Bloom goes on to say, consider reading as a form of rewriting—“The meaning of a poem can only be another poem”—then consider what reading any book written before, say, 1970 contributes to what’s being written today. How much crossover must exist between Merwin’s earlier writing and that from younger poets currently in practice?
The following won’t hold Bloom’s work to the letter, but it will hopefully show a connection between passages from The Lice (1967) and Richard Siken’s Crush (2005):
W. S. Merwin in “Provision”: “The flocks are beginning to form / I will take with me the emptiness of my hands / What you do not have you find everywhere” (55).
Richard Siken in “Boot Theory”: “A man takes his sadness down to the river and throws it in the river / but then he’s still left / with the river. A man takes his sadness and throws it away / but then he’s still left with his hands” (21).
Both of these poets are working to show loss, which is, of course, a worn path in poetry’s history. As is the use of the hand trope. But at the same time, what connects the two poets is the inherent search for the meaning of loss. What comes from the notion that empty hands hold great weight is affirmation of a human curse: we hold onto what hurts often more than what might heal. Even the things we let go of, once burning, will continue to burn.
The fire that Merwin breathes into the craft remains. He is an essential poet, and he’s one we should all return to from time to time. Not only for his lyric prowess, but also for the discovery of elements we might be overlooking in more current works. Not to make too fine a point of it, but perhaps tradition (especially a tradition of experimentation) is best served by recounting its experiments.
I challenge anyone writing today to read The Lice and trace the more complex themes and arguments to today’s most popular poetry books. I guarantee connections. And I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised to hear that the poets being traced have read The Lice and, further, have chased it.
Merwin, W. S. “Provision.” The Lice. Massachusetts: Athenum, 1969. Print.
Shepherd, Reginald. “On W.S. Merwin’s The Lice.” Blogspot. Blogspot. 23 Feb. 2007. Web. 17 March
Siken, Richard. “Boot Theory.” Crush. New York: Yale University Press, 2005. Print.