Back J. D. McClatchy on W. S. Merwin: “A new sound for American poems”

J. D. McClatchy, author of seven books of poetry, editor of the Yale Review, and a Life Trustee of The Library of America, spoke with us about the recently published two-volume boxed set W. S. Merwin: Collected Poems.

The Collected Poems
of W. S. Merwin
(boxed set)

Library of America: Why a collected Merwin, and why now?

J. D. McClatchy: To my knowledge, this is the first time the LOA has published a collected edition spanning the entire career of a living American poet, and it’s an appropriate choice. To read these two volumes is not only to have an intensely intimate portrait of a great poet’s imagination, but also to trace the course of American poetry over the last six decades.

LOA: What, if any, is the relationship between Merwin’s efforts as a translator and his original work?

McClatchy: As a Princeton undergraduate, Merwin made a pilgrimage to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington to visit Ezra Pound, and it was Pound who urged the young man to take up translating, especially work by the French troubadour poets. Translating was an early passion and an early source of income. It was also a constant exposure to other cultures and to the history of verse worldwide. And, of course, it has been an abiding muse for his own poems. Having steeped himself in the roulades of French poetry and the silences of Japanese haiku, he was prepared to make a new sound for American poems.

LOA: By the end of the poems of The Moving Target (1963), Merwin had decided to abandon punctuation in his poems, the most conspicuous sign of a radical shift in his poetry. What accounts for these changes?

McClatchy: He began to see punctuation as overly manipulative. He wanted a verse texture closer to the voice’s pitch and feints. I also think it gives his poems an added (and alluring) mystique, as a reader pieces together seeming fragments into a description or an emotion. Of course, from another perspective, it might be seen as a peculiarly American gesture, a kind of literary democracy, giving each word an equal status!

LOA: Do you think of Merwin as a nature poet?

McClatchy: Very much so. First of all, his poems are almost always rooted in a specific landscape—rural France, Maui, Manhattan. And he is always concerned with the relationship an individual has with what looms over him, grows beside him, burrows beneath him. Merwin has consistently been a poet keenly aware of our ecological crisis, and his poems both celebrate and warn.

LOA: Merwin is at work restoring his land in Hawaii, replanting it with indigenous and now rare palms. What’s the connection between this project and his work?

McClatchy: His remarkable palm plantation on Maui has helped preserve any number of endangered tree species. That impulse to repair and preserve the planet goes to the heart of his poetic project as well. Every day to plant a tree and write a poem—to work “out back” and simultaneously in an imagined Eden, is literally to cultivate, to civilize, to surrender, to enrich.

LOA: How would you describe Merwin’s “place” in his poetic generation? How has he distinguished himself from his contemporaries? How do they (some of them) inform his work? What is Merwin’s most significant legacy for American poetry?

J. D. McClatchy.

McClatchy: The sheer amount of his work—put together with all the prose not included in these new volumes (his essays, fiction, plays, memoirs), and all his translations—tell of a literary life almost without parallel in American culture. And, though born in 1927 as a member of the most prestigious generation of poets, his output sounds like no one else’s. It possesses a unique originality, a range and depth, an eagerness to enlarge and experiment, combined with a love of tradition, that makes him such a powerful presence. I’d bet he would answer by citing several older and mid-century European and South American poets as immediate models. But in interviews he has always insisted that he has from the start thought of himself as an American poet. And if you look at him in that perspective, you might see an uncanny combination of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.

LOA: Favorite poem in the collection?

McClatchy: There are too many individual poems to name, but my favorite books of his are The Lice, The Vixen, and The Folding Cliffs.

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