Thursday, March 4, 2010

Redux #18 - "Migration" by W.S. Merwin


Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color. (84)

Marra Alane posted this poem on her website a while ago, and I loved the true, sad, simplicity of it. In fact, I was so immediately enamored with the writer that I went to the library and picked up Migration: New & Selected Poems (2005) by W.S. Merwin. Now, the last time I remember actually reading a poem for its own sake was back in English class in high school. And I didn't get it. For the most part, I'm a very concrete person. I revel in exact details and descriptions and knowing exactly what occurred and what the author is trying to say. So, even with my goal of expanding and diversifying my reading, an entire book of poems is a big step for me. And if I wasn't intimidated enough: when I received the book, I found over 500 dense pages packed with hundreds of poems. Maybe it wasn't a good idea to start out with such a large compendium, but I didn't know any better. I wasn't sure if I would ever even get the nerve to crack it open, let alone read the entire thing. It has been months since I started reading this book, and it's definitely bogged me down, but I have finally managed to get through the entire thing.

It's important to note that despite my penchant for takings things too literally, I am pretty introspective and have a deep appreciation for poetry. In fact, I've found that I get over bad break-ups by pouring all my hurt and angry feelings into a poem. I can write pages and pages in a journal on how I'm feeling, but it's amazing how cathartic it is to distill all those thoughts into the short, perfect form of a poem. It's surprised me how little I need to write when I'm choosing my words so carefully, and it's helped me through two painful break-ups. I guess I've stumbled on some very cheap but useful therapy.

Now to get on with the actual book, Migration is a compilation of poems from 15 different published works as well as some new poems by W.S. Merwin. The poems were published over fifty years, from 1952 to 2004 and range widely in style and subject. I'm sure that Cannonball Read is not the best way to read poetry, and even though I spread this book out over a couple of months, it took a lot of focus to finish this one. My complete lack of knowledge about poetry also didn't help. By the end, I was so desperate to move on to something new that I pushed through to the end, not wanting to give up on something I'd already put so much effort into. And it's not that the poems were bad at all, but they took a lot of time, a lot of concentration, and there's no narrative or story to help get me through the book. Some of the poems (like the one above), I just got. They were moving, powerful and amazing to read. Other poems might have had some beautiful and interesting language, but I wouldn't really understand what Merwin was trying to say. And then there were others that just left me clueless. My reading went something like this: ooh, that was amazing; don't get it; don't get it; don't get it; ooh pretty language; who is that guy Merwin's talking about; huh; don't get it; etc. If there weren't so many poems, I could have spent a little more time digesting, looking up unknown names, and trying to understand them, but there were just too many for me to do that. So, if they didn't hit me over the head right away, I rarely read them twice looking for understanding.

I'm afraid that all this rambling on doesn't do justice to Merwin's writing or give a good idea of Migration. It's almost impossible to "sum up" hundreds of completely different poems from over fifty years of an author's life, but I can try by noting that some common themes of Merwin were perspectives, writing, death, the passage of time, and some environmentalism. Some of the language was original, beautiful, and inspiring, and I was very impressed with what I read. Although Migration might have been a little ambitious for my first foray into the world of poetry, I'm glad I read it and I'm looking forward to reading some more poetry in the future. Perhaps something a little smaller and/or annotated, though.

The following is just a list I'm writing for myself. As I read Migration, I noted my favorite poems and their page numbers. I have a sneaking suspicion that I'm going to end up buying Migration someday to peruse at my leisure and I want to be able to find my favorites.
"The Station" (35)
"Burning the Cat" (39)
"Foghorn" (50)
"Plea for a Captive" (59)
"Separation" (84)
"For the Grave of Posterity" (102)
"The Plaster" (126)
"December Night" (127)
"The Cold Before the Moonrise" (128)
"How We Are Spared" (129)
"For the Anniversary of My Death" (131)
"When the War is Over" (134)
"For a Coming Extinction" (137)
"Fly" (139) - disturbing
"Something I've Not Done" (190)
"The Unwritten" (196)
"Yesterday" (245)
"Berryman" (255)
"Lives of the Artists" (310)
"The Red" (386)
"Green Fields" (392)
"This Time" (478)
"The Marfa Lights" (487)
"Unknown Bird" (497)

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