Desire and Infinity in W. S. Merwin's Poetry
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Desire and Infinity in W. S. Merwin's Poetry

Dong Feng

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Desire and Infinity in W. S. Merwin's Poetry

Dong Feng

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In the first monograph on W. S. Merwin to appear since his death in 2019, Feng Dong focuses on the dialectical movement of desire and infinity that ensouls the poet's entire oeuvre. His analysis foregrounds what Merwin calls "the other side of despair, " the opposite of humans' articulated personal and social agonies. Feng finds these presences in Merwin's evocations of what lingers on the edge of constantly updated socio-symbolic frameworks: surreal encounters, spiritual ecstasies, and abyssal freedoms. By examining Merwin's lifelong engagement with psychic fantasies, anonymous holiness, entities both natural and supernatural, and ghostly ancestors, Feng uncovers a precarious relation with the unarticulated, unrealized side of existence. Drawing on theories from Lacan, Žižek, Levinas, and Heidegger, Desire and Infinity in W. S. Merwin's Poetry reads a metaphysical possibility into the poet's work at the intersection between contemporary poetics, philosophy, and psychoanalysis.

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LSU Press
Merwin’s Early Encounter with the Real
From the very beginning of his poetic career, Merwin was obsessed with what W. B. Yeats calls the “horrible splendour of desire” (196). In A Mask for Janus (1952) and The Dancing Bears (1954), we witness how Merwin struggles with the fixed poetic form in order to articulate, as well as imitate, the truth and movement of desire. In Green with Beasts (1956) and The Drunk in the Furnace (1960), however, we wonder at Merwin’s close-up delineations of the vehicles of desire, the biblical and domestic animals that simultaneously embody and resist human signification, the foghorn and icebergs that warn sailors of the imminent danger and fascinate them by its false look. One conspicuous feature of these early texts is the lack of specific reference to outer sociohistorical facts, as if Merwin, being concerned with the landscapes of human mind, were writing completely from his intricate psyche, where reality and fantasy intermix. Merwin’s traveling poems during this period therefore do not give the impression of a certain locale but register a diffused allegorical purport. The sailings, long and short, resemble the Odyssean journey loaded with temptations and hardships, as the sea poems also evoke the traumatic unrealness of the kernel of the Symbolic, an all-engulfing void. Merwin the eternal traveler of the mind went into the heart of wilderness and was saved there by some mysterious power testified by faith alone: “For from the very hunger to look, we feed / Unawares, as at the beaks of ravens” (FF 156). Many of Merwin’s poems from the first three books share the Dantean trilogy of Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso; like the biblical Job, Merwin’s speaker must go through the maddening ordeal of symbolic death before he can see the light of Providence and be thus redeemed or reborn.
While Sean Joseph McDonnell sees the tension between “a rejection of the social realm and a need for the kind of stability society may offer” as the motif of Merwin’s first three books (9), I would argue that the “stability” Merwin finds in the 1950s does not reside in society or community but in fluidity and transgression, which have been deeply implanted in Merwin since childhood. Merwin was at home when he was largely out of home; his métier lies exactly in portraying the inner- and ultraphenomena before which the subject is magnetized and paralyzed. These early texts present a developing pattern from high-toned, half-mad ballads to calmer meditations on desire and disaster, language and signification. Merwin dallies with an impossible combination of delicacy and violence, probing alternative realities that escape the existent sociohistorical process.
To begin with, I will present a biographical reading in order to sketch out the constitutive elements of Merwin’s early mythical style, which has been elaborated upon by critics.1 Indeed, Merwin’s curiosity for the phenomenal world and his desire to explore the distant and the transcendent can be traced back to his early childhood. Growing up in a Presbyterian minister’s family with a reticent mother and a “prohibitive” father, Merwin in his early years assumed a bohemian and rebellious posture, less fiery than Arthur Rimbaud perhaps but equally conspicuous (Merwin was later to write “Rimbaud’s Piano” to show his sympathy).2 When Merwin was born in 1927, the family lived in Union City, New Jersey, where the Hudson River was busy with traffic. While his father wrote his sermons in his study, Merwin the small boy “knelt on the blue velvet cushion on the window seat, gazing out through the leaded panes, or through the open casements . . . watching the river, without a word, utterly rapt in the vast scene in front of [him]”: the vast scene of roaring trains, busy ferries, “puffs of steam,” “whistles and horns,” “the distant sounds,” and as a child he “was seeing something that [he] could not reach and that would never go away” (SD 28). Merwin in his childhood was thus seduced by the fleeting image of water and what it symbolizes: immersion and fluidity. In spite of, or rather because of, his parents’ severe warnings, Merwin attempted to get close to the water, the symbol of flux, fluidity, travels, and phantasmagoria. At the age of fourteen, Merwin strategically researched the public library of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and built his first boat with his ten-cents-a-week allowance, naming it Zephyr (30–33).
Merwin’s libidinal attachment to fluidity in early childhood persists into his young adulthood, only in a slightly varied form. Setting Rimbaud and Shelley as his ideal ego, the imaginary other he attempted to identify with, Merwin in college adopted the posture of the wandering artist, occupying himself with random reading, sailing, and horse riding. His nonconformist behavior might have incurred bad feelings from some of the faculty at Princeton University, as he later admitted: “I read far outside the assignments, and often on wild tangents, forgetting the assignments themselves. . . . I must have been exasperating to most of my professors” (SD 36). Merwin reminisces that some of the Princeton faculty could not tolerate his Thoreauvian disobedience and wanted to dismiss him when he was “busy being Shelley” (RM 190). Merwin stayed at Princeton, however, largely due to the efforts of his mentor, Richard Blackmur, who appreciated his talent and irregularity. Blackmur himself exemplified a bohemian artist: a self-made critic who did not have a degree and whose presence at Princeton was suspected by his colleagues. Indeed, Blackmur held “an ethic of fierce devotion to an art in a philistine society” (RM 190) and defined, much to Merwin’s own exhilaration, the basic characteristic of a critic and a reader as “a house waiting to be haunted” (SD 45). This fierce and haunting sense of art and poetry is perhaps what influenced Merwin most in subsequent years.
If Blackmur struck Merwin as a paradigm of the wandering scholar, the confessional poet John Berryman, Blackmur’s assistant at the time, came to influence Merwin for his highly emotive use of poetic language. Berryman worked like a mentor for Merwin at Princeton, constantly offering him “a cluster of new names in [his] head to be tracked down” and spurring him to “find the fire in them,” as Merwin later assimilated much of Berryman’s own “intense, unremitting, and fierce” poetic language into his first book of poems, A Mask for Janus (SD 45). Berryman’s unconditional devotion to poetry also stunned young Merwin: for Berryman, poetry was “a matter of life and death,” and he “cared about it more than he did about anyone’s ego, including his own” (SD 44). In a belated poem to Berryman from the 1980s, Merwin celebrates his credo of passion:
He said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius. . . . (FH 156)
Derived from the Latin passio, passion first means divine suffering, and then it denotes a certain libidinal fixation; therefore, passion, by definition, is a curious mixture of both pleasure and pain. For Berryman and Merwin, passion enters poetry as the highly cathected movement of words; the poetic process is initiated and sustained by passion, a psychic movement that dictates what is to be written and maybe also how it is written. The transformative power of poetry, contra New Criticism, does not originate in a deliberate deployment of the poetic form such as irony, tension, balance, and rhythm, but in a sustaining and haunting undercurrent of desire for incantations, invocations, and enchantments. Berryman’s own work, The Dream Songs (1969), bears this out, whereas in Merwin, the “great presence” of passion would take a more devious and spectral path.
Merwin’s spiritual growth in early years clearly follows a centrifugal pattern: persons and things he came into contact with broadened his mind and strengthened his devotion to art and poetry, until he could no longer endure the symbolic restrictions from family and institution. In 1948, at the age of twenty-one, Merwin quit his graduate study in Romance language at Princeton University and sailed for Europe with an utterly unknown future, with his “youth and inexperience” and a “vertiginous sensation” due to “complete lack of money” (SD 3). Like most idealistic young poets influenced by Shelleyan Romanticism, in his early twenties Merwin avowed that “I did not know what I would do for a living, and even more strangely I took it for granted that I would not know, for a while” (RM 194–95). Sailing for a new world seems all that matters. The first breach of one’s socio-symbolic framework proves permanent, and all Merwin’s later work would endlessly rehearse that first act of de-cision, of cutting oneself off from that which preexists the individual.
The desire for fluidity, bohemianism, and poetic passion (suffering) suffuses many of Merwin’s early poems that exhibit a strong urge to break off the socio-familial relationship and reach into the domain of contingency and pure ecstasy. From A Mask for Janus to The Drunk in the Furnace, despite their conspicuous formalism, Merwin constantly resorts to the emotive, irregular, and pathological trends in poetry. The efforts are impersonated in some half-insane figures, as Merwin dramatizes the traumatic calling of the Other in the vein of Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci” and Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott.” In “Ballad of John Cable and Three Gentlemen,” the first ballad in A Mask for Janus, the protagonist, John, spellbound by some vague calling, came all the way to “a gray river / Wide as the sea” and received an anti-Althusserian interpellation from the mysterious Other incarnated in “three dark gentlemen” who were already waiting for him there (FF 18). The three men invited John to board the boat, but John hesitated out of consideration for his sister, wife, and mother, to whom his familial duty was bound. Under the devilish persuasion that his service to family was not indispensable and his departure not insufferable, John was finally “carried / On the dark river; / Not even a shadow / Followed him over. // On the wide river / Gray as the sea / Flags of white water / Are his company” (FF 21). Abandoning his family, John, similarly to John the Baptist, was baptized by the water that had completely erased his personal history. Christhilf reads the ballad as the destined calling of an artist: “The gentlemen represent the Muse, for they want Cable to accompany them to a place that is clearly Byzantium” (4). This Yeatsian reading actually has overlooked the biographical allusion to Merwin’s grandfather John Otto, who had worked on the Allegheny River as a pilot for many years, and his family could hardly understand this irregular profession (Hix, Understanding 109). This is why the three gentlemen in the poem exhorted John Cable to “follow the feet . . . / Of your family, / Of your old father / That came already this way” (FF 18).
Though there’s strong temptation to read John’s unreasonable departure as the physical, real death that his paternal ancestors had all succumbed to, the ballad lays bare another type of death: the symbolic death that places the subject in the limbo between the living and the dead—what Žižek calls “the undead” (Žižek Reader 279). Cutting off his ties with fellow humans, John the Prodigal Son enters the “far side” without a “shadow” (FF 21), exactly going through the “subjective destitution” formulated by Lacanian psychoanalysis.3 John, if not dead, becomes a living ghost, “the ash that walk[s]” (“Blind William’s Song,” FF 24), a subject without corporeality in a posthuman landscape of “gray” river and “white water.” The three gentlemen, in contradistinction to T. S. Eliot’s three magi heralding the birth of Christ, represent the Mephistophelean Other who brings destruction to one’s personal past. They seem to uncannily possess that omniscient knowledge of the subject’s (John Cable’s) desire but stand in utter mystery themselves, refusing to be known. The whole poem stages John’s/Merwin’s desire to break the tender fetters of family for an utterly unknown and even dangerous future. John did not struggle so much with Devil’s temptation as with himself, with his own imagined, paranoiac socio-symbolic status. Moonstruck by an unnamable urge to welcome this Other who came over “seven hills” and “the last tree” (FF 18), John suddenly realized that his roleplaying in the family was but a fantasy, which he later traversed by deciding to leave “his poorly mother,” “his wife at grieving” and “his sister’s fallow.” This is John’s psychic one-man war. In this reading, John Cable could be readily identified with one of the three gentlemen, just as Dr. Faust is already part of Mephistopheles. Shedding one’s fantasy of a stable, fully constituted self, the mythic “dark river” that John felt drawn to works here as the object of man’s unsatisfiable desire for, not the Beckettian, absent Other, but the Goethean, devilish Other—the “guide in the journey toward the mythic consciousness” (Guy 420).
This poem is highly autobiographical in that Merwin himself has come to be the Prodigal Son who left hi...

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