M. D. Hudson's Reviews > The Lice

The Lice by W.S. Merwin
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's review
Apr 23, 2010

did not like it
Read in April, 2010

Talking about the poems in this book is like trying to determine Best in Show at the Pet Rock Beauty Pageant. I don’t know where to begin, so I can begin about anywhere. Here are random representational gobbets from W. S. Merwin’s The Lice:

The stairs the petals she loves me
Every time
Nothing has changed
(“I Live Up Here” p. 8)

The next day was just the same it went on growing.
They did all the same things it was just the same.
They decided to take its water from under it.
They took away water they took it away the water went down
(“The Last One” p. 11)

The other world
These strewn rocks belong to the wind
If it could use them
(“The Gods” p. 30)

One of the ends is made of streets
One man (sic) processions carry through it
Empty bottles their
Image of hope
It was offered to me by name
(“The River of Bees” p. 32)

Maybe some people like this sort of thing and think it’s poetry, but to be these things are unendurable. There is no texture, no tension, and nothing of interest syntactically. The diction is bland and predictable. The line breaks random and sometimes pointlessly irritating (“Empty bottles their / Image of hope”). They grind on, one unanchored yet turgid emotion to the next, couched in spooky vatic-pronouncements buttered by reflexive gravity and buoyed by vague, static archetypes (stones, sky, water, light). You could program a computer to write this stuff.

And yet W. S. Merwin is supposed to be one of America’s great poets, and The Lice is the book that is often touted by his champions as being his best. It was published in 1967 (I have a first edition, paperback that I’ve been grudgingly hauling around since 1994 or so – I bought it because of its reputation). So what is going on here? Although I am hardly a Merwin expert, it is hard to avoid him if you read poetry at all. He is in The New Yorker three or four times a year with another static little punctuationless drib, lately with some querulous “environmental” concern injected into it. He won the Pulitzer Prize last year (again), and his career goes back about six thousand years, to 1952 when W. H. Auden picked his first book The Mask of Janus to win the Yale Younger Poets Prize. All the Yale Younger Poets touched by Auden went on to solid, sometimes fabulous careers (Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, etc.), although there is some doubt in my mind whether this is because they were really good or because Auden picked them and thereby gave them American poetry’s biggest career boost of all time. Anyway, Merwin’s was a typical eager-beaver young person’s attempt to please the New Critics kind of book, full of clotted diction and snarled syntax showing, as the critics always feel compelled to point out, an expert use of form. Here is the first stanza and the first sentence from one of these, with a very, very typical 1952 poem title: “Dictum: For a Masque of Deluge”

There will be the cough before the silence, then
Expectation: and the hush of portent
Must be welcomed by a diffident music
Lisping and dividing its renewals;
Shadows will lengthen and sway, and, casually
As in a latitude of diversion
Where growth is topiary, and the relaxed horizons
Are accustomed to the trespass of surprise,
One with a mask of Ignorance will appear
Musing on the wind’s strange pregnancy.

So what happened? How did such a self-consciously pretentious, syntactically bewildering, verbally clotted, metaphysically self-important young poet get reduced to a few windy strewn stones and absolutely no semi-colons? My guess is Robert Lowell and John Berryman happened. And Merwin’s friends (although Plath was less known than he was) Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. And maybe The Beats. And almost definitely Robert Bly and James Wright. By the late ‘50s, Merwin knew his complicated Lord Weary’s McMansion approach to poetry was being eclipsed by a new sound, so he had to change. The problem was Merwin found that he lacked the sense of humor and the and the agility to compete with the best of the Confessionals, and The Beats were too outside the establishment to appeal to a careerist like Merwin, so he had to settle in with the Deep Image, the Stones-and-Bones poetry that Bly and Wright and a few others came up with in the late fifties and early sixties. It was a perfect match: the Deep Image poem is easy to write and it favors the humorless and the self-pitying and self-important. And so Merwin underwent a tiresome sea change the way American poets so often do, and it really worked out for him. The Lice was praised to the windy, significantly gray skies. Now fifty years later he persists with the Deep Image, adding a few dollops of surrealism for flavor (most of the Deep Image poets did this), dropping punctuation, and shortening up those lines. It is strange to me that this has worked out so well for Merwin, since as far as I can tell, nobody but Merwin writes Deep Image poems anymore. Not even Bly, who has settled into a kind of avuncular good gray poet mode, making him strangely similar to late-period John Ashbery (the two of them should do a radio talk show together, the way G. Gordon Liddy and Timothy Leary used to). The Deep Image came under pretty savage attack via the Reaper Essays in the early 1970s, and youngsters such as Robert Pinsky helped secure their reputation by ripping into them as well (see his 1976ish book The Situation of Poetry for a rather fun evisceration of the stones-and-bones mode). By 1980 or so the Deep Image was pretty much discredited as a way to write poems. Again, except in Merwin’s case.

Here are a couple penny dreadfuls (in full, not excerpts) from The Lice. Read these aloud with a flashlight shining under your chin to pool your face in spooky campfire shadows. You’ll scare the hell out of the kids:


When the Gentle were dead these inherited their coats
Now they gather in late autumn and quarrel over the air
Demanding something for their shadows that are naked
And silent and learning


I have been watching crows and now it is dark
Together they led night into the creaking oaks
Under them I hear the dry leaves walking
That blind man
Gathering their feathers before winter
By the dim road that the wind will take
And the cold
And the note of the trumpet


The cold slope is standing in darkness
But the south of the trees is dry to the touch

The heavy limbs climb into the moonlight bearing feathers
I came to watch these
White plants older at night
The oldest
Come first to the ruins

And I hear magpies kept awake by the moon
The water flows through its
Own fingers without end

Tonight once more
I find a single prayer and it is not for men

These are all run in a clump on pages 42 and 43. I rather like the last line of the last one (Merwin does have his non-excruciating moments). But otherwise I fail to see how any of these poems rise to their own teeny-weeny occasions. Again, this is free verse at its worst – self-indulgent, pointlessly “mysterious,” formless yet fuzzily melodramatic. There is an unvarying three-note range of tone, unconvincing descriptions of nature, the heedless use of predictable archetypes – the moon, stones, wind, sky, all strewn about hither and thither. But then the Deep Image always was easy to ridicule: there is a “dim road that the wind will take?” Really? Where is this road? Does the wind have a speed limit? Why do the limbs bear feathers? How are white plants older at night? Does all this whiteness refer to snow? What’s wrong with the word snow then? Another problem is that emotionally Merwin is a mope most of the time. There is nothing wrong with existential despair, but when all your despair is existential (rather than specific) or unleavened by the slightest bit of humor, irony or basic self-awareness, the effect is that of a dorm room full of sophomore Goths and Emos. The more serious Merwin gets, the harder it is to take him seriously. Self-pity wrestles with self-importance in these poems, in tiny little set pieces that I find it hard to believe anybody would give a damn about. In fact I find it hard to believe Merwin even likes poetry. I just want to slug him in the arm and say “Come on, Bill! Lighten up! Have a beer and stop with the poems already.”

This book is 80 pages long. I am on page 51, so this is a grossly unfair review, since maybe the last thirty pages are killer-diller. But life is short. Dictum: Don’t Waste Your Time.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Eric (new)

Eric "Lord Weary's McMansion"!

He is in The New Yorker three or four times a year with another static little punctuationless drib, lately with some querulous “environmental” concern injected into it.

Merwin turned up in that recent PBS Special on the Buddha ("special," not documentary; there were animated bits) and I thought, "Perfect casting!"

message 2: by John (new)

John All due respect, MD -- this one & CARRIER OF LADDERS feel to me like the peak of Merwin's career. In these two books he first grasped his project &, spurred by the discovery, rendered his transubstantiations (bringing to life other flora, fauna, worlds...) in sharpest relief.

M. D.  Hudson Eric wrote: ""Lord Weary's McMansion"!

He is in The New Yorker three or four times a year with another static little punctuationless drib, lately with some querulous “environmental” concern injected into it..."

I didn't know Merwin was a Buddhist...but yes, that would be perfect casting, since Ginsberg isn't around anymore.

M. D.  Hudson John wrote: "All due respect, MD -- this one & CARRIER OF LADDERS feel to me like the peak of Merwin's career. In these two books he first grasped his project &, spurred by the discovery, rendered his transubs..."

Transubstantiation, in a Catholic Mass or in a book of W. S. Merwin's poetry, requires an act of faith. I suppose if a reader shares Merwin's faith, then his poems will resonate and thrill. If not, the reader is left with language and syntax that is very meager. As an infidel, I am shut out of these poems. I will add, however, that I do like some of the poems in Merwin's "The Drunk in the Furnace" -- his 1960 effort to come to grips with Lowell's "Life Studies" (I am guessing) but before Merwin latched on to the Deep Image stuff that has characterized his later work.

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