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The River Sound
     

The River Sound

by W. S. Merwin
 

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A strikingly beautiful book of poems from one of our finest poets, exhibiting his artistry in the style he has made his own. To his lyrics Merwin adds three long narrative poems: "Lament for the Makers" is his tribute to fellow poets who are gone and who had his admiration, from Dylan Thomas to James Merrill; "Testimony" is a tour de force,

Overview

A strikingly beautiful book of poems from one of our finest poets, exhibiting his artistry in the style he has made his own. To his lyrics Merwin adds three long narrative poems: "Lament for the Makers" is his tribute to fellow poets who are gone and who had his admiration, from Dylan Thomas to James Merrill; "Testimony" is a tour de force, an autobiographical poem in the manner of Francois Villon; "Suite in the Key of Forgetting" is a remarkable poem about memory and memories. All in all, a masterly work by a major poet.

Editorial Reviews

barnesandnoble.com
Pulitzer Prize-winner and translator extraordinaire W. S. Merwin started his poetic career at age five, writing hymns for his minister father. Merwin's new book shows off that early hymn training -- plus all the other reasons why he's been a major figure in American poetry for nearly five decades.

Ever since poet W. H. Auden chose him as the Yale Younger Poet in 1952, Merwin has symbolized high standards. In fact, last year, when Merwin judged the prestigious Yale contest, no entrant seemed to meet his definition of excellence. Merwin refused to name a winner, causing a flurry of nasty letters to literary magazines from disappointed young poets. Auden, of course, twice refused to name a winner.

So what can a guy who's written 20-plus books do that's new? Well, Merwin starts off with a skillful twist on the age-old elegy. Instead of writing a poem about the loss of a lover or a parent -- standard poetic fare -- Merwin writes about a lost body part. The book's first poem, "Ceremony After an Amputation," opens with a fabulous, incantatory stanza. In these dreamy yet powerful first lines, the son of a minister and the lifelong translator clearly makes use of his experiences in both spiritual and foreign places:

spirits of the place who were here before I saw it
to whom I have made such offerings as I have known how to make
wanting from the first to approach you with recognition

Then Merwin gets personal, addressing what appear to be spirits directly.

you have taught me without meaning and have lifted me up
without talk or promise and again and again reappeared to me
unmistakable and changing and unpronounceable as a face

A phrase like "unpronounceable as a face" is why Merwin wins prize after prize, year after year, wowing his fans with each new volume. Merwin is a master of mixing. He can blend spellbinding lines with colloquial asides, and he can borrow from the Spanish and French poetic traditions. In fact, a big chunk of the book is a long poem called "Testimony," heavily influenced by French medieval poet François Villon's poem "The Testament." Merwin keeps the tight rhyme and eight-syllable line, but he makes it his own by using his personal life story as material.

Merwin also takes repeated risks when it comes to form. His shapely, flab-free stanzas often look formal, but for the most part, he writes in free verse. Like Auden, he delights in inventing or adjusting forms for the occasion. And just like Auden, Merwin displays a healthy sense of humor. Even though the book is about getting older and looking back at youth through an old man's eyes, Merwin is still able to laugh at the serious theme of the body's weakening and the nearing of death. For instance, here's what he says to his lost body part in that incantatory amputation poem:

you who did as well as we could through all those hours at the piano
and who helped undo the bras and found our way to the treasure
and who held the fruit and the pages and knew how to button
my right cuff and to wash my left ear...

"Undo the bras," "held the fruit" -- this grand poem is actually about a small piece of a finger! Merwin keeps pulling those kinds of tricks, mourning in new ways and often making fun of himself while doing it. He's got a poem titled "Suite in the Key of Forgetting," and a fantastic poem called "Lamentation for the Makers," which weaves in the names of poets -- or poem-makers -- who have died over the past few decades.

Despite all the emphasis on death, Merwin takes a fresh look at getting old by trying to recall how he thought of death as a young man. Here, for example, is the opening to "A Night Fragrance":

Now I am old enough to remember
people speaking of immortality
as though it were something known to exist
a tangible substance that might be acquired
to be used perhaps in the kitchen

Those last two lines pretty much capture Merwin's achievement. He produces poems that are tangible, hymns that can be recited in a kitchen as well as a classroom. THE RIVER SOUND is a treasure chest of well-sculpted poems, masterworks by a maker with decades of practice.

-- Aviya Kushner is a freelance writer whose work is forthcoming in Harvard Review and The Boston Phoenix Literary Supplement.

Kushner

The River Sound


Pulitzer Prize-winner and translator extraordinaire W. S. Merwin started his poetic career at age five, writing hymns for his minister father. Merwin's new book shows off that early hymn training -- plus all the other reasons why he's been a major figure in American poetry for nearly five decades.

Ever since poet W. H. Auden chose him as the Yale Younger Poet in 1952, Merwin has symbolized high standards. In fact, last year, when Merwin judged the prestigious Yale contest, no entrant seemed to meet his definition of excellence. Merwin refused to name a winner, causing a flurry of nasty letters to literary magazines from disappointed young poets. Auden, of course, twice refused to name a winner.

So what can a guy who's written 20-plus books do that's new? Well, Merwin starts off with a skillful twist on the age-old elegy. Instead of writing a poem about the loss of a lover or a parent -- standard poetic fare -- Merwin writes about a lost body part. The book's first poem, "Ceremony After an Amputation," opens with a fabulous, incantatory stanza. In these dreamy yet powerful first lines, the son of a minister and the lifelong translator clearly makes use of his experiences in both spiritual and foreign places:

spirits of the place who were here before I saw it
to whom I have made such offerings as I have known how to make
wanting from the first to approach you with recognition
Then Merwin gets personal, addressing what appear to be spirits directly.

you have taught me without meaning and have lifted me up
without talk or promise and again and again reappeared to me
unmistakable and changing and unpronounceable as a face

A phrase like "unpronounceable as a face" is why Merwin wins prize after prize, year after year, wowing his fans with each new volume. Merwin is a master of mixing. He can blend spellbinding lines with colloquial asides, and he can borrow from the Spanish and French poetic traditions. In fact, a big chunk of the book is a long poem called "Testimony," heavily influenced by French medieval poet François Villon's poem "The Testament." Merwin keeps the tight rhyme and eight-syllable line, but he makes it his own by using his personal life story as material.

Merwin also takes repeated risks when it comes to form. His shapely, flab-free stanzas often look formal, but for the most part, he writes in free verse. Like Auden, he delights in inventing or adjusting forms for the occasion. And just like Auden, Merwin displays a healthy sense of humor. Even though the book is about getting older and looking back at youth through an old man's eyes, Merwin is still able to laugh at the serious theme of the body's weakening and the nearing of death. For instance, here's what he says to his lost body part in that incantatory amputation poem:

you who did as well as we could through all those hours at the piano
and who held the fruit and the pages and knew how to button
my right cuff and to wash my left ear...

"Undo the bras," "held the fruit" -- this grand poem is actually about a small piece of a finger! Merwin keeps pulling those kinds of tricks, mourning in new ways and often making fun of himself while doing it. He's got a poem titled "Suite in the Key of Forgetting," and a fantastic poem called "Lamentation for the Makers," which weaves in the names of poets -- or poem-makers -- who have died over the past few decades.

Despite all the emphasis on death, Merwin takes a fresh look at getting old by trying to recall how he thought of death as a young man. Here, for example, is the opening to "A Night Fragrance":

Now I am old enough to remember
people speaking of immortality
as though it were something known to exist
a tangible substance that might be acquired
to be used perhaps in the kitchen

Those last two lines pretty much capture Merwin's achievement. He produces poems that are tangible, hymns that can be recited in a kitchen as well as a classroom. THE RIVER SOUND is a treasure chest of well-sculpted poems, masterworks by a maker with decades of practice.

-- Aviya Kushner

Melanie Rehak
Much of The River Sound is given over to worrying about the failure of words....Perhaps it's that Merwin wants to settle the old debts to confusion and ignorance that we all have before it's too late....[He's] ...taking care of the "need to make some kind of house/Out of the life lived, out of the love spent."
The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780375704352
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
08/28/2000
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
144
Sales rank:
900,956
Product dimensions:
6.17(w) x 9.06(h) x 0.49(d)

Read an Excerpt

WAVES IN AUGUST

There is a war in the distance with the distance growing smaller the field glasses lying at hand are for keeping it far away

I thought I was getting better about that returning childish wish to be living somewhere else that I knew was impossible and now I find myself wishing to be here to be alive here it is impossible enough to still be the wish of a child

in youth I hid a boat under the bushes beside the water knowing I would want it later and come back and would find it there someone else took it and left me instead the sound of the water with its whisper of vertigo

terror reassurance an old old sadness it would seem we knew enough always about parting but we have to go on learning as long as there is anything

THE CAUSEWAY

This is the bridge where at dusk they hear voices far out in the meres and marshes or they say they hear voices

the bridge shakes and no one else is crossing at this hour somewhere along here is where they hear voices

this is the only bridge though it keeps changing from which some always say they hear voices

the sounds pronounce an older utterance out of the shadows sometimes stifled sometimes carried from clear voices

what can be recognized in the archaic syllables frightens many and tells others not to fear voices

travellers crossing the bridge have forgotten where they were going in a passage between the remote and the near voices

there is a tale by now of a bridge a long time before this one already old before the speech of our day and the mere voices

when the Goths were leaving their last kingdom in Scythia they could feel the bridge shaking under their voices

the bank and the first spans are soon lost to sight there seemed no end to the horses carts people and all their voices

in the mists at dusk the whole bridge sank under them into the meres and marshes leaving nothing but their voices

they are still speaking the language of their last kingdom that no one remembers who now hears their voices

whatever translates from those rags of sound persuades some who hear them that they are familiar voices

grandparents never seen ancestors in their childhoods now along the present bridge they sound like dear voices

some may have spoken in my own name in an earlier language when last they drew breath in the kingdom of their voices

Meet the Author

W. S. Merwin was born in New York City in 1927 and grew up in Union City, New Jersey, and in Scranton, Pennsylvania. From 1949 to 1951 he worked as a tutor in France, Portugal, and Majorca. He has since lived in many parts of the world, most recently on Maui in the Hawaiian Islands. His many books of poems, prose, and translations are listed at the beginning of this volume. He has been the recipient of many awards and prizes, including the Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets (of which he is now a Chancellor), the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, and the Bollingen Prize in Poetry; most recently he has received the Governor's Award for Literature of the state of Hawaii, the Tanning Prize for mastery in the art of poetry, a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writers' Award, and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.

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