March 20, 2019

“Bowing Not Knowing to What”: With W.S. Merwin (1927-2019) in Princeton and Manhattan

By Stuart Mitchner

Ten years ago, my column about the Bryn Mawr Wellesley book sale featured poet and Princeton graduate W.S. Merwin’s memoir, Summer Doorways (2005), with its recollection of student life in the 1940s. Those were the days when poets Merwin and Galway Kinnell were waiting tables (“the only two waiters who had been on the job for so long without being promoted”) and frequenting the Parnassus Bookshop “in a house along Nassau Street.” The shop was run by Keene and Anne Fleck, who told Merwin about the proposed Creative Writing Program just getting started under R.P. Blackmur. At her urging, he wrote to Blackmur and asked to be admitted to the course. Blackmur’s assistant was a poet named John Berryman. The rest, as they say, is history.

Climbing Mt. Princeton

Curious to learn more about that bookshop on Nassau Street, I did some cyberspace browsing and found, as if on a table at a virtual Bryn Mawr, a volume called Breaking Through Clouds by Richard F. Fleck, who grew up in Princeton. In his account of climbing Mount Princeton (14,204 feet) in the Sawatch Range of the Rockies, Fleck recalls sitting in “the warmth and comfort” of his parents’ bookshop listening to “young poets” like Merwin, Kinnell, and William Meredith.

After coming away empty-handed on my mainly reportorial visit to the preview morning of this year’s book sale, I returned Saturday with the news of Merwin’s death fresh in mind and found a copy of his 1999 collection The River Sound abandoned on the discard table. Opening the volume at random to “Testimony,” which takes up 58 of the collection’s 133 pages, I found myself once again in Princeton with Merwin and Kinnell in those days “when we were too young/for the war.” The line that jumped out at me, however, referred to Mike Keeley (“we have been friends since both of us/were beginning to shave”), a clear signal that it was time to contact poet, translator, novelist and Professor Emeritus of English Edmund Keeley for his thoughts about Merwin.

Bartleby On Horseback

Keeley’s friendship with “Bill Merwin” began when they lived across from one another at Dod Hall in 1945, their freshman year. That year they both decided to join the Navy. I learned from Keeley that the brevity of Merwin’s career in the service was due to his refusal to obey orders. Do this, do that, whatever the command was, Merwin’s response was polite but firm, which made me think of the mysterious intransigence of Herman Melville’s character Bartleby the Scrivener, who was politely principled to a maddening extreme, his stock response to the most reasonable requests being “I would prefer not to.” When Merwin told his commanding officers, in effect, “I would prefer not to,” he was sent to the chaplin and eventually landed, like Bartleby, in a psychiatric hospital, from which he returned to the university and his pal Keeley, both of whom graduated with the class of 1948. The more I heard about Merwin’s rebellious behavior, the more I thought of Bartleby’s mantra. If the powers that be said he should stop riding a horse around Lake Carnegie, it was “I would prefer not to,” and again when he was asked to teach or to fulfill the requirements for a postgraduate degree. Even in later years when friends visiting or housesitting expected him to terminate the cockroaches in his rent-controlled Greenwich Village apartment, it was “I would prefer not to.”

You get a glimpse of Keeley’s housesitting duties among the legacies in “Testimony,” where Merwin leaves for his friend Mike’s “free uncontested use/what stretch of Morton Street may please/him best and his own choice of neighbors/and a magic wand to ease/his vacuum cleaner up the stairs.”

The comment Keeley sent to the Merwin Conservancy in Hawaii puts their relationship in a more elegaic light: “From our young days at Princeton, through our shared time in the Village and on and off beyond, you remained unfailingly faithful to poetry, translation, the causes of peace and justice, and most of all to friendship for those who came to know your abiding sense of humor and your devotion to the best things discoverable in the real and imaginative worlds you chose to make yours and ours.” 

227 Waverly Place

I owe a debt of thanks to the Bryn Mawr Wellesley book sale and especially to the person or persons who decided against buying The River Sound. While most buyers and sellers might prefer volumes more clearly reflective of Merwin’s connection to the natural world and his devotion to matters political, botanical, ecological and environmental, I can’t imagine a collection more inspired and inspirational than one centered on ambitious works like “Lament for the Makers,” “Suite in the Key of Forgetting,” and “Testimony,” not to mention “Ceremony After an Amputation” — the “single vanished part of my left hand bit of bone finger-end index …you who touched whatever I could touch of the beginning/and were how I touched and who remembered the sense of it … you who did as well as we could through all the hours at piano/and who helped undo the bras and found our way to the treasure.

Then there’s “Sixth Floor Walk-Up,” where

once I called up a friend on Morton Street
to tell him that all the windows facing
west down the avenue were reflecting
a red building flaming like a torch
somewhere over near the old post office
on Christopher Street the sirens were converging
all the bells clanging and the sky was clear.

 It doesn’t take long to realize that the river in The River Song is the Hudson or else is metaphorically embedded with other semblances of nature in “227 Waverly Place,” where

long I have known
the lights of that valley at every hour
through that unwashed pane and have watched with no
conclusion its river flowing toward me
straight from the featureless distance coming
closer darkening swelling growing distinct
speeding up as it passed below me toward
the tunnel all that time through all that time
taking itself through its sound which became
part of my own before long the unrolling
rumble the iron solos and the sirens
all subsiding in the small hours to voices
echoing from the sidewalks a rustling
in the rushes along banks and the loose
glass vibrated like a remembering bee
as the north wind slipped under the winter sill
at the small table by the window….

There are no less evocative glimpses of Merwin’s “one city,” all through the many pleasures of “Testimony,” where “there is more left than we can use/of this still unfinished city/running its old film Mercury/poised at corners over the pulse/that pounds as the living hurry/already late for somewhere else.” This is, after all, the city of his birth, “the Manhattan for which I had/no name the moment I was born/bit after bit had orbited/into place and was being torn/down and I would see it return/as glittering reflections cast/in clusters high adrift in turn/through their towers of blowing dust.”

Fifty Years Ago

Written in 1967, “For the Anniversary of My Death” begins “Every year without knowing it I have passed the day/When the last fires will wave to me” and ends, “I will no longer/Find myself in life as in a strange garment/Surprised at the earth/And the love of one woman/And the shamelessness of men/As today writing after three days of rain/Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease/And bowing not knowing to what.”

Note on Mt. Princeton: It was so named because the first recorded ascent was performed by Princeton alum William A. Libbey III (1855-1927,), who accomplished the feat a month after graduating with the class of 1877. If wikipedia can be trusted, Libbey was also responsible for the adoption of orange and black as the school colors, eventually becoming a professor of Physical Geography who resided in Thanet Lodge, also known as Greenholm, now the home of the Lewis School.