Merwin makes me read slowly and retrace my steps to try to locate the magic beneath the words. "East of the Sun and West of the Moon"--a fairy-tale retold or an interrogation of the story-telling process? Which is more real, the mundane world or the fairy tale that overlays ordinary life with mystery and wonder?
"On the Subject of Poetry" I have to read three times and then return again later to the variations on "in" in the second stanza, the closing line's subtle lament for an inexplicable world, and the third stanza's picture of a poet's work:
He does not moveI want that passionate attention, that patient listening to a world grown more inexplicable by the minute. I looked this morning at the "year in review" video Facebook assembled from a year's posts and I found it sorely lacking; yes, I see those lovely photos of birds and grandchildren, but I note the gaps: the family crisis that will never make it to Facebook, the shocking murder of my daughter's high-school classmate, the weeks spent attending my mother's final illness and then the gaping wound left by her death.
His feet nor so much as raise his head
For fear he should disturb the sound he hears
Like a pain without a cry, where he listens.
This sends me to another Merwin poem: "Rain Light," which is worth reading in full (here). I hear reassurance in the voice of the mother who says, "I am going now / when you are alone you will be all right" and then directs the son's attention to the flowers, the sun, and the hills: "see how they wake without a question / even though the whole world is burning."
I wonder what my students will make of that poem when they read it next semester. Maybe you have to be older than the federal speed limit and know some loss before Merwin's quiet poems can sear your soul and then pour healing balm on the wounds. I don't know what I would have made of Merwin at 20 years old, but at 55? He's just my speed.