The Bigness of Small Poems – # 27 in a Series – W.S. Merwin, American Master of Small Poems!

American Poet W.S. Merwin

American Poet W.S. Merwin


Years from now
someone will come upon a layer of birds
and not know what he is listening for

these are the days
when the beetles hurry through dry grass
hiding pieces of light

W.S. Merwin from Migration: New and Selected Poems, Copper Canyon Press, 2005

My friend Jordan Hartt, who helps organize the events for Centrum in Port Townsend, including the great poetry workshops there in the summer, posted this Merwin poem on Facebook a while ago! Thank you Jordan!

Jordan, an accomplished writer and workshop leader in his own right, is one of the founders of Kahini, an organization fostering an international understanding of poetry by hosting poetry workshops around the world. More than 500 participants in the past two years! I went to one in Uganda (fantastic) in 2015 and I will be going to another in Jamaica in March!

(And speaking of international poetry retreats I will be leading one in Umbria, Italy, June 23rd to July 3rd, 2017 at La Romita School of Art! More details to come on my website.)

Early One Summer. What an image rich and yet, mysterious little poem. Are these birds dead or alive? I may be way off but I love the idea of an archeologist coming across a layer of bird bones with no idea what songs, from bones, sang a summer morning into even more beauty, years before! Or, the idea of someone coming across a mass of birds with no idea what the songs could call from their heart!

I wonder as well if I hear an echo of these lines from e.e. cummings’s poem # 53:

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know

And what to make of the last tercet with its striking image of beetles hiding pieces of light. Now, during December’s last dark days, I especially cherish the image of the beetles hiding summer light. Would I, could I, find that light now to light my way in my late day walks in the nearby woods. And figuratively, to light my way in dark times of war and random acts of terrorism. This latest one: thirty five dead in Istanbul, a city of such light, now finding itself shadowed by violence and political turmoil.

Merwin, what a human treasure. The author of more than fifty books of essays, prose, poems and translation he turned eighty nine,this past September. Effectively blind, yet, he is still composing poems. His latest book Garden Time came out earlier this year! And also this year, an illustrated volume,  What Is a Garden, came out with his poems and essays, centered around the remarkable palm sanctuary he and his wife have reforested during the past thirty plus years in Maui. Hawai’i where he lives. What gifts to the world.

Here is another small poem gem of his. One of my favorite small poems:


Your absence has gone through me
Like a thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

W.S. Merwin from Migration: New and selected Poems, Copper Canyon Press, 2005

The coherence of the metaphor in this poem astounds me! And another thing: it has punctuation. Something Merwin discarded in the late 1960’s.

But to go back to Early One Summer, Merwin’s deft image of the beetles brought to mind a poem many of my American friends may not have encountered. One from my my much loved mentor and friend, Canadian poet Patrick Lane. Lane, although younger than Merwin, at seventy seven, is still writing and gardening so productively in his later years. Here is Lane’s poem:


In deep sand a beetle shoulders her way toward paradise.
A sunflower, wild with yellow, covers her with one shadow.
Among the grains of quartz, one bruised garnet, a cone of pine.
The beetle clambers. There is nothing like her in the world.
Almost blind, I get down on my knees.
My bare feet have the same soles they had when I was born.
My mother is dead.
Among many things I am alive. Still.
A single drop of water falls.
The beetle stops for a moment but she does not drink from the salt.
There is somewhere she has to go and she goes on.

Ah, the slowness of this poem. Its end-stopped lines. How this poem moves like the beetle. Carefully. Slowly. Mightily! Two great beetle poems by two true masters of the craft!

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