I have always loved T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” but I confess that I’ve always found parts of “The Wasteland” over the top, and dangerously bordering on melodrama. Case in point:
And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings
And crawled head downward down a blackened wall
Really? Do we really need an image of “bats with baby faces in the violet light”? I feel like I’m watching a bad horror film, the one where the babies faces carved in wood above the door turn their faces towards the audience and shriek. I understand that Eliot was writing about the fragmentation of the human spirit, but even the most gloomy tragedian needs to be careful, less his world of “blackened walls” turns almost comic in its mordancy.
I’m bringing these issues up, because I recently purchased W.S. Merwin’s collected poems, issued in a beautiful volume by the Library of America. Yet I’m finding the experience, so far, of reading the poems up to and through The Moving Target to be disappointing. I recall a comment by Helen Vendler once, about wanting Merwin to “eat more.” And that’s essentially how I feel, too. Merwin’s move into the disjunctive, away from his lushly verbose early poems, is startling – it’s like the super-ego in his head started running rampant, excising whole passages, disgusted by the garrulousness of his earlier work. And yet, sooner or later, I want to scream, “Enough already! Enough about spiders and dead words and gnostic light!” Of course, I haven’t reached The Lice yet, which is supposed to be Merwin’s masterpiece, so I might need to bite my tongue. But where I stand now, I’m worried that Harold Bloom might be right, when he claimed that Merwin wanted to have a transcendental vision, though he never really had one. Bloom interestingly placed Merwin in the tradition of Longfellow and McLeish, as a civic poet (!), a contextualization that I find absolutely fascinating. We’ll see if this Bloomian pronouncement holds true; in the meantime, I will continue to read Merwin’s collected, although secretly I’ll probably be wanting to read Ashbery.