Our New Poet Laureate

W. S. MerwinW. S. Merwin 

A very fine poet, W. S. Merwin, has been named our new poet laureate. Because he was a friend of my former colleague Lucille Clifton, I was able to meet Merwin when he visited St. Mary’s College of Maryland. He lives in Hawaii and has been working hard to preserve their rain forests, so I am pleased that we have a poet who speaks out on environmental issues.

Since Merwin is now the official poet of a nation of immigrants, it seems appropriate to share here his poem “Émigré.” Immigration has become a political football, with political opportunists railing against Latinos and municipalities passing “English only” statutes. Merwin reminds us of the dilemmas faced by immigrants throughout the ages, both current immigrants and those who were our ancestors. He talks about experiencing homesickness, seeking out (or avoiding) others like yourself, and attempting to hold on to memories. He also addresses the language dilemma.

As a poet, Merwin is particularly interested in language. If “you cling to the old usage,” he writes, “do you not cut yourself off/from the new speech.” On the other hand,

if you rush to the new lips
do you not fade like a sound cut off
do you not dry up like a puddle
is the new tongue to be trusted

“Émigré” here reminds me of another fine poem, Adrienne Rich’s “Prospective Immigrants Please Note,” about the door through which immigrants must pass.  Whereas Merwin writes about choices the immigrants make once they are in the new country, Rich writes about what choosing to go or to say, but both touch on similar themes.  As Rich points out,


If you go through
there is always risk
of remembering your name.

Merwin’s poem concludes with the division that runs throughout the poem: do you attempt to hold on to memory, even though

summer sunlight on dried paint
whose color continues to fade in the
growing brightness of the white afternoon
ferns on the shore of the transparent lake

Or (in an image which I find beautiful but don’t entirely understand), should you forget them

as you float between ageless languages
and call from one to the other who you are

Here’s his poem:

Emigré

You will find it is much as you imagined
in some respects
which no one can predict
you will be homesick
at times for something you can describe
and at times without being able to say
what you miss
just as you used to feel when you were at home

Some will complain from the start
that you club together
with your own kind
but only those who have
done what you have done
conceived of it longed for it
lain awake waiting for it
and have come out with
no money no papers nothing
at your age
know what you have done
what you are talking about
and will find you a roof and employers

Others will say from the start
that you avoid
those of your country
for a while
as your country becomes
a category in the new place
and nobody remembers the same things
in the same way
and you come to the problem
of what to remember after all
and of what is your real
language
where does it come from what does it
sound like
who speaks it

If you cling to the old usage
do you not cut yourself off
from the new speech
but if you rush to the new lips
do you not fade like a sound cut off
do you not dry up like a puddle
is the new tongue to be trusted

What of the relics of your childhood
should you bear in mind pieces
of dyed cotton and gnawed wood
lint of voices untranslatable stories
summer sunlight on dried paint
whose color continues to fade in the
growing brightness of the white afternoon
ferns on the shore of the transparent lake
or should you forget them
as you float between ageless languages
and call from one to the other who you are

This entry was posted in Merwin (W.S.) and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments are closed, but you can leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

2 Comments

  1. Barbara
    Posted July 7, 2010 at 4:21 am | Permalink

    Robin, although this poem is about the experience of immigration, it also strikes me as informing what we experience as we age and move through the stages of our lives. Sometimes we dawdle and cling ; other times we hurtle heedlessly forward. We can see ourselves as evolving or try to cut “today’s”self off from the “old me” of former times and conditions if not places. I don’t understand the last passage either; I see former and present selves calling to each other in a void. Maybe Merwin sees that as what happens if we try to ignore our past. It’s always there, speaking to us if we will enter the conversation.

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted July 7, 2010 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    That works, Barbara, given all the references to childhood. Yes, being immersed in a conversation between past and present, even when we don’t acknowledge it, defines who we are. The contrast Merwin gives us in the final stanza is that between bearing the past in mind and forgetting. If we bear it in mind, it seems as though we will still see the colorful paint fade under the glare of the sun, the present, whereas floating sounds easier, and less painful. Maybe he thinks it doesn’t matter what we do–we will still be defined by the conversation.


  • AVAILABLE NOW!

  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete