Wednesday, January 27, 2010

W.S. Merwin’s “River Sound Remembered”

“Images are not quite ideas, they are stiller than that, with less implication outside themselves. And they are not myth, they do not have that explanatory power; they are nearer to pure story. Nor are they always metaphors; they do not say this is that. They say this is. In the nineteenth century one would have said that what compelled us about them was a sense of the eternal. And it is something like that, some feeling in the arrest of the image that what perishes and what lasts forever have been brought into conjunction, and accompanying that sensation is a feeling of release from the self. “(275)

This passage from an essay called Images by Robert Hass is perhaps a strange way to introduce “River Sound Remembered” by W.S. Merwin, a poem I have read countless times but on the other hand it localizes what has always drawn me to poems which place at their center robust, transformative, world-shaking imagery. By this, I mean images connecting the physical to the metaphysical in a poem. I think this is what Hass suggests by the use of the word ‘eternal’ in the above excerpt and certainly I take this relationship, that strange affinity between imagery’s terra firma and the quiddity of poetic inspiration, to be the topic of Merwin’s poem:

River Sound Remembered

That day the huge water drowned all voices until
It seemed a kind of silence unbroken
By anything: a time unto itself and still;

So that when I turned away from its roaring, down
The path over the gully, and there were
Dogs barking as always at the edge of town,

Car horns and the cries of children coming
As though for the first time through the fading light
Of the winter dusk, my ears still sang

Like shells with the swinging current, and
Its flood echoing in me held for long
About me the same silence, by whose sound

I could hear only the quiet under the day
With the land noises floating there far-off and still;
So that even in my mind now turning away

From having listened absently but for so long
It will be the seethe and drag of the river
That I will hear longer than any mortal song.

What is so interesting about the way this poem begins is Merwin never describes the river itself. It is almost entirely absent and yet it clearly is the dominant image. The poem starts with the roar of the white water heard, at first, close by, and then later from a distance, until it becomes a white noise in the background of the poet’s consciousness:

That day the huge water drowned all voices until
It seemed a kind of silence unbroken
By anything: a time unto itself and still;

This last line sets the sound of the river apart from our every day temporal experience. It is part of the metaphysical realm, “a time unto itself and still”, which flows beneath the rest of the lines to follow, making the poem an engrossing meditation on the nature of human consciousness, imagination, and poetic inspiration.

The next few stanzas develop these themes further through Merwin’s desolate images of a human landscape empty of significance:

So that when I turned away from its roaring, down
The path over the gully, and there were
Dogs barking as always at the edge of town,

Car horns and the cries of children coming
As though for the first time through the fading light
Of the winter dusk, my ears still sang

Like shells with the swinging current, and
Its flood echoing in me held for long
About me the same silence, by whose sound

I could hear only the quiet under the day

Here, ironically, it is the poet’s imagination, specifically his memory of the river’s rushing, which is more real and vital to him than the world he sees and experiences. That imagined sound of the river, its metaphysical pull, is felt beneath the images of “dogs barking as always at the edge of town,” and "the cries of children coming as though for the first time through the fading light”.

Merwin further develops the river’s babel, its siren-like undertow of significance, through his extraordinary attention to sound and rhythm in the poem. The quiet recurrence of vowel sounds, especially all those long O sounds strung together throughout the poem and his quick shifting between assonance and consonance, generates the slow churning eddies of the poet’s mind wrestling with mystery, and by mystery, I do not mean mumbo-jumbo.

I take mystery to mean what the poet does not know, and here specifically, he asks what special power does the sound of the river have for him? The answer he finds is that it becomes a metaphor for the enigma of poetic inspiration.

It represents poetry’s percolating significance and the power that inheres in words themselves. This meaning can be gathered in the concluding lines of the poem:

So that even in my mind now turning away

From having listened absently but for so long
It will be the seethe and drag of the river
That I will hear longer than any mortal song.

That inner persistence represented by “the seethe and drag of the river” which the poet says “I will hear longer than any mortal song” is what calls to mind the use of the word eternal by Hass earlier. Here, the poet’s apprehension of the river’s sound, its presence within his imagination, is given a special place of importance over his immediate experience of the world. It is the imagined river's deep rumble that soothes and comforts the poet against what Wallace Stevens has called “the pressure of reality”.

If you like W.S. Merwin’s poem “River Sound Remembered”, you can enjoy it for yourself in his New and Selected poems Migration published by Copper Canyon Press.

No comments:

Post a Comment