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July 1, 2010

W.S. Merwin, "The Drunk in the Furnace"

On the occasion of Merwin's being named Poet Laureate, it's worth taking a look at a 1960 poem that marked his move from formal and referential to vernacular. He also started telling short stories in poems.

The opening phrase, "For a good decade," is casual, American slang: it means, "For a decade at least." But the word "good" also poses a question. Was there a good period after the construction and abandonment of the furnace (which may have poisoned the creek and stripped the valley) and before its occupation by "someone"? Was the furnace better empty than turned into a "bad castle"? I think its re-use is "bad" only from the perspective of the Reverend and his flock of haters, but the question floats.

This poem is no allegory--it resists decoding--but we are entitled to explore associations between things in the text and objects outside. For example, what if the gully is our natural world and the furnace is our industrial exploitation of it? Or what if the abandoned landscape is poetry and the person inside the furnace is managing to get some "twists of smoke" out of the old sounds and forms? (He seems to be comfortable in there, and enjoying himself.)

There are three sets of characters on stage: the person "cosily bolted behind the eye-holed iron / door"; the observers who start in ignorance, become astonished, speak (I think) in the third stanza, and "hate trespassers"; and finally, their "witless offspring" who, at the end "Stand in a row and learn." The guy inside is surely the hero--in fact, there is a vague air of disciples and sermons on mounts. His "spirits" aren't necessarily alcoholic, despite the title. If it's a self-portrait, it's modest but also very bold. When all the old forms have crumbled, it takes brains and hard work to create regular, seven-line stanzas that can make the young "stand agape." At 82, Merwin is still hammering and anvilling away.

July 1, 2010 7:25 PM | category: fine arts | Comments



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