Writing outside the Self: The Disembodied Narrators of W.S. Merwin

By Frazier, Jane | Style, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Writing outside the Self: The Disembodied Narrators of W.S. Merwin


Frazier, Jane, Style


The search for an original, natural world - or origin - is perhaps the single most distinct topic to be found in the poetry of W. S. Merwin since the The Carrier of Ladders (1970). To achieve the participation in nature that they desire, Merwin's narrators betray little or no personal identity and often seem as if they are voices speaking free of the body. These "disembodied" narrators lack a particular self so that they may make their quests without the burdens of the ego. In the vast majority of Merwin's poems, their actions remain part of a journey or process, far from restoration of origin. But this is not to say that their efforts are futile. Disembodiment aids them in avoiding realities that are restrictive; that is, it helps them to make steps toward origin and it translates the experience more readily to the reader. All of this corresponds to psychoanalytic discussion of symbolic death and rebirth in the landscape; however, "death" and "rebirth" need not always signify regression toward a primal parent but, rather, may indicate exploratory steps toward plenitude.

Charles Molesworth notes Merwin's prevalent use of a disembodied narrative agent and believes that the disembodiment typically appears figuratively or as a desire toward such a state because the speaker sees the world as "irremediably fallen, so that to be entangled in materiality is synonymous with evil" (152). Molesworth also sees this technique as a method of gaining knowledge metaphysically, a knowledge not available to those in the body. Though I disagree with Molesworth's estimation that a "kind of rarified second-degree allegory" unsuccessfully runs through Merwin's work, he nevertheless brings up a valuable point when he notes Merwin's attempts to remove himself from a physical circumstance that is imperfect (148).

One short poem from The Carrier of Ladders, "Lark," presents a speaker who wants to get out of the body, who wants to relieve himself of his humanity in his desire for a more integrated being and understanding. Merwin begins the poem by addressing the lark, but by the second stanza the subject of the wished-for transformation has become the narrator:

In the hour that has no friends above it you become yourself voice black star burning in cold heaven speaking well of it as it falls from you upward

Fire by day with no country where and at what height can it begin I the shadow singing I the light (38)

The speaker disembodies himself by taking himself out of charted time and into "the hour that has no friends" and by taking himself out of the world and into the "cold heaven," which is no traditional heaven but merely another uncharted realm "with no country." Merwin's scheme is to remove the body from spatial and temporal restrictions in order to liberate the spirit. Though many critics see Merwin's disembodied voice as yet another manifestation of his occasional gloom, here and in many other poems the loss of self works toward a spiritual fulfillment. But the desired spirituality also reflects Merwin's usual paradoxical mode: it must be both "shadow" and "light." When the speaker ends this future journey out of the self and into a more direct contact with the universe, we are not quite sure where he is. Our best prediction may be to say that he will be in no place and in no time. The loss of the body, the plunge to the essential self, is part of a process, a continually ongoing effort that seldom finds its end.

Through disembodiment, Merwin tears away from his narrators nearly everything that would allow us to identify them. Lacking outward identity, the narrators are subsequently liberated to express their desire to join the self with the universal. Yet, as in "Lark," the universal that Merwin seeks to attain is experienced through only a few elements at any one moment, as opposed to the universe for which Whitman reaches, one that contains as much as the poet can enumerate. Merwin attempts his encounters with spareness and concentration; in this, similarities may be drawn to Thoreau and, oddly, to Dickinson. …

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