How does one write poems when the reveries of consciousness contemplating landscape or inner life can be cast as desperate flights from the derangements of social reality? I’ve been thinking about this question while rereading W.S. Merwin’s The Lice (just reissued by Copper Canyon on the occasion of its 50th anniversary). In The Lice the trace of history is rarely to be found and everywhere to be felt, as though Merwin writes about the social world by evacuating from it:
And at last I take up
Wheeling the president past banks of flowers
Past the feet of empty stairs
Hoping he’s dead
The voice speaking through these poems seems to suffer the distance by which the imagination’s potential exceeds what political rhetoric can accommodate, seems to sense flows of force at depths where the political and social registers don’t traffic. Maybe the task of poetry isn’t to function as politics voiced on a sonorous plane, as advocacy aping aesthetic prestige, but to rescue language from cheapening expediency, to preserve it as a proto-poltical resource that might expand rather than endorse our positions. The poet knows something too sad for the culture at large to take up; that as soon as you can say something it ceases to be all the way true. This sense is echoed in the Heraclitus fragment from which the book takes its title:
Men are deceived in their knowledge of things that are manifest, even as Homer was who was the wisest of all the Greeks. For he was even deceived by boys killing lice when they said to him: What we have hunt and caught, these we leave behind; whereas what we have not hunt and caught, these we carry away.
As much as the poems speak to their Vietnam-era context, reading them in the current dispensation they feel like resources rather than artifacts. The book is one kind of answer to question that, a half-century later, has lost no urgency. As ends “The River of Bees”: “On the door it says what to do to survive / But we were not born to survive / Only to live.”