Lyric Essentials: Jennifer Jean Reads W.S. Merwin

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! For this installment of the series, we’re joined by poet Jennifer Jean. She talks about two of her favorite poems by W.S. Merwin, along with the unique perspective her work in translation gives her when reading his poetry, the importance of supportive writing communities, and much more. Thanks for reading!

Riley Steiner: Why did you choose these two poems to read?

Jennifer Jean: My selections here represent Merwin’s formal evolution: “Air” (from 1963) contains punctuation and “Vixen” (from 1998), like most of Merwin’s latter poetry, does not. I don’t eschew punctuation in my own work, but I recognize that doing so requires virtuosic control (i.e., understanding) of language. It requires immense trust that there’s enough in the syntax, the allusions, the sound of the syllables—and more—to ferry the reader, to convey both music and sense, without the usual notational indicators. If I had written “Vixen,” Merwin’s “…the sentences / never caught in words warden of where the river went” would have become the more conventional: “…the sentences / never caught in words. Warden of where the river went.” Lack of punctuation allows for a single line to better hold its integrity as a unit of thought even though it contains two sentences—or even the end of one sentence and the beginning of another.

I wonder if Merwin’s lifelong work in translation gave him this control? If so, I’m hopeful. I’ve been co-translating poems originally in Arabic and it’s shifted my approach to, and feel for, English. I suppose it’s also shifted my view of poets who heavily translate! Which is nice. This means I’ve a new means to explore Merwin, whose work I’ve loved for almost twenty years.

Jennifer Jean reads “Air” by W.S. Merwin

RS: Did you discover anything new about these poems after reading them out loud, as opposed to reading them on the page?

JJ: I encountered Merwin’s “Air” in graduate school when I had to choose a poem to memorize for a craft class. When reading it aloud for Sundress, the words were tasty and familiar. I don’t remember if this is what it did to me originally, but I bet this poem gave me permission to lob a lovely heightened word like “immortelles” into the mix with simpler language. As well, I bet it gave me permission to cut connector or transitional verbage so that the sense of each thought just barely touches the one that follows. Because there’s only one enjambed line (the second), the poem seems made of a series of almost aphoristic statements—when, really, it’s made of regular-sized sentences. This arrangement is delightfully disconcerting! Especially when read aloud.

“Vixen” is amazing in that it conveys the character of the animal in fleet, long lines. It’s the title poem for Merwin’s collection The Vixen, which engages with seasons and nature and creatures in extended, contemplative, organically musical lines. Every poem is in awe of its subject. How did he sustain this awe?! Because an out loud reading enables me to embody the poem—to actually put the poem in my body—when I recorded it, I was reminded very strongly that this sustained state of awe is (yes!) possible for me too.

Jennifer Jean reads “Vixen” by W.S. Merwin

RS: What do you admire about W.S. Merwin’s work in general?

JJ: I’ve always enjoyed Merwin’s spare lyrics as antidotes to my (often overly) dense prosey-poems. His free forms are the antithesis of Dickinson—they breathe, they’re sane—but they convey the same depth of notion and emotion.

RS: How did you first discover his poetry?

JJ: As an undergrad, I wanted to know who Sylvia Plath knew—she was an obsession, but eventually became a leaping-off point. Merwin and Plath knew each other through Plath’s husband Ted Hughes. I tried to read Hughes, but he bored me. However, Merwin seemed to offer that ineffable quality that the best poetry provides: a Lucille Clifton–like glimpse into the transcendent. I was hooked!

About poetry communities—I think Plath’s community was totally toxic. She journaled constantly about a searing jealousy of—especially—fellow women poets like Adrienne Rich and Anne Sexton. She was also jealous of men like Merwin. She did not have a support system amongst her peers! She had a scarcity mentality (which may not have been unjustified at the time…). I’ve noticed that nurturing mutually supportive poetry communities, both local and virtual, keeps the awe and the fun and the joy in my writing life. I would hate to not have anyone to celebrate. And I know my writing would be worse off without the input of the talented poets that I know. I hope emerging writers study Merwin, that they “study the masters” (including the way that Lucille Clifton meant it) but that they also find ways to create and nurture strong writing communities.

W.S. Merwin is the author of more than twenty poetry collections. The recipient of a long list of major poetry awards and fellowships, he also published books of translation, plays, and books of prose, including two memoirs. From 2010 to 2011, he served as Poet Laureate of the United States. His most recent collection is Garden Time (2016) from Copper Canyon Press. Merwin died in March 2019.

Further reading:

Purchase Garden Time from Copper Canyon Press
Merwin’s very first collection of poetry, A Mask for Janus, is at Yale University Press
Read a 2017 article about Merwin and his poetry in the New Yorker

Jennifer Jean is the author of The Fool (Big Table), and her awards include: a 2020 Peter Taylor Fellowship from the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop; a 2018 Disquiet FLAD Fellowship; a 2017 “Her Story Is” Residency, where she worked with Iraqi women artists in Dubai; and a 2013 Ambassador for Peace Award for her activism in the arts. Jennifer’s poems and co-translations have appeared in Poetry Magazine, Rattle, Waxwing Journal, Crab Creek Review, The Common, and more. She’s an administrator at the Boston Book Festival and an editor at Talking Writing Magazine.

Further reading:

Visit Jean’s website
Read Jean’s work in Poetry Magazine
Read one of Jean’s poems—and a Q&A about it—from Broadsided Press
Read a selection of poems that Jean co-translated from Arabic in The Common

Riley Steiner graduated from Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. She’s published her creative work in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.


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