Poetry Review: “Unknown Bird” by W.S. Merwin

Merwin_Migration1W.S. Merwin gained much fame in the 1960s for his anti-war poems. I have never had much interest in political poems because by their very definition they have a particularity that does not generally stand well the test of time… too much urgency, too much not-yet-distilled-enough emotion. This is especially true of poems born in the rage of protest. Anger is not the emotion of poetry. Anger is physical a thing needing a more physical release… say a painting like “Guernica”… or prose

To me, Merwin is at his best when dealing with the emotions of loneliness and guilt… universal emotions occasioned by finitude, by living in a fallen creation. There is nothing occasional about loneliness and guilt. They are the  human condition… the field that we all labor and sing in.

“Unknown Bird” is the kind of poem that shows Merwin at his best. In form, it is simple: five-line stanzas standing light on the printed page. But in the way of good poems, there is nothing “light” about this poem. It is loneliness distilled… not bull-horned out with self-righteous indignity. It is complex and fatalistic and tragic and heart-rending. It is… giving voice to a feeling we all know too well.

Unknown Bird
Out of the dry days
through the dusty leaves
far across the valley
those few notes never
heard here before

one fluted phrase
floating over its
wandering secret
all at once wells up
somewhere else

and is gone before it
goes on fallen into
its own echo leaving
a hollow through the air
that is dry as before

where is it from
hardly anyone
seems to have noticed it
so far but who now
would have been listening

it is not native here
that may be the one
thing we are sure of
it came from somewhere
else perhaps alone

so keeps on calling for
no one who is here
hoping to be heard
by another of its own
unlikely origin

trying once more the same few
notes that began the song
of an oriole last heard
years ago in another
existence there

it goes again tell
no one it is here
foreign as we are
who are filling the days
with a sound of our own

 

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