‘Moon Before Morning’ shows why W.S. Merwin is our greatest living poet

W.S Merwin was named U.S. Poet Laureate in 2010. Among his many honors, he has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and a National Book Award.
W.S Merwin was named U.S. Poet Laureate in 2010. Among his many honors, he has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and a National Book Award. Courtesy photo

“The Moon Before Morning” by W.S. Merwin (Copper Canyon Press, 120 pages, $24)

All at once he is no longer

young with his handful of flowers

in the bright morning their fragrance

rising from them as though they were

still on the stalk where they opened

only this morning to the light

in which somewhere unseen the thrush

goes on singing its perfect song

into the day of the flowers

and while he stands there holding them

the cool dew runs from them onto

his hand at this hour of their lives

is it the hand of the young man

who found them only this morning

Superlatives stake out a dangerous terrain for the critic; they tempt us to make absolute statements and inflexible pronouncements – all for the sake of our own security rather than for the sake of truth. Even so, it’s impossible for me not to claim that W.S. Merwin is the greatest poet writing in America today.

At 86, he possesses the vigor and vision of his younger self. Indeed, in the meditative poems that make up “The Moon Before Morning,” his majestic 27th book of verse, he blurs the distinction between past and present, reveling in the epicenter of awareness; the pinnacle of perception; the fluid, overflowing splendor of the now.

Saturday morning and the trades

are back trading out of the east

offering their samples of cloud

each the only one of its kind

and each of them changing even

as it is offered only once

without a word except the one

sound of hushing to say that this

is all happening in secret

this unrepeatable present

only today for the lucky one

Merwin’s greatness lies in his ability to indwell his poems with a seasoned mindfulness, and by extension to instruct us, to entrust us, to do the same. Shunning punctuation, his verse embodies the holistic power of creation, tumbling down the page, accumulating meaning, ending in an all-at-once epiphany.

Like a maestro with his chorale, Merwin controls the music of his poems by the length of the poetic line. Enjambment becomes the mark of his singing – every break signals a new beginning of spirit, energy and breath.

His is an elemental elegance, expressed with discipline and care, equilibrium and grace. Few poets writing today can harvest so much beauty from so little diction. Each poem expertly weighs its words, placed judiciously in the plainspoken lines. Each poem renews itself on the page like a blossom of astonishment. Each poem shimmers as a practice of sheer presence.

oh gossamer gossamer breath

moment daylight life untouchable

by no name with no beginning

what do we think we recognize

“The Moon Before Morning” arrives fresh on the heels of “The Shadow of Sirius,” Merwin’s second Pulitzer-Prize-winning volume. That book reinterpreted the past in the light of the present. This one seeks the brightness of the soul in the shadows of memory. Forgetting and remembering form its echoing motifs. As does the fragility of words, which come to the poet out of a sacred emptiness, taking him, he says, always by surprise.

o forever invisible one

whom I have never mistaken

for another voice

nor hesitated to follow

beyond precept and prudence

over seas and deserts

you incomparable one

for whom the waters fall

and the winds search

and the words were made


One cannot read this book without a strong sense that Merwin’s career has culminated in a birthright of enlightenment. From his idyllic home in Maui, where he fosters and preserves tropical forests, he has stripped his poetry to the bare essentials.

He finds the absolute in rocks, trees, flowers and seeds, in clouds clutching the horizon above the infinite sea.

Which raises the questions: Nature or the self? Which comes first? Which predominates? For Merwin, neither. They are the same, just as his younger and older selves are the same, merging into one persona.

Thus his poems bespeak a profound unity of being. The totality of the whole resonates in each part. This makes Merwin a member of the vast wisdom tradition in the West, in which he mines the movements of consciousness with seemingly effortless skill. From each new poem, we reap the benefit of his reverence, his seeing, his purity of heart.

The wind lifts the whole branch of the poplar

carries it up and out and holds it there

while each leaf is the whole tree reaching

from its roots in the dark earth out through all

its rings of memory to where it has

never been he holds in his fingertips

the moment just before the beginning

Just as with the earlier poems of “The Shadow of Sirius” – highlighted by intense inwardness and a clarity of attention – so here Merwin pursues an ecstatic homeland, shaped by the seasons of the Earth, the shadings of an ever-fading light, the formative events of an exceptional life.

Now in the blessed days of more and less

when the news about time is that each day

there is less of it I know none of that

as I walk out through the early garden

only the day and I are here with no

before or after and the dew looks up

without a number or a present age

For Merwin, the familiar worlds of nature and the self bear witness to something more: the timeless, boundless gift of creation. No one conveys that gift better than he does with his deep soul and sensitive insights.

May he keep blessing us with his superlative gift for many more years to come.

Arlice Davenport is Books editor for The Eagle. Reach him at 316-268-6256 or