William Carlos Williams wrote the long poem "Paterson," he said, because intellectuals lacked connection with life and the masses were inarticulate.
If so, not much has changed.Chris Merrill, for instance, has ping-ponged between those two groups for about 20 years - betrayed and bored by both, at times - but always attentive.
Now comes "Workbook," Merrill's new collection of verse that attempts to "connect" and "articulate."
It's a fine, fine book.
Merrill left the University of Utah in a huff two years ago after a devastating debate about the quality of his doctoral exams. Versions of the controversy abound, but the result was Merrill leaving sans Ph.D. to take up life as a poetry guerrilla in northern New Mexico.
He and wife Lisa now live in a cozy adobe abode on an estate there where Merrill serves as caretaker. In off hours he free-lances his poetry skills. He's taken posts as director of the Santa Fe Writers Conference and the Peregrine Smith Publishers poetry series. At nights he knocks off a book review, essay or translation to keep the cash flowing.
He also writes poetry.
"Workbook," like Merrill, is the product of a first-rate education and a populist sensibility. The book is in four sections ("Lessons," "Notes for a Self-Portrait," "Work Songs" and "The Sea"). There are about three dozen poems here and, depending on your poetic sensibilities, you'll find them terrific, or taxing.
This is the kind of plain style, democratic writing that draws the adjective "soft" from academics and prompts comments in writing seminars such as "too much calculated emotion" and "no pressure behind the lines."
It's also the kind of writing that gets read and appreciated by people who are tired of bloodless beauty. Merrill uses his learning to avoid silly mistakes here while singing us his personal, high-minded folk songs. And that in itself is refreshing after years of hearing self-conscious tenors sing rarefied arias.
"Calculated emotion?" How about "Bold enough to court sentimentality without giving in" instead?
"No pressure behind the lines?" How about "Conversational, natural and undistorted, so the poem emerges on the page instead of praise for the latest Prince of Language?"
Merrill's mentors are easy to spot: William Stafford, Richard Shelton, Jaime Sabines. His themes are the themes of daily life: childhood, work, nature, love, regret, fear, mortality, God. . . .
For me, his poems do connect and articulate. But more than that, they stay in the mind. Here's an example. As a young boy, Merrill underwent an operation to free his tongue. In "Tongue Tied" he looks back on the event with wonder:
I forgive my tongue's clipped wings,
The rusted scissors, the nod;
The cluttered kitchen table
On which they laid me down;
The smoke in the doctor's eyes;
The bourbon shaking his hand;
My father, who fainted twice;
And my mother, flecked with blood,
Who should have known better;
For my blood tasted like milk,
A birdcall swelling in my throat,
And my first words let me fly.
Welcome on board the ship of American poetry, Mr. Merrill. You add texture and delight.