Merwin’s The Carrier of Ladders

During our recent remodel I found several more poetry books that I bought while I was teaching and never found the time to read until now. One of them was W.S. Merwin’s Pulitzer Prize Winner The Carrier of Ladders. I know I had to have boughten it quite awhile ago because the University of Washington bookstore sticker price was $5.95.

After trying to finish it for over six months now, I suspect I may have actually started it but put it aside for another of the books I must have bought at the same time since I could never go the University Bookstore without coming away without a stack of poetry books. Truthfully, I prefer Merwin’s later poems more than these early ones, though I haven’t quite figured out why that might be.

I suspect that one of the problems is that he doesn’t seem to have a particular strong “voice,” at least in this collection, and I’ve always preferred poets with a strong personal vision. I wonder if he was so influenced by the many translations he was doing that the found it difficult to develop his own vision. I’ll also have to admit that I have seldom been fond of collections of poetry from different poets; even as a college freshman if I found a poet I particularly like in a survey class I would go buy a volume of his/her poetry and read that instead of reading the assigned poems. Turned out that wasn’t a truly effective way of getting good grades, but grades were never particularly important to me anyway.

Though I might not be the best judge of this particular book of poetry, I did mark several poems for further study. As you can probably guess, I strongly identify with “Kin.”


Up the west slope before dark
shadow of my smoke
old man

climbing the old men’s mountain

at the end
birds lead something down to me
it is silence

they leave it with me
in the dark
it is from them

that I am descended

This almost sounds like a summary of my retirement years when I finally discovered birding. I suspect it is birding, and perhaps my return to photography, that has even made me fonder of poems that rely on imagery rather than mere words to reveal their vision.

Which, of course, is not to say that I only like concrete, imagist poems, as shown by Merwin’s


Those who cannot love the heavens or the earth
beaten from the heavens and the earth
eat each other
those who cannot love each other
beaten from each other
eat themselves
those who cannot love themselves
beaten from themselves
eat a terrible bread
kneaded in the morning shrouded all day
baked in the dark
whose sweet smell brings the chaff flying like empty hands
through the turning sky night after night
calling with voices of young birds
to its wheat

I must admit I don’t really know what this poem means, particularly those last lines from which the poem derives its title, but there is enough truth in those opening lines to make the poem intriguing. Though this poem appears later than the previous poem, it seems to further develop the same idea.