W.S. Merwin’s “Chords”

W.S. Merwin Way in Union City, N.J., where the poet grew up
W.S. Merwin Way in Union City, N.J., where the poet grew up

The poem, “Chords”, is a powerful protest poem from W.S. Merwin’s poetry collection Rain in the Trees (1988). Merwin has often been an outspoken critic of modern “progress”, writing poems throughout his lifetime about the direct link of capitalism to the destruction of the environment and the widespread abuse of human rights violations. In the 1950’s, he protested nuclear testing; in the 1970’s, the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War; and, in his later years, he has been a vocal defender of the planet and the restoration of devastated plantation land in his home state of Hawaii.

…while he thought of the Grecian woods they bled under red flowers
while he dreamed of wine the trees were falling from the trees…

Unbeknownst to Keats, the sandalwood forests he mentions in “Chords” were being cut down in Hawaii in the early 1800’s, a fact that Merwin takes advantage of in this poem. Notice how Merwin uses anaphora (the repetition of while he…/while the…) to accumulate linguistic power in the poem. While many of Merwin’s later poems dismiss punctuation altogether, pay attention to how the intricately crafted lines also preserve smaller blocks of meaning which slow the reader’s pace down considerably, perhaps even more than if punctuation were used, and lead, at times, to abrupt juxtapositions of images and ideas.

Chords


While Keats wrote they were cutting down the sandalwood forests
while he listened to the nightingale they heard their own axes echoing through
the forests
while he sat in the walled garden on the hill outside the city they thought of
their gardens dying far away on the mountain
while the sound of the words clawed at him they thought of their wives
while the tip of his pen travelled the iron they had coveted was hateful to them
while he thought of the Grecian woods they bled under red flowers
while he dreamed of wine the trees were falling from the trees
while he felt his heart they were hungry and their faith was sick
while the song broke over him they were in a secret place and they were cutting
it forever
while he coughed they carried the trunks to the hole in the forest the size of a
forest ship
while he groaned on the voyage to Italy they fell on the trails and were broken
when he lay with the odes behind him the wood was sold for cannons
when he lay watching the window they came home and lay down
and an age arrived when everything was explained in another language

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