Take a deep breath. Now exhale all 29 lines without taking a break. Can you do it? If so, email us the video. Really. This poem has a ramblin' man kind of sound. We're not seeing the typical sound-works of poetry—rhyme, meter, alliteration, consonance, or assonance. Instead, we get just plain old, stretched out, unpunctuated speech. Have you ever had a friend who's had too much caffeine and is telling a story that you keep thinking is going to end but keeps saying, "and then…"? Well, that's kinda what's going on here. No pauses, no new sentences, just one long cluster of lines held together by "if" and "I would not." Luckily Merwin isn't your caffeinated friend, but a darn good poet with a rant worth listening to.
This title, "One of the Lives," is quite the dynamo. Reading it before we dig into the poem, we expect to get the scoop on, you know, somebody's life. But, as we read through the poem, the title takes on many different possible meanings. Figuring out which meaning Merwin is going for becomes a kind of a guessing game.
Really, there are a few ways to think about the title's relation to the poem:
We think that convincing arguments can be made for one, or all, of these interpretations. Talk amongst yourselves to see which makes the most sense to you.
The setting of this poem is actually an old farmhouse, in which the speaker is laid up, sick on a cot. However, through his lines, we get to do some more extensive traveling. We go back to the speaker's childhood, and before that to Europe during World War II. We get to tag along during his dad's driving lessons. Don't get too comfy, though—Merwin doesn't let us hang out for too long before he's dragging us by the collar to the next spot.
In that way, we can say that the setting for this poem is almost infinite. Now stay with us here. At least, that much is suggested by the amount of times the speaker goes back into the past to add another wrinkle of "ifs" into the mix. We're left to contemplate the long, meandering chain of events that led the speaker to this farmhouse. If anything, this poem is only giving us a few instances that produced him in that moment on the cot. If we really wanted to be thorough, we could stretch all the way back to the first moments of life on Earth because, cheese-n-biscuits, without those, there's no speaker at the farmhouse either.
That's why we say this poem sort of features an infinite setting. The speaker's inviting us to go all the way back to the beginning of time and, if we think about it, we can also imagine the far distant future, too. What role will the speaker play in those events? What role will we, the readers, play? We're all bound up together—no matter where, or when, we are in life.
Our speaker is an adult, who's lying sick in an old farmhouse. He's retelling the (very indirect) history of how he came to be, but without giving us a ton of detail. He's also not letting things get too personal. He begins by talking about people who had no direct or lasting connection to his family. Then, instead of telling the romantic story of how his grandparents or parents met, he goes about it in kind of a strange, side-glancing way. He's not sappy or sentimental about any of this. He just gives us the facts. He's in a thoughtful, reflective mood, and you get the sense that he is personally invested in these events. As the poem progresses, he lets us in on more personal stuff about his mom and dad, and eventually a tiny bit about him, too.
This is a bit odd, to say the least. Usually when you see "I" in a poem, you should brace yourself for a serious case of personal, diary-style T.M.I. In the case of this speaker, though, he doesn't make it all about himself. In a way, though, much of these other goings-on are about the speaker, insofar as they contributed to him laying on this cot and rapping at us about plums. It's as if the speaker is sharing the very personal, and ironic, reflection that his life is really not all about him. He's locating himself in a continuous chain of "if-then" moments in time. Trippy.
If you can get used to the fact that there's no punctuation and accept that you're going to have to stop and retrace your steps to make sure you're following along correctly, then you'll be okay with this poem. If the ending seems like an abrupt change of pace, that's because it is. Just roll with it! You should be fine with the basics for this hike: tent, sleeping bag, and flashlight. Heck, you can even bring the marshmallows.
While sometimes it seems fashionable for poets to bemoan the state of the world and existence in general, Merwin instead stops to give thanks. His poems are certainly not all rainbows and unicorns—he doesn't ignore the bad stuff—but he never forgets the cloud's silver lining. He's kind of like semisweet chocolate—a rarity among poets who prefer to dish out bitter pills.
Although Merwin is freewheeling here—holding to no formal patterns or constraints—he is using a couple of technical tricks that are consistent throughout the poem. Just looking at the poem before even reading it, you can see that the lines are long. He's also doing this consistent indent thing every other line, which kind of sweeps us along from one line to the next. It also helps organize the punctuation-less poem, giving our eyeballs (and our brains) a little break as they glide from one line to the next.
As we get into the poem (starting with that "if" clause), we're waiting for a comma to come along, but… it never does! In fact, there's no punctuation whatsoever in this poem. Be sure to take a deep breath before you attempt to read this puppy out loud. The effect, much like the long, sweeping lines, is that the poem has a continuous, fluid, and uninterrupted flow. Merwin has to be careful (and he is most of the time) to break his lines at a natural place so it isn't weird and choppy to read through. The result is smooth moves for the most part, and a quick, though dense, read.
It's not so much in the words that Merwin's having fun here, but in the syntax, or order, of his lines and phrases. Syntax isn't usually something we give a lot of conscious thought to. Those of us who are native English speakers know that there's a natural pattern to our language, and we form sentences based on that unconsciously.
Inversion, for example, sounds kinda weird to us. We wouldn't say "red the sweater is" (unless we were wearing a Yoda mask). Nope, we'd say "the sweater is red." Both are grammatically correct, but one sounds much more natural. So our brain has built-in expectations about the order of sentences. In the case of this poem, when we read the word "if," our brains expect a two-part sentence: the conditional (the "if" part), and the resolution (a "then" part).
For example: If I win the lottery, then I will buy a lifetime's supply of Almond Joys. After the "if," our brains are wired to expect a "then." What sneaky little Merwin does, though, is delay the "then." He keeps us in expectation to make us curious enough to read on before he offers any resolution. In the first line he says, "If I had not met the red-haired boy…" but, instead of giving us the resolution, he keeps on delaying it. He introduces a whole bunch of other "ifs" until finally, in the nineteenth line (!), he begins to give us a hint of resolution with, "I would not have found myself on an iron cot." Boy howdy, this guy really knows how to create tension.
Another way to keep us coming back, besides manipulating our expectations of syntax, is with anaphora, which is the repetition of a word or phrase. Merwin skates us through the poem with "if this" and "if that" until we get to the "I would not this" and "I would not that." It's a way of both moving the poem forward and keeping it unified. It would be pretty easy to get lost in a poem like this with so much information and no punctuation, so Merwin uses these little tricks of language to keep us on track.
Merwin glosses over images in the first three quarters of the poem. He doesn't really flesh out anything with description. Nope, he just briefly reports something then moves immediately along. We take in the information, but we don't linger any longer than necessary. It's almost like skimming down a list. But, at the end of the poem, Merwin slows down. How does he do it? With a turn to the serenity of nature. And as readers we're grateful that he does. The effect of starving us of imagery and description for so long, then giving it to us all at the end, is that we're much more receptive to it. We want Merwin to slow down so we can have a look around, and he finally does.
Clean as a whistle. (Where that expression comes from, we have no idea.)