A few months ago, in a deskside basket thick with correspondence in W.S. Merwin’s study, we found a small booklet titled “For An Undersea Library.” It was a short article that William wrote and published in the May/June 2001 edition of The American Poetry Review. In it, William recounts having received a letter, in the summer of 2000, from a corporate sales representative who worked for Borders book retailer, and who was selling books to the U.S. Navy bases in Puget Sound. He asked for William’s recommendations of five books and five poems to add to the libraries of nuclear submarines. Here is that article, available for the first time in digital form.
For An Undersea Library
by W.S. Merwin
It was late in the summer of the year 2000, which had begun with ringing invocations of the future and how that would be different, because we would make it so. A letter came, in a Borders envelope, from someone whose name I knew because of his love of music. He was working as Corporate Sales Representative for Borders, and he wrote:
As part of my job, I have begun selling books to the U.S. Navy bases in Puget Sound, and to individual crew members on carriers and subs. The public relations officer for the region tells me each Trident submarine has a small library.
What books should I recommend to the 18 to 24 year old crews, and their 35 to 45 year old captains, those men responsible for the maintenance and deployment of the deadliest weapons on earth? Could any poem, novel, or short story cause anyone to interrupt their learned sequence of actions, once they have been ordered to launch? What words do I hope these men have read, and thought of, before they push buttons?
Ideas, constructs of imagination, cause men to push buttons. I assume other ideas might cause men not to push buttons. Perhaps that’s a romantic notion. For me, right now, these are no longer speculative philosophic questions. I presently have the opportunity to place books into those small libraries, which bored sailors visit frequently during the long months at sea.
What five books would you recommend?
What five individual poems?
…How much can we believe in our own language, our literature, how far does it reach?
It was a request that I could not help but take seriously. It raised further questions at once, some of which can never have final answers. For one, is it part of the real purpose of literature to purvey ideas with a view to directing action? Dante thought so, within his perceptions of the closed horizons of his theological universe. The prophets of Israel evidently thought so, with their earlier intimation of a God of righteousness. Euripides, Aristophanes, perhaps most of the Greek dramatic poets thought so. Thoreau must have thought so, some of the time, at least, and Emerson. But there have been great writers, perhaps in every generation, who would have denied any such notion, or would have sidestepped or ignored it.
I do not see how there could be any neat and final answer to this question. I like to be able to suppose that poems or works of fiction that I like were conceived and brought to completion without a calculated design upon anyone’s opinions and behavior, but it may not always be as simple as that. The emotional responses from which works of literature rise are rooted in desires and revulsions that are part of a general sense of what is desirable or unacceptable in the world, a web of assumptions and expectations that, whether examined or not, is not only aesthetic but moral. To me it seems certain that the insistence that literature or other arts ought to have a didactic aim (the argument is almost always part of some particular religious or ideological program) is an appalling handicap, and the results are usually inauthentic and deadly. On the other hand, to arrive contentedly at the conclusion that literature, more or less by definition, is above any hope of making anything happen, runs the risk of abandoning it to smugness and frivolity. Moments of great historic urgency, if they produce writing at all, writing with a “purpose,” often leave a certain amount of bad writing, but any circumstance and every aspiration may do that. They may also produce pure and powerfully authentic works that remain long past their moment. Whatever their conscious intention, authentic works of literature bring us, and aspire to bring us, recognitions greater than their means, and the recognitions may in turn stir us, awakening sympathies and necessities that we had not known were ours. The recognition of our nature (not just our wishes) is something we might hope that anyone entrusted with enormous responsibility over life and death would have faced, considered, contemplated with humility and an open mind.
But this raises another question. Would such openness of mind be welcome to military authorities in any circumstances, and particularly in these? Would superior officers like the idea that the seaman sitting in front of the button was pondering the immeasurable value of any life? Is the seaman there merely to be a function, to obey whether or not he understands the immeasurable consequences of his obedience? If the books and poems I propose were indeed to prompt openness of mind, doubt, even great doubt, would they be tolerated on those shelves? Would literature—and by extension the arts, the imagination not be seen as subversive and dangerous?
My choices, in any case, imply certain wholly uninformed guesses about the seaman and officers themselves. All of them, I know, have enlisted, and so at some point they themselves have made decisions that have brought them to where they are, to their present role and what they think of as their present duty. Nothing they read, perhaps, will have any influence on their acceptance of that circumstance, but I cannot know anything about that. I do not know anything about their general reading habits either. There may be avid readers among them. The long stretches submerged at sea may encourage any disposition to read, and perhaps to read things of a kind not tried or not encountered before. It seems highly unlikely that all, or any of these choices would be for everybody, but they would be waiting there for discoverers.
First, among the books, I thought of Anton Chekhov’s short stories. Russian (so, for years, the other”) and yet not, certainly, the Russian of news coverage in our days. The gentleness, the decency, clarity, and authenticity of Chekhov himself as it comes through. The length of the stories, encouraging a reader to pick up the book, read one, set the volume down and let the fiction, those characters, hopes, losses, longings, sink in. Someone else’s. The kind of person one might be called upon to annihilate.
Then, Huckleberry Finn. The irony of Twain’s great panorama of the river through the American dream, as seen through the eyes of a wise (after all) child trying to accept the view of the world he had been born into, including slavery, with its denial of the reality of a whole segment of humanity. And suspended in the irony, the pain and sweetness of that book and its hilarious enchantment.
I decided that all of the books ought to be relatively modern, part of our age. I hoped that would make them more accessible and closer to the actual circumstance of any reader there. I thought next of the Essays of E. B. White, for his own humor and decency, the writing of a spirit beside which grandiosity and cruelty seem alien, yet one that seems as unwilling as Montaigne to exclude from his concern anything human.
I thought of including Walden (and not only Walden but one of those editions of Thoreau that slips into the same volume Civil Disobedience and Slavery in Massachusetts) but I hesitated, wondering whether that pure intransigence might not rouse more resistance, right there, than was useful, and also whether, if it did make its point, the book would be allowed to remain on those shelves. Instead I chose a book closer to our own time: Lewis Thomas’s last collection of essays, Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, in which Thomas, with his beautiful crystalline lucidity, lets go of the determined optimism which he had always managed to make his way back to in his earlier books, and allows himself to face the possible ends of human talent and human initiative. He is a writer of such precision, such charm, that what he says is likely to linger with a reader.
And then, in case someone wants to confront the thought of the Trident’s mission and its implications within the framework of the Judeo-Christian tradition of the Western world, I would include one book, Kierkegaard’s Purity of Heart Is To Will One Thing. I am not, myself, a Christian, but my love of Kierkegaard goes back many years, and of all his books I think this one, for a non-Kierkegaardian or a “non-religious” person, is the most immediate. Its very premise, that only the Good can be willed completely, with a whole heart, is something that I would like to think had been considered by someone sitting in front of the button.
The poems, I think, should be left to speak for themselves, with no comments, and if possible, in the order I have given them. But I want to mention two that I have excluded, two that I love and that move me as much as those I have chosen, but that seem perhaps less appropriate, for reasons of accessibility. Dylan Thomas’s “Refusal to Mourn the Death, By Fire, of a Child in London,” I hesitated about simply because I thought that if the reader were not used to modern poetry the very density of the language might make the poem seem impenetrable. And Shakespeare’s “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,” which to me is indispensable, and I do not know how an action with such foreseeably destructive consequences could be taken with that poem in one’s head, but it is just archaic enough in language and form, perhaps, not to be fully available at first to readers unused to its conventions. I confined my five choices to poems written since the middle of the 19th century, and all but two of the poets, as I write this, are still alive.
1. William Stafford, “Earth Dweller”
2. Stanley Kunitz, “Touch Me”
3. Gerald Stern, “The Dog”
4. Hans Magnus Enzensberger, “The End of the Owls”
5. Emily Dickinson, “I reason, Earth is short”
I like to imagine them up on a board, perhaps one at a time, a day at a time, then repeated. Or a tape of them (which might then include the two others I did not choose, since poems read aloud are more likely to be heard) that could go the rounds like a book. There is a feeling of hope in the thought of Gerald Stern’s dog and Stanley Kunitz’s longing and Emily Dickinson’s questions being heard in the depth of such voyages.
Which books and poems would you add to William’s lists?
Let us know in the comments below.