W.S. Merwin

A Conversation with W.S. Merwin

KR editor David Lynn and KR poetry editor David Baker spoke to Poet Laureate and recipient of the 2010 Kenyon Review Award for Literary Excellence, W. S. Merwin, recently in New York at the Bloomberg studios.


David Lynn: My name is David Lynn, and I am the editor of The Kenyon Review. I am joined by David Baker, poet and critic, and professor of English at Denison University, and the poetry editor of The Kenyon Review. Together, we will be chatting with W.S. Merwin, the current poet laureate of the United States, and also the recipient of the 2010 Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement.

Mr. Merwin, would you like to begin this conversation by reading a poem?

W. S. Merwin: I would be happy to. I think, perhaps since it’s a rainy day outside, a good one would be “Rain Light” from The Shadow of Sirius, my last published book.

All day the stars watch from long ago

my mother said I am going now

when you are alone you will be all right

whether or not you know you will know

look at the old house in the dawn rain

all the flowers are forms of water

the sun reminds them through a white cloud

touches the patchwork spread on the hill

the washed colors of the afterlife

that lived there long before you were born

see how they wake without a question

even though the whole world is burning.

DL: That’s a beautiful poem.

David Baker: Nine syllables in every line, William. You’ve been counting for a long time. Your first books often featured syllabic or metrical poems, and you returned to syllabics again in books like The River Sound (1999) and again lately as this poem shows.

Nine is an unusual number for syllables, isn’t it? Do you tend to prefer an odd-numbered line or an even-numbered line?

WM: You know, it varies. I think there’s something to be said for any number of syllables, but I’ve always been watchful of iambic pentameter all of my life. I admire it enormously. I realize that it’s an important form, but it has become one of those imports that has taken over, starting with Chaucer. We think of it as natural. The French, oddly enough, had a ten-syllable line when The Song of Roland was written. The Song of Roland is in a ten-syllable line, but mostly the French go for a twelve-syllable line, the Italians an eleven-syllable line, and somewhere along the line you want to shake the whole thing up. I mean, I did.

DB: Roland was one of your own first translations, as I recall. I’d like to ask more about your translations soon. But first a memory. The last time you and I talked about poetry you were hanging over a fence, visiting my new colt, Mercury. That was ten years ago in Granville, Ohio. I have a photo of your hand reaching out — you were wearing my old barn coat. I have a picture of the sleeve and Mercury is reaching out to sniff your hand and his nose is going down into the grass. I don’t think I ever sent you that photo. It is really nice to have this chance to talk to you.

WM: I loved Mercury.

DB: With the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement and all the festivities tonight in New York and to continue this weekend into Gambier, David wanted to ask a question about Mr. Ransom.

DL: You have such a long history with The Kenyon Review. You’ve been publishing in its pages for over fifty years. We have at Kenyon some of your correspondence with Mr. Ransom, founder and editor of The Kenyon Review for twenty years. I wonder if you have any thoughts about him or memories of him as an editor and as a poet.

WM: As a poet, particularly. I remember reading his criticism of that kind, the New Critics. I think he may have been the best of them all. Richard Blackmur, who was my mentor, was not one of the New Critics. He was completely on his own. But I liked Ransom’s essays. I don’t think the theories would have lasted very long with me. But what I knew about him as a man, everything I ever heard about him, sounded just wonderful, and the correspondence was wonderful.

I love his poems. I’m very sad that he’s as little read as he is.

DL: Do you think that’s a matter of being mostly formal, his poems, or has the sensibility of our time changed so much?

WM: Probably both. I think the sensibility of our time may be simply a matter of the generations. I’m suspicious, and that is a part of my generation: I know I’m suspicious of the world, of virtual reality, and of being sucked into it. And I think that the poems of the young poets (and I think there is a great deal of talent around) . . . but the young poets who have grown up writing on an electronic medium, something is happening to their hearing. They don’t hear. And poetry begins with the light but it has to begin with the light of hearing it. I think that is one of the conditions of poetry. I don’t think poetry is the printed word. I think poetry may, eventually, be the printed word, but it is really the spoken word to begin with.

DB: Could you say more about that, the printed word and the heard word?

WM: One of the big differences between poetry and prose is that. To me, the reason I’m so anxious is because, in the very whole of my experience with poetry, going back to when I was a child, the love of poetry came from hearing poems, not from listening to somebody talk about them. But hearing the King James’ translation of Psalms, hearing the hymns in church, hearing my mother read Tennyson, the books of Robert Louis Stevenson. So the first poems that came to me came to me as words that I heard, to be written down and then be pondered and listened to, to see where they were on their way to.

DL: You speak with passion about this. Let me follow up just for a second, because your decision to agree to be the poet laureate, in some ways, seems strange and anomalous, since you’ve spent your career as a very private person and man and poet, writing your way in your own places. Now you’ve accepted this very public role. I wonder if what you are talking about is one of the reasons you’ve done this.

WM: I think it is. I think also I’ve always shied away from anything, any position of that kind. But when it was proposed to me at the end of April this year, the piece of luck, if it was luck, if it was a good decision, is that I was given a month to think about it.

I said some things right at the beginning. I said I don’t want to live in Washington, I don’t want to spend my lifetime in Washington, and I don’t want to be taking a lot of trips from Hawaii to other places. I know where I want to live.

And I’m homesick even if I go into town to buy vegetables. I love our way of living and looking out of the windows at trees on every side. I’ve always wanted to do that, ever since I was a child, and I don’t feel like leaving it at all.

But I thought it’s a chance to say in a public place, in an official capacity, something that I don’t hear anybody else saying clearly. I mean, people are preaching about it on the one hand, and people are ignoring it on the other, but how about just coming out and saying it, and saying it in connection with poetry, and with poetry and the imagination. That’s why I took the job: because I think the imagination is the talent we have as a species. Not the intelligence. We may not be the smartest, yet [that’s how] we certainly define our superiority, and it is always we who do the defining. I’m suspicious of that.

DL: I heard you talking about that recently, and I wondered if you could say a little bit more. You talk about imagination as defining us as humans, but could you talk more about the urge to express ourselves through the imagination or where that comes from, or how it manifests itself in your work?

WM: You know, I don’t think it needs to be something that has to be there, like a religious dogma or belief, and I certainly don’t want preach and I don’t want to write propaganda. I don’t want to think of it that way. But to me it’s not that there’s a connection, it’s that there’s no separation. I think that the artificial thing is the idea that there is a separation. And there is something very dangerous in that, as that quite late verse in the Book of Genesis says, “You must now multiply and have dominion over all the creatures of the earth.”

There was a man who came to talk with me very recently, a Hebrew scholar, and he said “You know that word ‘dominion’? It has another meaning which was never mentioned around the translations. It also means ‘understanding.’” One should understand the other creatures of the earth, and that kind of a relationship.

DL: That’s wonderful.

WM: Yes, it is wonderful. There are many different kinds of relations with the rest of life that we are not encouraged to have. One of the reasons is because, once you enter into the thing of exploiting them and treating them as dollars and cents or something to put on the plate, you’re not likely to look at them in quite the same way. I don’t think any of these are neat questions with neat, dogmatic answers, but I think one should leave the question open, keep it open, remain troubled by it, perhaps, and allow it to go on asking itself.

DB: We’ve galloped through several topics, and I’d like to slow down. I’d like to ask about your attitude or vision of what you want this laureateship to be, and the odd predicament of a public position for this fairly private enterprise, the writing of poems. I want to talk about that, and I want to talk about a little bit more in a minute about young poets. You were talking about some poverty of imagination, their incapability to hear or to express a sort of aural or audible imagination rather than a visual one.

But I think the question I want to ask you right now is just about your own work and your own practice. Whether writing a poem is a daily practice for you, whether it’s part of a larger spiritual practice for you, whether you revise a great deal or not, whether anybody helps you with your poems. How do you write a poem?

WM: I don’t know where a poem comes from. And I think that’s very important. I try, at least, sometime every day, and as early as possible in the morning, to spend some time in the place where I’ve been able to hear poems, maybe looking at some notes that I’ve made about poems or something of the kind.

I don’t work on a computer. I work on a little spiral notebook. And I obviously didn’t think I was going to do anything this morning, because I realize I left it in the room, I didn’t bring it with me. So, you asked me if I worked every day.

DB: Yes.

WM: I try to go near it in one way or another and leave it open — leave the door open — and see what I hear.

DB: You’ve said now two or three times, as a poem comes to you, that you will hear the poem. What do you hear?

WM: At some point Yeats one day heard, “That is no country for old men.”

DB: He heard it intact.

WM: Yes, just like that. And they were words which he’d used all his life. He may have even heard that phrase all his life. Never thought anything of it, but all of a sudden the light went on. And he thought — well, he spent the next two and a half years writing that poem. And it is one of the great poems, I think, in modern English.

To me, poetry is physical, it is hearing, and we hear it and the charge, the power, the hypnotic power or grasp of poetry is there, just as it is in music. I mean, there is a musical side to poetry, and I’m not talking about how lovely Swinburne sounds or something like that. I mean that thing — what Yeats heard when he heard that phrase — that is all the way through the poem. It’s a great, great poem.

I realized years later that I’d had that poem memorized for twenty years and I’d never stopped to think what it meant. I went back and I picked it apart, looked at it carefully, and it was absolutely wonderful. I didn’t even need to know that because I knew it from hearing it.

There’s that wonderful phrase Phillip Sydney has in “An Apology for Poetry” where he says, “Poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” The thing is that people are happy enough to talk about how it ends in wisdom, whatever that may mean, but they don’t dwell enough, I think, on the delight. The delight was obvious enough for the Puritans so that they closed the theatres and forbade poetry, We don’t want that —

DB: That’s right.

WM: And when people say they don’t read poetry because they don’t understand it, I think in the first place, they mean they don’t hear it anymore, and in the second place, the delight got lost somewhere along the way. And if you liked it, you were discouraged from liking it. It’s quite easy to discourage a child, you know. If you put a plate in front of them and they say “yummy, I like this” and you say “ewww! It’s not good for you.” “Really?” The next time they are probably not going to like it as much, you know.

DB: But that enchantment is part of what poetry is most capable of and most beautiful at. The wisdom . . . what kind of wisdom does one derive from poetry?

WM: I read the other day that Jung as an old man said only a fool believes in wisdom. Of course we’re all fools and there are archives of wisdom that we may come to. I think it’s bred, that perspective, bred through sympathy.

We were talking about John Clare as we came up here. One of the wonderful things about Clare’s poems is that he is more concerned with what he is writing about, whatever kind of creature it may be, he’s right there, he is that creature, and it must be sort of a jolt to come back out of the pond for him.

DL: Talking about wisdom: In the poem you read to begin this session, what that’s all about, it seems to me, is a transmission of wisdom across generations, a mother talking to her son about death and the afterlife and his remembering it many years later. But it’s all an indirect kind of wisdom. Do you think that that’s what poetic wisdom is about, an indirect kind of wisdom?

WM: The direct kind of wisdom would be commandments and things like that, I suppose, and I don’t think that is wisdom in the same sense. I think the indirect kind of wisdom is the interesting one anyway. It’s the thing, it’s the question. The wisdom should probably take the form of a question that you can’t answer.

DL: That’s your Zen coming out.

WM: Oh, I don’t know. You know, I feel the same way about that that I feel about this whole matter of influence. What influences you? I don’t know what influences me. Do you know what influences you?

DL: The Detroit Tigers.

WM: Everything I ever read, you know.

DL: Right.

WM: There is a woman who wrote a whole book, a small book, about me and Follain, Jean Follain, and how strongly influenced I had been by Jean Follain. She gave chapter and verse and went all the way back through everything. I wrote to her and said “You know, you’re using this as a doctoral thesis, I believe, and I think you better go over it more carefully because I didn’t encounter anything of Jean Follain until I was past 40, and you’re talking about things from my 20s and 30s.” And then there was one poem, and it was a long time before I saw much more of Follain, and then, of course, I paid a lot of attention to Follain.

I think the important thing is affinity. And I think that finding things in various Eastern religions, religious traditions rather than dogmas, was more a discovery of an affinity. I mean, it was an articulation of something that I had been groping my way toward over the years, and I suddenly recognized it. And I think, you know, the affinity, that question of affinity, this is something that is both reassuring and academically troubling about the arts.

The arts are not about fulfilling some kind of academic obligation. They’re about recognition. When you get something new, for example, when Beckett’s first books came out, why was it that anybody understood them at all because there’d never been anything quite like it. The first readers who were excited by Beckett — and I number myself among them — were recognizing something that they had never encountered before. There it is already. You have that exciting paradox. You’ve never seen it before and yet you recognize it.

What does that tell us about us? I think that, you know, if we’re encouraged to think of the arts as decoration — well, I don’t think the arts are decoration. I think the arts are about the core things that our experience can’t finally ever grasp, which is why the arts continue, you know, the way we continue.

DB: That’s the fundamental trope in your poems, if I have to make that kind of long-reaching summary. It is not just the recognition of but embracement of paradox, of things in argument with each other.

WM: Yes.

DB: I mean, in your poems, paradoxes like these: the desire for home and the necessity for migration; the desire to articulate, yet the inevitable erasure or evasion of any kind of articulate finish or conclusion.

It seems to me that tension, more than anything else in your poems, shows us how to live, comfortably or uncomfortably, or how to live with that paradox of being in several places at once and accepting that as the human condition. That’s one of the things that makes scholars so nervous. Who won? The answer must be either this or that. But the poet says the answer is always “all of the above.”

I think when I first fell in love with your poems in college, I think it was that very recognition of an affinity — of being able to be in two places at once or to be comfortable with these opposite forces. It’s the thing that gives such drama to your poems as well, I think. Maybe more than anything else.

WM: It’s lovely, Dave.

DB: Well, I hope you recognize that. I think that’s it.

So, let me ask you a question about being the Poet Laureate. I want to see if you are thinking about any projects that you have in mind for this position. I know that some of the laureates had public projects. Billy Collins had the Poetry 180 program and work he did in high schools. Kay Ryan has been doing things in community colleges. And Bob Pinsky started that wonderful and ongoing Favorite Poem project. I wonder if you had a project or a way to see this as an opportunity for a platform of something that you’d like to do.

WM: I haven’t. I mean, I have thought about that, but I haven’t gotten very far with it. For one thing, I live in Hawaii, and I don’t want to make a lot of trips to the mainland, to the benighted states, as I call them, to do things like that. I have always, when asked if I possibly could, gone to grade schools and to other groups that are involved in conservation projects or dealing with animals or anything like that, and talked with them rather than to them, and I’ve enjoyed doing it. I’ve always learned something and they have, too.

I also go into prisons. I’ve gone to a number of prisons, and sometimes over a period of time have gotten to know some prisoners. I find that very satisfying.

I’m not someone who is very good about making up some kind of program. But I would welcome those (if it didn’t involve extra trips from Hawaii) — I mean, there are a number of such things planned for the coming month. That is as near to a program as I may get.

But just talking about some of the things we were talking about a minute ago, that subject, which is I think not a simple subject. It’s about a different way of looking at the world than the one that we are accustomed to, the very limited way that our society encourages us to think of as the only realistic way of considering it. It’s not realistic if you’re melting the poles and burning off the planet and killing another species every few seconds, and decreasing every few seconds your own chance of survival. I don’t think that’s very realistic.

So I don’t think that the purely economic way of looking at the world is a very happy one. It’s not a very respectful one. And I don’t think it’s very wise or realistic. It could be told that the arts are unrealistic —

DB: We’re being told that often, now, aren’t we? Unrealistic and unprofitable, and whole programs being cut from universities —

WM: And inconvenient —

DB: Inconvenient. Right.

DL: So, is poetry a way of looking at the world differently? Is it a route or a way to see the world from a different angle than the one you’re talking about?

WM: I think it’s a way of looking at the world for the first time. Don’t you feel that every time you —

DB: That’s very Emersonian —

WM: You recognize that. Emerson wasn’t the first person to see it.

DB: Plato, I think. It is about, or your poems are about, again, a return to or a recollection of that primitive or primal or aboriginal moment of vision or insight, and the word that then comes to the mouth from such an awakening.

WM: Well, as I just said, in the arts, whether it’s Beckett or Vermeer or Schubert, or whatever it is, there is the element of recognition that makes this connection, that makes the life between us.

But if you’re asked what you recognize, the critics try to describe it, but we know that — without demeaning critics, I don’t mean it that way — criticism is incapable of saying what it is that we are recognizing. They can talk all around it, but what is it that you are recognizing? I don’t know. Can anybody say? Would you like to say what it is that you recognize when you saw Waiting for Godot the first time?

DB: Again, I think that’s one of the fundamental questions of your poems. What you are doing is pointing at something that doesn’t have a language, that doesn’t have a word, and trying to accumulate a language that is as close as we can get to that inarticulable thing. That’s one of the tensions that works in your poems over and over and over.

WM: But, you know, when David Lynn asked whether this was an influence from Eastern religion or anything of the kind, I don’t know the answer to that. I know that, for example, as a very small child before I could read, I realized that there were things that I was feeling, things that I was seeing, and things I even thought I was thinking, that I couldn’t express at all and probably never be able to express.

I think everyone has that, has all that, and it’s a precious thing to have. That is what we really are. And we should not let it be trashed or demeaned or shoved aside. And that’s not part of the economic relation. That is not something that can be bought or sold.

You know, one’s intelligence can be bought and sold. And one’s knowledge can be bought and sold. All of those things. But that, that other aspect of each one of us, cannot be bought and sold. And I didn’t have to discover or to start reading Eastern religions to come to that. I mean, that was there when I was sitting in church listening to “God the Father Almighty.”

DB: How can that recognition be better nurtured in schools?

WM: I think that having teachers — you know — I think a huge bit of that is one on one. I think the arts work one on one. When somebody hears Schubert, only one person is hearing Schubert. There’s a marvelous poem of Tomas Transtromer, who is a great Swedish poet who is still alive —

Yesterday we came in over the Triborough Bridge, which is the way that I like to come in to Manhattan, and I said to Paula “Now, look. Look right now. Look down the river.” And you look down and get the whole skyline of Manhattan. For years that had two towers at the end of it, too. But I remember from before the two towers, and Transtromer’s poem is before the two towers, and he says, “This is the rim of the galaxy” that he is looking at. He’s looking at it at night. He sees this whole thing and he says, “Each one of those windows, behind each of those windows, there is someone moving,” which was true then.

It was before the World Trade Center was built and they left the lights on all night and there was nobody there. But he said, “In one of those windows there is a coffee cup on a table, and Schubert is playing.” And he said, “To the person behind that window, nothing in the world is as real as Schubert.”

DB: That’s lovely, and true, that mystery.

DL: As we come to the end of this conversation, I wonder if you could share another poem with us from the set published in the new issue of The Kenyon Review.

WM: I would love to.

DB: We were suggesting “Homecoming?”

DL: “Homecoming” would be good. I think we’ve got a copy of that.

DB: I also love that little one right there.

WM: “By the Front Door”?

DB: Yes.

WM: There have been a number of little ones recently.

DB: Oh, that’s nice!

WM: The little one you are talking about is “By the Front Door.”

Rain through the morning

and in the long pool an old toad singing

happiness old as water

DB: I love that one. It’s connected to those Asian figures you were translating and “figuring” so many years ago. The poem that’s almost not a poem, it’s so irreducible.

WM: I’ve been working with a Japanese woman translator-friend. She does instantaneous translations, Japanese to English, for the United Nations. She is very, very good. We’ve done some modern poets, and for ten years we’ve been fooling around with Buson. I think Robert Hass did some Buson, too. I’ll have to get his to make sure we don’t overlap too much. But there’s one I cited in Washington when I got there. It’s in one of his series about cuckoos. It is the same cuckoo as the European cuckoo:

In vain I listen for the voice of the cuckoo in the sky above the Capitol.

DB: That one. That’s wonderful.

DL: I almost feel that way today.

WM: Here is “Homecoming”:

Once only when the summer

was nearly over and my own

hair had been white as the day’s clouds

for more years than I was counting

I stood by the garden at evening

Paula was still weeding around

flowers that open after dark

and I looked up to the clear sky

and saw the new moon and at that

moment from behind me a band

of dark birds and then another

after it flying in silence

long curving wings hardly moving

the plovers just in from the sea

and the flight clear from Alaska

half their weight gone to get them home

but home now arriving without

a sound as it rose to meet them

DB: What a beautiful poem.

WM: Wittgenstein is supposed to have said — I’ve not been able to find where the quote came from, but somebody showed it to me — “Every poet who remains a poet beyond adolescence finds the true theme is homecoming.”

DL: I love that sense at the end of the earth rising to meet the birds. It’s an amazing closure.

DB: And it is a homecoming.

WM: I don’t know what you know about plovers, but I love plovers. They’re one of the reasons I wanted to have that piece of land there.

DB: They’re in a lot of your poems.

WM: They are wonderful birds. After curlews, they are the great migrants. You could hear them, all through the summer there, all through the winter there, you could hear those two notes. Those two notes carry all through the horizon going across the sea. I looked up and said, “Those look like plovers, but they can’t be plovers because I’ve never heard silent plovers.” And I thought, “They’re home! They’re exhausted.” There was nothing to make a sound about. It was just fabulous.

DL: Thank you very much, W.S. Merwin, for being with us today.

WM: Thank you.

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