Merwin the mighty

MERWINOne of the great privileges of my life — aside from being a husband and a father, of course — was meeting W.S. Merwin. He was eager to get home to Hawaii, to his wife, to his gardens, but we talked for about an hour while he was visiting Claremont McKenna College a few years ago. I had my connections to the college, and my identity as a rep for a large newspaper, and that created the kind of opportunity that only seems possible in a dream. But I was also forewarned that he was leery of interviews and suspicious of reporters because they routinely mangled the currency of his craft and took his comments out of context.

I was reminded of that warning after reading a comment included in a Huff Post article about a new film of the poet’s life. Merwin sounds like a person whose life is characterized mainly by “I don’t…”:

“He said ‘I’m not going to talk about Buddhism and I’m not going to talk about my writing process,’ and on top of that, he’s just a deeply private person,” the filmmaker says in the article. Merwin  “put some creative parameters on what the film is.”

Initially, I felt the same parameters. Especially when he eyed the digital recorder in my shirt breast-pocket. He told me not to use it. What could I do?  I tried so hard to keep up with the flow of his thoughts, but I couldn’t scribble fast enough.

I knew his work pretty well, especially his Purgatorio translation and early poetry, and the lovely little book about his years in Provence. I asked him question after question. Maybe that made a difference.

I also started expressing my  frustrations over the fate of a manuscript, and he didn’t hide his irritation at the whole marketing process, either. It was a revelation. The whole thing bothered him–Him!–too. When he talked about visiting Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeth’s, it felt like a flash-bomb had gone off in my face — Pound, for God’s sake, he knew Pound!

He was as generous to me, and as passionate about his work, as the young Princeton student who once talked poetry with John Berryman:

I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

And suddenly I heard those words that I’d never expected to hear. He pointed at my recorder and said,  “ok, you can let it run a little.”



5 thoughts on “Merwin the mighty

  1. Oh, that pierced my heart. “If you have to be sure, don’t write.” There is no certainty in any art, right. You may as well say, “If you require certainty, you cannot exist.” You were so lucky to talk with him. What an experience!

  2. I was so lucky, definitely, Jil. I keep thinking of him, and of Berryman’s advice to him, as I struggle with the certainty factor, which I think most (probably all) writers face as they’re finding their voices. The Berryman poem, by the way, is about an experience Merwin had with B while he was a student in the 1950s. But the poem doesn’t appear in one of Merwin’s collections until I think either the 1970s or the 1980s — to me, that shows that Merwin was still thinking about certainty/uncertainty even after he had established himself. It never goes away.

  3. My pleasure, shoreacres. Isn’t Merwin fantastic? Thanks for sharing the link to this video. With him, what you see is definitely what you get … which is a lot.

    Isn’t that Berryman-inspired poem wonderful? I like what you say about it: the poem gives us permission to stop worrying and get on with things. It’s far easier sometimes to avoid the work of writing and do other things, and convince yourself the entire time that you’re working when you’re not. I’ve definitely been there. I was falling into that bad habit again as June started, and thinking about Merwin and this poem slapped me in the face. Not a hard slap — there’s definitely a soft glove on — but it was good for me. I’m glad it was good for you too!

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