“You can’t. You can never be sure. You die without knowing.” – John Berryman’s response to W.S. Merwin when asked how you know if a poem is any good
Poetry is like boarding a plane: you walk through the door, peek into the cockpit, gawk at a hundred instruments and gauges, and then place your trust in the pilot to get you to your destination; or like your first summit attempt of a glacial mountain with enormous crevasses, falling rock and avalanche risks; you place your trust in your mountain guide.
Poetry requires a similar level of trust; trust in the poet and trust in his work. W.S. Merwin has been creating poetry for seven decades, and at 89 he is still writing and publishing. A native of New York City and raised for a time in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Merwin moved to Hawaii in the 1970s. He lives in a house built on an old pineapple plantation where he preserves indigenous plants. His more recent poetry reflects his passion for conservation.
In one of my first workshops with Philadelphia poet Leonard Gonterak, Leonard said, “You don’t have to understand poetry to appreciate it,” words that shed the mystery from poetry and put me at ease to simply let the words, images, and rhythm seep into my being. Once the barrier between psyche and poetry is torn down, appreciation begins, and in many cases understanding follows. Bill Moyer reinforced this idea in a 2009 interview with Merwin, when he said, “I don’t understand all of your poetry, but I get it.”
In the interview Moyer asked Merwin, “So, what makes a poem work?”
“I don’t know,” said Merwin. “I’ll never know what makes a poem work.” That is because poetry is innate and sensory to the poet, and must be trusted by the reader. If a poet is successful, he will feel his way until it works, and though it may not resonate with every reader, it will touch something deep inside many who tune in. Merwin went on to make an interesting observation adding, “One thing about poetry. And this is different that prose. When a poem is really finished, you can’t change anything. You can’t move words around. You can’t say, ‘In other words, you mean.’ No, that’s not it. There are no other words in which you mean it. That is it. And if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. But if it does work, that’s the way it is.”
Listen to Bill Moyer’s interview with W.S. Merwin.
Merwin’s lives simply on his Hawian preservation and writes longhand on paper. I thought about him in today’s world of sound bites, abbreviated messages and ever-shortening attention spans and leave you with this poem:
Merwin’s First Tweet
A bulbous pearl startles the abyss pulling
blood through miles of seasoned veins;
his eyes open at first light
on an island pulsing gold.
A whetted blade pierces gilded pulp,
his tongue exults, and fingers stutter
on plastic pads. He weeps, reaches
for a soiled napkin to finish his song.
Pastel rays reflect from the azure surf,
grilled pineapple and papaya waft
to a symphony of water gliding over a rock ledge
before crashing hundreds of feet below
images unrestrained by convention:
two words too many
two verse not enough
140 characters, blasphemous.