Trust the Word

“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.screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-8-38-06-am

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.


jim brennan



About Jim Brennan

Jim is a Philadelphia-based writer, author, poet and editor for the Schuylkill Valley Journal.
This entry was posted in poetry, Running, Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Trust the Word

  1. I love poetry, and signed up for a poetry class through one of the MOOCS. I embraced parts of the class, the poets lives and what inspired their work, the visual walk about of places the poets lived and wrote of, but was just amazed that poetry was so dissected by so many, a single word milled over for meaning and context until it was dust, or folks could actually argue over Emily Dickinson with real fervor. I realized early on that according to the experts I had not understood most of the poetry I had loved for this lifetime. Thank you for reminding me with this excellent essay on Leonard Gonterack and W.S. Merwin.
    Great poem! Thank you, Jim.


    • Jim Brennan says:

      My buddy, Monk, is a big proponent of MOOCS and talked me into taking one. I’ve gone through course descriptions of a lot of poetry courses and many of them look awesome, now I just need to sign up for one. Thanks for getting me refocused. Stick with it, I’m sure you will find it rewarding. btw, I workshop with Leonard, he’s kind of a mentor to me. He’s an awesome poet and person.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh I adore MOOCS! It is just over the top amazing to be able to take classes from Universities from all over the globe, with such a diversity of students, on subjects I wished I could have studied back in school, or subjects totally unfamiliar. I would never have access to these learning opportunities otherwise. All my best to you Jim, and have an excellent week. 🍁


  2. Sophie33 says:

    A very interesting post, dear Jim! x

    Liked by 1 person

  3. LB says:

    I love that he said that a poem may not resonate with every reader. I think that is important for us to remember. Sometimes when I read poetry, I am moved and sometimes I am puzzled.
    I do love your last line, which I imagine most poets and writers would agree with:
    140 characters, blasphemous.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jim Brennan says:

      When Leonard told me that you need not understand poetry to appreciate it, it was as if a barrier evaporated. If the expectation is to understand every poem, the reader is going to be frustrated because it’s impossible to get inside every poet’s head. Even a master such as Merwin hints to that in the Moyer interview. But once the barrier is removed, understanding increases.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s