W. S. Merwin Interview with Ed Rampell

Q: Is our current economic system sustainable?

Merwin: This is a subject that’s liable to get very dark, so I don’t know how far you want to pursue it. I’m very pessimistic about the future of the human species. We have been so indifferent to life on the whole that it will take its toll. It’s not just the polar bears that are having a hard time; what we’re doing is gradually impoverishing and poisoning the whole of the rest of life. Thirty years ago, when I was at [Oregon State University,] Corvallis, where there’s a big biology department… and one of the zoologists, a molecular biologist, said: ‘We’re losing species a week.’ My jaw dropped; he said, ‘It’s not getting better.’ Of course, when you lose a species, that’s lost; you never see it again.

This is part of a structure in which every species is related to every other species. And they’re built up on species, like a pyramid. The simpler cell organisms, and then the more complicated ones, all the way up to the mammals and birds and so forth. We call it ‘developing upward’… The whole thing depends on every part of it. And we’re taking out the stones from the pyramid.

Q: The constant extraction from nature... in order to profiteer, without replenishing what has been taken.

Merwin: That’s right. And of course now – 30 years later – we’re losing a species every few seconds. We cannot put them back. If we change our mind and say, ‘Oops, we made a mistake’ – it’s too late. This is the world we live with…

Q: What’s your response to the BP oil spill?

Merwin: It’s just appalling. I mean, it’s perfectly horrible. And we should have known better; we know the history of it and how sloppy it was and how crooked the permits have been. And it’s the thing that I was talking about earlier, of having only one main employer around that whole region that runs the whole thing. If there’d been a better-balanced society, where there were other ways of making a decent living, I think it might have been different. That’s not the way this setup work.

The other thing is, friends said, ‘You don’t seem to be as shocked by this as we are.’ And I said, ‘Well, maybe I’m not.’ I think I’m every bit as upset about the actual thing that’s happening as you are. But put it in context: The forests of North America have been cut down steadily, and as a matter of course for ever since the Pilgrim fathers got here and ever since the first settlement in the beginning of the 17th century – nobody ever thought there was anything the matter with that. In recent years, we’ve got into nuclear proliferation since World War II. We have started agricultural practices taken for granted that we use poisons. The moment we turn over the soil we start poisoning it and we go on poisoning it all the way through… and there’s probably not a river in the United States that doesn’t have pesticide poisoning in it. The fish are dying. The seas are getting polluted. All of these things are happening. The rain forests are going. That’s what the context is. The global warming is going on. These are not single cases. These are all part of a general way we’ve been looking at the world. As long as we look at the world that way it’s going to go on. Because the idea that the important thing is for some people get rich while the rest of the people work for them is very deeply dug in…

…It’s an attitude of superiority. We are superior to the rest of life. The Book of Genesis says: ‘Increase and multiply and have dominion over the birds of the air and the animals and so forth.’ You run it; it’s yours; do what you like with it. I don’t know how old that text is, but it represents an attitude that probably really got going with the beginning of agriculture. Before that, the hunter-gatherers were gentler people than the agriculture. A lot of the North American peoples were very suspicious about digging in the Earth, how much disturbance of the Earth you did… You were very careful about what you did to the Earth, and you did it with great respect. That’s part of it. The other thing is expansion in another sense, just population. The human population arrived at a billion around 1813; it’s now not 200 years later and we’re at nine billion and heading for 11. You think this can go on forever? …I don’t know what you can do about it. Politically it would be terribly repressive to prevent people from having as many children as they want. But something’s got to prevent it; and it won’t be pleasant… We’re still behaving in ways that have become disastrous… I don’t think this helps us to survive… We’re very species-centric… and now exist at the expense of every other form of life on Earth.


Politics and Poetry

Q: If man is an arrogant being who believes he’s superior to all other creatures then Americans seem to be the most believing in their superiority, but think they’re better than everybody else because they believe that ‘all men are created equal,’ so that makes us superior.

Merwin: Yeah, I don’t think that’s a logical connection. I have enormous admiration for Jefferson and the whole thing that was made – it was new. It had its roots in Roman law and in all sorts of things, but what Jefferson said in the Declaration of Independence was something very precious. It’s not perfect; it never was perfect; Jefferson wasn’t perfect – I mean, what’s a perfect human being? Everything’s got its faults. That’s not a reason to shrug your shoulders and say, ‘It doesn’t matter.’ It does matter. The attempt to live that way, the attempt to treat everybody – it fails all the time – but the attempt to treat people as equals is a good attempt. It’s a very good attempt. And there have been very few governments that have come anywhere near it in the past. The Greeks began to, the Romans began to – they both failed.

You take great civilizations, like Dong China – the religious and arts development in Dong China is great. You think, ‘What a great age it must have been.’ Then you start looking into the history – it was a terrible age, an absolutely terrible age. It ended in a rebellion in which millions of people were just massacred; I mean something like 30 million people were either homeless or killed. The ruling classes were absolutely ruthless. The invaders and the small kingdoms there just fought with each other horribly. Our history of governing ourselves is not a very good one. What came about with the vision of the people who wrote the Declaration of Independence and who wrote the Constitution is something we should treasure.

Q: And the Declaration is poetic.

Merwin: I mean, Jefferson was a great writer. He really was. And Adams was sort of very conservative, and Jefferson was not. And they’d been political enemies and became very close friends. Their correspondence is just a lovely thing. My publisher, Copper Canyon, the man who then ran the press, Sam Hamill [see The Progressive Magazine, April 2003] , one of the members of his board and I, he started a thing called “Poets Against the War.” He thought he’d get half a dozen poets to say why they did not think the invasion of Iraq was a good idea, and just put it on the website, and that would poets against the war. Well, he ended up with something like 18,000 people from around the world sending in these ideas. Then we went and did this reading in Washington.

Q: You were among the readers?

Merwin: Yes. Sam and I were the readers. I didn’t read a poem – well, I guess there was one. But mostly just other poems. And I dedicated it to Laura Bush, you know, because it was her invitation that brought us all to Washington. She had invited everybody else to talk about Emily Dickinson – they all had not wanted to do it, you know. So they called the whole thing off.

Q: What other causes have you espoused through your poetry or activism?

Merwin: Back in the ’70s I opposed the Vietnam War and I marched against nuclear development and in favor of the Civil Rights movement, too. It was a great time, to emerge in and after the ’60s there. Kids were saying a few years ago, students were saying, ‘Why can’t it be like the ’60s, when everybody took to the streets?’ And I say, ‘You know, it didn’t happen overnight.’ But the people who were behind that movement – in the first place, a lot of them were Quakers, they were people who’d been thinking about these things for a longtime. They were people who’d read Gandhi and Thoreau and they were very concerned about these things and had been for some time, and they didn’t think violence was a great idea. They thought, ‘Nonviolence is a very risky idea’; it’s not a simple solution – it may not work. But if you don’t try it it’s never going to work. You know, Gandhi was getting depressed toward the end of his life. He thought, ‘Well it worked this time, but I wonder if it will work in other situations.’ I don’t know we ever know the answer to that. But these people have been thinking about those things, the young people had been thinking about and reading Gandhi, and the demonstrations were tiny [at first]. A demonstration from the Fellowship of Reconciliation against the early nuclear development – there seven people standing on Pennsylvania Avenue outside of the White House. They got arrested, too.

Q: Are you comfortable being considered a political poet?

Merwin: No. No, I wouldn’t be happy about being considered a love poet or an environmental – I don’t want any of those tags. You know, there are poets who believe that you shouldn’t engage at all in any cause. And there’s something to be said for that. Because you don’t want to – I think most political poetry is very bad. And it’s very bad because you know too much to start with. You have a sense that you’re right, and you’re trying to tell other people what’s right. And I think that’s always kind of fundamentalism, and I don’t like it, you know?

But most love poetry is awful; nobody knows how to write good love poetry either. But that’s not a reason not to write love poetry. Some of the best poetry ever written has been love poetry, and some of the greatest poetry ever written has been political poetry. The Divine Comedy is a political poem and when you say poetry is not about -- he’s always quoted out of context, that “poetry makes nothing happen,” that doesn’t mean you shrug your shoulders and don’t try to make anything happen. And Dante felt that poetry was engaged, there was a point of view; it’s not my point of view, it’s orthodox medieval Christianity, and I have my troubles with that. He didn’t feel that you could just rule out so important a section of life – we care about these things, and it’s out of caring about them that we write poetry. It’s not because we have an opinion about them or even a conviction about them: But it’s what we care about. If you can’t bear what’s happening to the natural world, if you can’t bear the way we treat each other; if you can’t bear wars, you just can’t bear the whole idea of war, which is possibly unavoidable. But still, you resist it. Because you just hate our treating each other that way and causing that suffering.

Q: In the spring of 2003, you wrote Ogres, about:

‘the frauds in office

at this instant devising

their massacres in my name.’

But usually you’re not that direct. Is there a risk in being so direct?

Merwin: Yeah; I just described it. You know your political position so clearly that you think of it as being right. That’s true. I was thinking, indeed, when I wrote that poem – which is not in the Collected Poems – about the invasion of Iraq. The other thing I was thinking about organized violence – I don’t think we can ever get rid of violence, but I think we can limit organized violence – the other thing about organized violence, it’s always to some degree affected by lies. Because we justify what we’re doing, and the justifications, as we keep finding out – and we find out sometimes generations afterwards – are very often not true. There was no Tonkin Bay incident, which was one of the reasons for the Vietnam invasion. And there were no weapons of mass destruction.

One of the greatest pieces – you see, Euripides was a poet who tried to be political. Euripides, Iphigenia At Aulis, this great play that he wrote (which I translated, by the way), and the marvelous thing about that play is that everybody in the play is caught up in something that is not true. And the only person who sees through the whole thing – Agamemnon, Menelaus, even Iphigenia herself, Achilles, they’re all telling lies. And they’re all telling different lies, and they’re all arguing with each other about the lies. The only person who really sees through it finally, because she says, “You brought our daughter here in order to sacrifice her so there could be a war in Troy, and you didn’t tell me that. But you told her she was going to be married to Achilles, and this is what you really had in mind.” And she saw through the whole thing… That’s where it ends, with the plight of Orestes, having seen this whole thing. Of course, the next stage in the story is going to be when Agamemnon comes back.

Q: I saw a production of The Oresteia at the Getty Villa’s amphitheatre in Malibu, starring Tyne Daly of the TV female cop series Cagney and Lacey and Delroy Lindo [Get Shorty] during the height of the Iraq War.

Merwin: They were doing a lot more Greek plays at the beginning of the Iraq War. I hope that we’re going to get out of there all right; I hope that it’s accomplished something. I’m very skeptical. I don’t know whether what we’ve done is going to be an improvement in the long run or whether they’ll just undo the whole thing in a few weeks. That’s quite possible.

Q: What do you think of Afghanistan?

Merwin: Oh, I’m very anxious about Afghanistan. I think the idea that we’re going to eliminate Al Qaeda is just not going to happen. I think our very being on the ground in the Islamic world is such an irritation that we’re recruiting Al Qaeda all the time. We’re keeping it going. It’s very hard to get out. This is the trouble – I think it was not only immoral to go into these places, I think it was stupid. I mean, tactically, strategically stupid. I mean, how do you – any military strategist would say, ‘Don’t go into a place that you can’t get out of.’ It’s like a rat putting his head down a bamboo tube. There you are; Vietnam. People kept saying, ‘Oh no, this isn’t parallel to Vietnam.’ Well, it isn’t; this is dry, Vietnam was a jungle. But the situations, you get into this; and how do you get out of it? And you let other people down. You cause – one of the things about being opposed to organized violence is that – and I say, I don’t think there’s a simple solution, but one has to try, because violence always, I believe, leads to violence. It always makes more violence. There’s Albert Camus, who’s a great French writer whom I’ve admired enormously all my life, and he was in the [anti-Nazi] Resistance, he worked for the liberation of Algeria, but he said in his diary and editorials he wrote, ‘We must break the cycle of violence wherever we can break it. Don’t worry about justification; you try to break it. If there’s a chance to break it, you try.’

Q: The last line of Camus’ The Stranger refers to “the benign indifference of the universe.” Do you feel that the universe is benignly indifferent to humanity?

Merwin: Uh, yes. I also think that life itself is both indifferent to us and the source of all of our joys and everything that we love. And it’s necessary to accept the one in order to love the other. People have said to me, ‘Oh, you’re much mellowed after the ’60s, and the book of poems called The Lice and things like that.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know about that. I’m no more optimistic than I was in the ’60s. If anything, less so, because I’ve seen more of the results. But I don’t think you can spend your whole life focusing only on your anger about it. Because if you do that, you lose sight why you’re angry. I mean, what is it you’re angry about? Because you want to save, you want to protect, you want to preserve and take care of something. And if you don’t love it, what’s the point of taking care of it… It’s not going to work. Only really caring about it is going to make it happen – if it ever happens.

Even if – you know, there’s something I read about a Japanese writer of the 20th century who said, ‘One must go on trying, even if it’s like a pigeon trying to put out a house on fire by carrying a few drops of water on its wing, and then going back for more.’ Chances are not great, but Ed, you say, if you come upon a car wreck on the road 10 minutes after its happened and there are people lying around with blood all over the highway you try to do everything possible to get them into an ambulance and get them to a hospital. You don’t stand around trying to figure out what their chances of survival are.

Q: Who do you write for? In Cover Note you wrote:

. . . I have not

the ancients’ confidence

in the survival of

one track of syllables

nor in some ultimate

moment of insight . . .

Merwin: There are several answers to that one. There’s a sense in which you write only for yourself because the only ear, the only way you can hear the language, is the way you hear it yourself. Beyond that I write for everybody; for everybody who uses the language and who’s interested. I’d like anyone who wants to read poems and is interested in these things to find that there’s something available in them.

We’ve gone through a period of Modernism that pushed aside the late Victorians, who got very, very conventional and were essentially writing for a particular class structure. Modernism brushed that out of the way. But also at the same time it brushed aside the idea that you’re writing for it to be comprehensible.

One has to write for right now, and one writes out of some kind of respect for one’s ancestors. My son is a novelist, and he said to me once: “I love this thing about poets: You all really feel there’s a line connecting you to Keats, Milton, and Shakespeare and all the way back.” I said, “Oh yeah, it’s right there. We have whatever they gave.”

Q: You write, in the poem “First Sight,” about “late blessings.” What are some that you appreciate?

Merwin: I love my wife, and I love my life here. I’m happy to be alive. I feel very lucky to be able to write sometimes and to work in the garden. That’s quite enough.

Q: In The Shadow of Sirius you write about “astonishment.” How do you stay open to being astonished?

Merwin: Good question. I think that’s a question one should always ask one’s self. The act of being surprised is always marvelous. It means that you’re opening up; you’re not getting sclerotic. Anything that tends to open your eyes and feelings is a good thing.

Q: You seem continually astonished by nature, love, and words. What else astonishes you?

Merwin: What else is there?


Excerpted from an interview with Ed Rampell in The Progressive (November 2010)


Title W. S. Merwin Interview with Ed Rampell Type of Content Interview
Criticism Author Ed Rampell Criticism Target W. S. Merwin
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 13 Jul 2014
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