A W. S. Merwin Interview with John Amen

JA: I am extremely excited to be featuring you in The Pedestal Magazine. Let me begin by asking you a little about your writing habits. Do you write every day? In waves or phases? Do you have a set schedule? Or have you, in fact, embraced different approaches at different times?

WM: I think you put your habits into place as you grow up. And your habits may not be of any use to anyone else. I remember, as a student, being fascinated by a number of German writers who lived in a house near where I went to college. I was so impressed by the way these men worked. They seemed to work all the time. Sometimes I would go out at night and take a walk just to look at Herman Broch's house and see the light on in the upstairs window, which I knew was his study. And then when I worked for Robert Graves, one of the marvelous things about that experience was the way Robert worked all the time. Something would interrupt, or someone would come to the door, and Robert would deal with it and then go right back to work. Robert did everything in longhand. I was impressed by the way he worked. He was a wonderful model. One of the great things for Robert was that there was no telephone. Eventually he had a wind-up phone in one of the corners of the house. But for quite some time, if you wanted to get in touch with Robert, you called in town and a message was sent. The telephone is a tremendous distraction. For years I didn't have one, and I don't think I've ever really gotten used to it.

I've found that the best thing for me is to insist that some part of the day--and for me, it's the morning until about two in the afternoon--be dedicated to writing. I go into my room and shut the door, and that's that. You have to make exceptions, of course, but you just stick to it, and then it becomes a habit, and I think it's a valuable one. Flaubert said that inspiration consists of sitting down at the same table at the same time every day, and I think that's the way one should look at it. If you're waiting for lightning to strike a stump, you're going to sit there for the rest of the your life.

JA: Your poem, "Is That What You Are" (reprinted in this issue of The Pedestal Magazine), is a piece that I first read in the 1980s (when I was 13 or 14). This is one of a small handful of pieces that essentially introduced me to modern poetry. In particular, the lines "Standing on the stairs of water," "Hope and grief are still our wings," and "There are feathers in the ice" are lines that helped give me an impression of what was poetically possible. I'm wondering, Could you speak a little about this piece? Can you offer any particular comments regarding this poem?

WM: "Is That What You Are" is one of three or four poems that are clustered together, and they all arise out of the deaths of friends. At some point, you're startled to find that friends who are older, and friends who are your age, and, indeed, friends who are writers, die. And your relation to them is something you never really worked out. This is upsetting; apart from the grief itself, it's an experience you don't quite know what to do with. When these people go, there's always so much unfinished about the relationship, and it stays with you and continues to trouble you-- trying to resolve it in some way, when it can't be resolved.

It doesn't matter who the friends are. Then it becomes gossip. So much of literary history is really a kind of gossip. And gossip is really a distraction; it doesn't tell you about the poem; it tells you about the background of the poem. The relevance of the poem is something that's in the poem itself.

JA: I suppose, in some cases, if a reader has that kind of background information, it could compromise his or her reading of the poem.

WM: I think it can because then attention is paid to the background rather than to the poem. There's a great example of that. Years ago I read John Livingston Lowe's The Road to Xanadu, all about the great poems of Coleridge. He went into great detail about what Coleridge had been reading and with whom he had been corresponding, including Wordsworth. He managed to piece together the most incredible background. When I finished the book, I thought, This is marvelous, and now I know a lot about Coleridge's background. But finally there I am, face to face with the poems, and it's the relationship to the poems that matters. Even with the knowledge about the background, still, I'm ultimately back with the poems. And that's what matters, the relationship to the poem.

JA: I'm wondering, Have you ever had times when you struggled with a block or were unable to write? If so, how did you deal with this impediment?

WM: I don't know quite how to answer that because whenever I finish something, it strikes me that that could well be the last poem I'll ever write. You never know where the next poem is coming from, or if there will be a next poem. I try to write every day. That doesn't mean I try to write poetry every day. And I feel very lucky if I know what I'm working on. You know, one has much conflict of feelings about work. I came gradually to find that the actual process of work was something that I simply loved. Getting completely absorbed was something I really appreciated. With the years it has become a real joy, difficult though it may be, just the "intent-nature" of working.

JA: When you reflect on your development as a poet, what do you consider to be your major breakthroughs? And, on the other hand, what is something related to the creative or compositional process with which you still struggle?

WM: Well, I struggle with all of it. I suppose the constant effort for me is trying to bring what I care about into the words and the writing and the electric charge of language itself, and also to convey a certain immediacy of experience. Writers tend to do one or the other better. Some writers are very close to immediate experience, but the language is rather slack. With others, there is great tension and electricity of language, and specific or immediate experience is rather remote. With me, it's bringing the two together that's always been demanding and something that I keep trying to do. But it happens in different ways. Sometimes I'll try to write something, and it won't come to anything, and I'll put it away for a long period, then bring it back out and start working with it again. In the process of rewriting, it may turn into what I wanted it to be months or years before. That's happened a number of times.

When I was about thirty, I really seemed to come to the end of a way of writing poetry (with the end of The Drunk in the Furnace). When I finished that manuscript, I thought, I can't imagine that I will want to write in this way any longer. I wanted to write in a different way. This was not a judgment on that way of writing, it was just that I felt I'd come to the end of it. And I didn't know exactly what to do. I wasn't going to try, deliberately, to write differently. For a period of time, I didn't write poetry at all. And then one day I was thinking back to the time when I had been writing the last poems in The Drunk in the Furnace. All of a sudden, the first poem of A Moving Target came to me. It was a totally different kind of writing. In six weeks I wrote about half of that book. The poems came out one right after another. They're all very different from each other and very different from earlier poems. And they were so different that people assumed this was a deliberate and judgmental break with everything that I had written before. I didn't think of it that way. I simply felt that I had finished writing in one way and didn't want to write that way any more. And if you change the way you write, you change what you write, and this was a "moving on" rather than a "moving away from." I do think there is a continuity to the poems, the shift between the poems in The Drunk in the Furnace and those in The Moving Target, but I wasn't concerned with the continuity at that time. I thought that would take care of itself, if the change was authentic; if it came from the right place, the connections would eventually become clear. But in the meantime I wanted to do something new, and that first poem, "Home for Thanksgiving" [from The Moving Target], seemed new enough.

JA: Have you had that experience--that desire for a change, for a shifting--at different times during your career?

WM: It has happened a few times, but that was one of the most obvious and dramatic examples. It was very exciting, too. Many years later, when I wrote The Folding Cliffs, the long narrative poem, something similar happened. I had that story or part of that story in my head for many years. I didn't know that I could do anything with it, but the story kept nibbling at me. I started doing research on the story, but I still didn't know what to do with it. I knew I wasn't an historian, and I didn't know how to write a novel, and I was writing the poems in The Vixen, and when I finished The Vixen, suddenly it occurred to me that the only way for me to tell the story would be through poetry. I realized that the poems in The Vixen had made it possible for me to find a form to tell the story of The Folding Cliffs. I was thinking about the characters all the time. I realized the point in the story where I wanted to start. I was thinking about it one night and just started writing. I worked at it for about two years until I had it written. But it was a number of things coming together. I didn't sit down and decide I was going to write a poem, and this is going to be the story, and so on. All of those things connected on their own, in a way.

JA: How integral is revision to your writing process?

WM: Sometimes going over something is a way of entering into a whole new process of writing, finding new layers in a piece of writing. I think of it that way. Again, one of the people I learned a great deal from was Robert Graves, who felt that going over a piece--the revisions--was almost more valuable than producing an original draft. I think that depends. I write very slowly. I make a lot of changes as I'm writing because I'm listening to the poem and making changes as I go. My manuscripts, I'm sure, are quite unreadable. When they want my manuscript collections in a university, I never know what they're going to do with them. They're not going to make any sense of them; in two weeks, they won't make any sense to me either. But there's so much revision involved before I actually arrive at a form I want to type up. I don't often change too much after the piece is typed up.

JA: You have done a great deal of work as a translator. Even though you write (your own poems) primarily in English, does your fluency with other languages make certain experiences and mindsets accessible that might not be if you were monolingual? In other words, does familiarity with other languages broaden your experiential horizons and your capacities as an English-writing poet?

WM: The only way I can think about that is to remember my early feeling of excitement when reading poetry in other languages. I think of poems in Spanish, poems in old French. And then, feeling the difficulty of conveying something very beautiful in a language other than the original. That was the thing, perhaps, that was drawing me closer to the idea of translation. But it was also making me listen for something in English, some kind of experience, sound, resonance, that I wanted to have happen, that maybe didn't exist in English. And that was a challenge from the beginning, to make something in English that was poetry in the same sense that it was in the original. And it's impossible; you can't do that. One never does that. But still, it's the impossible thing that one strives to do. I mean, what one wants with translation is the original, and it's never going to be the original; it's always going to be something else. But I always wanted translation to convey something of why one wanted to translate in the first place, which is not just the meaning of the original, it's to do with the sound, the electricity, the excitement of the language.

JA: Some of your earlier work (such as poems in The Lice and The Carrier of Ladders) reflects, at least in part, it seems to me, a kind of absorption and reinvention of surrealist and/or dadaist elements. I'm wondering, do you consider some of the surrealist and dadaist writings to be texts that had a significant impact on you? If so, could you speak a little about that?

WM: Bly said once that every poet is in his time. Definitely all of us, from my generation, have inherited from the surrealists. For me it was not so much the French surrealists as it was the South American ones, and then I came to the French surrealists later. It's not that we became surrealists, it was that reading their works helped us break out of the fix on poetry in English, poetry that had been made by the English. There had been a few English poets who had experimented with surrealism, such as David Gascoyne, but not very many. It hadn't had a great affect on poetry in England, but we were moving away from English poetry. In the generations before mine, that was extremely deliberate. William Carlos Williams worked very hard to break the link with "English English." By my generation, we didn't have to work that hard. There was Auden, who was the link with England, but Auden was heavily influenced by American writing as well. We just weren't paying that much attention to English poetry, and if we did it was a kind of friendly attention, but it didn't affect us very much. I don't think any of us were much influenced by English writers. We were much more interested in South American writers or European writers, and that was the value for many of us of Bly's magazine, The 50s, The 60s, and The 70s. We were all encountering these writers, and Bly was publishing them, which was very convenient, but we were all discovering these writers for ourselves. I remember during those years reading all of modern French poetry and all of modern Spanish poetry with great excitement and a wonderful sense of discovery.

JA: During our phone conversations, you mentioned your concern regarding current conditions in the world. The war in Iraq now seems to be escalating and the political/diplomatic situation worsening. Could you speak a little about what is going on in the world and your specific concerns or hopes?

WM: Well, I'm appalled by this administration, which I think is an impostor administration. I think the American people have been conned. I mean, the actual liberation of Iraq is a fine thing, but do we have any right to do such things? And, in the way we're doing them? I deeply question these things. Some people question whether a poet has any right to speak up. I certainly think one has a right to speak and should exercise that right, because if one does not, as an individual citizen, exercise that right, then it doesn't get exercised. I think it's also important for poets to speak, whether you think of that in terms of poetic talent or political right. Whether a poet should speak or not, as a poet, I've always hesitated to say, because I don't want to prescribe to other people. I mean, I find politics boring, and I find going to the voting poll boring too, but I think these things are important, and I think it's important to exercise our rights. I think if one gives it up, as a poet; if one decides, I'm not going to write about it, one shrinks a bit. I think one is always trying to write things that one doesn't know how to write. You never really know how to write a love poem. A poem about public issues is likely to be bad, but once in a while you may write one that's not so bad, and that's true of every kind of poem. We don't know how to write political poems; most political poems are terrible. But if you don't try to expand your gift, I think you shrink. If you feel something, and you don't try to write about it, then your feelings are kept separate from your writing, and what does that mean?

I think compassion and imagination go together. If you give up trying to use your imagination for new things and for expanding yourself, you begin to wither away. And if you begin to draw back from your compassion, you begin to wither away, too. Compassion and imagination--not intelligence--are what make the human species valuable. And that's our gift; that's our great talent, and if we don't live up to it, it will kill us. If you don't live up to your talent, it kills you. That's why I think it's important to include public life, or one's feelings about public life, in one's writing. I've been reading The Collected Rexroth. It's a very revealing book. He's a much more important poet than I'd realized. There's a lot in that book that I don't like very much; there's also a great deal that is absolutely wonderful. There are moments where he makes political statements that I think are quite bad, and there other times when he manages to say something that is very accurate and beautiful. And he manages to say it in poetry. You know, Pound makes a lot of political statements, and usually they're total nonsense, and they wreck the entire context of the poem around them. And Rexroth does that sometimes, but it's marvelous to see someone trying to stretch what they can say, and sometimes he conveys thought, feelings, opinions of great subtlety with moving grace and clarity.

JA: We also talked briefly around the idea of "busyness," how we live in a world overflowing with various stimuli; how the media is constantly bombarding us with information; how it is increasingly important to protect oneself from the sheer volume of external influences. A Mask for Janus was published in 1952. I'm wondering, how have changes--societal, technological, diplomatic--over the last fifty years (and especially over the last, let's say, twenty) affected you as a poet?

WM: I'm sure I have been affected, and I'm sure I've been affected in ways I don't even understand. It's hard to tell how much of that is the effect of changes in the world and how much of it is related to just getting older. I feel a couple of things about all that. First, I don't feel completely in sync with it; temperamentally, not at all. I like to lead a much quieter life than most of the public life of the twenty-first century is dedicated to. I'm also living in a place where I don't even see another house, which is the way I like it to be. Not all the time. I love going to the city and seeing friends, but I couldn't stand to do that all the time. I think I watch one television program a day, which is the Lehrer News Hour. And maybe there will be something else once or twice a week, but that's pretty much it. Maybe I turn on the laptop computer once a week, so I don't have the computer turned on all the time. I don't think this is typical, and I don't wish it to be different either. When we go back to the old farmhouse in France, it's nice to not even have that much contact.

I think everybody, whether he knows it or not, at his core does not belong to history. Everybody has the life which is there in the outer world and is going along with the moment of history he belongs to. And he's part of that whether he likes it or not, but there's the other aspect of him, which is not part of that. And I think when people feel really disoriented, when they have nervous breakdowns, when they go completely adrift, very often it's because they've lost touch with that part of themselves that is not historical. There's a poem of Muso's, in which he says, "Right among the people coming and going/ I have a place to stay/ I shut the gate even in the daytime." You don't have to get out of the subway in the middle of the city in order to come to a silent place. You have that silent place with you all the time. If that's important to you, it may well be more important than the rush around you, and there is always a connection. And of course, the poems come from both places. They come from that connection, which is never made by an act of will.

JA: One of the things that is extremely powerful about your work is your ability to combine what I would call enigmatic and imagistic elements. Much of your work has this quality, reflects this interaction, if you will, between the unconscious or personally complex and the more public, the experientially accessible. I'm wondering, how does what I'm saying strike you? Could you speak a little on this issue?

WM: I think what you're talking about is what I think of as images. I don't think images are an act of will. Sometimes one sees the world in a way one is not aware of at other times. We're never really seeing the world, we're only seeing a moment's take on the world. This is true of images. Images are a way of seeing the world which you didn't notice before, and something you cannot make by an act of will; it's something that is suddenly revealed to you. The world has layers, and you start seeing that these layers happen all at once; they're all together. I think that's what is startling about images. At the moment of seeing, they seem so obvious. Why didn't I see that before? Mandelstam wrote wonderfully about images. He said some of the things that I've been saying, and I completely agree with him. He said that an image is not an act of will. A real image is something that occurs to you. He said an image is like running across a river on a bridge of boats, and when you get to the other side, you look back and see that all the boats have moved or drifted and are in different places, and you realize it would be impossible to do all over again. That's always seemed like a great image right there.

JA: In the last issue of The Pedestal Magazine, I asked Robert Mezey to reflect upon his own contributions as a poet. I'd like to ask you a similar question: How do you feel about the corpus of work you have produced (up to this point), in terms of creating a legacy? I mean, when you look at the volume of work you have created, do you feel that you have (again, up to this point) indeed been able to document life as you have known it, experienced it? Do you have a sense of having been able to (again, so far) describe, document, concretize this thing called life?

WM: Well, I always think of the things that remain to be said, that aren't there. Sometimes I go back over something I've written--which I don't do very often--and I'm startled sometimes to see what is there. But then I think, There's so much that isn't there. And there's always something at the heart of it that isn't there, too. Something always seems to have escaped. Albert Camus said that every true writer has two or three images he goes back to, and no more than that. A writer may have a huge output, but he is basically connected to two or three images. Camus was talking about writers like Tolstoy and Chekhov, that there were core images they kept going back to, that they never got to the bottom of. It may be something as simple as an old woman sitting by a fire, but something takes you back to that image over and over.

If you need an example, my favorite poem by Milton is "Methought I Saw My Late Espoused Saint." I suddenly realized after years and years of reading Milton that everything of Milton's was in that poem. His blindness, the wife he never saw, the paradise lost, his whole idea about what is really pure and what is ritually pure and whether they're the same. Almost anything you can think of with Milton is in that poem.

JA: You have achieved a definite prominence as a poet, being the recipient of numerous awards and prizes. Also, you recently served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. I'm wondering, what were some of the things you were able to do in that position to help further the impact of poetry?

WM: I think I'm very bad at all those public things, and I was always very surprised whenever anyone wanted me to do them. I did them largely as a duty. I really have no ambition in that direction; I never did, and I don't particularly like all of the things that are involved. Sitting around a table discussing policies, all those sorts of things, they don't come naturally for me. I don't think I'm doing any of those things any more. The one reason I welcomed these responsibilities was not that I wanted that kind of role or anything like that, but because it seemed important to occasionally be able to bring recognition or even grants of money to people who really deserved these things. It is satisfying to be in a position to be able to do that, which I have not been able to do very often, but a little bit, from time to time. And I think that's the real value of that for me.

JA: You mentioned before that you are getting ready to do a few readings in various places. I'm wondering, do you have to find some balance between your public appearances and, I assume, a need for privacy?

WM: Well, maybe once or twice a year I do a group of readings, usually a small number of them. This spring there are five readings. The biggest circuit I've ever done is about ten readings, and then I didn't do any for quite a while. I think, for me, if I did more than that, I would feel sort of phony, as if I was repeating myself. I don't feel comfortable with that. Usually I don't really plan a reading. If I'm reading for something like Poets Against the War, then I will plan carefully to make sure there is a connection to the event of the moment, but generally I don't really plan. I want the reading to be spontaneous, something that arises out of the feeling of connection with an audience. I've a horror of performance, of performing the poems. When I read, I try to read the way the poems sound. I try to hear the poems, to read them that way. If I read poems and they seem to get through to people, there is a wonderful sense of confirmation, a sense of being linked with people.

JA: What are you working on now? And, more generally, what are some of the themes with which you are currently concerned? What sorts of issues, experiences, feelings are you addressing now that you might not have addressed in the past?

WM: I can't give you a very precise and specific answer to that question because things change from day to day. But one of the things that I've come to realize through my life is that what we write about is nostalgia. As writers, what we have is memory. We're always writing about the past. We're never writing about the present. We may think we're writing about the present, but we only recognize the present because of the past. Language comes out of the past. The past is always with us, and it's partly memory and partly what we make of it. And what you remember is not what happened, it's something that's already changed. Changed in your mind. And then when you are writing, you take what you remember and what you recognize and you invent something else out of it.

Death is the end of memory. And that's what is terrifying, the idea that your memory suddenly stops. But we come to the present with our memory. That's who we are, that's what we recognize. And every day what we remember is different. What I bring to what I write is different every day. I don't know how to talk about that in some generic way; the only way to talk about it specifically is by writing. Balzac said, "A painter should never think about painting except when he has a brush in his hand." That's absolutely wonderful. I've picked up things like that throughout my life that have meant a great deal to me. Sometimes it is marvelous to be working in the garden, apparently not thinking about anything, and then all of a sudden a phrase will come to me. And if I'd been thinking about it, it wouldn't have happened.

It brings us back to the old discussions of spontaneity versus deliberate practice, intuition versus knowledge, and so on, as though there were a choice: one or the other. You need every bit possible of both, obviously. You need every bit of skill or practice or knowledge or linguistic learning and hearing you can acquire. But a poem always comes out of what you don't know. That's where it begins. That's where the sound of it comes from.

 

In The Pedestal Magazine (April-June 2003)

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Title A W. S. Merwin Interview with John Amen Type of Content Interview
Criticism Author John Amen Criticism Target W. S. Merwin
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 13 Jul 2014
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