An Interview with W. S. Merwin, Poet Laureate

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?

Q: Any advice?

Merwin: Yes, one important thing: Read for pleasure. Read junk. Read every kind of book. But read for pleasure. The reason the Puritans wanted to stamp out poetry was because it gave pleasure. It’s about things you love, things that you care about. Sir Philip Sidney, in the generation before Shakespeare, said, “Poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” And it will never end in wisdom if it doesn’t begin in delight and continue in delight. When you read a poem and you think, “God, that is so beautiful, I don’t want to forget that,” and you go on saying it to yourself because you love it, that’s pleasure. That is real pleasure.

This is but an excerpt from Merwin's interview in the November issue of The Progressive. To read the entire interview and to subscribe to The Progressive for only $14.97 for a year, simply subscribe now by clicking here.