Thursday, June 02, 2005

On Being Asked by a Young Writer About Their Poetry: I Answer With

W.S. Merwin's poem "Berryman" from Opening the Hand (1983):


I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war

don't lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you're older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity

just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice

he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally

it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop

he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England

as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry

he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can't

you can't you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don't write

W. S. Merwin, Flower & Hand: Poems 1977-1983
Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, WA (1997) pp. 155-156

Can we really ever be sure that anything we write is any good?


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Collin said...

Love that Merwin poem! And I love the title of your blog..which of course reminds me of that brilliant Fonda film. Cheers!

Nick said...




Yes, the title of my blog and for that matter the poem of the same name is derived from the movie title. It is a great movie isn't it garnering 9 academy award nominations; but oddly enough not for best picture. I think that Fonda's performance almost rivals that of her performance in "Klute". It doesn't hurt that I'm a Sydney Pollack fan and that Michael Sarrazin originally hailed from Quebec. Glad you enjoyed the poem. Thanks for stopping by.


gina said...

Thanks for posting this poem. I'm coming back to visit it. After teaching a lot of Berryman this term and struggling to answer similar questions for my students, I'm grateful for Merwin for saying it right.


loveandsalt said...

No, we can never know. And Berryman's genius is right there when he says "if you have to know, don't write."
I'm loving your journal. Thanks for postng the Merwin. And thanks for your encouragement on the house. I am so happy I bought it. It's just the right house for me.
Montreal? Heavenly city. My son lives on the other side of campus than the ghetto. East? West? He's got an apartment to die for...clean, bright,
The first thing they bought was a pool table from a graduating student. Priorities?

Nick said...


Thanks for stopping by to read the poem. Where do you teach? Yes, I do believe Merwin had it right.


I'm glad that everything worked out for you and that you bought the house. Re: "The Pool Table" -Yes, I think I faintly remember having those kind of priorities myself once. :-)


gina said...

Knox College, Galesburg, IL. Tiny school, great undergrad creative writing program.


Peter said...

I love this poem. And its message is great advice for us all.

Nick said...


It's been my experience (albeit not in creative writing but in Sociology) that smaller educational faculties and their respective programs have their advantages over their larger counterparts.


Yes, it's become a mantra of sorts as of late. Thanks for "sitting for a spell".