It’s said that Gertrude Stein wrote every morning from four in the morning until ten. I, myself, am not a poet of will. There are definite benefits in scheduled writing, in spending time everyday with poetry. But certain kinds of irregularity are good for a poet, for a person. I think there is value in spontaneity, in opening your mind to new environments, atmospheres, and times of day. Also, I think that one learns to tolerate silences. I think that if a poem is not happening, it’s just not happening. The world doesn’t need new poems in general. I believe that poems can be ferociously beautiful objects, and I would love to write lots of them, but I do not have the privilege of legislating when they will happen.
A professor of mine said something that I really liked. He said, “every line begins in a place of certainty, and ends in one of uncertainty.” When you break a line and then return to the beginning of the next line, you want that sense of stepping out into the unknown, and then the sense of surprise when you’ve arrived at some place you didn’t quite expect. I think that’s a key part—to always do that stitching back and forth.
If I had to break down Tibetan Buddhism it would be, “we’re all gonna die, so let’s be kind to each other.” That just seems like a really wonderful philosophy. But then when you really think about it, we don’t really get that, and we do everything we can not to confront it, especially in this culture—plastic surgery, staying young forever, all of that. It’s all death-denial stuff. So indigenous cultures and non-American cultures still seem a little closer to that natural disposal process.
Get out of your room. You know, not to be rude, but get your butt out of your room and seize it. There are unbelievable people. There are geniuses, people with brilliance all around, young, and old. There’s concerts, films, plays. The opportunity for epiphany and awakening and laughter are unbelievably prevalent on a college campus.
I love the sensory apparatus of writing. Even typing is a beautiful cadence of music to me—you know when you are really banging away, when you are really into it. There is a cool sound to it. I can still hear my father typing away furiously. Bang! And he would hit the return—the typewriter return. There was a sort of music to it. If I were a musician, I would try to write something like a choral, write a piece that was based on that.
Creative impulse is not something that you could speak about in terms of responsibility because you can’t say that you have to be responsibly creative because you’re talking about something that just occurs. You know, you can’t design creativity. But the exercise itself, that’s where you can begin to consider the creation of the work and its distribution.
I am convinced that poetry existed even before language. Take, for example, seeing a picture in the New York Times of an Iraqi woman who is standing with her mouth open over her dead husband’s body. What is she doing? You know what she is doing. She is standing with her mouth wide open, and you know what is coming out of it. It is a long, unintelligible cry of pain and grief. It is something inexpressible. Strong feelings cannot be expressed. And yet you know what it is. You don’t know how you know it, but you do.
Two weeks after the world trade centers were destroyed, the bookstores could not keep poetry stocked on the shelves. That was the only thing people wanted to read. People didn’t know why they wanted to read poetry. Why was that? Because poetry was attempting to say something that could not be said, and people understood it. That is what I mean by “the unknowable.” This is why we must learn to listen. When we scream out of pain or joy, we don’t know what we are doing. We don’t really understand why we do certain things. We just do them.
—W. S. Merwin