Inscape: Much of your poetry concerns itself with not knowing and with listening to the unknowable. How does a poet cultivate that ability to listen?
W. S. Merwin: We must want to listen. In reality, we already know how to listen. Children know how to listen—it’s an ability that we are all born with. Before we can speak we can listen, listening comes before speaking and even before seeing. This is something that we share with the animal world. The animal world is very good at listening.
The things that stand in opposition to listening are social assumptions, by which I mean the assumptions or expectations of the culture. For example, I have always been very suspicious of the digital world. I think the digital world is deaf—there is no sound there. There is no sound in texting or Twitter or computers. You know, I think there is a lot of talent in the younger poets, but there is no voice. When I read younger poets I always ask, “Where is the voice?” This lack of individual voice, I think, comes from spending too much time with computers and electronics in general. If you spend too much time with computers, then you hinder your ability to connect with the sounds of the natural world. Think of what poetry is trying to accomplish. Technology is so different, so contrary to purposes of poetry and poetic language. I would suggest that younger poets spend less time with electronics.
You ask about not knowing. 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. This is the basic difference between poetry and prose. These are not the same even though they use the same words. Prose is about information, and it is relatively recent. It’s very practical and we need it and we use it and it has value in our life, but when you read poetry it’s not just information, it’s something else. Poetry begins at the same origin of language—an attempt to say something that cannot be expressed. 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. Why do birds fly south in the winter? We say instinct, but we don’t really know what that means. When you ride a bicycle, you don’t think about riding a bicycle, you just ride. You don’t know how to ride. You just do it. If you start to think about it too much, you’ll fall off. The unknowable is not some strange dimension or knowledge of the afterlife; it is something we all have carried with us since birth, something that we should value as much as we value memory. This is a part of the self and we cannot avoid it, although society will never encourage us to pay attention to it. If we do not cherish this primal instinct then we will be lost in life and in poetry.
Inscape: Your poetry has evolved in form and subject matter over the years. Can you comment on this?
WSM: Well, for one thing, with age, my outlook on life has changed. And with my change in subject matter, my form has changed also. The form must match the content. Also, there are neoclassical ways of writing poetry and they should not be ignored or put down because they are quite wonderful. Read old poems out loud, read as much as you can. Each poem and each word is unique because they only occur once. And one of the great things about poetry is that is never stays the same, it is always evolving, always changing. And the poet has the authority to change the poetry, to change the form at any time. Not only can poetry change, but also should change. The poet should be tuned in to the world, to his or her surroundings and environment. The poet should watch and observe everything and not let a moment pass by wasted. If a poet is paying attention to the world, to language, and to that innate sense of the unknown, then he or she will be able to evolve with time.