The program was recorded in September 2010 at the Library of Congress. William Stanley Merwin's honors include Pulitzer Prizes ,the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, the Tanning Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Wallace Stevens Award, the Pen Translation Prize, the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, the Governor's Award for Literature of the State of Hawaii, the Guggenheim, the Ford Foundation; Fellowships from the American Academy of Poets, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the former chancellorship of the Academy of American Poets, among numerous other awards.
W.S. Merwin is one of the most beloved and respected poets in American history. He's our seventeenth Poet Laureate of the United States, and on behalf of all, I want to say welcome. Here's an opening poem from his new book, The Shadow of Sirius.
Here's a poem called Worn Words
The late poems are the ones
I turn to first now
following a hope that keeps
waiting somewhere in the lines
almost in plain sight
it is the late poems
that are made of words
that have come the whole way
they have been there
GC: And those words have done very well for you, I think. You are known to capture thoughts beyond words. I'd like to talk a little bit about translation, which is a big interest of yours. Would you tell us the value there is in transporting ideas and thoughts from one culture to another, and opening up those secret vocabularies? What's the significance in that?
Everyone is quite always happy to remind us that translation of poetry in particular is impossible. It's not because it's possible that we do it; it's because we have to do it. It's a necessity. And that's perfect, because, actually, speech is impossible. If you go by the laws of mathematics, a bee's flight is impossible. But the bee doesn't read the book, and goes right on flying. And we know that speech is impossible. I can tell you "thank you," it doesn't mean anything, but it's the only way we can say "thank you." And so we try to do that with words. I believe language began to express what there were no means of doing with gestures. And I think that poetry began when language began for that same reason. I think poetry is about expressing what cannot be expressed.
GC: What do you think our audience heard last night at your inauguration. I have never seen a hall filled with people that were so in love with the poet on the podium. Did you feel that love?
I felt great fixed attention. It was absolutely wonderful. And we were all in it. I felt part of it.
GC: You said your focus will be on translation as Poet Laureate. I'm reminded you made you're living as a translator right out of Princeton, and you're a renowned translator now of course. I counted thirty books of translations of yours, in addition to thirty books of poetry and prose
I never counted—
GC: What do you think about your poetry on radio?
Why you know, for some years, I made a living in London - well most people wouldn't think of it as a living; it was about fifteen hundred dollars a year - but I managed to live on it...translating and arranging programs for the BBC. So I worked with people on radio. This was sound-radio, it was not television or anything like that. It was all done with sound. And it was, I think, very, very instructive and helpful to me. And of course it kept me alive as a poet, scratching a living.
GC: Radio is made for poetry.
W.S.: And you know, the Home Service, and above all the Third Programme, commissioned and still has available on tape, the most wonderful radio plays. I mean that form that ceased to exist when radio went out. I mean the best known example is Dylan Thomas' Under Milkwood commissioned by the BBC Third Programme.
GC: Tell us about your poem called Learning A Dead Language.
W.S.: With dead languages we are always trying to figure out what we were doing; or what we thought we were doing. I think that when we find that we have an activity that we're deeply engaged in, it keeps pumping us with questions as to what on earth we think we're doing, and if we're on the right track. And, you know, because of that poem that you asked me to begin with, I thought maybe I would read a translation which is a recent one that's in the Shadow series. It's a tiny poem, a six line poem. It was part of the elegies in the middle of that book that I was writing, and is a little poem ascribed to the emperor Hadrian. And the thing that I find startling about that, always, is that anyone could have written no other poem in his life but this poem, and written a poem as perfect as this one is. And we know nothing else about it. We don't know who it's addressed to; we don't know what the circumstances are or when it was written, or anything like that. And I've known it since I was a student in Latin, I could read it, and I read all the translations, and I kept thinking there's something about the tone of it that they're missing. And I never then thought of translating it myself. I didn't think it was translatable, probably. And one day I was working in the garden, and all of a sudden this poem came up in my mind just the way it is, in English, and I thought, if it were to be in English, then that's the way I would like to have it. And I called a friend when I'd written it down, and said what I'd done, and he said, "Read it to me over the telephone," and I did, and he said, "It's absolutely literal." He said, "That's exactly what the poem says." So anyway, let me read. Whether that's true or not, I can't say. That was the intention. It's a little six lines, very short poem. And here it is.
Little soul little stray
now where will you stay
all pale and all alone
after the way
you used to make fun of things
GC: About dead languages. Someone attributed a remark to you, I don't know if it's true, he said that he asked you why study dead languages,and you said, "So we can speak to the dead." That is a beautiful thing. It's the only record we have, right?
W.S.: Yes, it's true, and I think; there's a friend of mine out at Stanford, Robert Pogue Harrison who wrote an incredible book called The Dominion of the Dead , so you think, well it's a very rather obvious subject that he's written. And then you look at it and you think, oh, it's an enormous subject, an endless subject. He writes of forests also; the impact of forests; the image of the forest on western civilization. And it goes from Gilgamesh to Beckett. And this one is the role of the dead in our living life, and of course we don't think about that. But we are always connected to, and speaking to, and being spoken to, by the dead. We didn't invent this language. This language was evolved for centuries before we came to speak it. With manners, the way we dress, the way we do everything; we're thinking of the dead watching us, and we're having a conversation with them all the time. We're unaware of doing it. But that is the origins of all things. And this situation is basically what and who we are.
GC: Because there's a very thin line between there and here, and in your work, you create the hologram of the past and the present, and all the records of humankind.
W.S.: Well, that's a wonderful description that you've just made, and a very happy one.
And I hope that - I know that that's part of it but there's a great deal of it that I don't know, you see.
GC: I have a poem here that I picked out from The Lice, 1967, thirty five years ago. Because you wrote this poem about the winter of your thirty-eighth year. And next year you can switch those numbers around, right? To eighty-three?
W.S.: This year, I'm afraid.
GC: And I want to know how it stacks up. What do you think, you've discovered since then, or if you think it pretty much stands up. This is In the Winter of My Thirty Eighth Year from The Lice.
In the Winter of My Thirty-Eighth Year
It sounds unconvincing to say When I was young
Though I have long wondered what it would be like
To be me now
No older at all it seems from here
As far from myself as ever
Walking in fog and rain and seeing nothing
I imagine all the clocks have died in the night
Now no one is looking I could choose my age
It would be younger I suppose so I am older
It is there at hand I could take it
Except for the things I think I would do differently
They keep coming between they are what I am
They have taught me little I did not know when I was young
There is nothing wrong with my age now probably
It is how I have come to it
Like a thing I kept putting off as I did my youth
There is nothing the matter with speech
Just because it lent itself
To my uses
Of course there is nothing the matter with the stars
It is my emptiness among them
While they drift farther away in the invisible morning
GC: It's all there, isn't it? Thirty five years ago.
W.S.: And you were asking about what the relation is between now and then. I don't go reading back over my own poems, and gritting my teeth or patting myself on the back, or anything like that. I don't do it.
GC: You might even forget that you've written them.
W.S.: I do. And then when I find out, I think, oh! But you know I couldn't have written everything that came afterward if I hadn't written that. And I couldn't have written that probably a month earlier. I think the reason one has to listen very carefully is because you have to listen to hear what you can write at that time, at that moment. And you don't think about it, you listen for it. Too much thinking very often kills things. It's a rare poet who can think in that particular way. I mean, Stevens could do it quite a lot of the time; Dante could do it quite a lot of the time. But there are a lot of poets who can't do it very well. I mean, it's not that they're dumb, but it's using the mind in a different way for transcribing something; for putting something down; for using the structure of language, once it begins to move. But the language has to move by itself.
GC: But there's the discovery. The discovery of yourself over and over; I thought this was quite brilliantly achieved very young, when I hear that poem. And when you make attributions today to the things you love. And I say - what things does William Stanley Merwin love? And then I think, oh! Just read what he writes. He writes about what he loves. And it stands up. Speaking of discovery, you said last night that all poetry is coming home.
W.S.: Lichtenstein - I don't know that I have the quotation exactly right - but he said that all poets who remain poets. .. people who write a little poetry when they're adolescent or something like that, that may not count— but if you stay, if it really stays with you, it becomes part of your life, That's what you really are going to be devoted to.
GC: It occurred to me that, that means coming home to yourself.
W.S.: It probably does. That's probably one part of it.
GC: When I ask myself why do tides of people respond to your poetry - and God knows it's a very hermetic field isn't it, when you look at the whole world. .. But everyone who knows poetry responds as one to your poetry. And so, it is the self-discovery that gives everyone the comfort. You know, "he can get there, I can get there." You make this explicit in your poetry - I was thinking of a particular poem, Odysseus, which is really about going out and coming home. And so I thought I'd like to hear that, and weigh that against what you've been saying. This is from an older book, and I have it marked for you. And I wonder do you like that poem?
Who is it dedicated to?
W.S.: George Kirstein. George was a kind of surrogate father of mine. We met when I was just about in my late twenties, and we sailed together on the coast. He owned The Nation magazine, and I was the poetry editor there for a while, and we remained very good friends. He treated me like a son. It was wonderful. And we remained on those terms, although we were very often geographically separated by great distances, until he died, and he was a wonderful man. Sailing was a passion of his. He wrote his doctoral dissertation at Harvard, on Hardy. He'd always read poetry. He liked the sea poems that I'd written.
GC: Well, you have had a lifetime of very good friends reading your prose and memoirs. Since every poet has written an Odysseus poem.
W.S.: I think so.
GC: I think that this one ranks very high. Everyone writes one, right? Brodsky comes to mind. But this is quite simple and quite pure. And that's why I wanted to hear that.
Always the setting forth was the same,
Same sea, same dangers waiting for him
As though he had got nowhere but older.
Behind him on the receding shore
The identical reproaches, and somewhere
Out before him, the unravelling patience
He was wedded to.3÷4 There were the islands
Each with its woman and twining welcome
To be navigated, and one to call ``home.''
The knowledge of all that he betrayed
Grew till it was the same whether he stayed
Or went.3÷4 Therefore he went.3÷4 And what wonder
If sometimes he could not remember
Which was the one who wished on his departure
Perils that he could never sail through,
And which, improbable, remote, and true,
Was the one he kept sailing home to?
GC: That is so clear, and so well done. We will return to The Shadow of Sirius. But I want to talk about prose. Some people like your prose as much as your poetry.
W.S.: I'm glad to hear it.
GC: For example Summer Doorways. The detail of your prose -the sights, the sounds, the taste - I want to know, did you have a journal with you for everything you saw, tasted, felt, smelled?
W.S.: Well, the period that the Summer Doorways is about, no, I didn't have any journal at all.
GC: Was it a recollection afterwards? It can't be.
W.S.: Well, that's what it is.
GC: You mean you experienced the whole summer, and then you sat down and wrote what you remembered.
W.S.: Well you know, I have a very strange memory, for which I'm grateful. It's extremely good about many things. And it's utterly, deplorably bad about many others. I mean the things that I'm supposed to have remembered and don't, and the things that happened in my day-to-day life, and you ask me about them the next day, and I've totally forgotten them. This has always been so. And there are so many things that... and it happens in language too. I can remember whole things of poetry, and information about history and stories that people have told me, and there are other things that I'm supposed to remember, and I can't for the life of me remember them.
GC: I read the book twice, because there are places that I'm never going to get to. And I just reveled in your trip to Portugal. And what I liked about the fact, then, you had just graduated from the university, Princeton; you were tutoring in Spanish and French, you were fluent in those languages, and yet you embarked upon Portuguese with timidity, which I thought was very interesting. The way you felt so fragile and vulnerable, approaching the other people in the country, and how scary it was. And that was really interesting to me, that we all are the same. We all feel like two year olds with a foreign language, right? And yet you did master that.
W.S.: Well, master? I don't know whether I mastered it. But I became familiar with it, and came to love it, and was desolate when we moved from the country up in the mountains, and went down to near Lisbon, to the resort outside Estoril. I got to know Lisbon a bit, and I like Lisbon very much. But it was much too fast. I mean it was only from the beginning of one autumn to the end of the following spring. It was just one long autumn, winter and spring there. And I went there with no spoken Portuguese, really, and I learned whatever I could in that time.
GC: Were you twenty one? Twenty three?
W.S.: Was I? I can't remember. Something like that. It was one of many things that I realized I was incredibly lucky about. I came to something that was totally strange to me. The world of peasants - the country, rural world, the peasant villages of northern Portugal, but you know that was many things which I saw, and I didn't realize then that I was seeing something that was just on the verge of vanishing. It wasn't just that I wasn't going to come back and see it again, it was that if I'd come back , I would have seen something totally different.
GC: I thought I got that sense. I thought there was something vulnerable about the whole experience. But you did go to a dance on a Saturday night, and kick up your heels!
W.S.: Oh, those wonderful dances up in the mountains! And the one where we were followed by wolves.
GC: If there really was a wolf, You said they could have been teasing you.
W.S.: They could have been teasing me.
GC: I actually would like everyone to read that book. It is totally different from anyone's memoir you'll read. Memoir is quite the hot thing now, you know.
W.S.: It is, isn't it?
GC: But this is quite different. It is historicity, it's going into another culture, and it is sensual with t smells and colors. I cannot believe that you could recall those. Now, I have here your book of fables, . This is wild, this book. I'm telling you, this is wild! It is dream, parable, story; everything you can imagine that one person can think, you found a form for it. And it gave me a sense of permission that we could all just find a form for everything we thought.
W.S.: Well, that's good.
GC: This particular one I want to talk about is Memories, one of my favorites in here.
W.S.: You know, what you just said, Grace, is something that was part of the original intention. I wanted to do something which obliterated the whole idea of genre, because it got to be sort of convenient, and it got to be like a cookie cutter after a while. I thought I wanted something so somebody would say, well, "I guess that's an essay." And then the next thing that they read, "Well, that's not an essay. What is that?" "Oh, that's a parable," and the next thing, "What's that? Well I don't know!" So that you're wondering, and then you give up, I think, and then well, you just read it for what it is. And to destroy the idea of these generic lines around things.
GC: I tell you, I thought of Italo Calvino when I opened it up. You really went beyond him. I said, whoa! That's all I could say. Because you did things you've never done before in this book. Memory is one of the more sedate ones. We can tell where you begin and where you end. But I would think if anyone wanted to take a ride without a seatbelt on, they should read this book.
The last line is a killer line 'Blind folded deities; memory is a blindfolded deity.
W.S.: You are a wonderful reader.
GC: We want to talk about Chinese poetry because, when that came out I looked up who this guy was, and found out he had a day job. He was the court librarian. So that I thought, you know, we think of Chinese poets hanging around waiting for the moon to be reflected in their cups. But he was a working poet, wasn't he? And then he was exiled.
W.S.: Po ChÈ-i.
GC: Yes. I did a radio commentary on your poem, because to me it is the perfect example of a spiritual activist poem. And I would like you to talk about Po ChÈ-i, and read this to us, please.
W.S.: You know, Po ChÈ-i was a very great poet, and there were many parts to his life. One thinks of the Tang Xuanzong dynasty as the golden age of Chinese poetry, and indeed it was. And it was when Chinese poetry and painting, and Ch'an Buddhism, which became Zen in Japan, were all brought together. And of course Ch'an was a mixture of Chinese Taoism and Maheda Buddhism coming together, and making something completely new. And these all happened at the same time. And the poets, many of the great poets were also painters. And many of them were also they were all involved with either Taoism as Du Fu was, or with Ch'an as most of the others were. And it was part of their lives. So that's something to remember. But the other side of it is, one thinks, "Oh, the Golden Age. What a wonderful time." Well, it was appalling; absolutely appalling. The government was brutal and arrogant, and incredibly cruel, and the Luchan Rebellion in the middle of it. At the end of it, thirty million people had either been displaced or killed. And Po ChÈ-i, there's a great poem of his. You talk about the moon. He has a poem called "Asking the Moon and the Mountains. " He's escaped the Lushan Rebellion, and he looks up at the moon when he's in the mountains, and he says, "Ah, there you are. You're the same moon that ran with me when I was trying to get out of those streets, and here you are in the mountains. And if ever I manage to get home again, you will welcome me like my family." It's just a glorious poem.
GC: I read he was exiled because he was protesting one of the warring factions.
W.S.: Yes, a change in roles. But it was so, kind of capricious, these decisions. All of them got these posts, and then they got exiled. Du Fu spent a good bit of his life in exile, you know. They were just sent all over the place. Sometimes they'd get to a place, and just arrive there to find out that they were exiled to somewhere else. It was not only cruel, and destructive and wasteful, but it was stupid. Of course it was better than killing them, which would have been the alternative. But let me read this. This is Po ChÈ-I fairly late in his life.
A Message to Po Chu-I
In that tenth winter of your exile
the cold never letting go of you
and your hunger aching inside you
day and night while you heard the voices
out of the starving mouths around you
old ones and infants and animals
those curtains of bones swaying on stilts
and you heard the faint cries of the birds
searching in the frozen mud for something
to swallow and you watched the migrants
trapped in the cold the great geese growing
weaker by the day until their wings
could barely lift them above the ground
so that a gang of boys could catch one
in a net and drag him to market
to be cooked and it was then that you
saw him in his own exile and you
paid for him and kept him until he
could fly again and you let him go
but then where could he go in the world
of your time with its wars everywhere
and the soldiers hungry the fires lit
the knives out twelve hundred years ago—
I have been wanting to let you know
the goose is well he is here with me
you would recognize the old migrant
he has been with me for a long time
and is in no hurry to leave here
the wars are bigger now than ever
greed has reached numbers that you would not
believe and I will not tell you what
is done to geese before they kill them
now we are melting the very poles
of the earth but I have never known
where he would go after he leaves me
GC: When you say, "I have him here with me now," he is here with me now, it's enough to break the heart. Afghanistan, Iraq, Mozambique, Palestine; hear this poem. This is a global poem, isn't it? A prayer, and hope, still somewhere- hope?
W.S.: It has to be. It's us.
GC: It has to be. And as you said last night, it's our imagination that is bigger than greed and conflict.
GC: It has to be. I want to go back to Sirius because it has been called your culmination. It has been said, the very best of all Merwin. It won the Pulitzer, your second Pulitzer. And it has, I guess, received; well the Pulitzer Prize committee said, "A collection of luminous, often tender poems that focus on the profound power of memory."
W.S.: Listen, leave it to you.
GC: I love A Single Autumn, because you have in the past written about your grandparents in other books; your parents. You write about your relatives quite a bit. And this is, however, a different approach; a different slant.
W.S.: A Single Autumn
The year my parents died
one that summer one that fall
three months and three days apart
I moved into the house
where they had lived their last years
it had never been theirs
and was still theirs in that way
for a while
echoes in every room
without a sound
all the things that we
had never been able to say
I could not remember
in a china cabinet
plates stacked on shelves
lace on drop-leaf tables
a dried branch of bittersweet
before a hall mirror
were all planning to wait
the glass doors of the house
the days had turned cold
and out in the tall hickories
the blaze of autumn had begun
on its own
I could do anything
GC: I am there. When you read that poem, I am right there with you. And what I really like is--well you know how complicated this business of having parents is?
W.S.: Oh, yes.
GC: That how much we have to overcome, and how much we love them. That's all there. That last line about ambivalence and freedom, that is a very complicated last line.
I just can't imagine how that came to you.
W.S.: Well, you know I'm older now than either of my parents were when they died, which is a strange thing to arrive at. And I realize how different they were. I think I understand more about them all the time, and I accept them more completely.
GC: That comes through.
W.S.: My father had a lot of limitations, and there was a lot of anger in me for a long time. And then I forgave him for the whole thing. And my mother was very, very important to me. And it's okay, you know, and they're okay, and I look back to them, and to my mother was an orphan, and my father never had a real family. And I think about their childhoods, and their past, and where they were coming from, and what they were learning. It's funny that the older one gets, the more one seems to grasp about one's parents. A funny thing happened, Grace, and this is important to me. I say in that poem that my mother had just died when I came home, and I went straight out and moved into the house, which a lot of people said was a terrible thing to do. And I stayed there, and I gave my sister, we just divided everything completely. And I said, "You know, you have children, and they will have households, so you take all the furniture, and all of the kitchen things, and everything that's useful in the house, and I will take the papers; whatever papers there are; whatever notebooks and things like that if that's okay, and we agreed that that was fair. And my sister's free to look at them if she ever wants to, but I keep them. It's always worked out. And the last day there, they had come with a moving van and taken the furniture, and the house was completely bare. Empty. And I had put the last papers and plants from the garden and things like that in my VW bus, and was going to head back for New York. And an hour before I went, I went into the bedroom, totally empty bedroom, their bedroom, and just sat on the floor for about an hour. And it suddenly came to me that I had had exactly the parents I needed. And I just left the house feeling very grateful.
GC: That is why there is no discord in your poetry. I'm always analyzing why people love what they do, and I asked you, why do they find such comfort in reading your poetry? It's because there is that lack of discord; that you have settled. It's not as if there hasn't been tumult but...
W.S.: Oh, there's a lot of discord—
GC: It's the calm after tumult. Well, I think there is serenity though, beyond that. It's like satisfied discord. But wait, we can't go too far without talking about Paula and your poem to her.
GC: Okay. So that would bring us to your life in Hawaii. Would you describe it a little bit to us,
W.S.: We live on Maui, and we live on the north coast of Maui, on the road out - I mean on the way out to Hana. We're not on the road. We're way down below the road on the way to the sea cliffs.
GC: What kind of a house do you have?
W.S.: Well, I designed it. It's on a slope, in a valley, and the one end is at ground level, and the other of course is propped up so that it's in the treetops. We don't see any other houses where we are. All we see is trees around us. I've always wanted to be surrounded by trees.
GC: Is it all open?
W.S.: It is, yes.
GC: And Hawaii-like?
W.S.: Yeah. There's very little wall space because it's mostly sliding glass doors. Screened sliding doors.
GC: I've got a scoop on radio. I'm the first person who's ever found out what kind of sliding doors you had. I think I'm pretty good. This is 'To Paula in Late Spring,' and I would like you to talk about partnership please.
W.S.: And this is about the old house in France, you know, and the garden there.
To Paula in Late Spring
Let me imagine that we will come again
when we want to and it will be spring
we will be no older than we ever were
the worn griefs will have eased like the early cloud
through which the morning slowly comes to itself
and the ancient defenses against the dead
will be done with and left to the dead at last
the light will be as it is now in the garden
that we have made here these years together
of our long evenings and astonishment
GC: Does partnership make us better than we are?
W.S.: Who knows. It makes you what you are. I've been married and I was never going to do that again. But then I met Paula.
GC: Well, she has to weed gardens with you. You have to have someone help weed your gardens. That's one form of partnership.
W.S.: She loves to weed.
GC: And plant.
W.S.: And I inherited two wonderful young sons, stepsons, one of whom is a very, very good novelist, John Burnham Schwartz. And the other is Matt Schwartz, who is very important in affordable housing in the state of California. And they're among my dearest friends, the two of them.
GC: Well, when we hear about William Stanley Merwin and Paula Merwin, we think of you as a team, which is very interesting I think, even if we've never met your wife. But you're well known as a team. And I think that we have this image of you doing your ecology work together in Hawaii. And that's the image that we have of the Merwins at home.
W.S.: We love it, and we love our life. We feel incredibly lucky. But it's not a life that would appeal to many people. A lot of people would find it very primitive. Somebody came and said, well it's kind of like camping out, isn't it?
GC: I would like to go back to Sirius, because I like your bird poems. You know, you and I have one thing in common. I am passionate about crows.
W.S.: Crows! I love crows.
GC: And you said that that moment of revelation, when you saw crows, and you had tears in your eyes because of what it meant to you. What did that mean to you?
W.S.: Well, I don't know. I must have been nine years old, and we went up to a lake on Elk Mountain in northeastern Pennsylvania, in a truck we were going up for a couple of months that summer to this tiny, I think very cheap cottage with a leaking roof in the woods, which I simply loved. And as the truck bumped over the track coming in from the barbed wire fence along the dirt road, we came in through the tall woods, and the crows were calling in the trees. And the voices of the crows just sort of went through my chest in some way, and I felt the tears running down my face.
GC: Well, do you know they are the most intelligent of all the species?
W.S.: Oh yes.
GC: They tell stories. They talk about us behind our backs.
W.S.: Oh yes.
GC: They describe how they are treated to their kin. I am in love with crows.
W.S.: Oh, me too. But the whole corvine family, you know, they are very smart. They're very bad characters. On Maui we have mina birds who are related to the starlings that you have around here. And they are very smart too.
GC: You have a couple of beautiful poems here. Actually we could just open this book and see any page, but I like Falling. It mentions birds.
W.S.: You know, living on Maui, I suppose we have an attitude where we are, because we love our gardens and we love planting. I love planting trees all the time. And we love the rain. So when it rains, I wake up and listen to the rain. I love the rain. We love it very much. And so, sometimes it rains, you can't believe how hard it rains.
Long before daybreak
none of the birds yet awake
rain comes down with the sound
of a huge wind rushing
through the valley trees
it comes down around us
all at the same time
and beyond it there is nothing
it falls without hearing itself
there is anyone here
without seeing where it is
or where it is going
like a moment of great
happiness of our own
that we cannot remember
coasting with the lights off
GC: And let's go to another one. You know, I like the way you just obey.
W.S.: Don't count on it!
GC: Let's do The Laughing Thrush. That's a favorite.
W.S.: Alright. Like all of the great true thrushes, it's an incredible singer. And often the first bird to wake is the dove. But sometimes it's the thrush.
The Laughing Thrush
O nameless joy of the morning
tumbling upward note by note out of the night
and the hush of the dark valley
and out of whatever has not been there
song unquestioning and unbounded
yes this is the place and the one time
in the whole of before and after
with all of memory waking into it
and the lost visages that hover
around the edge of sleep
constant and clear
and the words that lately have fallen silent
to surface among the phrases of some future
if there is a future
here is where they all sing the first daylight
whether or not there is anyone listening
GC: Yes. Before we go to a final poem, I want to know, are you connected to the electronic world?
GC: Plugged in?
W.S.: You mean can I go on the internet?
W.S.: I can, by call up. It's a telephone connection.
GC: Do you want to?
W.S.: We don't get email, because we don't want to get email.I use a laptop to make copies of things. There are some letters that I put on the laptop because it's more practical, because I think people might not read my own handwriting. But generally I write everything longhand, and prefer to.
GC: Do you get mail every day?
W.S.: Oh god, do I get mail? Yes, I'm afraid I do.
GC: But I mean the mailman comes to the house?
W.S.: The mailman comes to the post office five miles away. And they also deliver up at the top of the road, but we don't use that very much.
GC: That poor mailman this year, I feel so sorry for him.
W.S.: I do too! But no, he just delivers to the post office and we pick it up. Paula goes to do some shopping and she'll stop by the post office and pick it up, and that's what we do. But then I think I'm outgrowing my guilt about it, because there's just so much mail and I can't begin. I deal with it as well as I can. I deal with half a dozen things of mail a day, and then I just say that's it, I can't do it. I can't do more than that.
GC: So, everyone who writes him, make sure you get on the top of the pile. That's my advice. And now we want a closing poem that is a request. And it's called To the Air.
W.S.: To the Air
Just when I needed you
there you were
I cannot say
how long you had been3÷4
present all at once
color of the day
as it comes to be seen
color of before
face of forgetting
color of heaven
out of sight within
myself leaving me
all the time only
to return without
could I live without you
never have you
belonged to me
never do I want
you not to be with me
you who have been
the breath of everyone
and of each word spoken
without needing to know
the meaning of any of them
or who was speaking
when you are the wind
where do you start from
when you are still
where do you go
you who became
all the names I have known
and the lives in which
they came and went
go on telling me
Grace Cavalieri is a poet and a playwright. She produces "The Poet and the Poem" now celebrating her 35th year on-air .W.S. Merwin's poems appear in3÷4Migration: New and Selected Poems3÷4(2005);3÷4Present Company3÷4(2005); and3÷4The Shadow of Sirius(2008). All poems are used by permission of W.S. Merwin and Copper Canyon Press,3÷4www.coppercanyonpress.org.