Q&A: W.S. Merwin

W.S. Merwin’s friendship with late Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz began in the 1960s when Merwin first introduced Milosz and fellow Pole Zbigniew Herbert to an audience at a poetry event in New York City. That early meeting was the start of a relationship that flourished over nearly 40 years. Merwin visited Southern California earlier this month to attend the Milosz Centenary Festival at Claremont McKenna College. Over the years, this festival — organized by the Family of Benjamin Z. Gould Center for Humanistic Studies and its director, professor Robert Faggen, a friend of Milosz’s — has brought an array of distinguished writers to campus to discuss the legacy of the poet, who died in 2004. Past participants have included Seamus Heaney and Robert Hass; this year’s guests included Robert Pinsky, C.K. Williams, Afar Nafisi, Adam Michnik, Meghan O’Rourke and many others, including Merwin.

It was immediately clear, in speaking to the 84-year-old Merwin before his festival address, that the poet has no intention of slowing down. His eyes glimmer as he recalls visiting Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital after World War II, or when he expresses his concern over poetry’s place in a world that’s becoming increasingly wired. Do poets retire?

“I hope not,” says the former U.S. laureate, smiling. “I’d just like to spend a little more time working in the garden.”

Why were Milosz and Herbert in New York City? What was the occasion?

The anthology “Postwar Polish Poetry” [edited by Milosz] had just been published [in 1965] and was a very important book. I had introduced a number of remarkable poets that season, and I felt deeply indebted to Czeslaw for “Postwar Polish Poetry,” which was a revelation to me.


How did your friendship start?

Czeslaw was older, and I didn’t pursue a friendship with him, but he did. He was the one who initiated it, and I was honored and happy because I loved his company. He came to see me a few years later in France, and we spent time together in the area that my book “The Mays of Ventadorn” describes. Over the years, we kept meeting up in different places. He came to see my wife and I on Maui, and we met from time to time in Berkeley when he lived there.

You mention “The Mays of Ventadorn,” which describes your immersion in French troubadour poetry. That never would have happened if Pound hadn’t told you to go to the South of France — did he function as a mentor to you?

Well, on that occasion he did. He used to send me postcards, little postcards written in pencil, most of which seem to have been lost. You know, when you move, you lose things. One I remember completely said: “Read seeds, not twigs. E.P.” But the thing about Pound was … his politics were terrible. I didn’t know what they were at the time, which was fortunate, or I don’t think I would have gone to see him.

Though Milosz is gone, can he still function as a mentor to other poets?

Oh, I think so, and I think every poet can do that. I still find myself reciting for pleasure, as I have ever since I was 18, [Yeats’] “Sailing to Byzantium” and hearing something in one of the lines that I didn’t hear before. You go on learning. What a great poem teaches you, and it’s not intellectual at all, is the resonance in the language that’s heard there. This goes back to the very origins of poetry and to the very origins of language. I think poetry is as old as language, and both come out of the same thing — an effort to try to express something that is inexpressible. If something can’t be said, what do you do? You scream. You make some terrible noise of pain or anguish or anger or something like that. You make a sound, an animal-like sound which, with time and society trying to calm you down, begins to take shape into something.

Is there still a place for this kind of primal expression in our wired-up culture?

I wonder, and I think one of the problems about so-called virtual reality — which is not even virtual and it’s certainly not reality either — is that homo faber [“man the creator”] is a creature who has made things that substitute for him doing them himself. These things may do them more conveniently, but they always atrophy his abilities to do them at all.

I’d guess that you probably don’t tweet.

No, and I don’t use email either.

But isn’t technology supposed to be helpful?

Yes, but convenience seems to be the answer to why we do everything now. I can’t believe it. That reminds me of something Czeslaw once said not to me but to [Milosz’s wife] Carol. They were coming to stay with us on Maui, and our home isn’t easy to find. It’s a little remote, and you can’t see it from the road. Czeslaw told Carol, ‘Wherever we go to see William, I know one thing. It’s always going to be a little hard to get there, and there won’t be many other places around it.’ It’s true. All of the places I’ve ever loved in my life have been inconvenient, and that has been part of the beauty too, you know.

It’s the same with poetry. What about the student who asks, ‘Why do we need to memorize a poem when we can find it on the Internet?’ In other words, why should I have this experience when I can allow the computer to have it for me? That is one of the things that still makes me deeply suspicious.