Photo of Bill Moyers Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Watch & Listen The Blog Archive Transcripts Buy DVDs

June 26, 2009

Skip to part II

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal.

To persuade a poet to depart from paradise, even if only briefly, requires a special kind of enticement. The acclaimed poet W.S. Merwin spent part of his childhood just across the Hudson River from our studios here in New York, but he lives now on the Hawaiian island of Maui, where every prospect pleases.

W.S. MERWIN: I love the city, but I also love the country and I realize that when I'm in the city I miss the country all the time, and when I'm in the country I miss the city some of the time. So what I do now is live in the country and go to the city some of the time.

BILL MOYERS: What lured him back east this time was an extraordinary honor, the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. It's the second he's won.

LEE BOLLINGER: For a distinguished volume of original verse by an American author, W.S Merwin for "The Shadow of Sirius", a collection of luminous, often tender poems that focus on the profound power of memory. Congratulations, W.S. Merwin.

BILL MOYERS: I first heard Merwin read his poetry at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey over a decade ago when we were filming a TV series called "Fooling with Words."

W.S. MERWIN: My friend says I was not a good son
you understand
I say yes I understand
he says I did not go
to see my parents very often you know
and I say yes I know

BILL MOYERS: Merwin's literary life began at an early age. By the time he was five he was writing out hymns for his father, a Presbyterian minister in Union City, New Jersey. He escaped from his strict and pious upbringing into books and by the time he entered Princeton University, was a fledgling poet.

W.S. MERWIN: The idea of writing to me was from the beginning was writing something which was a little different from the ordinary exchange of speech. It was something that had a certain formality, something in which the words were of interest in themselves. And that's the beginning of a feeling about poetry.

BILL MOYERS: At the age of 18, Merwin received advice from the poet Ezra Pound.

W.S. MERWIN: He said if you want to be a poet you have to take it seriously. You have to work on it the way you would work on anything else and you have to do it every day. He said you should write about 75 lines every day. You know, Pound was a great one for laying down the law about how you did anything. And he said, you don't really have anything to write about 75 lines about a day. He said you don't really have anything to write about. He said, at the age of 18, you think you do but you don't. And he said the way to do it is to learn a language and translate. He said, that way, you can practice and you can find out what you can do with your language, with your language. You can learn a foreign language but the translation is your way of learning your own language.

BILL MOYERS: W.S. Merwin's first book of verse, "A Mask for Janus" was chosen for the Yale Younger Poets Prize by none other than W.H. Auden. It reflects Merwin's early work as poet and translator focusing on the myths and legends of ancient civilizations.

Over the past half century, in addition to over 25 volumes of poetry, Merwin has earned distinction with nearly two dozen books of translations, 8 works of prose; several verse plays, and this memoir, "Summer Doorways."

On the printed page, each of his poems appears without punctuation, in the freewheeling spirit of an imagination that creates in longhand on whatever scrap of paper comes to hand.

W.S. MERWIN: I can't imagine ever writing anything of any kind on a machine. I never tried to write either poetry or prose on a typewriter. I like to do it on useless paper, scrap paper, because it's of no importance. If I put a nice new sheet of white paper down in front of myself and took up a new, nicely sharpened anything, it would be instant inhibition, I think. "So now what?" I would think and I would sit there — so now what? — for quite a long time. But if it's something, if I need somewhere to write it down it will be on the back of an envelope, or something like that. Then it's okay. It's just to keep it there so I can find out where it goes from there.

BILL MOYERS: Merwin's later verse shares with Walt Whitman's a deeply felt connection to the natural world that makes all the more poignant his despair over our assault on the Earth through war and pollution. In the late 1970s, Merwin traveled to Maui to study Zen Buddhism. He stayed, married Paula Schwartz there, and together they built a solar-powered home on an abandoned pineapple farm and worked to restore the surrounding palm tree rainforest.

W.S. MERWIN: Writing poetry has to me always had something to do with how you want to live. I guess I've done something that many of my contemporaries didn't do. Many of them went into universities and had academic careers, and I have nothing against that. But I didn't think I was made for it. I begin, after about a week in university, I begin to feel the oxygen's going out of the air very fast and I have to go somewhere else.

BILL MOYERS: He does leave his island reverie from time to time to read his work at universities and libraries — and to pick up his Pulitzer Prize. Here's the book that won, THE SHADOW OF SIRIUS. Its author is with me now. W.S. Merwin, welcome to the Journal.

BILL MOYERS: You titled this new book, the one that just one the Pulitzer Prize, "In The Shadow of Sirius". Now, Sirius is the dog star. The most luminous star in the sky. Twenty-five times more luminous than the sun. And yet, you write about it's shadow. Something that no one has never seen. Something that's invisible to us. Help me to understand that.

W.S. MERWIN: That's the point. The shadow of Sirius is pure metaphor, pure imagination. But we live in it all the time.


W.S. MERWIN: We are the shadow of Sirius. There is the other side of-- as we talk to each other, we see the light, and we see these faces, but we know that behind that, there's the other side, which we never know. And that — it's the dark, the unknown side that guides us, and that is part of our lives all the time. It's the mystery. That's always with us, too. And it gives the depth and dimension to the rest of it.

BILL MOYERS: But this is the first poem in the book. Would you read this for us?

W.S. MERWIN: That must be "The Nomad Flute."

You that sang to me once sing to me now
let me hear your long lifted note
survive with me
the star is fading
I can think farther than that but I forget
do you hear me

do you still hear me
does your air
remember you
o breath of morning
night song morning song
I have with me
all that I do not know
I have lost none of it

but I know better now
than to ask you
where you learned that music
where any of it came from
once there were lions in China

I will listen until the flute stops
and the light is old again

BILL MOYERS: "I have with me all that I do not know. I have lost none of it." What — how do you carry with you what you do not know?

W.S. MERWIN: We always do that. I think that poetry and the most valuable things in our lives, and in fact the next sentence, your next question to me, Bill, come out of what we don't know. They don't come out of what we do know. They come out of what we do know, but what we do know doesn't make them. The real source of them is beyond that. It's something we don't know. They arise by themselves. And that's a process that we never understand.

BILL MOYERS: And that's true of poetry.

W.S. MERWIN: That's true of poetry. All the — I think poetry always comes out of what you don't know. And with students I say, knowledge is very important. Learn languages. Read history. Read, listen, above all, listen to everybody. Listen to everything that you hear. Every sound in the street. Every bird and every dog and everything that you hear. But know all of your knowledge is important, but your knowledge will never make anything. It will help you to form the things, but what makes something is something that you will never know. It comes out of you. It's who you are. Who are you, Bill?

BILL MOYERS: I would have to write a poem to try to get at that. And it would not be a very good poem. But this line, "The star is fading." What am I to make of that?

W.S. MERWIN: Whatever you want to. I mean, whatever the star is. Your star or the star that has lighted your life. It's also the morning, you know? The star fades in the morning. And you watch the star fade, and finally you don't see it. I say, you know, I can think farther than that. I can think farther than the star. But I forget. Also, you lose — you can think farther. But finally your thought comes to an end. We — it's lost in the what we don't know and the vast emptiness and unknown of the universe.

BILL MOYERS: What intrigues me about Sirius is that while it appears to be a single star, it is in fact a binary system.


BILL MOYERS: It's far more complicated than a single star. So that in the universe, as here on Earth, there's always more than meets the eye?



W.S. MERWIN: Yes. Of course.

BILL MOYERS: And poetry helps us to see what we don't see, right?

W.S. MERWIN: Poetry arises out of the shadow of Sirius. Out of that unknown and speaks to what we do know. Oh, Shakespeare does it all the time. He's doing that all the time. Russell Banks had a wonderful device that he used in teaching. Writing and reading for some years. He told me that he would give people a text, Chekhov's short story or Conrad or something. And then he would ask them when they'd read it, "Where does the language leave the surface?" And see who got it, and what they knew about it. And, of course, you can't do that with Shakespeare. Shakespeare's never on the surface. Shakespeare's always below the surface and above the surface.


W.S. MERWIN: Well look at the beginning of "Hamlet." The characters on this bitter cold night up there. And there a sound. And the person is coming on stage challenges. Says, "Who is there?" And it's all wrong. Everything's wrong. It's the sentry's supposed to challenge the other person. But the other person challenges the sentry. And the whole play gets it wrong.

The original Shakespeare, the original "Hamlet" apparently lasted five hours. And people stood and listened to that. Many of whom couldn't read and write. And they were just absolutely hypnotized by that language.

Shakespeare has a kind of mantric quality. You know, where there's something from below the surface that's happening all the time. And even if you don't get every word. If you don't rationally understand every word that's going on and we don't. We still don't. You know, studying and studying and studying. Something gets through, and the groundlings, as they were called. Or we know what is happening and the poetry gets through. The power of those long soliloquies in "Hamlet." Or of Lear on the heath. Or Prospero's speech about "Where such stuff as dreams are made on."

I don't think you need a great education. I mean, I've seen practically illiterate high school children watching a film in which there are a few lines of Shakespeare. And they put down the popcorn and sit up. They've never heard anything like this. He's got it. I mean, he's got some magic that —

BILL MOYERS: Well, I don't understand all of your poetry, but I get it.

W.S. MERWIN: That's the important thing.

BILL MOYERS: So, what makes a poem work?

W.S. MERWIN: I don't know. I don't know. I'll never know what makes a poem work.

BILL MOYERS: But you once said that if a poem works, it is its own form. It —


BILL MOYERS: Doesn't matter what the form is.

W.S. MERWIN: That's right.

BILL MOYERS: If it reaches you, touches —

W.S. MERWIN: Well, one of the things about poetry. And this is different from prose. When a poem is really finished, you can't change anything. You can't move words around. You can't say, "In other words, you mean." No, that's not it. There are no other words in which you mean it. This is it. And if it doesn't work, it doesn't work. But if it does work, that's the way it is. You know?

BILL MOYERS: I find poetry more physical than prose.

W.S. MERWIN: It is.

BILL MOYERS: Is there a reason for that?

W.S. MERWIN: I think there is. I think that poetry begins with hearing. Prose you don't have to hear. I mean, you can read it off the front page of the Times and not hear a thing. But you can't read a sonnet of Shakespeare without hearing it because if you do, you miss the whole thing. You think you know, then you hear, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day." You think, "Oh, that's it, that's different."

Poetry's really about what can't be said. And you address it when you can't find words for something. And the idea is, is that the poet probably finds words for things. But if you ask the poet, the poet will tell you, you can't find words for it. Nobody finds words for grief. Nobody finds words for love. Nobody finds words for lust. Nobody found — finds words for real anger. These are things that always escape words.

BILL MOYERS: I long ago gave up asking poets, "What do you mean by that?" 'Cause they don't know, right? The mean —

W.S. MERWIN: Oh, I think —

BILL MOYERS: The meaning is my response to it, isn't it?

W.S. MERWIN: That's part of it. But there are many shades of that meaning. And you certainly must have your own meaning, your own response to it. If you don't, you're not getting anything, are you? Your take on the poem is essentially what it's for. I mean, it is your poem. When you really get a poem don't you have a feeling that you're remembering it?


W.S. MERWIN: That you've discovered it yourself? In fact, you might have written it yourself. And —

BILL MOYERS: Well, there's a metaphysic —

W.S. MERWIN: Even though that's not true.

BILL MOYERS: No, no. You're on to something important. There is a metaphysical quality to your poems. I mean, they make me feel very vulnerable. And at the same time, they are profoundly exhilarating. As if, here at this very late age, I'm connecting to something primordial. I mean, like the mist rising over an ancient lake I once slept beside in East Africa. I hadn't thought of that lake or those mists in a long time. But as I read poem after poem in your book, I was reconnected.

W.S. MERWIN: I'm so happy to hear that, Bill.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, but how do you explain it? Do you know?

W.S. MERWIN: Oh, I don't explain it.

BILL MOYERS: Does the poem unlock some meaning?

W.S. MERWIN: It does in me. And that's something that I've felt ever since I was a child, I was very lucky. I think it's very important for parents, those children who have parents. And, you know, that's just, it's a dwindling number. It's very important if their parents can read to them. And not just read prose, to read poetry. Because listening to poetry is not the same as listening to prose.

And those children who've grown up hearing a parent reading poems to them are changed by that forever. They have it forever. They always have that voice. They always hear it. Always able to hear it. My father was a minister. And I didn't remain a Christian. But —


W.S. MERWIN: I found the apostle's creed and it didn't — that wasn't for me. I didn't believe it. But I did listen — didn't listen to his sermon so much. But as a child, I had to go to church several times a week. But I listened to him reading the psalms and reading the Bible from the pulpit. And I was fascinated by the language. I was fascinated by hearing the psalms. I still know many of the psalms by heart and —

BILL MOYERS: What's your favorite?

W.S. MERWIN: Oh, "Have mercy upon me, oh God, according to thy loving kindness." That certainly would be one of them. Of course, the Shepherd's Psalm. You know, the —

BILL MOYERS: Lord shepherd —

W.S. MERWIN: The Lord is my shepherd.

BILL MOYERS: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. Is it true you wrote hymns for your father?

W.S. MERWIN: Well, I'm so certain. I even — lost them, yeah.

BILL MOYERS: At age five?

W.S. MERWIN: As soon as I could write with a little pencil, I was writing these little hymns and illustrating them and I thought they should be sung in church. But they never were.

BILL MOYERS: But do you think that's where your first intrigue with language began?

W.S. MERWIN: That was part of it. And my mother read children's poetry. She read Stevenson's "Child's Garden of Verses." But there are poems of Stevenson's that I still remember, you know?

BILL MOYERS: Robert Louis Stevenson?

W.S. MERWIN: Yeah. "Dark brown is the river, golden is the sand. It flows along forever with trees on either hand. Green leaves a-floating, castles of the foam. Boats of mine a-boating, where will all come home." It's a beautiful poem. I still love it. And I think Stevenson was a wonderful poet. And his last poem that he wrote from Samoa. About "blows the wind today." That poem is a wonderful poem. Homesickness. Poem of great homesickness.

BILL MOYERS: When we confirmed this meeting, you suggested that I read a poem in here called "Rain Light." Why did you suggest that one?

W.S. MERWIN: I don't know, I just — that seems to be a very close poem to me.

BILL MOYERS: Here it is.

W.S. MERWIN: All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning

BILL MOYERS: "Even though the whole world is burning." It is, isn't it?

W.S. MERWIN: Yes. It is. It is burning, and we're part of the burning. We're part of the doing it. We're part of the suffering it. We're part of the watching it helplessly and ignorantly. And we know it's happening. And it is just us. It is our lives. We're burning. We're, you know, we're not the person we were yesterday. We're not the person we were 20 years ago.

BILL MOYERS: You remind me of your poem the title of which is "Youth." And it seems you're addressing youth, right?


BILL MOYERS: Tell me about that.

W.S. MERWIN: Well when I was young, I didn't recognize youth. Because I was youth.

BILL MOYERS: You're addressing youth as our youth, right?

W.S. MERWIN: Our youth.

BILL MOYERS: That period of life —

W.S. MERWIN: Yes. Yes. And I say, I was looking for you all the time. And, of course, I couldn't find you, because you were right there. I can't find my own face, you know? I mean, because I can't see my own face. And it was only when I began to lose you that I began to recognize you. And —

BILL MOYERS: There's a line from another poem of yours where — I'll paraphrase it — where you talk about, we no more are aware of aging than a bird is aware of the air through which it flies.

W.S. MERWIN: Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: And that's true of youth as well.

W.S. MERWIN: Yes. Of course, youth is something that we don't understand, as long as we have it. It's only when we get — but there are many things in life that are like that. I think that there are many things that we hear or we understand, whatever that means. But we hear or see or get some perspective on because we've moved away from it. And we begin to see them and of course, we can't touch them anymore. They're out of reach.

W.S. MERWIN: Youth

Through all of youth I was looking for you
without knowing what I was looking for

or what to call you I think I did not
even know I was looking how would I

have known you when I saw you as I did
time after time when you appeared to me

as you did naked offering yourself
entirely at that moment and you let

me breathe you touch you taste you knowing
no more than I did and only when I

began to think of losing you did I
recognize you when you were already

part memory part distance remaining
mine in the ways that I learn to miss you

from what we cannot hold the stars are made

BILL MOYERS: "From what we cannot hold, the stars are made." What can you tell me about that line? Where were you when you wrote that? What was in your head?

W.S. MERWIN: Stars are what we can't touch. They guide us. They, in a sense, are part of us. But we can't hold them. We can't possess them.

BILL MOYERS: I remember at the 1964 Democratic Convention, a few months after John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, his brother Robert spoke to the convention and quoted from "Romeo and Juliet."

ROBERT KENNEDY: When I think of President Kennedy, I think of what Shakespeare said in "Romeo and Juliet:"

"When he shall die, take him up and cut him out into the stars, and he shall make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun."

W.S. MERWIN: It's that wonderful.

BILL MOYERS: The stars seem to provide us with a glance of immortality, right?

W.S. MERWIN: Well —


W.S. MERWIN: There's so many myths where the hero or heroine or the God or Goddess who is the central figure at the end is simply translated and becomes a constellation and is always there and is guiding lights from there on forever in the sky.

BILL MOYERS: And Sirius the star for whom you named your book was so closely associated with the Egyptian Goddess Isis.

W.S. MERWIN: Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: Right? I mean, this goes back a long time.

W.S. MERWIN: Yes. One of the great themes that runs through poetry, all poetry, and I think is one of the reasons for poetry, one of the sources of poetry, one of the sources of language, is the feeling of loss. The feeling of losing things. Not being able to hold, keep things. That's what grief — I mean, grief is the feeling of having lost. Of having something being out of reach. Gone. Inaccessible. And I think that that's a theme that runs through much of all poetry. But I think the language itself and poetry are born the same way.

As I said before, you know, I think poetry's about what can't be said. And I think that language emerges out of what could not be said. Out of this desperate desire to utter something, to express something inexpressible. Probably grief. Maybe something else. You know, you see a silent photograph of an Iraqi woman who's husband or son or brother has just been killed by an explosion. And you know that if you could hear, you would be hearing one long vowel of grief. Just senseless, meaningless vowel of grief. And that's the beginning of language right there.

Inexpressible sound. And it's antisocial. It's destructive. It's utterly painful beyond expression. And the consonants are the attempts to break it, to control it, to do something with it. And I think that's how language emerged.

BILL MOYERS: From perhaps the first woman in a cave, who wakes up in the morning, and puts her hand on her husband's cold body. And something is gone.


BILL MOYERS: There comes this need, you say —

W.S. MERWIN: Yeah. Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: To express it?


BILL MOYERS: In a wail and in a word. Well, you've helped me understand why there does seem to be this lament through so many of your poems, even though you're an affirming person. This lament, this grief that's in your poems. For example, the poem we filmed you reading at the Dodge Poetry Festival some years ago. The poem you called, "Yesterday." After we played that young men said to me they went home and called their father. So, let me play that for our audience again, and let's talk about it a moment.

W.S. MERWIN ON VIDEO: My friend says I was not a good son
you understand
I say yes I understand

he says I did not go
to see my parents very often you know
and I say yes I know

even when I was living in the same city he says
maybe I would go there once
a month or maybe even less
I say oh yes

he says the last time I went to see my father
I say the last time I saw my father

he says the last time I saw my father
he was asking me about my life
how I was making out and he
went into the next room
to get something to give me

oh I say
feeling again the cold
of my father's hand the last time

he says and my father turned
in the doorway and saw me
look at my wristwatch and he
said you know I would like you to stay
and talk with me

oh yes I say

but if you are busy he said
I don't want you to feel that you
have to
just because I'm here

I say nothing

he says my father
said maybe
you have important work you are doing
or maybe you should be seeing
somebody I don't want to keep you

I look out the window
my friend is older than I am
he says and I told my father it was so
and I got up and left him then
you know

though there was nowhere I had to go
and nothing I had to do

BILL MOYERS: I have missed my father often since his death in the 1990s. But I never missed him more so than when I heard you read that.

W.S. MERWIN: It's wonderful to feel that a poem that I've written connects with somebody else's experience. And that it becomes their experience. That's the way I think it should be.

BILL MOYERS: Your poetry has become more personal in these later years. What's happened to bring that about?

W.S. MERWIN: Oh, I think just getting older. I wanted each book to be distinct from the others. And when I look back at other books, I think I couldn't write that now. And each book was necessary to write the next one. I think they are different. I've always wanted, through all of them, to write more directly and, in a sense, more simply.

And at one time in the early '60s, there were critics who said, "Oh, Merwin is so…becomes so impossible to understand. And clearly he doesn't want to be understood." And at the same time school teachers would come up to me and say "I've been giving your poems to the children." And I said, "What do they make of them?" And she said, "Oh, they get along fine with them." I thought, "Fine, if the children get them." And I said, "What year do you teach?" She said, "Second year." Mostly young children.

I thought, "You know, if the young children get them, that's all that matters. I mean, it's happening. It doesn't--" and a friend of mine said, "Oh, it'll be 15 years and then people will think you're extremely simple to read." And I hope that's what's happened.

BILL MOYERS: To what extent do you think the very personal nature of so many of your later poems has been influenced by your embrace of Buddhism? The inward-turning that seems to mark–

W.S. MERWIN: I don't know the answer to that, Bill. I don't because I don't know the alternative, you know? Did the aspirin cure your headache? Or would you have got over it anyway? I don't know.

BILL MOYERS: But you do manage to see light even in the darkness. How do you explain that to yourself?

W.S. MERWIN: I think if we don't that's just ultimate despair. And there's nothing to be said. All of these things have been true always. I mean we have been cruel and dishonest. We have been helplessly angry and greedy. Always.

All of our faults have always been there. And all of our failings have been there. And we haven't worked our way out of them. There's nobody, I don't believe in the saints in that sense. That these are people who have suddenly — they're past, all human failings. I don't think we're ever past human failings, I don't think. And that's all right. And I think that we should forgive ourselves and forgive each other if we possibly can. It's very difficult sometimes.

BILL MOYERS: So, what about this poem in your new book? "Still Morning."

W.S. MERWIN: It appears now that there is only one
age and it knows
nothing of age as the flying birds know
nothing of the air they are flying through
or of the day that bears them up
through themselves
and I am a child before there are words
arms are holding me up in a shadow
voices murmur in a shadow
as I watch one patch of sunlight moving
across the green carpet
in a building
gone long ago and all the voices
silent and each word they said in that time
silent now
while I go on seeing that patch of sunlight

BILL MOYERS: That patch of sunlight. Where was it?

W.S. MERWIN: Actually it was in the church in Union City, New Jersey which has been torn down many, many years ago.

BILL MOYERS: Your father's church?

W.S. MERWIN: And I was being held up. And may even have been when I was baptized, you know? Very, very early. I can remember it. I remember the man in a brown suit, who was holding me. And I said this to once to my mother. And she said, "You can't possibly remember something back that far." And I said, "Who was the man in the brown suit, who was holding me? I never saw him again." And she said, "Oh, yes. That was Reverend so and so. And he came for a visit. And he said he would hold you for the ceremony." And I never saw him again. But I remember being held up and watching the green carpet and that patch of sunlight.

BILL MOYERS: You did grow up right across the river in Metro New York, New Jersey, looking out on the skyline of New York.

W.S. MERWIN: Which was silent.


W.S. MERWIN: Yeah. New York was silent. That was extraordinary. And that still, to me, is haunting. You know, to be able to think of that skyline that I saw as a child. And you could hear sounds from the river. There was a river traffic, which is gone, most of which is gone. The ferries back and forth, all the time. And ferrying of whole trains went across on ferries, you know, on barges. And I would spend as much time as I could in the back of the church looking down on Hoboken Harbor and on the river and on the city over there. And the city was absolutely silent. Then, of course, you took the ferry over there all the noise of New York was there. And I found that very exciting.

BILL MOYERS: Well, here's one of my favorite poems from your new book. "The Song of the Trolleys". Remember that one?

W.S. MERWIN: I do. There was a trolley car that went right past our house, you know. In Union City.

The Song of the Trolleys

It was one of the carols
of summer and I knew that
even when all the leaves
were falling through it as it passed
and when frost crusted the tracks
as soon as they had stopped ringing
summer stayed on in that song
going again the whole way
out of sight to the river
under the hill and the hissing
when it had to stop
the humming to itself
while it waited until
it could start again
out of an echo warning
once more with a clang of its bell.
I could hear it coming
from far summers that I
had never known
long before I could see it
swinging its head
to its own tune on its way
and hardly arrived before it
was going and its singing
receding with its growing
smaller until it was gone
into sounds that resounded
only when they have come to silence
the voices of morning stars
and the notes that once rose
out of the throats of women
from cold mountain villages
at the fringe of the forest
calling over the melting
snow to the spirits asleep
in the green heart of the woods
Wake now it is time again

That actually is a strange song that I heard in Macedonia. Some young women come and remake that sound. There was a wonderful living musicologist who was going through the oldest manuscripts and notations of music he could find. And he found these notations that someone had made in these mountain villages of this singing without words that women did until fairly recently. In these mountain villages in the very early spring, before they went out to pick herbs and things that were coming through the snow.

And the women would go out — it was like something between a coyote and a yodel. These strange guttural but very lyrical notes that the women--and you've got these three women stand up and start making these sounds. And it just makes your flesh crawl it's so beautiful. It's so beautiful. But it's like no music you ever heard. And they're calling to the spirits, saying, "Wake up. Wake up. Spring is here. Now, let us come freely into the forest."

BILL MOYERS: You seem to have the world in your ear.

W.S. MERWIN: I believe that poems begin with hearing and with listening. One listens until one hears something. Sometimes, and then if you say people it begins with listening. They say, "What are you listening to? And what are you listening for?" And I say, "That's what you have to find out." You know? You have to learn how to listen first.

BILL MOYERS: I had a portent of our meeting the other day. We took our two small grandchildren to the Central Park Zoo. And entering the preserve they have there of the Rain Forest every visitor looks up and sees a quote from W.S. Merwin. Did you know that?


BILL MOYERS: Yeah. It says, "On the last day of the world, I would want to plant a tree." Why would you want to plant a tree?

W.S. MERWIN: It's a relation to the world. It's nothing to do with thinking that the world is going to be there forever. But that's a relation with the world that I want is to be putting life back into the world, rather than taking life out of it all the time. We do a lot of that, you know? I've lived on Maui for 35 years. And I feel very, very lucky.

BILL MOYERS: Why do you live there? Why did you go there?

W.S. MERWIN: A mixture of things. The ancient culture. The remnants of that fascinated me. And what I loved about the climate is that I could garden. I could live in the garden. Be surrounded by a garden all year round. And from before daybreak, I love to get up well before daybreak, before the birds are awake. And we live in a silent valley. The whole remains of a very small valley, leading down to the sea. And it's so beautiful in the morning. And these sounds. You know, the sound that people can pick up with mics. Now the sound of a room with nothing in it. Or the sound… I can think often sometimes late at night, I just stop everything before I go to bed or as I go to bed. And just listen to the valley.

And you say, "Now, there's no sound in the valley." But there is. There's the sound of the valley.

BILL MOYERS: There is an urgency to some of these poems that I didn't detect in some of the earlier volumes. You think you feel things more urgently now? That time is diminished?

W.S. MERWIN: Whether that's it or not, I don't know. I certainly feel that-- you mean personal time. But I think that personal time for all of us is diminished. I mean, the idea of writing for posterity. I don't know what posterity is. Posterity is right now. Posterity is Bill Moyers. Or posterity is the people who responded to "Yesterday" by going home and calling their fathers. That's what I love is to make that connection of experience to experience. So that my experience becomes their experience and vice versa. You know?

BILL MOYERS: What's the experience in here? This is one of my favorite small ones in your book. "The Long and Short of It."

W.S. MERWIN: As long as we can believe anything
we believe in measure
we do it with the first breath we take
and the first sound we make
it is in each word we learn
and in each of them it means
what will come again and when
it is there in meal and in moon
and in meaning it is the meaning
it is the firmament and the furrow
turning at the end of the field
and the verse turning with its breath
it is in memory that keeps telling us
some of the old story about us

BILL MOYERS: What's the experience there?

W.S. MERWIN: I think we know the experience every time we draw a breath. Whether it's -- this unreasoning repetition of something which doesn't ever quite repeat itself. It goes on evolving. Which is mysterious. The basis of our lives. It's there in the beat of our hearts and in our breaths. And in waking up in the morning. And the rhythm of our days. And we think we can measure it, but we know perfectly well with the other side of our minds that we can't measure it at all.

BILL MOYERS: Has it ever occurred to you that this moon you look up to so often and relished was the same moon seen by Hadrian and Ovid and —

W.S. MERWIN: Oh, yes.

BILL MOYERS: And Shelley and Keats and Byron and Neruda. And —

W.S. MERWIN: Yeah. I often think that.

BILL MOYERS: This constancy through the century of our gaze.

W.S. MERWIN: There's a great poem of a Chinese poet of the late Tang Dynasty. Who talks about — he said, "Asking the moon and the mountains." And he says, "Oh, this is the same moon that I saw in Chang An." And Chang An was — there was a moment rebellion where everybody was getting killed. And he said, "This is the moon that guided me through the streets as I escaped. And that led me to find my way out into the mountains. And here it is." He said, "I ask what can I believe everywhere. I believe the moon everywhere." You know, "This is the moon that —"

BILL MOYERS: And what's he saying? That it's the constant.

W.S. MERWIN: The constant, yes. There this constant thing that light that is always there.

BILL MOYERS: I finished your book very conflicted about this time in our lives. I mean, I realize that I haven't done enough to try to make a different world more likely and that runs through some of your poems. And I find myself tossing and turning at the prospect of the chaos we are leaving behind for our grandchildren, in particular. Are you ever visited by that kind of anguish?

W.S. MERWIN: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I always feel that. That "Oh, you know, I should have…" I'm a very private kind of person. And I like a very quiet and private life. But I also love coming back and being part of something much more public and talking too much. And loving listening to other people. And I always develop the feeling, "Oh, there's so many other things I could have been doing. And maybe I could have been accomplishing more that way." But I know it's not true. I know that being a poet was what I always had to do. It's what I always wanted to do since I was yea tall. And it was what I had to do.

BILL MOYERS: Can you remember a catalytic moment?

W.S. MERWIN: Yes. There are a number of them. But it's just that. And there's a deep association, Bill, between that feeling for words. Feeling about the mystery of words. What made a word a word. What made a word express something. And what made a blade of grass come up between the stones of the sidewalk. And when my mother explained that the Earth was under the sidewalk, I had a feeling of great reassurance. And —

BILL MOYERS: So that might be why you want to plant a tree, right?

W.S. MERWIN: That's right. But it's also there's a connection. I don't see any distinction between that and the feeling about words. And the background of words which is not the threatening dark, but the nourishing dark. The nourishing darkness. That there's that we all take with us. The dark and that light are always with us.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think often of death?

W.S. MERWIN: Yes. But doesn't everybody? Everybody — I think one thinks of death all the time. I think it's part of one's life. That doesn't mean that one thinks of it with panic. My mother was never frightened of death. And that's a great gift to be given by a parent. That not fearing of those things.

BILL MOYERS: What was it she said to you? When you go to that dark, do not be afraid of what you do not know? I think that's a paraphrase of one of the lines.

W.S. MERWIN: "Even when you do not know, you will know," she said. That's in the poem. I don't — she never really said that. That's in my mind that she said that.

BILL MOYERS: Well, she has now. 'Cause it's in the poem. How long have you and Paula been married?

W.S. MERWIN: Oh, 20, let's see, 20 — 27 years, I think. I was never sure that monogamy would overtake me. But it did when I met Paula.

BILL MOYERS: Well, here's a poem you wrote to her in late spring. Why late spring?

W.S. MERWIN: Well, we were in the old farmhouse in France in the garden over there. I was sitting in the little garden house that I built there years ago, 20 some or more than that, looking out at the garden and Paula was working in the garden. And I thought, "This is it." It never gets better than this, you know?

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

BILL MOYERS: And finally, a poem that touched me very much in this book. Going.

W.S. MERWIN: Oh. I'm cautious about poems that seem to be on the verge of abstraction. I'm very careful about them. So, I hope this one looks abstract and isn't.

Only humans believe
there is a word for goodbye
we have one in every language
one of the first words we learn
it is made out of greeting
but they are going away
the raised hand waving
the face the person the place
the animal the day
leaving the word behind
and what it was meant to say

BILL MOYERS: W.S. Merwin, thank you very much for being with me. The book that won the Pulitzer Prize is The SHADOW OF SIRIUS.

W.S. MERWIN: Thank you, Bill. Great pleasure.

Moyers Podcasts -- Sign Up for podcasts and feeds.
Our posts and your comments
For Educators    About the Series    Bill Moyers on PBS   

© Public Affairs Television 2008    Privacy Policy    DVD/VHS    Terms of Use    FAQ