W. S. Merwin

Here and Now

“Poetry addresses individuals in their most intimate, private, frightened and elated moments. People turn to poetry in times of crisis because it comes closer than any other art form to addressing what cannot be said. In expressing the inexpressible poetry remains close to the origins of language.”

~ W.S. Merwin

The recent memorial service in Tucson concluded with University of Arizona President Robert Shelton reading this poem by W.S. Merwin, from Present Company:

To the New Year

With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

Branches from a Single Root

W.S. Merwin from “The Garden & the Sword,” an interview with Joel Whitney, Tricycle Magazine, Winter 2010:

I don’t think we have imagination apart from the environment. And I don’t think we have an existence apart from the environment either. And if the imagination isn’t about our existence, I don’t know what it’s about. It’s not about making money, that’s for sure.

…If you’re looking for neat formulaic answers in Dogen, you don’t find them. You don’t find them in Keizan, either. You have to come at them from a different part of your own mind. That’s the part of Zen practice that’s attractive to me. But it’s not unique to Zen. It’s there in Taoism. It probably was there in parts of the practice that became Greek Orthodoxy, that came out of the desert. The origins of all of those things are extremely ancient; they’re older than what we think of as the beginnings of Buddhism. The origin of Taoism may be completely on its own, but all of them go back to shamanism. And we don’t know know the history of shamanism; it’s all speculation. They link in my mind to things which are incredibly ancient.

…the link between the imagination—which to me is the great pinnacle of humanity, the imagination that makes the arts and makes compassion—is ancient in our species and goes way back. And it’s never been separate. And when you get any aspect of the culture that tries to separate it, it’s destructive and suicidal.

Take them away, names like Buddhism. I’m impatient with them. There’s something beyond all that, beneath all that that they all share, that they all come from. They are branches from a single root. And that’s what one has to pay attention to.


Song Dynasty painting in the Litang style illustrating the theme "Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism are one." Depicts Taoist Lu Xiujing (left), official Tao Hongjing (right) and Buddhist monk Huiyuan (center, founder of Pure Land) by the Tiger stream. The stream borders a zone infested by tigers that they just crossed without fear, engrossed as they were in their discussion. Realizing what they just did, they laugh together, hence the name of the picture,Three laughing men by the Tiger stream.

Who is Speaking

by W.S. Merwin, from The Pupil

as we say
meaning it literally
and you do

hear it when
we speak
for the voice addressing you
is your own

though we know now
that the you
we are speaking to
is not the person
we imagine
yet we go on telling you

day after day of the person
we imagine
ourselves to be

forgetting as we tell you
learning even from joy
but forgetting
and you hear

who is speaking
you hear it all
though you do not listen

Echo of Everything

Sea of Japan, Rebun Island, 1996 by Hiroshi Sugimoto

by W.S. Merwin, from The Rain in the Trees 

Sitting over words 
very late I have heard a kind of whispered sighing 
not far 
like a night wind in pines or like the sea in the dark 
the echo of everything that has ever 
been spoken 
still spinning its one syllable 
between the earth and silence

Thinking of Being Somewhere Else

Kansai International Airport

by W.S. Merwin, from The Rain in the Trees

None of the computers can say
how long it took to evolve a facility
devoted to absence in life

you walk out of the chute
and a person smiles at your ticket
and points you to your seat

is this the only way home
nobody asks
because nobody knows

the building is not inhabited it is not
home except to roaches
it is not loved it is serviced

it is not a place
but a container with signs
directing a process

there is neither youth in the air
nor earth under foot
there is a machine to announce

yet the corridors beat with anguish longing relief
news trash insurance dispensers
and many are glad to be here

thinking of being somewhere else
hurrying at great expense
across glass after glass

we travel far and fast
and as we pass through we forget
where we have been

Small Wonders



Party Bed, Charles LeDray

by Charles LeDray
Institute of Contemporary Art
Through October 17, 2010

workworkworkworkwork consists of hundreds of objects, including shirts, pottery, paintings, necklaces and magazines that recreate displays of objects for sale that homeless people frequently put on New York sidewalks. (Bing, 2003) The piece is not classified by object, however it is more of a confusion of pieces, each “grouping is ordered in its own special way, as if different senses of order were involved, individual orders—different levels of marketing and presentability.” (Saltz, 1992)

~ Wikipedia

Mens Suits, Charles LeDray, 2006


Excerpt from “Life’s Wear and Tear,” by Sebastian Smee, the Boston Globe, July 16, 2010:

Charles LeDray treats clothes as surrogates for human identity, particularly male identity, and for the many types of work that go into constructing it. As such—and unlike the fashion industry, which is founded on an unblinking faith in the potential of clothes to communicate power, beauty, and self-worth—his work is intensely alive to the pathos clothes can communicate, and to the many senses in which they just don’t . . . quite. . . fit.

LeDray, who was born in Seattle in 1960 and lives and works in New York, gives this “not quite fitting’’ a literal twist. The majority of the clothes he makes and transforms into sculptures are small. Too small to wear, but not so small that they seem precious or cute.

And yes, LeDray makes them. All of them. By hand. Himself.

Today, when the actual making of art objects is frequently displaced from the hands of the nominal creator to various anonymous assistants, there’s an atavistic appeal in LeDray’s displays of virtuosic skill and dedication. But it’s not just a sentimental appeal.

The time LeDray dedicates to the making of his pieces — in some cases as long as three or four years — is as much a conceptual tool as the medium itself. Painstakingly cut, carved, stitched, sewn, and thrown, his sculptures crystallize, through ironic devotion, a sense of pathos. They sharpen our awareness of the expendability of things…

Thinking of the artist working away, with scissors, pins, needle, and thread, I thought of W.S. Merwin’s great poem, “Separation’’:

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

Overcoat, 2004


You Can Never Be Sure

by W.S. Merwin, from Flower & Hand: Poems 1977-1983

I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war

don't lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you're older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity

just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice

he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally

it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop

he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England

as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry

he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can't

you can't you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don't write

At the Heart of Change

The first few sentences of “Forgetting” by W.S. Merwin, from The Book of Fables:

First you must know that the whole of the physical world floats in each of the senses at the same time. Each of them reveals to us a different aspect of the kingdom of change. But none of them reveals the unnamable stillness that unites them. At the heart of change it lies unseeing, unhearing, unfeeling, unchanging, holding within itself the beginning and the end. It is ours. It is our only possession. Yet we cannot take it in to our hands, which change, nor see it with our eyes, which change, nor hear it or taste it or smell it. None of the senses can come to it. Except backwards.

Any more than they can come to each other.

Yet they point the way. And most authoritatively as they disappear.

You Have to Find Out

The Poet's View from The Academy of American Poets (www.poets.org/dvd)


Excerpt from “Gardening Notes: America's New Poet Laureate,” by Ed Lake, The National (July 25, 2010):

For [Merwin, poetry] involves more than just the…musical effects…A kind of conceptual harmony is required, a gradual perception of the poem’s ideal shape emerging through draft after draft. “I can’t say what it is, but when it’s right, when it sounds right, then it is right,” he says. “Sometimes getting it right means a whole new aspect of what you’re talking about. And I tell students that writing comes from listening, that poetry comes from listening, and they inevitably say: ‘Listening to what?’ And I say: ‘That’s what you have to find out.’”

The Beginning of Language

W.S. Merwin in conversation with Bill Moyers (June 26, 2009):

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 is -- the feeling of having lost. Of having something being out of reach. Gone. Inaccessible... But I think that language itself and poetry are born the same way.

The Shadow of SiriusI 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.

* * * * *

from Shadow of Sirius

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

[Thanks Kit!]

Beginning Over Again

To Monday
by W.S. Merwin, from Present Company

Present CompanyOnce you arrive it is plain
that you do not remember
the last time

you are always
like that
insisting upon
upon it all beginning
over again
as though nothing had really happened
as though beginning
went on and on
as though it were everything
until it had begun

you never know who you are
the hands of the clock find you
and keep going
without recognition
though what your light
reveals when it rises
wakes from another time
which you appear to have forgotten

travelling all that way
blank and nowhere
before you came to be
with the demands
that you bring with you
from the beginning

each time it is
as though you were the same
or almost
O unrepeatable one
needing nothing yourself
and not waiting

Never Could I Live Without You

To the Air
by W.S. Merwin, from Present Company

Present Company Just when I needed you
there you were
I cannot say
how long you have been
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
question never
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 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
invisible friend
go on telling me
again again

One Step Above All That

To the Gods
by W.S. Merwin, from Present Company

Present Company When did you stop
telling us what we could believe

when did you take that one step
only one
all that

as once you stepped
out of each of the stories
about you one after the other
and out of whatever we imagined we knew
of you

who were the light
to begin with
and all of the darkness
at the same time
and the voice in them
calling crying
and the enormous answer
neither coming nor going
but too fast to hear

you let us believe
the names for you
whenever we heard them
you let us believe the stories
how death came to be
how the light appeared

how the beginning began
you let us believe
all that

then you let us believe
that we had invented you
and that we no longer
believed in you
and that you were only stories
that we did not believe

you with no
moment for beginning
no place to end
one step above
all that

listen to us
believe in us

To Waiting

By W.S. Merwin, from Present Company

Present Company You spend so much of your time
expecting to become
someone else
always someone
who will be different
someone to whom a moment
whatever moment it may be
at last has come
and who has been
met and transformed
into no longer being you
and so has forgotten you

meanwhile in your life
you hardly notice
the world around you
lights changing
sirens dying along the buildings
your eyes intent
on a sight you do not see yet
not yet there
as long as you
are only yourself

with whom as you
recall you were
never happy
to be left alone for long

One Story Becomes Another

by W.S. Merwin

Remember how the naked soul
comes to language and at once knows
loss and distance and believing

then for a time it will not run
with its old freedom
like a light innocent of measure
but will hearken to how
one story becomes another
and will try to hear where
they have emerged from
and where they are heading
as though they were its own legend
running before the words and beyond them
naked and never looking back

through the noise of questions

The Long and the Short of It

by W.S. Merwin, from The Shadow of Sirius

The Shadow of Sirius 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

Copper Canyon Press