Talking With W.S. Merwin

Talking With W.S. Merwin

The Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress talks about spontaneous demonstrations, his hope for poetry, and why he doesn’t read criticism anymore.


The current Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress, William Stanley Merwin, has been a major figure among American poets since W.H. Auden selected his book A Mask for Janus for the Yale Younger Poets prize in 1952; Merwin has twice received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, first in 1971 for The Carrier of Ladders and again in 2009 for The Shadow of Sirius. In 1962 he was the poetry editor of The Nation.

We spoke over the phone in late February, and after we’d made some small talk about the landscapes of Appalachia and Pennsylvania, Merwin’s voice took on the serious, expansive tone of the critic and journalist who reported on nonviolent resistance for this magazine several times in the early ’60s, covering the third Aldermaston march in Britain (see “Letter From Aldermaston,” May 7, 1960) and the trial of the crew of the Everyman (see “Act of Conscience,” December 29, 1962).

Merwin: Jordan, I remember that countryside you’re talking about [from Ohio through West Virginia and Maryland to Washington, DC]. I went through there in the late 1960s, because I wanted to write a long poem about Coxey’s Army, which was a protest march of unemployed workers that started in Massillon and ended in Washington in 1894. Coxey’s Army fascinated me, and it also fascinated David Wagoner, who actually wrote something about it. I never did, but I retraced the route and looked up everything I could, and there were fascinating things in western Pennsylvania, which is my father’s part of the world. There was a utopian community, Harmony, in western Pennsylvania. Coxey’s Army went south and across into Maryland and then into Washington, where things fizzled out. The march was better organized than the oratory; nobody listened, and so the march didn’t accomplish anything. But it was the first of that kind of protest in America. Its predecessor would have been the Chartists in England in the nineteenth century, who really were Luddites, people who didn’t want to be turned into mass producers. They wanted to do things one-on-one, to keep the old artisan world. There was a certain wisdom behind what they wanted, which was a world that other people had decided had to go because it wasn’t profitable enough. We know what replaced it—just look at the outskirts of Newark.

You wrote about the third march at Aldermaston, in 1960.

Well, that was different. Compared with the second march in 1959, the third march was vast. And the marvelous thing about that march, which was much better organized than Coxey’s, was that from Hammersmith on the outskirts of London into Trafalgar Square, for the last hour of arrival, it was done in complete silence.

Just footsteps.

Yes. By the time we got to Trafalgar Square the entire crowd was in tears. It nearly split the Labour Party, and it nearly accomplished what we wanted to do, to prevent nuclear weapons. Britain did drop its testing of nuclear weapons within a very short time. It’s hard to say that it was the march that brought that about, but it certainly had some influence; you had the feeling that this was a lot of pressure with a lot of feeling behind it, so it wasn’t going to go away. Ted Hughes didn’t want to be in the march but he certainly wanted to watch it, and he and Sylvia were both there when we came into Trafalgar Square.

With the mass demonstrations and marches across North Africa and the Middle East, and in Wisconsin too, there does seem to be real power in spontaneous demonstrations.

There is. The Arab world is erupting, which is extraordinary, and to see it happen is like watching rings spreading on a pool—it goes out, it varies so much. The spontaneity is wonderful, but very often, if it’s not well organized, it breaks up and it peters out. The thing I’ll never forget about the Aldermaston march was that hour of marching in silence. That required genuine organization, because anybody could have destroyed it easily, and they didn’t. It was not an impulsive thing. It was mourning as well as protest. I think that in the Arab world there’s very little precedent for this. The example of free speech—so-called—in the Western world has filtered in probably through television and various things and they’re aware of it. The leap into full representative democracy, which we’re very far from ourselves, they’re just on the edge of it. There have always been mobs, but these aren’t mobs; they are people with a real program, with hopes and determination and other kinds of feelings. I don’t detect even in Libya a lot of hatred around. It’s probably there, but it doesn’t seem to be uppermost. Do you agree?

I do. It seems to be a genuine wish to stop suffering.

I think Qaddafi should have to stand trial. But I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. There’s a funny thing about the intellectual vacuum dictators seem to get into so readily; they really become imbeciles. Stalin was crazy. God knows Hitler was. Now you’ve got two leaders of two Arab countries hiding in villas. If both could come out and say, “I’ve made a series of mistakes and I want to talk about it”—but that kind of action is not part of the deck that they’re playing.

I think it’s not a likely possibility for someone whose character would allow him to take dictatorial power. And once he has that power, it’s very seductive.

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot in the last few decades, especially now that there’s real contempt for the democratic process on the extreme right. Jeffersonian democracy, faulty as it is, and only the fragment of it that we have, is a thing of such preciousness, a thing of such value. It’s been bequeathed to us by Jefferson, but also by a series of people who took it seriously, and it’s echoed in some of the great writers of American literature. Emerson and Thoreau are certainly more than echoes of it; they’re part of the whole of it. Or the great moments of Lincoln. Lincoln was not faultless, but he was an incredible man. The Gettysburg Address is so revealing when you start to read it like a poem, phrase by phrase. There’s that wonderful phrase where he talks about a country “so conceived, and so dedicated”—“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.” We’re still there, right there in that sentence. Sometimes it’s bad—the attacks on Obama, for example, which are just so vicious and murderous that you think people would bring down the whole country just to get rid of him, and with him the whole process, the whole legacy of an attempt at democracy. Democracy’s got endless problems and faults and dangers, but it’s certain the alternatives are not better.

The last prose you wrote for The Nation was in 1985, on the program in Hawaii to eradicate the tri-fly, the malathion campaign.

We’re still trying to stop things like that in Maui. There’s a campaign right now to stop the use of 2,4-D. It’s not so different from Agent Orange. It’s terrible stuff. I think raising sugar is inviting problems of every kind, from insecticide to economic problems. One of the biggest corporations in Hawaii is Alexander & Baldwin, a huge landowner. The history of cane growing is not a pleasant history. The industry drove the Hawaiians off their land, among other things, and it’s been running on government help since before World War I. Alexander & Baldwin wants to hang on to that land so that it can be sold off very cautiously in parcels and keep up the price for real estate. In the meantime, Alexander & Baldwin keeps it in sugar cane. If you’re buying sugar raised in the United States, either in Florida or in Hawaii, you’re paying how many cents a pound just for that subsidy. If it were produced in the Philippines or Cuba or other places, it would be much cheaper.

Then there are the personal health issues.

I grew up in coal country, and I don’t have any illusions about coal either.

Coal remains a very strong lobby and very strong advertising presence in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre valley, and actually on down through Harrisburg and the rest of the state.

I talked to Frank Lloyd, who’s in the Department of the Interior, when I was last in Washington. Frank is a very good guy, very much on our side about everything, the environment and such. He said he was dealing with the coal industry. I said, Frank, I know too much about coal: it’s bad looking for it, it’s bad getting it out of the ground, it’s bad burning it, it’s bad breathing it. At no point is it good stuff to be around. He said we can’t get rid of it. And I know that. That’s why it’s so terribly hard to stop mountaintop removal, which began with the old strip mines. What turned me into an environmentalist, on my eleventh birthday, was seeing the first strip mine. To treat the earth like that, to me, is like murder. Rape. I just hate it. I don’t think we have any right to treat the living world like that. We have to do something about our needs in that case. My house has been solar for thirty years.

How do you feel about poetry? Do you have hope for poetry?

I do. I don’t think the computer is a good influence for poetry. And the reason for it, and I don’t have proof for this, is that writing and reading things for the computer is just one stage farther from the spoken word. You don’t hear it. But I never wanted to have even a typewriter on my table. I’ve used power tools, but I always feel that the complicated tools get between me and the job that I’m doing. They may make it go faster and more regularly, but I’ve never really liked them very much. Maybe I’m an anomaly in that way because with most kids, the interest will turn from anything, including animals, to a machine. I’ve never been like that, so I’m a weirdo, I think. But I intend to stay that way.

Your generation of poets, more than the ones who came before and the ones who came after, were influenced by European poets. I’m thinking of James Wright’s interest in German poets, Frank O’Hara’s interest in the Russians. Do you think that had something to do with the war, or do you think there was just an interest in what was going on in the world?

I think all those things were part of it. But one of the things that we all wanted to do—and this wasn’t a matter of sitting around and having committee meetings about it, because we all arrived at it pretty much independently, oddly enough at around the same time—we wanted to get England out of our ears. We didn’t want to be hearing English poetry all the time and nothing else. I don’t think any of us hated the poetry that Robert Frost had picked up from England, like Gerard Manley Hopkins and Thomas Hardy. There are others that are pretty good, like Robert Bridges and certainly Matthew Arnold. I can’t get very far with Tennyson. A strange thing that startled me: I found a poem of Swinburne’s not long ago that I thought was really good. It’s “The Sundew.” Do you know that poem?

I haven’t read Swinburne in a while.

Well, you won’t, but look up “The Sundew.” It’s a beautiful poem.

Do you still read criticism?

Not very much. I read less of it than my wife does. She reads a lot of reviews. I’ve always been against being nasty to other poets and badmouthing other poets because I think any poet whom one can recognize as a real poet has picked up that live wire at some point, and knows it’s a live wire. It’s so much more important than any of us. One should revere it. If someone else seems to have had it, even once, you want to respect it, I think, and give them a chance to have it again. I don’t see the point in negative criticism, because if a piece of writing isn’t any good, time takes care of it, just gets rid of it. The virtues of criticism are in showing you things you might not have noticed, in discovering new talent and new aspects of old things.

I note that you reviewed Byron and Keats in The Nation.

Long ago, long, long ago! Jimmy Merrill used to read Byron’s poems. I love the first canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. But then Byron gets into the shipwreck and it gets pretty long and cumbersome. Although Byron was always cast as the great Romantic, he was really an eighteenth-century poet and remained that way. It’s kind of wonderful. There are lots of things about the eighteenth century I like. Pope, I dearly love. The great exceptions, Burns and Blake and people like that, they are some of the marvelous poets of the eighteenth century. It’s a breath of fresh air when Wordsworth starts. Then Byron starts, but he’s into something else. With Blake, we’re so lucky that he’s part of our native language. I can’t imagine how you could ever translate Blake.

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