Wick Poetry Center News
Merwin’s Visit to KSU Entrances AudiencePosted Nov. 1, 2011
Those familiar with Merwin’s poetry typically comment on the unpunctuated, dreamlike style that evokes the rhythms of the natural world on the page. That October day, whether speaking about his former mentor John Berryman, or his thoughts on Walt Whitman and western expansion, Merwin wove together experience and knowledge in the same way his poetry meanders through philosophy and simple observation. Merwin’s thoughtful responses stretched across disciplines and genres, and his responses to questions mirrored the layering effect present in his poetry as well.
A few days before Merwin’s visit, I had held my own reading discussion group at Coventry Library in Cleveland Heights. The conversation traced Merwin’s usage of the collective voice and other ancestral qualities present in his poetry. In preparation for his visit, the reading group assembled to enjoy Merwin’s poetry in a small setting so everyone could discuss what elements they enjoyed on the page. As an intern at the Wick Poetry Center, I loved leading the group because of the enthusiasm poetry brought to our circle. Our discussion wove elements of history, guesses about Merwin’s state of mind, and the love of his metaphors. The conversation lasted for almost two hours, until we were forced to wrap up the discussion because the library was closing. Even in a small group, Merwin’s work brought out passion for poetry in every attendant.
As I sat in the KSU library, I listened to Merwin tell the audience that his prolific career was the result of a love of words. He advised new poets to start by reading what they love. “If you like Hallmark greeting cards,” he said, “read lots of Hallmark greeting cards. Maybe they will lead you to something.” When asked on his thoughts about writing poetry from pain, rather than love, Merwin said it was impossible to have one without the other. “Look at the anxiety of going to sports that you’re interested in and taking sides,” he said. “Being terribly upset one minute and terribly elated the next one and always on this roller coaster. It’s never absolutely simple or singular.” Toward the end of the session, Merwin told the audience, “Poetry begins with listening.” He challenged the crowd to listen and heed the advice the late John Berryman had given him: you never learn how to write a poem; you can just write as you know it. The vibrancy, the life of the poem, should remain mysterious. “If you love a poem, each time you read it, you’re reading something new,” Merwin said. “I can’t explain it to you. I have no way of explaining it to myself. But I know that it happens.”
Later that night in the KSU Student Center, Merwin read to a crowd of more than seven hundred. His reading included selections from his most recent book, Shadow of Sirius (Copper Canyon 2008), recipient of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, and other works, both familiar and new. His reading of “Gracenote” spoke to the rhythms of life, highlighting his belief in the interconnectedness of our lives and the natural world. The interplay and conflict between emotions, such as happiness and grief, cultivated passion, Merwin argued, probing the complexity of poetry. To exist without enjoying these tensions lessened the mystery in the work, and also the imagination, which Merwin stated, is quintessential to who we are. Merwin’s reading and his discourse between poems wove each audience member into the same fold, and for almost two hours we sat transfixed, silently gathering his words as if he were doling out directions for a map to the core of human beliefs and experiences.