Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Poem of the Day: BERRYMAN by WS Merwin

by W.S. Merwin

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


  1. Liked this poem.

    Philip Levine in his prose memoir book The Bread of Time also talks some about John Berryman -- he was a student for a semester in a poetry writing class Berryman taught at the U. of Iowa back in the 1950's (during the years before Creative Writing MFA programs had mushroomed up all over the landscape). According to Levine's recollection, Berryman was every bit as severe in his advice to his students as Merwin describes in the poem.

    The line (in Merwin's poem) about papering your walls with rejection slips makes me wonder when Merwin wrote this -- I've heard/read the same advice, the same exact words, "paper your walls with rejection slips," numerous times over the years.

    After I first read or heard the suggestion, I took it almost literally for a while. I didn't actually paste them as wallpaper, but for several years when I was first writing, I used to tack rejection slips up on a bulletin board on the wall across from a couch where I frequently sat and wrote, so they would be staring at me while I was writing.

    In a way, I think it helped me to shrug them off, or develop a thick skin, or stare back defiantly, or whatever way to put it. Eventually the trick seemed to have served its purpose, and I stopped tacking the rejection slips up on the wall. However useful it might have been for me at the time, in retrospect I don't think I'd offer the same advice to anyone else. Better just to toss the rejection slips and keep writing.

  2. Lovely poem-thanks for posting it. Owen Scott

  3. what has always resonated with me is the ending, "if you have to be sure, don't write."

  4. Who knows where to download XRumer 5.0 Palladium?
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  5. I love this poem. It's probably in my top 10 favorite Merwin poems.

  6. I come to this post a lot. Thanks for giving this poem an online presence that I can keep referring to. :^)>

  7. I'm glad you like it. It's one of my favorites (if not my favorite ) poem ever!


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