Sep. 30, 2003


by W. S. Merwin

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Poem: "Berryman," by W.S. Merwin, from Flower & Hand (Copper Canyon Press).


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

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of poet W.S. Merwin, born in New York City (1927). His father was a Presbyterian minister, and Merwin made up hymns before he could even write. Merwin is a pacifist, environmentalist, and Buddhist. When he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Carrier of the Ladder in 1971, he gave his $1,000 award to an anti-war demonstration. He currently lives in Hawaii, in a house built on an old pineapple farm where he preserves many native plants. Merwin's recent poetry reflects his passion for conservation, especially in the books The Vixen (1996), The River Sound (1999), and The Pupil (2001). W.S. Merwin said, "The world is still here, and there are aspects of human life that are not purely destructive, and there is a need to pay attention to the things around us while they are still around us. And you know, in a way, if you don't pay that attention, the anger is just bitterness."

It's the anniversary of the first edition of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women in 1868. The success of the book made Alcott famous as a children's author. But her real passion was for dark and sensational stories with brilliant, diabolical woman protagonists. Her father, Bronson Alcott, was a famous educator and friend of Emerson and Thoreau. He pressured his daughter to write a children's book. She responded by saying, "[I] never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters, but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it." Little Women was so popular that she wrote two sequels, Little Men (1871) and Jo's Boys (1886).

It's the birthday of mystery writer Michael Innes, born John Innes Mackintosh Stewart near Edinburgh (1906). He went to school at Oxford University, where he became close friends with the writers Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden. In 1936 he sailed to Australia to start his first teaching job at Adelaide University. On the boat to Australia he began writing a mystery to pass the time. He published the book, Death at the President's Lodge (1936), later that year. Innes's mysteries are known for their complex plots and scholarly allusions, and for his entire life, he was able to excel both as a scholar and a mystery writer.

It's the birthday of American writer Truman Capote, born in New Orleans (1924). Even as a child, Capote wanted to become famous. He moved with his mother to New York City and applied to the prestigious Trinity School. He was given an IQ test as an entrance exam, and he scored 215, the highest in the school's history. Capote said, "I was having 50 perceptions a minute to everyone else's five. I always felt nobody was going to understand me, going to understand what I felt about things. I guess that's why I started writing." One day he read a news release about the murder of a family in western Kansas, and he decided to write about it. He moved to Holcomb, Kansas with his friend Harper Lee, and became attached to the community as it recovered from the crime. Capote compiled over 6,000 pages of notes on the crime, 80% of which he threw away. Eventually, he wrote his most famous work, In Cold Blood (1966), about the murders. He got to know the two murderers well and worked for many years to have their death sentences reduced. When the two men were hanged, Capote became physically ill. In Cold Blood introduced a new genre, the "non-fiction novel." Capote received nearly two million dollars for text and movie rights.

Capote craved fame and spent much of his life socializing. He was an unassuming figure—small and with a high lisping voice. But he was a lively storyteller, and an expert charmer. George Plimpton said, "He knew he had to sing for his supper but, my God, what a song it was!"

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