- Quotes, Reading, Writing

“Now all my teachers are dead except silence.”

R.I.P., W. S. Merwin. Here are some quotes from his writing.

“The kind of writing that matters most to me is something you don’t learn about. It’s constantly coming out of what I don’t know rather than what I do know. I find it as I go. In a sense, much that is learned is bound to be bad habits. You’re always beginning again.”

“I wasn’t suggesting that narrative is anti-poetic at all. I don’t even think of prose as being anti-poetic. What I was suggesting is that I think that the more imaginative intensity there is in poetry or in prose the more it calls in question the difference between poetry and prose, so that if you get a great deal of intensity in prose, rhythms begin to emerge, powerful rhythms, and various things happen in the texture so that people begin to say it’s poetic, whatever they mean by that. If there’s great intensity in poetry, sometimes it leads toward a rhetorical thickening of texture, but sometimes it drives the poetry toward a greater and greater surface simplicity so that it begins to seems almost like prose…I’m trying to say that from either side great intensity follows this shifting, this undefinable boundary in question. What is the difference between poetry and prose? You can make a definition but it’s not going to be applicable forever in all circumstances. This confusion arises out of the fact that the old categories are getting in the way rather than helping to direct and to provide energy. I don’t mean that I think there are never going to be categories but we’re going to have to remake them, or else they’re going to form themselves again.”

“I think compassion and imagination go together. If you give up trying to use your imagination for new things and for expanding yourself, you begin to wither away. And if you begin to draw back from your compassion, you begin to wither away, too. Compassion and imagination—not intelligence—are what make the human species valuable. And that’s our gift; that’s our great talent, and if we don’t live up to it, it will kill us. If you don’t live up to your talent, it kills you. That’s why I think it’s important to include public life, or one’s feelings about public life, in one’s writing.”

“One of the things that’s hard to talk to people about is that knowledge is all that we know–which is admirable and impressive and fantastic and unique–is nothing in comparison with what we don’t know. And it will always be nothing–the unknown is always going to be far greater.”

“If you focus on anger, you lose touch with why you’re defending something in the first place: that you revere it and love it and respect it.”

“I don’t like using the word environment…I don’t like the word nature. I don’t like using them because they make it seem as though we’re not nature. Anything we do to the rest of the world we’re doing to ourselves.”

“The connection is there—our blood is connected with the sea. It’s the recognition of that connection. It’s the sense that we are absolutely, intimately connected with every living thing. We don’t have to be sentimental and pious about it, but we can’t turn our backs on that fact and survive. When we destroy the so-called natural world around us we’re simply destroying ourselves. And I think it’s irreversible.”



Certain words now in our knowledge we will not use again, and we will never forget them. We need them. Like the back of the picture. Like our marrow, and the color in our veins. We shine the lantern of our sleep on them, to make sure, and there they are, trembling already for the day of witness. They will be buried with us, and rise with the rest.

—from The Book of Fables


My Friends

My friends without shields walk on the target

It is late the windows are breaking

My friends without shoes leave
What they love
Grief moves among them as a fire among
Its bells
My friends without clocks turn
On the dial they turn
They part

My friends with names like gloves set out
Bare handed as they have lived
And nobody knows them
It is they that lay the wreaths at the milestones it is their
Cups that are found at the wells
And are then chained up

My friends without feet sit by the wall
Nodding to the lame orchestra
Brotherhood it says on the decorations
My friend without eyes sits in the rain smiling
With a nest of salt in his hand

My friends without fathers or houses hear
Doors opening in the darkness
Whose halls announce

Behold the smoke has come home

My friends and I have in common
The present a wax bell in a wax belfry
This message telling of
Metals this
Hunger for the sake of hunger this owl in the heart
And these hands one
For asking one for applause

My friends with nothing leave it behind
In a box
My friends without keys go out from the jails it is night
They take the same road they miss
Each other they invent the same banner in the dark
They ask their way only of sentries too proud to breathe

At dawn the stars on their flag will vanish

The water will turn up their footprints and the day will rise
Like a monument to my
Friends the forgotten

—from The Moving Target



My friend says I was not a good son
you understand
I say yes I understand

he says I did not go
to see my parents very often you know
and I say yes I know

even when I was living in the same city he says
maybe I would go there once
a month or maybe even less
I say oh yes

he says the last time I went to see my father
I say the last time I saw my father

he says the last time I saw my father
he was asking me about my life
how I was making out and he
went into the next room
to get something to give me

oh I say
feeling again the cold
of my father’s hand the last time
he says and my father turned
in the doorway and saw me
look at my wristwatch and he
said you know I would like you to stay
and talk with me

oh yes I say

but if you are busy he said
I don’t want you to feel that you
have to
just because I’m here

I say nothing

he says my father
said maybe
you have important work you are doing
or maybe you should be seeing
somebody I don’t want to keep you

I look out the window
my friend is older than I am
he says and I told my father it was so
and I got up and left him then
you know

though there was nowhere I had to go
and nothing I had to do

—from Opening the Hand



with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

—from Migration: New & Selected Poems


The Wings of Daylight

Brightness appears showing us everything
it reveals the splendors it calls everything
but shows it to each of us alone
and only once and only to look at
not to touch or hold in our shadows
what we see is never what we touch
what we take turns out to be something else
what we see that one time departs untouched
while other shadows gather around us
the world’s shadows mingle with our own
we had forgotten them but they know us
they remember us as we always were
they were at home here before the first came
everything will leave us except the shadows
but the shadows carry the whole story
at first daybreak they open their long wings

—from Garden Time


After the Alphabet

I am trying to decipher the language of insects
they are the tongues of the future
their vocabularies describe buildings as food
they can depict dark water and the veins of trees
they can convey what they do not know
and what is known at a distance
and what nobody knows
they have terms for making music with the legs
they can recount changing in a sleep like death
they can sing with wings
the speakers are their own meaning in a grammar without horizons
they are wholly articulate
they are never important they are everything

—from The Rain in the Trees


Coming to the Morning

You make me remember all of the elements
the sea remembering all of its waves

in each of the waves there was always a sky made of water
and an eye that looked once

there was the shape of one mountain
and a blood kinship with rain

and the air for touch and for the tongue
at the speed of light

in which the world is made
from a single ear

and our ears
are formed of the sea as we listen

—from The Rain in the Trees


Another Dream of Burial

Sometimes it is a walled garden
with the stone over the entrance
broken and inside it a few
silent dried-up weeds or it may
be a long pool perfectly still
with the clear water revealing
no color but that of the gray
stone around it and once there was
in a painting of a landscape
one torn place imperfectly mended
that showed the darkness under it
but still I have set nothing down
and turned and walked away from it
into the whole world

—from The Shadow of Sirius

Leave a Reply