The former United States poet laureate and two-time Pulitzer Prize winning poet will make that case on Monday when he gives a free reading at Emory University. At 85 years old, Merwin, has a body of work that reflects the issues that have captured his imagination, from the Vietnam war to the loss of large swaths of the natural world to over-development. The third volume of his collected poems, from 1996-2011, will be released later this month by Library of America.
Here, he talks about writing by hand, shunning email and why punctuation is of little use to him.
Q: Early in your career, you were a translator. What influence did that have on your development as a poet?
A: For years, I thought I’d keep them separate, translation and poetry. And then I realized you can’t keep anything separate in your life. When I was 18, I went to see [poet] Ezra Pound. At that point I did not know his politics. They said he was crazy, but he took me seriously. He said, ‘If you’re going to be a poet, you have to take it seriously. The way you do it is to learn languages and to translate them. That will teach you more about your own language than you can learn in any other way.’ And he was absolutely right.
Q: Is it true that you’ve never written a poem using a computer?
A: I’ve never written on a computer. This may betray my generation, but I think trying to write poems on a computer is a misfortune.I keep notes in spiral notebooks and eventually sit down and go over my notes and piece together what they have to do with each other. I’m not part of the virtual world. I use it when I have to. I don’t go surfing online and I don’t do email. I’m going to spend two hours in my garden and then rush in to see if I have an email? Think of the assumption behind it — that you are available at someone else’s convenience whenever they want to send this message through to you and they want an immediate answer.
Q: Do you write every day?
A: I try to. Now, there are more and more demands on my time. But I try to have the first hours of the day uninterrupted and to spend an hour or two with my notebooks, my own thoughts and silence.
Q: You live in such a marvelous environment, in Hawaii on an old pineapple farm that you have restored. Do you feel as though it has made you a better poet?
A: I don’t know. But I tend to shy away from big cities.
Q: I’ve never been able to master the use of a comma. You are a poet who does not use punctuation at all and, for some reason, that gives me great comfort. Why don’t you use it?
A: I came to it slowly, back in the 1960s. The important thing is hearing poetry. Not reading it on the page. When we hear poetry, we don’t put little dots and commas in the air. There are some people who make little quotation marks in the air with their fingers and I always think it’s silly. Punctuation really is there for prose rather than for poetry. And, little by little, I tried to reduce it and limit it. I have a feeling that all this punctuation is meant to nail the poem to the page and one doesn’t want the poem to be nailed to the page. If a poem is not punctuated, there’s an invitation to read them out loud. And that’s exactly what I want, to read it out loud.
Q: I read a quote by the late film critic Roger Ebert, who said that, in judging a film’s worth, ‘your intellect may be confused, but your emotions never lie to you.’ Can the same be said for judging the worth of a poem?
A: That’s right. I think so, too. The response to poetry comes from something you hear and something you feel. Then what you understand about it comes later, when you hear it again and begin to ponder what it’s really about. If it’s a good poem, you can ponder it for a very long time.