W.S. Merwin on poetry and the via negativa

Yesterday’s episode of Bill Moyers’ Journal featured W.S. Merwin, in a wide-ranging discussion that kept coming back to what I gather is the apophatic premise of his new, Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Shadow of Sirius. PBS won’t let me embed the video, but it does provide a full transcript I can quote from.

BILL MOYERS: You titled this new book, the one that just one the Pulitzer Prize, “In The Shadow of Sirius”. Now, Sirius is the dog star. The most luminous star in the sky. Twenty-five times more luminous than the sun. And yet, you write about its shadow. Something that no one has never seen. Something that’s invisible to us. Help me to understand that.

W.S. MERWIN: That’s the point. The shadow of Sirius is pure metaphor, pure imagination. But we live in it all the time.


W.S. MERWIN: We are the shadow of Sirius. There is the other side of– as we talk to each other, we see the light, and we see these faces, but we know that behind that, there’s the other side, which we never know. And that — it’s the dark, the unknown side that guides us, and that is part of our lives all the time. It’s the mystery. That’s always with us, too. And it gives the depth and dimension to the rest of it.

BILL MOYERS: But this is the first poem in the book. Would you read this for us?

W.S. MERWIN: That must be “The Nomad Flute.”

You that sang to me once sing to me now
let me hear your long lifted note
survive with me
the star is fading
I can think farther than that but I forget
do you hear me

do you still hear me
does your air
remember you
o breath of morning
night song morning song
I have with me
all that I do not know
I have lost none of it

but I know better now
than to ask you
where you learned that music
where any of it came from
once there were lions in China

I will listen until the flute stops
and the light is old again

BILL MOYERS: “I have with me all that I do not know. I have lost none of it.” What — how do you carry with you what you do not know?

W.S. MERWIN: We always do that. I think that poetry and the most valuable things in our lives, and in fact the next sentence, your next question to me, Bill, come out of what we don’t know. They don’t come out of what we do know. They come out of what we do know, but what we do know doesn’t make them. The real source of them is beyond that. It’s something we don’t know. They arise by themselves. And that’s a process that we never understand.

BILL MOYERS: And that’s true of poetry.

W.S. MERWIN: That’s true of poetry. All the — I think poetry always comes out of what you don’t know. And with students I say, knowledge is very important. Learn languages. Read history. Read, listen, above all, listen to everybody. Listen to everything that you hear. Every sound in the street. Every bird and every dog and everything that you hear. But know all of your knowledge is important, but your knowledge will never make anything. It will help you to form the things, but what makes something is something that you will never know. It comes out of you. It’s who you are. Who are you, Bill?


Poetry’s really about what can’t be said. And you address it when you can’t find words for something. And the idea is, is that the poet probably finds words for things. But if you ask the poet, the poet will tell you, you can’t find words for it. Nobody finds words for grief. Nobody finds words for love. Nobody finds words for lust. Nobody found — finds words for real anger. These are things that always escape words.


One of the great themes that runs through poetry, all poetry, and I think is one of the reasons for poetry, one of the sources of poetry, one of the sources of language, is the feeling of loss. The feeling of losing things. Not being able to hold, keep things. That’s what grief — I mean, grief is the feeling of having lost. Of having something being out of reach. Gone. Inaccessible. And I think that that’s a theme that runs through much of all poetry. But I think the language itself and poetry are born the same way.

As I said before, you know, I think poetry’s about what can’t be said. And I think that language emerges out of what could not be said. Out of this desperate desire to utter something, to express something inexpressible. Probably grief. Maybe something else. You know, you see a silent photograph of an Iraqi woman who’s husband or son or brother has just been killed by an explosion. And you know that if you could hear, you would be hearing one long vowel of grief. Just senseless, meaningless vowel of grief. And that’s the beginning of language right there.

Inexpressible sound. And it’s antisocial. It’s destructive. It’s utterly painful beyond expression. And the consonants are the attempts to break it, to control it, to do something with it. And I think that’s how language emerged.

If you can spare an hour, watch the show here. (This should remain up and accessible on the web indefinitely.) I find Merwin’s example enormously inspiring; it would be fair to say he’s been a bit of a role model for me.

7 Replies to “W.S. Merwin on poetry and the via negativa”

  1. I was spellbound. And can understand that he’s a bit of a role model for you. I admire him & would hope to learn from him.

    The part about advice, from Pound, no less, was fascinating. The importance of translation took on new meaning. Makes me want to try it, even in middle-age.

    1. I’ve found translation enormously challenging and rewarding, though I don’t think the results have been especially memorable. I should point out that I don’t know any of the languages I’ve attempted to translate from particularly well. Merwin has done some great translations, especially from the French and Spanish.

      Here’s more of the footage from the Academy of American Poets video that Moyers excerpted. From the transcript:

      I went to see Ezra Pound when I was eighteen, when I was in college. He was in the psycho ward at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, which was the way his defense lawyer had saved him from being shot for treason for the things he’d said during World War II. The plea of insanity: they said that he was crazy, and he probably was a little crazy. I knew nothing about his politics, fortunately, and he, to my amazement now, took me seriously as a poet. He decided, “this is a young man who wants to be a poet,” and he accepted that.

      And he said: “If you want to be a poet you have to take it seriously; you have to work on it the way you would work on anything else, and you have to do it every day.” He said: “You should write about seventy-five lines a day”—you know Pound was a great one for the laying down the law about how you did anything—and he said, “and you don’t have anything to write seventy-five lines about a day.” He said: “You don’t really have anything to write about at the age of eighteen. You think you do, but you don’t.” And he said: “The way to do it is to learn a language and translate. That way you can practice, and you can find out what you can do with your language, with your language.” He said: “You can learn a foreign language, but the translation is your way of learning your own language.”

  2. I’ve paused to say: confirmation for loving Stevenson! And although Merwin’s own poetry has never snagged my interest, what a wise, luminous soul he is. A bit like Jimmy Carter –you should forgive the comparison — reduced to the internal flame.

  3. A friend sent the Merwin link to me (on facebook of all places) . I’m not sure how many times I have watched it…but many. The line that I can’t get out of my head is ” On the last day of the world, I would plant a tree”.
    Dave, I think the writing you do plants many trees in many hearts. Thank you.

    1. Glad you liked that. I smiled at that quote, because my blogger-friend Sherry Chandler, a poet from Kentucky, had it in the masthead of her blog for many months. It’s definitely a challenging perspective on ethical behavior.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.