W.S. Merwin's "Elegy"
On a year of writing about poems.
Who would I show it to
from The Collected Poems (2013)
In his obituary for W.S. Merwin, the poet and critic Dan Chiasson calls this the “shortest great poem, ever written.” Though I’m not one for those kinds of laurels — great, good, the best, whatever — I’d tend to agree.
Today marks a year (minus a few days) since I began writing this newsletter, which began for some fairly simple reasons: quarantine had reached its extended apex, social media — and the regularity by which I felt compelled to post — felt exhausting, and I wanted to see what might happen if I spent some quality time with poems, just by themselves.
I turn to this poem to celebrate such an occasion because it feels apt. I know I’ve written about Merwin before, but this poem has always been stunning, not for its terse simplicity, but for what it insinuates. Here you have Merwin, a poet of profound wonder, someone utterly given to awe and the kind of questioning it inspires, someone who wrote lines such as:
from what we cannot hold the stars are made
I was looking up and I said
I am the only chance I have
then the sky did not answer
Would I love it this way if it could last
and, in an interview:
Our hope is not a thing in the future; it’s a way of seeing the present.
So here you have Merwin, a poet of such universality, taking a universally-revered form of poetry — the elegy — and wondering about its worth. By writing who would I show it to, Merwin is, in some ways, questioning the purpose of poetry. I read in such a questioning a desire to conjure up a poetics that has something to do with givingness. If something or someone is lost, Merwin seems to be saying, and if I must write an elegy about such a thing or such a person, then how can I give it to them? How can I return the love that the loss left me thinking of? What good, then, is a poem if I can’t?
I usually begin writing these little essays on Friday nights. I sit — often with a glass of whiskey, a week of teaching behind me — and think about a poem I read over the course of the past week that moved me. I set aside time for reading every day. I get up a few hours before I have to be at my school, and sit with my coffee and read. It’s the first thing I do. Now, a few months after my knee surgery, I wake up at the same time, wrap this weird electric stimulation pad around my leg, and shock my quad into strength as I read. The reading hasn’t changed, just the aesthetics of it. I spend most of this morning-reading-time with whatever book of prose I’m consumed with at the moment, but before I do that, I pick a book of poetry off of a shelf and flip to a page and read a poem. Sometimes I read a few. Sometimes I pick another book of poetry and do the same. By the time Friday rolls around, I usually have a line or a stanza or a whole ass poem just rattling around in my head. So I write about it.
People often talk about what poetry is for. They talk about the purpose of poetry. Merwin himself said, in his interview with The Paris Review:
Poetry [is] both exhilarating and painful all the time. It’s conveying both the great possibility and the thing that we can’t do.
The thing is, I don’t know what poetry is for. I do know, however, what poetry has offered and continues to offer for me. When I write about poems, I often use words like model or enact. I’ve probably written, verbatim: this poem enacts such and such a thing. Or this poem models a kind of [insert feeling or way of being]. But even though such things are true, or seem true, I wouldn’t say that poems tell us how to live a life. If they did, we’d all be trying to live so many different lives at once. So many lives other than our own.
The title for this newsletter is taken from the first poem I wrote about, Lisel Mueller’s “There Are Mornings,” where she writes:
But the plot
calls for me to live,
I’ve always found those lines arresting. They exist within a poem, and a poem so often is a work of spectacular language, and yet, within such spectacularity, Mueller reminds herself of her ordinariness. For a long time, I believed in such spectacular language more than anything else. I believed in lines you could live by, lines you could pull out of a poem and tattoo on your body, as I have done (and don’t yet regret — thank you Steve Scafidi). But I don’t think that’s entirely what I look for in a poem anymore. I used to look for such things in an almost hyperbolic way. I wanted to find poems that had lines that rendered themselves as instantly quotable. I’d post them on social media, and still do, and then do it again and again. I did and do such things out of earnestness, yes, and also love, too. I want people to see what poems offer. But I often think about how this can be a kind of reduction. Rather than wanting people to see poems as objects worth attention that worked through a narrative, or burdened themselves with a question, I sometimes wanted people to see poems as mere runways to profundity. Roadmaps of lines and language that would take readers to the line or the language that was worth singling out.
Sometimes all poems fall prey to the generalizations of all poems that the readings of some poems offer. (I know that’s a mouthful. Just read it again! I think it means what I’m trying to make it mean. Anyways.) When I have reduced entire poems to the quotable nature of a few lines, I’ve contributed to this. If you read the title of Hanif Abdurraqib’s poem “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This” and the first line of Noor Hindi’s poem, “Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying” — which begins: Only colonizers write about flowers — you might think that the poems contradict each other. If you were thinking reductively, only picking at bits and pieces of each poem, you’d be even more assured of such a viewpoint. And yet, if you read each poem in its entirety, you might realize that both poems get at similar points in different ways. That it matters what we compare things to. That part of power means having the agency to choose your comparisons, rather than to be burdened by the comparisons of others. That part of power also means you can distance yourself from the harm you cause, and you can provide that distance through something like a metaphor, a poem, anything but the hard truth. That what we choose to compare things to, and what we choose, even, to compare, reveals something about ourselves.
We don’t all live the same human life, but we do each live a life. When you read poems, you learn about the many ways in which this same life is entirely different in singular ways, and very much the same in ways bordering on the collective. The word learn is a funny word, because it carries with it a connotation that borders on the esoteric. We don’t want to say we learned from a poem, because it makes it seem as if poems have to teach us something, and, if that were the case, it would mean that poets are teachers, and, well, that’s just a lot of pressure to put on a poet. And, hell, not all poets would make great teachers. And yet, here’s a list of things I’ve learned from poems. I’ve learned about ableism, depression, love, kindness, generosity, joy, racism, intergenerational conflict, the South, desire, heartbreak, loss, grief, religion, individuality, gender, sexuality, fluidity, kindness, violence. The list goes on. I’ve also learned about line breaks, turns of phrase, alliteration, argument, blank space, the mouth-widening of language. I’ve learned a lot about expansiveness. Also time. Loneliness.
I’ve learned about such things not because I think that poems set out to teach them. Or that a poem is a lesson. Or that a poem is a riddle, meant to be figured out. Or that a poem is a proverb, a directive, a set of rules. Or, to say the opposite, that a poem is simply what you make of it, as if a poem is an accidental splotch of paint on an accidental canvas hanging in an accidental room in an accidental world full of accidental people walking by and drawing their own conclusions about accidental things. Rather, I’ve learned things from poems for the same reason people learn about anything: because they’ve spent quality time with it. When you sit with a single poem for a long time, when you type it out, when you speak it, when you try to unpack a line or feel the way a phrase fills your mouth, you begin to notice more about what the poem offers outward. When you pay attention — to anything, really, that has also been paid attention to in its creation — then the act of attention does not serve as an act of narrowing. Rather, it’s an opening — a givingness, to use that word again. All these doors open up the more you pay attention. They open out to light. They open to other rooms, other floors. They open to a hidden staircase. Another door.
I don’t think it’s even remotely controversial to say that our world encourages us to spread our attention across an ever-increasing array of consumable items and words and images and stories. Like time, attention is a commodity. You only have so much of it to give, and the more you give of it, the less you have. It’s like we’re all pushing 100 miles an hour on a highway to death that’s littered with an exponentially-increasing amount of billboards, and we can barely see the sky, and we’re scanning the billboards because we know a few of them are important but we don’t know why, and by the time we think we’ve found something important, we can only read the bold print, never the other writing, and then we’re long gone.
As such, I think making the decision to spend quality time with anything is a kind of radical act in a world that makes it so difficult to spend quality time with anything at all. In March, Mary Retta wrote in The Columbia Journalism Review:
Only about sixteen percent of news-readers in the United States pay for subscriptions, which means that everyone else is locked out of knowledge, and likely to encounter a disproportionate amount of far-right fodder, often strewn with misinformation.
Scroll through Twitter, and you’ll click links to articles you have to pay for. You’ll see people making judgements based on headlines that rarely even convey the main thrust of an article. You’ll see news outlets reporting an article in a Twitter thread, knowing that people won’t afford the click, but hoping people might subscribe. Everyone is asking for your time, and then asking you to pay to spend your time somewhere. And sometimes, that payment is necessary to support quality art or quality journalism or quality whatever. But sometimes that payment — of your time, or your money, or both — is too much, and you move on to the next seller. And again, and again.
Over the last year, I’ve written over 100,000 words about over 50 poems. I am not necessarily a better person for it. I have no idea how I would even quantify that betterness. But every Friday and Saturday, when I set aside time to think about whatever poem I am writing about, I also think about what I value, and why. And over the last year, I have certainly thought a lot more about what I value. And I think I owe poems, and the time I have spent with them, for that, especially in a year where my exhaustion has been tested (and perhaps yours, too), and my grace has been tested (and perhaps yours, too), and my will to extend my heart toward anything has been tested (and perhaps yours, too). I have learned to value my relationship to loneliness, thanks to the way Sasha Fletcher enacts such a thing in his poem “when i go to bed i go to bed with the lights on,” where he writes about his trembling heart, the fear of it, and the desire to be more despite knowing it is okay to be less. I have learned to value questioning through the litany of questions provided by Donika Kelly in her poem “A Poem to Remind Myself of the Natural Order of Things.” I have learned to value witness, and the way Roger Reeves gets at the humility of such an act in his poem, “Children Listen.” I have learned to value an expanded sense of the collective, thanks to poets like Diane di Prima and Kimberly Grey and Sanna Wani.
This is why I think Merwin’s question — who would I show it to — in today’s poem is so apt and beautiful and sorrow-filled. When we leave a poem, any poem, we find ourselves in a world that demands things of us, among people who are demanding and people who are loving and people who are trying. A poem doesn’t save us from this world, and it doesn’t save the world from whatever the world might need saving from. But a poem is, in and of itself, a kind of value that someone cultivated within this world from those very needs and desires and questions. Someone spent time to get at something, to poke around at an idea, to question the shit out of the world, to criticize, to tell you a story, to just exist within language and its various limits and limitlessnesses. To spend time with that time spent can be a really beautiful thing. I’d encourage it.
A poem can be an event of attention. That’s what I hear when I read Merwin ask who would I show it to. I see him finishing the elegy. I see him rising from his chair, holding the just-finished poem in his hand. I see him crying, maybe, at the memory of loss that compelled him to write, and crying, too, at the attention spent in value of that loss. And in value of the uncertainty of grief. The sometimes-rigor of love. And then I see him lost, too, lost in his desire for someone to spend time with this thing he has spent time with. The way two people pass a photograph back and forth. The way you tell the same story, over and over again, with the same people. I see him standing at a funeral with no one in attendance. It’s a devastating thought.
I hope we all can sit in the forever-loss that is this world with people we have cultivated the love and care required to speak of such loss. I hope we can pay attention to one another in such a way that cultivates that care. I hope we can spend time with the line breaks of one another, the alliterations and consonance, the complexity and profundity and ordinariness. Every waking minute of each day is its own elegy. To spend time with it, to pay attention to it, is a way to create some sense of care out of the loneliness that loss pushes us toward. The magic of poetry is not that it creates this care out of nothing. No. It’s just that it models, sometimes, the way attention can lead to care. To be attentive to anything is so often an act of love.
I’d encourage you to spend quality time with a single poem today. With a painting. With a few minutes of that movie you love so much. With that photograph on your dresser. With a song. I’d encourage you to spend quality time with a person if you can. To pay attention. So much that is lost today goes unnoticed, or is noticed briefly, but never held in the real gaze of witness. It’s a terrible thing — to go unnoticed. To not be seen. To spend quality time with something or someone — well, it can get a little weird. A little messy. But it’s better that way. It’s better than a world of gloss with the absence of texture. I practice paying attention to a poem every week because I want to miss the world when I am gone. I want to know there was something worth missing, something beautiful, worth criticizing. I want my mouth full of phrases. I want a million ways to describe a sky. I don’t want to tell myself that I know everything, that I can no longer be surprised. So I read. I’d encourage it. It makes me want to look, and keep looking, for as long as I can. And fuck, I love looking. It’s a real joy.