Thursday, June 19, 2014

how can you ever be sure


by W. S. Merwin

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 thought 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

And so that's John Berryman's advice to W. S. Merwin.

Nothing more true: if you have to be sure that what you write is good, then don't write.

Even if you've published half a dozen books, you don't really know if what you've written is going to last, or if it's any good. You can't believe the critics - we know they foul up regularly. And besides, it's difficult to judge our contemporaries. We won't know how the 22nd century views the work of the early 21st century. It doesn't matter anyway - we'll be long gone.

I don't need fame, I just need to be writing. I want the juice of it and the passion that's in writing. I want enough time alone. And in wanting that I suppose there's a fair bit of arrogance, too. One has to think well enough of one's project to claim the necessary time.

There's a passage in Mary Ruefle's Madness, Rack and Honey where she talks about filling out a grant application and where she finds herself saying: "I seek an extended period of time, free from all distractions, so that I might be free to be distracted."

Which is so exactly the truth.

Meanwhile, it's been a week of good long early morning walks with Ace. Beginning in my front yard.

The single peony at the end of things. (The ones in the backyard haven't yet bloomed).

Our zone 2 rhododendrons. We originally had two plants, but lost one a couple of years ago, so I'm alway really happy to see this one has overwintered.

The unglamorous side of the walking path which is near a highway and utility corridor:

The red building you see on the horizon is the Shopper's Drug Mart.

The utility corridor is right now stuffed to the brim with dandelion puffs.

And this is the other side of the path - the more lovely trees and long stretch of grey fence.

Here we have ventured into the field of the utility corridor - just a little because there are too many coyotes out there these days.

Lastly, the fence at the end of my street near the bus stop.


  1. Hi Shawna. I just wanted to say that I've come to your lovely blog via Kerry Clare's picklemethis & it's so beautiful I *never* want to glad to have found your wonderful combination of words & photos! Thank you! Sarah

    1. Sarah - how lovely of you to say this. Made my day :)

      Off to check your blog!


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