The poet W. S. Merwin describes a ‘confrontation’ with his father, a Presbyterian Minister.
”I would stand in front of his (study) desk, uncomfortable, hot, wondering what I had done wrong now, and he would tell me to shut the door behind me. Then he would fish in the lower recesses of his desk for a moment, shut a drawer and sigh, and tell me we just were not spending enough time together, he and I, and that he was sorry it was happening but he could not help it right now because he was so busy and had so much on his mind. But these were precious years that would not come again. He would tell me how hard things had been for him as a boy, and how fortunate we were, we children, and how much easier life was for us, with our yard to play in. And he said how important it was for me to study hard and do well at school. … Then he would start telling me about insurance, how I would come to realize its importance when I was older. … And he might give me something, such as a card printed with the Ten Commandments, … and pat me and say he would try to find more time to be together, and we would be pals, and I would nod, and go, feeling grief inextricably tangled with my own unexpected and unconvincing goodness, and shutting the door behind me.”
(from here )
Trying to express that, it’s inexpressible, and poetry is really to say what can’t be said. And that’s why people turn to it in these moments. They don’t know how to say this, [but] part of them feels that maybe a poem will say it. It won’t say it, but it’ll come closer to saying it than anything else will.
I think there are always two sides, and one of them is the unsayable. The utterly singular. Who you are; who you can never tell anybody. And on the other hand, there is what you can express. How do we know about this thing we talk about? Because we talk about it. We’re using words. And the words never say it, but the words are all we have to say it.” W.S Merwin
Patt Morison: . . . even people who’ve never read a poem by choice will, under emotional stress — a family death, or 9/11 — sit down and try to write a poem. What is happening there?
W.S. Merwin: We begin to say something that cannot be said. When you see on the front page a woman in Iraq who’s just seen her husband blown up, you see her there, her mouth wide open, you know the sound coming out of her, a howl of grief and pain — that’s the beginning of language.
Trying to express that, it’s inexpressible, and poetry is really [there] to say what can’t be said. And that’s why people turn to it in these moments. They don’t know how to say this, [but] part of them feels that maybe a poem will say it. It won’t say it, but it’ll come closer to saying it than anything else will.
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.
W.S. Merwin, The Paris Review, The Art of Poetry No. 38
Interviewed by Edward Hirsch