If you have to be sure, don’t write

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 through 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

W.S. Merwin, Poet of Life’s Evanescence, Dies at 91



with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is

W.S. Merwin, “Thanks” from Migration: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 2005 by W.S. Merwin.

The More Loving One – W.H. Auden

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.


Photo: Town Landing, Falmouth, Maine – January 2015

Rilke, from Das Stundenbuch

In this town the last house stands
as lonely as if it were the last house in the world

The highway, which the tiny town is not able to stop,
slowly goes deeper out into the night.

The tiny town is only a passing-over place,
worried and afraid, between two huge spaces –
a path running past houses instead of a bridge.

And those who leave the town wander a long way off
and many perhaps die on the road.

Photo: South Portland, Maine – December 2018

As if the one tree you love

The Preacher
– Gerald Stern

As if the one tree you love so well and hardly
can embrace it is so huge so that with-
out it there might be a hole in the universe
explains how the killing of any one thing can
likewise make a hole except that without
its existence there was neither a hole nor not a hole
I said to my friend Peter and after he left
I walked to the tree again and put my arms
around the trunk or almost did for I was
embracing it preparatory should I say
to its dying for it was one of the many
dying trees along my river mainly
sycamore and locust—

you must tire I
said to Peter always hearing the same
trees sung the same words singing, the same
heart breaking I said and con permissione
I will change trees though I am almost eighty
now, but what the hell, there probably are
others along the river, though there was a point
when social security was kicking in I didn’t
go to the palms nor did I go to Boca
to traffic in herons nor did I go to Miami
where my people walk around in scary
black suits and hats perched over their other hats
just in case and just in case nor did I
go to California nor stay in Iowa nor
buy a farmhouse in the Pioneer Valley
south of Brattleboro, thanks God, thanks God—

and Peter interrupts me remembering a
squirrel in Iowa that bit all the daisies,
a mad squirrel of sorts but certes no madder
than our own hot shots with their squirrel rifles killing
squirrels from two miles up at wedding parties
of all things, of all things—

and that’s what you
mean by a hole in the universe, isn’t it, Peter
asks and he remembers the garden we built
and what we planted, how I went to the K-Mart
and bought the cardboard planters and plastic trays
and how we built a fence—give way to groundhogs
ye black potatoes and brown tomatoes, and ah
the railroad ties there planted in gravel and it
was a hole he dug—I came home one day and
he was into it up to his knees—

and Peter is
tall, and he remembers the cosmos, I the
delphiniums, but both of us hated that squirrel,
eating a daisy on the highest limb of
my apple tree, the one that died, and she just
laughing and giving us the finger, and on my
cell phone he remembers how we drove to
the kingdom of used lawn mowers, I on the way
yelling out the window to every mower
of hill and valley, how much will you take for
that lawn mower, that lawn mower, for
there is progress, n’est-ce pas, isn’t there
Peter, I used to hate green grass but now I
almost adore it, and what about the holes in
Europe and Asia I ask—

what of the holes in
this or that heart, he says—

I say repair it!

He says, and are you going to plant a Berber,
clever of hand, to cut the colored marble
and know how it looks a distance of five miles
as in that notebook you scratch away with your black
and red ballpoint you are so proud of, just like
the Berber chipping away knowing in your knuckles
what it will look like when it’s finished, each scratch
critical though it’s not as if you were writing
by the laws of Plato—perish the thought—it is
what it is—and you will look at it, you and me,
and say “that’s right,” not even, “that’s what I had
in mind,” for it is your knuckles that write, still blessed
by suppleness, if not your hips, if not
your knees, God bless your knees, God bless the cartilage,
God bless the ligaments—you with your hole in the universe,
so weird and extreme.

Peter says this, and he
and I trail off and since he gave me a tape
of Leonard Cohen with a voice so deep it shook
my red Honda, I thought therein did it lie,
something about Vienna, something Brooklyn,
her torn blue raincoat—or his—I can’t get the gender
right, the facts don’t add up, it’s Jane and it rhymes
with Lili Marlene, that famous lamppost, the same
nostalgia, his song or hers, Peter loves the turn
and does his preacherly voice, we have just half
a minute or so to talk and throw sentences
at one another, “no-one knows what it means,”
that is his favorite, “no-one can understand it,”
“we walk around in a fog,” I say that,
“and live in a mist,” “we are in a Russian
sweat house, climbing the bleachers, breathing pure steam.”
“It’s like the smoke,” he says, “in a Chinese painting,
there are the mountains and there is the hut you’ll live in,
you barely can see the trees in the little gorge
left side of the hut, the green intense,
the tops of fir trees almost touching the steep
broken path;” “it’s like living in a cloud,”
I say, “though the sun is shining, whatever that
means, when you’re healthy and money in your pocket,
and walking five miles an hour by your favorite
body of water it’s hard to remember the cloud,
you are so sure of yourself.”

“What made you think
of a hole the way you did?” he asks.

“My figures
always start with the literal and the spreading
is like blood spreading,” I say, “and as for for the wound it
comes from growing up with coal, the murder
of everything green, rivers burning, cities
emptied, humans herded, the vile thinking
of World War I and II, the hole in England,
the hole in Germany, and what we can’t en-
dure, the hole in Japan, Truman, the third
assistant baker’s helper, he should pick at
his harp in Hell, when I read about
Tamurlane, say, and how he piled up the heads,
and David and the Moabites, he made them
lie down to see who was longer or shorter and put
half of them to death, it had to do with
ropes, he may have piled up skulls for all
I know, and Samuel the prophet loved him to pieces,
and Herman Cortez and Genghis Kahn, but also,
I hate to say it, private Sharon, pig
Ariel, and the Lebanese jaunt, a massacre,
as I remember—let’s not forget the names,
Sabra and Shatila”—

“It’s justice you want,
isn’t it?” quoth Peter.


RIP, Mary Oliver

screen shot 2019-01-18 at 8.23.58 amMy story contains neither a mountain, nor a canyon, nor a blizzard, nor hail, nor spike of wind striking the earth and lifting whatever is in its path. I think the rare and wonderful awareness I felt would not have arrived in any such busy hour. Most stories about weather are swift to describe meeting the face of the storm and the argument of the air, climbing the narrow and icy trail, crossing the half-frozen swamp. I would not make such stories less by obtaining anything special for the other side of the issue. Nor would I suggest that a meeting of individual spirit and universe is impossible within the harrowing blast. Yet I would hazard this guess, that it is more likely to happen to someone attentively entering the quiet moment, when the sun-soaked world is gliding on under the blessings of blue sky, and the wind god is asleep. Then, if ever, we may peek under the veil of all appearances and partialities. We may be touched by the most powerful of suppositions — even to a certainty — as we stand in the rose petals of the sun and hear a murmur from the wind no louder than the sound it makes as it dozes under the bee’s wings. This, too, I suggest, is weather, and worthy of report. – from Long Life, Essays and Other Writings


You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.