Video: Learning Your Own Language
From The Poet's View: Intimate Profiles of Five Major American Poets, which features Kay Ryan, John Ashbery, Louise Glück, Anthony Hecht, and W. S. Merwin. Available in the Poetry Store.
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."
I love the city but I also love the country, and I realized that when I'm in the city I miss the country all the time, and when I'm in the country I miss the city some of the time. So, what I do now is live in the country and go to the city some of the time. But I can't imagine living in the country without being part of it, without growing things, without doing something.
Writing poetry has, to me, always had something to do with how you want to live. And I guess I've done something that a lot of my contemporaries didn't do. Many of them went into universities and had academic careers, and I have nothing against that, I mean I don't preach against that and say, "what a terrible thing." I think it's a fine thing, if that's what you're made for, but I didn't think I was made for it. I begin, after about a week in a university, I begin to feel the oxygen is going out of the air very fast, and I had to go somewhere else.
This is a poem that I wrote in the early eighties, shortly after I met Paula, my wife.
[Merwin reads "Late Spring"]