W. S. Merwin, On the Subject of Poetry

I do not understand the world, Father.

By the millpond at the end of the garden

There is a man who slouches listening

To the wheel revolving in the stream, only

There is no wheel there to revolve.

He sits in the end of March, but he sits also

In the end of the garden; his hands are in

His pockets. It is not expectation

On which he is intent, nor yesterday

To which he listens. It is a wheel turning.

When I speak, Father, it is the world

That I must mention. He does not move

His feet nor so much as raise his head

For fear he should disturb the sound he hears

Like a pain without a cry, where he listens.

I do not think I am fond, Father,

Of the way in which always before he listens

He prepares himself by listening. It is

Unequal, Father, like the reason

For which the wheel turns, though there is no wheel.

I speak of him, Father, because he is

There with his hands in his pockets, in the end

Of the garden listening to the turning

Wheel that is not there, but it is the world,

Father, that I do not understand.

4 Responses to “W. S. Merwin, On the Subject of Poetry”

  1. November 10, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    Gee, you’ve thrown down a difficult one for me today, Sheriji!

    It talks to me of a world which is not understood…I get that 🙂


    “I do not think I am fond, Father,
    Of the way in which always before he listens
    He prepares himself by listening.”

    is too mystical for me; I can’t even bring an image to mind (or is that the point of the poem?).

    And why is it addressed to a father? I kind-of relate to that – I think of my father often as a major source of knowledge for me, and yet I also think of the many things I failed to learn from him before he died.


  2. November 10, 2010 at 8:21 pm

    It is a difficult one, but maybe “try” by not trying so hard. I read it, and hear it, and it stimulates a particular emotion in me, and I can almost explain it. . .but when I try it goes further away, like when you’re trying to remember a dream.

    But now, let me try — and maybe this is what Merwin means, and maybe it isn’t, but that doesn’t really matter. A really good poem speaks of something specifically, but in such a general way that it means something to many, even to those who have no familiarity with the specific of which it speaks. (Clear as mud?)

    Anyway, I hear it as a young boy — 11, maybe 12, just beginning to realize that the world around him doesn’t completely make sense; and this is contrasted in some ways, and in others, personified by this man, sitting on a bench at the end of a garden with his hands in his pockets. And all he’s doing is sitting. He seems to be listening, but there isn’t anything to listen to, as the wheel is gone, which calls to my mind time and distance and history and things past and lost — ironically, because of the line “it is not yesterday to which he listens.”

    And the boy speaks of him because, even though he doesn’t really “like” him, he can see him, describe him, and in those ways understand him; but he cannot speak of the world, yet, because it is something he still does not understand.

    There are MANY Merwin, and other, poems that I never get. I read them, and if it completely escapes me, I move on. But if an image speaks to me, or I find that I’m feeling something I wasn’t feeling a moment before, I corner it and read it again and again. I like Billy Collins’ imagery about nosing around in a poem like you’re a mouse in a room.

    I’m happy that I’ve triggered this interest in you. Did you look at the Jane Kenyon one?

    • November 11, 2010 at 4:41 pm

      Thank you for your reply, Sheriji. Thoughtful, honest.

      Those images of Billy Collins are really useful to me, as is your explanation of how you respond to this poem. I do feel a certain liberation through the approach that you suggest, and I can see some of the images and feelings you found in this Merwin poem.

      I have to confess that, perhaps in common with many of my gender, I have a very analytical perspective…going through life with the assumption that if only I can look closely enough at an issue, with a powerful enough microscope, then I’ll be able to really understand what’s going on. The idea that it actually helps to stand back a bit, or to just allow it to wash over me with my eyes closed, is something I’ll have to gradually take upon myself.

      I hadn’t looked at the Jane Kenyon poem, but now that I have, I love it!

      This phrase really resonated with my experience:

      The barn door bangs loose,
      persistent as remorse
      after anger and shouting.

      Thank you again for taking time to respond; for the enlightenment. I don’t have a lot of high points in my average day, your blog is a wonderful source of inspiration.

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