I was deep into W.S. Merwin’s last book, Garden Time, when I felt the urge to write a poem. Garden Time has a dreamy, disquieting quality; Merwin writes about the passage of time, about the mystery contained in calendar days, and about how he can clearly see his life coming to an end. In “The Scarab Questions,” he writes,
but where were you before now where did you
come from before you were today
Everything about Garden Time entranced me: Merwin’s sure hand at meter and enjambment, the lack of punctuation that made his poetry seem simultaneously innocent and wise, and the way he was able to inhabit his environment without enforcing his will on it. The book foreshadowed a series of tragedies: with his eyesight failing, Merwin dictated the poems to his wife Paula, who died a year after the book was published. Then Merwin himself died peacefully in his sleep two years later at the age of 91.
The first draft of the poem that emerged as I was reading Garden Time sounded like a bad Merwin imitation: unfocused, weirdly enjambed, and self-consciously metered, as if I were trying to write a free-verse Petrarchan sonnet. But the seed of what the poem might become, if I paid enough attention to how Merwin’s poems operate, with their subtle movement and emotional distance, kept me going.
Somewhere between the fourth or fifth draft, the presence of my late father arrived; I gave him a Merwin-esque temperament and allowed him to say a few wise-yet-innocent things. In keeping with Garden Time, I set the poem in a garden, one of my favorite places on Earth: Tilden Park Botanical Garden in Berkeley, CA. A memory surfaced: thirty years ago, when I lived in Los Gatos and he lived in Berkeley, I took a day off work and met him there, and we spent the day wandering the paths of the garden, pausing every now and then to read the plants’ captions. I remembered, with a stab of the most overwhelming nostalgia, that it was an astonishingly beautiful summer day and that the California native rose, rosa californica, was in bloom, and that my dad pronounced the day “perfect.”
On the strength of this memory, the poem took off, zipping away from its roots as a heavily-influenced piece of writing and demanding its own voice. In early drafts, I’d refrained from adding any punctuation, but now inserted commas, periods and ellipses where needed. I double-spaced the poem and let the line lengths meander, some long, some short. The finished poem still contains its Merwin influence, but it’s a whole new entity unto itself.
So don’t fear being influenced by a famous poet, or by your favorite poet, or even by your best friend the poet. Our work is a conglomeration of stimuli, inspiration, effect and accidents. If you’re happily reading along and a poem starts to tickle the edges of your brain, pay attention. Let the poem ride on its initial steam, and then listen carefully to who shows up. Those poems you happen to be reading are midwives to new ones.
I like to think of W.S. Merwin as an old man, squelching through his Hawaiian paradise in knee-high rubber boots, enjoying the solitude and refusing to answer the phone. He did not fear being alone; the world came to him, not the other way around.
How grateful I am for Garden Time and the dozens of other books he wrote, just waiting to unleash new poems.
Categories: Diary of a Poet, This Writer's Life
Paying attention to how an admired poem operates – only good things can come of that, even if they wind up nothing like the original poem. Thanks for this reminder of such good advice.