Berryman

W. S. Merwin
John Berryman Centenary

Berryman Header

In commemoration of the centenary of John Berryman’s birth (October 25, 1914), FSG’s Work in Progress is celebrating this icon of twentieth-century American literature by having authors write about what they admire about him and his work.

“Berryman,” by W.S. Merwin, is originally from Flower & Hand (Copper Canyon Press). This poem is republished with permission from the author.


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 was born in New York City in 1927. From 1949 to 1951 he worked as a tutor in France, Majorca, and Portugal; for several years after that he made the greater part of his living by translating from French, Spanish, Latin, and Portuguese. His many awards include the 2005 National Book Award for Poetry from Migration: New and Selected Poems (2005), the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, the Tanning Prize for Poetry, the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, the Lannan Lifetime Literary Achievement Award, and the Ruth Lily Poetry Prize, as well as fellowships from the Rockefeller and Guggenheim foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts. He is the author of dozens of books of poetry and prose; his most recent volume of poets is The Moon Before Morning (2014). For over thirty years he has lived in Hawaii.

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