Only to a degree expressible.

I’ve shared four poems by W.S. Merwin on my blog over the years. He is a poet who doesn’t use punctuation in his poems. I recently read an interview with him, given five years ago. Here I’m posting a short excerpt in which he talks about his eschewing punctuation, and about the uses and challenges of poetry generally.W.S. Merwin_NewBioImage

If you stop using punctuation, that’s a kind of formality. I mean you have to be very conscious of the grammar and the syntax and how the sentence is put together; otherwise it’ll be just so ambiguous and confusing you just won’t be able to read it. The other thing I think it does is to make the separation between poetry and prose. I thought, punctuation is very convenient, but it was really invented in the seventeenth century for prose. Not for poetry at all. The punctuation of Shakespeare texts is whatever seemed convenient. There weren’t any particular rules that he was following that I can see. I mean it changed in the course of the plays. But above all, I thought that having no punctuation made you listen to the poem. That’s the important thing.
….
Poetry, like the imagination itself, must be limitless. And there must be other ways of expressing the inexpressible, which is what—poetry is just that. Prose is about what can be said and what is known and so on. Poetry is about what cannot be expressed. I mean, terrible grief, or intense erotic feeling, or even unspeakable anger are all inexpressible. You can’t put them in words and that’s why you try to put them in words. Because that’s all you’ve got. That’s another reason why I think that poetry is as ancient as language itself, because I think language must come out of an urge for which there was no expression, no way of doing it. I mean grief or fear or rage or whatever it was. It goes from one roar or one scream or one terrible sound of pain to starting to articulate it. It’s the articulating that becomes poetry. But it doesn’t become information at that point. It’s closer to translation. It’s translating something that’s there, that is only to a degree expressible.

-W.S. Merwin in Guernica magazine interview

7 thoughts on “Only to a degree expressible.

  1. There’s one point where I might quibble a bit: when he says, “Prose is about what can be said and what is known and so on. Poetry is about what cannot be expressed.” I don’t believe the distinction is that clear, or so definable. Expressing the inexpressible can be a function of prose, too. In fact, a poetic bent in prose writing is what makes some writers so appealing. He seems to imply that prose is merely the communication of facts, of information. It can be so much more.

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    1. I agree, Linda. I find it a challenging “translation” effort myself, just to get into (what I consider good) prose the experiences I want to share. And many poets of “verse” these days write “prose poems” — which I often think are the quality of the writing one has always been able to find in the best prose literature, novels and essays and all kinds of literature.

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  2. It is telling that he couldn’t finish this thought smoothly: “And there must be other ways of expressing the inexpressible, which is what–poetry is just that.”

    Maybe Merwin was tempted to say, “. . . which is what prayer is.” Or what religious ritual does. When I first read that stumbling sentence, I sympathized with him.

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    1. Albert, I felt the same way when I listened to him in a video interview, trying to talk about inexpressible things that he said were either from our imagination or discovered by our imagination… but then he or the narrator found the word “mystery.” Whatever these things are, which are so worth trying to express, even when they are nearly impossible – they are greater than us. Thank you for adding this insight, which is, paradoxically, about our seeing “through a glass, darkly.”

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  3. When I was early on in studying writing, I said to myself, writing poetry without punctuation is like eating oatmeal without raisins . . . I love some of those little guys, the friendly punctuation marks that exert different kinds of excitement on us as we write and as we read. –Sandra McPherson, Professor Emerita, English, UCDavis

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