In 1983, W.S. Merwin wrote a poem called “Late Wonders.” It's a poem I return to, especially when given to wonder myself, about why poetry matters.
Though the work's over three decades old, its import—in terms of what pollutes our air and discourse, the ways in which the realm of critical and compassionate imagination has been annexed by the overweening need to be entertained—remains potent.
In Los Angeles the cars are flowing through the white air and the news of bombings
you can ride through an avalanche if you have never ridden through an avalanche
with your ticket you can ride on a trolley before which the Red Sea parts just the way it did for Moses
you can see Los Angeles destroyed hourly you can watch the avenue named for somewhere else the one on which you know you are crumple and vanish incandescent with a terrible cry all around you rising from the houses and families of everyone you have seen all day driving shopping talking eating
it's only a movie it's only a beam of light
The poem is a dark appraisal of what happens when destruction is treated as an occasion for consumption, when what's considered real is only that which operates under our control, when our neighbors become figures in a spectacle we've worked to pay for, and when we are automated to pass, untroubled, through waves of air bearing knowledge that would move a mind to horror. When we lose compassion and awe, the very provinces of poetry, we lose what makes us human.
The indictment could not be more complete. And yet when I read it, I feel something more akin to invigoration than defeat. I want to read it again and again, and to teach it to whomever will listen, beginning with me.
I think I feel this way because the poem itself is an act of resolution. A living, present man set it down on paper. He wrote it, and then, by God, he rewrote it. He crafted of his outrage a poem, summoned on its behalf all of his meaning-deepening and connection-finding energies. And then he mailed it across an ocean from his home in Hawaii, asking that it be published, first in a periodical, and then in a collection he called Opening the Hand, and then in his latest volume of selected poems, Migration. He worked a poem awake and sent it into our lives because in poetry, there are no lost causes. Within the integrity of poetic vision, nothing is forgotten, nothing can be cast away. Even us. For our limitations are rendered in the means of our rehabilitation: paradox and metaphor and imagery, complex ironies and rich ambiguities—the means of acts of life-sustaining attention.
Merwin's poem shows us that to exist without poetic consciousness is to be a tourist in a given world; it is to believe that all was fashioned to bring pleasure, that people exist to facilitate the satisfaction of desire, and that what happens, even when it happens right before our eyes—especially then—is not real, because nowhere feels like home. And it is to pay no mind to the condition in which we leave it.
Outside the room in which I teach is a postcard holding this quote by Christian Wiman, the former editor of Poetry Magazine:
Let us remember…that in the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.
These are words I believe Merwin would affirm, for his work embodies them. They recall to me why poetry matters, why teaching poetry matters, and why writing and reading poems—even those that, in their subject matter, dispraise—is an act of urgency and hope.