W. S. Merwin on revision


A slightly different version of “Thanks” was first published in the Nation on March 14, 1987, and the final version of the poem was then included in Merwin’s collection The Rain in the Trees (Knopf, 1988). The aching irony of the poem here was even less subtle in its 1987 Nation iteration (“in a country up to its chin in shame / living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you”; “in the banks that use us we are saying thank you / with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable / unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you”).


Thanks - W. S. Merwin

with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you

in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is


In his “Art of Poetry” interview, conducted by Edward Hirsch for the Paris Review in 1986, Merwin says, “When you talk about prayer in Judeo-Christian terms, prayer is usually construed as a kind of dualistic act. You’re praying to somebody else for something. Prayer in the Western sense is usually construed as making a connection. I don’t think that connection has to be made; it’s already there. Poetry probably has to do with the recognizing of that connection, rather than trying to create something that isn’t there.” Of Berryman’s advice to “pray to the Muse,” Merwin says, “I think it’s excellent advice. Writing poetry is never a wholly deliberate act over which you have complete control. It’s important to recognize that writing is at the disposition of all sorts of forces, some of which you don’t know anything at all about. You can describe them as parts of your own psyche, if you like, they probably are, but there are lots of other ways of describing them that are as good, or better—the muses, or the collective unconscious. More suggestive and so, in a way, more accurate. Any means of invoking these forces is good, as far as I’m concerned.”

 Excerpted from Dora Malech