In this episode, Alan reads and discusses the poem "Any Time" by W. S. Merwin.

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Poetry to the Brim - Episode 11: “Any Time” by W. S. Merwin
In this episode, Alan reads and discusses the poem “Any Time” by W. S. Merwin. --- Support this podcast: https://anchor.fm/poetrytothebrim/support

Transcript

Hello everyone. You're listening to Poetry to the Brim.

Today I'll be reading the poem "Any Time" by W. S. Merwin. This one is from his 2001 collection The Pupil, but I'll be reading it from his New and Selected Poems entitled Migration, which won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2005.

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"Any Time" by W. S. Merwin

How long ago the day is
when at last I look at it
with the time it has taken
to be there still in it
now in the transparent light
with the flight in the voices
the beginning in the leaves
everything I remember
and before it before me
present at the speed of light
in the distance that I am
who keep reaching out to it
seeing all the time faster
where it has never stirred from
before there is anything
the darkness thinking the light

–-

So the first thing I wanted to note about this poem is a point about punctuation. There's no punctuation at all, as Merwin characteristically didn't use any in his poems. This feature makes it even more up to the reader to decide where to pause for a breath, or where to add their own imagined punctuation if you will. While reading I almost wanted to pause after the word "still" in the middle of the fourth line of the poem. In my recorded reading, I paused at the end of the line, but the poem could be read either way and would still be coherent and effective in different ways.

So pausing after the word "still" would go something like this:

  • "How long ago the day is / when at last I look at it  / with the time it has taken / to be there still [pause] in it / now in the transparent light / with the flight in the voices / the beginning in the leaves / everything I remember"

So that's different from the original reading, which I'll do again:

  • "How long ago the day is / when at last I look at it  / with the time it has taken / to be there still in it / now in the transparent light / with the flight in the voices / the beginning in the leaves / everything I remember"

You can see there's a subtle shift in the pacing of the poem, the energy generated, and even the meaning of the poem with this small choice Merwin sort of leaves up to the reader.

An interesting exercise to try with Merwin's poems is to try to add punctuation marks and stanza breaks yourself. The choices you make in such an exercise reveal how you think the poems should be read and therefore what they might be saying. I love how a lack of punctuation actually empowers the reader to be creative themselves in the making of the poem. While this might frustrate an inexperienced reader of poetry in their already frustrated efforts to "get the poem," I think this move is actually quite a generous gesture as it frees the poem up even more for feeling and interpretation. It almost affords the reader the chance to "be the poet" themselves for a moment.

In addition to this point about punctuation, another thing I noticed in the poem was that three of the lines—the fifth, tenth, and final line—end with the word "light." This adds to the luminous quality of the poem, and the word helps carry the reader's voice on like an incantation. As readers, we are almost lifted off the page with this subtle pattern—into the speaker's present moment.

Regarding the meaning of the poem, I think a crucial line is the one that reads "in the distance that I am." The "I" or the self is a product of distance, or more precisely the self emerges at the same time as the feeling of distance or difference. We must find the self estranged from a particular moment, in order for the "I" or self to exist. So I think the poem is about the always-available nature of our true Being—or the "Any Time" quality of it, as in the title. This poem is about the freshness of the present moment, although it has taken the speaker much time to "be still in it." This poem is an offering to be still in each apparently dark moment—to be like darkness itself, "thinking the light."

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"Any Time" by W. S. Merwin

How long ago the day is
when at last I look at it
with the time it has taken
to be there still in it
now in the transparent light
with the flight in the voices
the beginning in the leaves
everything I remember
and before it before me
present at the speed of light
in the distance that I am
who keep reaching out to it
seeing all the time faster
where it has never stirred from
before there is anything
the darkness thinking the light

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Thanks for listening to Poetry to the Brim. If you enjoyed the show, please share it with a friend or two who might also enjoy it. If you read the poem differently and would like to share your thoughts with me or just have general suggestions about the show, I'd love to hear. Feel free to message me on Twitter (@acyanlight) or Instagram (@acyanlight), or email the show at poetrytothebrim@gmail.com.

Also, you can find a full transcript of the episode on the website at podcast.poetrytothebrim.com. There, you can also subscribe to stay up to date by email for when I release a new episode, as well as find ways to support the show.

Alright. Thanks again! Until next time.

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Citations

  1. Merwin, W. S. “Any Time.” Migration: New & Selected Poems, Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, WA, 2007, pp. 492.