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“the present is made up of the past”

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W.S. Merwin will take up his post as America’s 17th Poet Laureate this fall. His work has twice been awarded the Pulitzer Prize. During an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air he read from his collection and spoke about ageing and about memories.

[A warning to “young” readers of this blog: be careful not to dismiss this post thinking that it doesn’t apply to you. After all, you’re not old, and may assign that status to your parents, grandparents, and the geezer reading a newspaper through tip-of-the-nose glasses in the corner of the café. Apparently, they were all young once.]

Interviewer: … You know, memory is always such an issue for me. Do you struggle to chronicle your life, to keep the photographs, to document it, to keep journals, to hold onto other memories, or do you accept that you have only what you remember?

Mr. Mervin: I think we do both. I think we always do both. I think memory is essential to what we are. If we – we wouldn’t be able to talk to each other without memory. And what we think of as the present really is the past. It is made out of the past. The present is – the present is an absolutely transparent moment that only great saints ever see occasionally. But the present that we think of as the present is made up of the past, and the past is always one moment.

It’s what happened three minutes ago, and one minute, it’s what happened 30 years ago. And they flow into each other in waves that we can’t predict and that we keep discovering in dreams, which keep bringing up feelings and moments, some of which we never actually saw.

But those moment themselves bring up the feelings that were – that we have forgotten we had. And it’s all memory. So I think – I know – I think the idea that memory is somehow sentimental or nostalgic – nostalgia itself is – the etymology of nostalgia is homecoming, and homecoming is what we all believe in. I mean, if we didn’t believe in homecoming, we wouldn’t be able to bear the day.

© 2010 NPR. Reprinted for personal use with permission. Click here for a transcript of the entire conversation. Click here for biographical background and a sample of poems.


2 responses »

  1. Not sure that I accept this.
    When I’m not really present, then certainly my ‘present’ is a mix of what I think happened and what I think will happen and what I want to happen. So, my ‘present’ is illusory: largely a product of my mind and thinking.
    In those rare moments when I seem to be present, there doesn’t seem to be either a past or future.
    And not much mind.
    To parody Shakespeare: Now is all.

    Peter, have you ever thought of yourself as an ‘agent provocateur’?
    A delightful one.

  2. malcolm,

    you’re not required to “accept this” or anything.

    as you say, present moments are “rare,” meaning that much/most of our time we draw on past experience and future projections to inform our everyday.

    Zen practice and Shakespeare point to “now” as the only reality, but we all know how difficult, nay impossible, it is to maintain such a stance. that’s why even (especially) roshis and lamas continue to practice meditation every day.

    ps: always glad to provoke, however unintentioned :-).


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