by James Merrill

The reasons for why a poet faces the blank page—these are more important than the words that the poet will put on that page. And then, after the writing, the words he or she puts down are all we have. They are the traces or the breadcrumbs, only the dust we have left of what was experienced by the writer. Non-poets don’t know this, and this causes a lot of consternation—perhaps even fatigue, weariness–both for the poet and for the reader.  But why?

Some or perhaps many poets want this not to be true … so for them, it is not the case. For them, the artifact on the page is the only thing that matters. They have written “set pieces” or still life paintings with words. And they can be very beautiful. And when they have achieved beauty this way, through word pictures – they have given something to the world. A piece of art, and it is a nice gift. But it is usually not a Picasso, or a Van Gogh, or even a Keats poem.

This kind of art-piece poem is often done to get the recognition that comes with producing fine art in any genre. There are fine arts colleges—even in writing. So there is a market for this kind of training, and it can be very exciting, even fulfilling to go through this. I attended the Naropa Institute (now University) in Boulder, Colorado—the home of the Beat writers, such as Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac and others. Many of them were still teaching there when I attended.

The training I received on how to write poetry there was negligible. I can’t remember much of the techniques; not much of practicing to “write like the Beats” was crucial or necessary to spur me on. What WAS crucial—even essential—was the knowledge gained about why those poets wrote what they did. This is what counts; and if you read them, you will find out why — what they felt about living in America (or Tangiers or Mexico, Denver or San Francisco) and in their time. What they experienced and felt about it—accurately and forcefully expressed—was crucial, essential and possibly beautiful. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…”

This is also why I write, in my own place and time of life…            

Insatiable for Beauty

I’m insatiable for beauty

every day. For

ex: sometimes I think of the future when

all of us

everyone on earth right now

will be dead.

Then I come back to the present and see everyone

and everything as beautiful

just as they are, just

for being here. So I see them in that light—

resurrected not immortal (as we all must think

ourselves to be, just to carry on).

Sometimes it’s necessary to feel timeless, luxurious

about lounging, just to get out of bed in the morning,

just to put one foot in front of the other.

I hunger for pleasure in every day

deep, soul

satisfying pleasure; infinite and forever, eternal and

expanding endlessly. It’s my big bang theory of joy.

I’m talking about soul sat-is-faction, or at the least,

soul sustenance

none of this soul sacrifice; maybe musical salvation. Give me hot sauce

not A-1, more like salsa, maybe even habanero on my hot




James Merrill writes personal truth-telling poems, stories and modern blues lyrics in the vein of Ginsberg and Bukowski.  Jim grew up witness to the San Francisco music renaissance and student protests of Berkeley in the 1960’s, which informs his writing and he holds a Master of Fine Arts in Writing & Poetics.  His book of poems, Blues Fall Down Like Rain, can be found at Readers Guide Books in West Salem. He lives in Keizer.