W.S. Merwin on Imagination and Nature

One of the themes of W. S. Merwin's reading/talk/performance a couple of weeks ago was imagination. "Not living by imagination is killing us," he said, and went on to connect nature and imagination, saying exactly this: "Nature is imagination." I've been thinking about this as I've been rereading W. C. Williams's  "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," a poem that is just as full of abstractions (love, death) as things, but which offers finger and toeholds for those of us free-climbing up the poem in the phrases that engage the senses, i.e., names of things.

"No ideas but in things," Williams writes elsewhere, a sentiment that, for a thinker, invites immersion in the physical world, plastic as well as plants. After a few decades of writing under the influence of the famous proclamation ("No ideas. . ."), I find that I think I know what Merwin means: the unbuilt world of things is an endless source of inspiration and provocation, both, and for me there is no writing without both of these. And perhaps more importantly, wild nature engenders imagination, literally. The human-built world does not imagine.

As for people? Well, the places where the human and the more than human come together might just be the most interesting places of all. And every time we read or write something that engages the wild world, aren't we making such a place? 

By |2011-10-28T14:21:22+00:00October 26th, 2011|2 Comments


  1. George Sipes November 21, 2011 at 2:59 pm - Reply

    Hi Alison,
    I beleive that human built world does imagine. It's abiltities to do so are impacted by standards, rules and predisposed desire of those whom are contained in it to assimilate for the purpose of security.   I do totally agree  with you natures abilities for imagination.

  2. Alison Swan December 9, 2011 at 4:58 pm - Reply

    Hi George, Thanks for commenting! Sorry this comment's been so long in coming. I do think the human-built world inspires, but I don't think it imagines. And the extent to which it inspires (or does not) is definitely affected by how free (or not free) a person feels. Same goes for being inspired by nature, I think.

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