An illustration of different words for joy (happiness, jocundity, glee, bliss, etc.) arranged in a pyramid, before a bloom of pink and "joy" at the top
Miki Lowe

What I Remember the Writers Telling Me When I Was Young

A poem by William Meredith, published in The Atlantic in 1987

In 1983, the poet William Meredith had a stroke that impaired his ability to produce language. It was a cruel twist of fate for a poet—especially one who was known for minding form and tone, whose careful diction was already restrained.

Two years later, an interviewer asked Meredith why he averaged only six poems a year. “Why so few?” the interviewer inquired. “Why so many?” Meredith retorted. He explained that he wrote from insight, not from daily experience. Only in rare moments could the words emerge from the “astonishment of insight,” “like the bacteria of a growth.”

This extraordinary care with language and ideas defined Meredith’s work, and in “What I Remember the Writers Telling Me When I Was Young,” he presents a case for taking such care. His argument is that language matters; if the words are trite or imprecise, the idea is too. Delivering meaning to the reader, he is like a postman carrying a fragile and extremely valuable package. “A poem is getting at something mysterious, which no amount of staring at straight-on has ever solved,” he said in the same interview. “You don’t stare at the mystery, but you can see things out of the corner of your eye that you were supposed to see.”

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