Berryman on how to know if your writing’s any good

A relatively well-kempt John Berryman

Today my friend Allison sent me a fantastic poem by W.S. Merwin called “Berryman.” John Berryman is one of my favorite poets, so I took maybe special delight in reading a young writer deal with Berryman, who was “much older. . . in his thirties.”

But it’s the ending of this poem, in which the speaker, presumably Merwin, asks Berryman how to judge the quality of his own work, that moves me most. Replace writing with any verb you have a kinship with.

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

To read the full poem, click here.

To read a poem by my friend Allison, click here.