What are the plain and deeper meanings of the poem "The Unwritten," by W. S. Merwin?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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W. S. Merwin’s poem “The Unwritten” seems to be a relatively straightforward poem about the nature of words, writing, and writers, but of course poems are rarely as simple as they seem.

As the poem opens, the speaker bluntly declares that

Inside this pencil
crouch words that have never been written
never been spoken
never been taught

The speaker refers to the here and now, to a literal pencil that he is presumably holding in his hand. The speaker thinks of words almost as if they were living things – things resembling animals “crouching,” full of potential energy and vitality, waiting to spring forward, waiting to be released.  These words have never been “written,” “spoken,” or “taught,” although paradoxically the speaker of the poem creates words about these silent, merely potential words.

The poem is partly a playful exercise – a game in which the speaker writes about what has not yet been written.  The first four lines of the poem make these unwritten words seem both mysterious and potent, both intriguing and also important enough to be “taught.” The words seem almost alive and almost deliberately mysterious:  “they’re hiding” (5); “they’re awake in there” (6) – “in there” referring clearly to the inside of the pencil but perhaps also to the human mind.

These words are “dark in the dark” in several senses: they are dark in the sense of being mysterious; they are dark in the sense of being unknown; they are dark in the sense of being intriguing in the way that anything dark is intriguing; and they are also “in the dark” of the dark lead (or graphite) inside the pencil. As the poem develops, the speaker’s descriptions of the words become increasingly fanciful (8-9). There are moments when the voice of the speaker sounds almost childlike; certainly the voice sounds highly imaginative (in the sense of not being mundanely realistic).

Suddenly the pencil has become almost a magical abode of strange creatures who refuse to emerge.  Is the speaker thinking here of writer’s block?  Is he thinking of how difficult it is to find precisely the right word when one is writing? In any case, this poem is clearly a piece of writing about writing – a collection of words aboutwords. If words are literally signs of human power, then this is also a poem about a kind of powerlessness – about an inability to summon words when they are wanted and needed.

In line 11, the speaker, still playing with the idea of darkness as referring to the graphite, says that “even when the dark has worn away” (that is, even when the pencil has entirely been used up), the words will

still be there
hiding in the air
multitudes in days to come may walk through them
breathe them 
be none the wiser  (12-16)

The words now sound almost ghostly and thus even more mysterious and intriguing. It is as if, in writing about imaginary words, Merwin is trying to make us imagine words that the speaker claims cannot be spoken. In this way and others, the poem (which in its narrowness resembles a pencil) is highly paradoxical.  Ultimately, however, the speaker suggests that the apparently strange phenomenon he is trying to describe is not only common but is indeed universal:

every pencil in the world
is like this   (29-30)

Merwin thus writes a poem in relatively simply language about a phenomenon that seems both mysterious and inevitable.