Tropes, Translations, and the Mantra “To Listen”

Image from the Merwin Conservancy

Image from the Merwin Conservancy

Trope from the Greek tropos meaning a turning.

In Trickster Made This World, Lewis Hyde explores how the trickster is a polytropic shapeshifter (see 52–54), turning, turning, and turning again into some new form not unlike Proteus who shapeshifted into a “whiskered lion’s shape, / a serpent then; a leopard; a great boar; / then sousing water; then a tall green tree” (Homer 66).

To experience a trope, then, is to experience holding on to Proteus. In my teaching, I find myself using the above discussion, more and more, as a point of entry for students into the vast landscape of poetry and poetics. Sadly, many readers want a polytropic poem to stop turning. They want to defeat Proteus, and then have Proteus divulge the “answers” to any question asked (not unlike Menelaus and his men).

But this is a mirage of knowledge. I don’t think we can “get” a poem by making it sit still, for to “get” a poem, one must continue holding on.

As W. S. Merwin returns to the mantra of listening throughout his oeuvre, he finds new tropes and new ways of listening. In the essays that precede the sections of Selected Translations, he shares how translation enriched his poetics of listening. “The work of translation,” he writes, “did teach, in the sense of forming, and making available, ways of hearing” (171).

With all this in mind, I recently discovered one of Merwin’s translations, “Water pouring from clouds” (257), from the Sanskrit (12th century or earlier)—a language that readily lends itself to discovering new ways of hearing. As a colleague shared with me, a Sanskrit chant sends vibrations to locations of the teeth and bone structure not needed when speaking English words. Translation, then, becomes the impossible task of turning a language’s sounds into another. Another way of looking at it, though, sees the translator holding onto Proteus as one way of hearing shapeshifts into some new form.

The content of “Water pouring from clouds” includes some tropes (turnings) that further discover new ways of hearing.

[In lieu of Fair Use, I provide an audio file of my reading of the poem. Pauses indicate line breaks.]


The palm leaves become ears, and the forest listens, in its own way, to the vibrations of rain. And then, by implication the leaves turn specifically into elephant ears—or elephants could be in the forest, listening as well. The metaphor is apt—large leaves, large pachyderm ears—but I am interested more in the ways elephants write their own texts of sonorous vibrations that travel through air and along the jungle ground, and how those vibrations enter the ears of other elephants and make their way into the hippocampus (which is larger than a human’s hippocampus), and therefore into memory and dream. The trope suggests that forests, too, listen like elephants but in their own way, which is an idea one might dismiss before reading more on the fascinating findings surrounding plant intelligence.

We cannot know, fully, what it is like to listen like an elephant, or like a palm tree, or like a forest. Some of us (like me), do not know what it is like to listen to the vibrations of Sanskrit resonating through my jaw bone.

But by holding onto Proteus through these many turnings, space opens up to consider, imagine, and perhaps discover new ways of listening, which is one of Merwin’s lifelong mantras. Indeed, in Selected Translations he writes “It is love, I imagine, more than learning, that may eventually make it possible to be aware of the living resonance before it has words” (11).

His poetry and his translations invite us to make the mantra—that search for the living resonance—one of ours as well.


Works Cited

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. Print.

Lewis Hyde. Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. Print.

Merwin, W. S. Selected Translations: 1948-2011. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2013. Print.





Even Though the Whole World Is Burning

Even Though the Whole World Is Burning | ASLE 2015

Even Though the Whole World Is BurningI am very excited and honored to be introducing Even Though the Whole World Is Burning at the ASLE conference tomorrow (Friday, June 26th). We just heard from Anna Tsing and Donna Haraway on “Tunneling in the Chthulucene: Stories for Resurgence on a Damaged Planet.” They suggest other ways of understanding and conceptualizing and responding to the “Anthropocene,” one of which involves the fall out from plantations. Perhaps the “plantationocene,” they suggest, is a better way of seeing human impact. Plantations are fertile grounds for feral fungi that wreak havoc. In this context, Merwin’s work as a planter is most necessary and crucial at finding better ways at living on this shared planet. The documentary explores how he took 18 acres of a denuded pineapple plantation and, over 37 years, turned it into a palm forest of more than 2,700 individual palm trees from 480 different taxonomic species and 900 different horticultural varieties.

As the magnitude of the damaged planet continues to sink into our collective consciousness, his story points toward possible resurgences.

1:30 at the Kenworthy Performing Arts Centre, Moscow, ID


Merwin’s Auditory Imagination

GuernicaLast semester, I had a student who delved into the auditory imagination of Seamus Heaney and T. S. Eliot—an exploration that attuned me once again to the absolute necessity of sounds in all of their elusive and yet primal energy.

During this time, the Merwin Conservancy circulated the following quote on Facebook where Merwin articulates yet another facet of his auditory imagination. It has to do with vowels, grief, and the hunch that language emerged out of elegy:

Poetry’s about what can’t be said. And I think that language emerges out of what could not be said. Out of this desperate desire to utter something, to express something inexpressible. Probably grief. Maybe something else. You know, you see a silent photograph of an Iraqi woman whose husband or son or brother has just been killed by an explosion. And you know that if you could hear, you would be hearing one long vowel of grief. Just senseless, meaningless vowel of grief. And that’s the beginning of language right there.

Inexpressible sound. And it’s antisocial. It’s destructive. It’s utterly painful beyond expression. And the consonants are the attempts to break it, to control it, to do something with it. And I think that’s how language emerged. (Facebook Post)

Merwin feels a tension between vowels and consonants—but we must remember that a vowel is a tone and a rush of air that is not broken by the teeth, or the plosive lips, or the tongue touching the roof of the mouth. Nothing breaks it. Merwin’s description suggests an image of a howling human, overcome with grief, who suddenly slams down on the vowel, clenches it shut with the teeth, only for the howl to break out of the consonants once more.

It reminds me of the shrill tongue of Picasso’s horse.

It also reminds me of one line from Merwin’s “For a Coming Extinction” (Merwin 1:304–305). Elsewhere, I have explored this line (Moe 100); however, the concept of the auditory imagination—charged with Merwin’s discussion of vowels and grief—prompt me to revisit it:

The sea cows the great Auks the gorillas (ln 26)

These three animals stand in for the “irreplaceable hosts” of today’s anthropogenic mass extinction (ln 27). Before, I focused on the silence between each of the three animals, and how the context of the poem charges that silence with anguish and bewilderment at the extinct Auks and the coming extinction of the gorillas and the sea lions. As the anguish settles in, one feels a greater and greater pause. Since Merwin leaves out punctuation, we are left to construct the length and duration of that silence. Should the list use commas?—dashes?—semi-colons?—ellipses?

The sea cows . . .  the Great Auks . . . the gorillas . . . .

I had also explored about how the assonance and alliteration becomes a mere vestige of the alliterative verse of “Leviathan” published earlier in Merwin’s career (Merwin 1:99; see Moe 100 ff.).

However, Merwin’s discussion of vowels and consonants returns us to the grief, the lament, the anguish, and the howl. The ah’s in cOWs and AUks and gorillAs stretch the mouth toward a hOWl—and yet the consonants break the vowel only for it to resurface later in the line. And I don’t think it is a coincidence that when we speak the word howl the diphthong causes our mouth and cheeks to embody once again the gestures of a hOWl.

Isn’t it fascinating that the word howl is one long vowel—one long breath/tone that remains unbroken from the gust of the H to the expansive and tonal diphthong of the OW all unbroken until the tongue lightly touches the gum-line on the back of the top, front teeth? Right at the end of the diphthong, the lips almost close things off, but then the causes one to open the lips slightly right before the tongue ultimately breaks it. Right at that moment, then, the one who listens with his/her mouth can feel the tension Merwin describes between consonants and vowels.

I don’t have the space to substantiate the claim that today’s word “howl” contains a vestige of the gesture of the prelinguistic hOWl, but it goes back to “gesture-speech” theory and how gestures migrated across the semiotic body to the mouth, where breath turned those gestures into speech. That said, I think Merwin is absolutely right that the howl is one of the crucial existential experiences at the origin of poetry.

Merwin’s emphasis on listening drew me in to his poetic world several years ago—and I feel like I am just beginning to faintly hear the depths of the primal sounds in his poetry.


Works Cited

Merwin, W. S. The Collected Poems of W. S. Merwin. Ed. J. D. McClatchy. 2 vols. New York: Library of America, 2013. Print.

Moe, Aaron. Zoopoetics: Animals and the Making of Poetry. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014. Print.



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All this work by Aaron Moe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at http://merwinstudies.com.


CFP Merwin and the Anthropocene, Deadline: August 1, 2015

At the turn of the century, the term Anthropocene began gaining traction. Though still not formally accepted, the term suggests that the earth has moved into a new geological epoch due to the impact of human activities. That is, we have so impacted the earth that the human mark is written into its very geology, and will be present for epochs to come.

The Anthropocene, then, presents us with a reconception of our relationship with the earth. Like previous reconceptions (Galileo, Nasa’s photograph of the Earth, Gaia), the Anthropocene prompts us toward an existential grappling with the implications of being human on this earth.

In retrospect, poets like Merwin have been grappling with the implications of the Anthropocene for decades prior to the emergence of the term. Undoubtedly, his work has been seen as environmentally conscious, but the context of the Anthropocene charges that consciousness, intensifying the anguish and yet resolve found in Merwin’s work. To be environmentally conscious does not necessarily mean that one grapples with the implications of the Anthropocene; for that, one must have a sense of geological time, which Merwin does.

We seek essays that explore Merwin’s work as a poet, a planter, an essayist, and/or a translator in the context of the Anthropocene. The following questions are meant to open up (rather than limit) possibilities:

How does the Anthropocene intensify the tension between the pastoral and apocalyptic tropes in Merwin’s work?

At what point does a geological sense of time enter into Merwin’s poetics? How does that sense of time develop?

What is the relationship between the marks of humans upon the earth, extinction, and yet absence of punctuation marks in Merwin’s work?

How does a poetics of listening figure into Merwin’s grappling with the implications of the Anthropocene?

Is there even a fragile, distant hope? If so, is it authentic? If hope is the wrong word, what is the third of fourth facet in Merwin’s work that compels some readers to take-heart?

How does Even Though the Whole World Is Burning further articulate the extent to which Merwin has been grappling with the Anthropocene for decades?

How does Merwin’s work as a translator relate to his grappling with the Anthropocene? Is it an escape? Is it still part of finding a good way to live? How does it matter?

We welcome queries. Submissions due by August 1, 2015.


Tweeting Merwin and Permissions

We have decided to begin tweeting and posting some of Merwin’s lines. Having navigated the complex terrain of permissions and Fair Use, it is important that we do it correctly. Different publishers have different expectations. For the time being, we are only tweeting lines from books published by Copper Canyon Press. Here is their statement regarding posting Merwin in online spaces:

Personal Uses
We encourage certain personal uses—such the “Share This Poem” feature on our website or posting a stanza or two on your blog or Facebook page. These uses do not require specific permission or payment. We do ask that the use be appropriately acknowledged by including the poem title, authors name, and a link to the book, preferably to the listing on www.coppercanyonpress.org.

When we tweet one or two lines, we won’t have the space to provide the link back to the listing on their website. However, when we post something slightly longer on Facebook, we will. We will never post an entire poem or even an entire stanza.

As we post and tweet, we hope readers will ask, “What, for Merwin, constitutes a line of poetry?”–and “How has Merwin’s poetics of a line evolved to what it is today?”

In the interview with Folsom and Nelson, Merwin has said it is a “unit of something” (60); and in the interview with Thompson and Weinert, he has said it is a “unit of energy” (117). Both interviews delve more deeply into the questions surrounding a line. We hope the tweets and posts give readers some space to explore the questions as well.


Works Cited

Merwin, W. S., Ed Folsom, and Cary Nelson. “‘Fact Has Two Faces’:  An Interview with W. S. Merwin.” The Iowa Review 13.1 (1982): 30–66. Print.

Merwin, W. S., Jeanie Thompson and Jonathan Weinert. “Raw Shore of Paradise: A Conversation with W. S. Merwin.” Until Everything Is Continuous Again: American Poets on the Recent Work of W.S. Merwin. Ed. Jonathan Weinert and Kevin Prufer. Seattle: WordFarm, 2012. 113–127. Print.




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All this work by Aaron Moe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at http://merwinstudies.com.


“For Occupation – This -”: The Legacy of Emily Dickinson’s Ecopoetics

earth[I include this post here as I see Merwin to be furthering Dickinson’s ecopoetics.]

In This Compost, Jed Rasula explores how the trope is “poetry’s composting medium” (9). This succinct statement powerfully directs our imagination to see how a recurring image, for instance, folds all previous images back into itself, composting them, and therefore becoming a fecund site full of biological synergy, so to speak.

The term ecopoetics is, in and of itself, a site for composting. Eco from the Greek oikos meaning home/house/hearthPoetics from the Greek poiesis meaning to make. The images lurking in the etymology suggest an interplay between dwelling deeply in language and dwelling deeply in the home of the earth.

Publications such as The Ecopoetry Anthology (2013) and The Arcadia Project (2012)—as well as the many online journals such as Poecology—point toward the ever increasing emergence of all things ecopoetic. Each ecopoem, in a sense, undergoes its composting work within the house of language and of the ecosphere.

And then, there is Dickinson . . .

. . . and what I see now as quite arguably the founding poem of ecopoetics: “I dwell in Possibility” (Poems 466).

Dickinson begins by comparing the possibilities of poetry to a “House” that has “numerous . . . Windows” and “Superior . . . Doors” (ln 2, 3, 4). But in the second stanza, the house expands to become the ecosphere:

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky – (ln 5–8)

The earth becomes the home whose “Roof” is the “Sky.” Here, in the ecosphere, is the place for dwelling. It is no wonder that Dickinson so often speaks of flowers, plants, and nonhuman animals as peoplecountrymenSaxon, visitortenant. Her work as a whole suggests the earth is a shared oikos where humans and countless other species coexist.

However, it is the final stanza that makes this poem one of the founding ecopoetical statements even if written 152 years ago:

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise – (ln 9–12)

The concept of dwelling in a home from the first stanza becomes iterated and yet developed in the third stanza as working in the earth. This process of a recurring and yet developing image gives readers the opportunity to compost. And as we compost, we undergo work on our consciousness.

Indeed, Dickinson’s choice of “Occupation” already anticipates Gary Snyder’s concept of Real Work, of dwelling deeply in language and deeply in one’s bioregion as a way to cultivate a bioregional consciousness . . . a bioregional imagination. Her phrase spreading wide my narrow hands suggests a humility before the phenomenal world—as Merwin would say (35). The occupation, the real work of ecopoetry, involves an element of caretaking, of spreading wide ones narrow hands to gather all that is within the ecosphere.

Dickinson’s poem ends on the concept of earth-as-paradise, which suggests the oikos is less of a home depot and more of an Eden-like temple. Some of her other poems, such as “His Bill is locked – his Eye estranged” vociferate for the nonhuman within this sacrosanct place (Poems 1126). Part of gathering involves pushing against the violent injustices that happen to the other species living beneath the gambrels of the sky.

Herein lies Dickinson’s legacy. Countless ecopoets continue Dickinson’s work—her “Occupation”—as their life and their poetry become a force that has the potential to shape how we live within this home.

I readily think of the work of Brenda Hillman as an activist and as a poet. Her tetralogy exploring earth, air, water, and fire envisions alternative ways to dwell deeply in language and on the earth.

I also think of W. S. Merwin who has planted and planted and planted within his poems and in the earth.

And Sherman Alexie continues this occupation as well—especially when he exposes the interrelationships between biological and cultural extinctions.

Many, many more ecopoets—as well as ecoreaders— continue this crucial occupation. We can’t just have poets. As Muriel Rukeyser has said, the “exchange” between the poem and the reader is an act of “creation” on par with the original exchange between the poet and the poem (172).

I couldn’t agree more.

The poems undergo their composting work in the consciousness/imagination of ecoreaders as part of that occupation of dwelling.


*     *     *     *     *

Note: I first came across the term *ecoreader* in Kate Dunning’s work.

Works Cited

Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Ralph William Franklin. Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 1999. Print.

Merwin, W. S. “‘Fact Has Two Faces’:  An Interview with W. S. Merwin.” Ed. Interview by Ed Folsom and Cary Nelson. The Iowa Review 13.1 (1982): 30–66. Print.

Rasula, Jed. This Compost: Ecological Imperatives in American Poetry. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2002. Print.

Rukeyser, Muriel. The Life of Poetry. Ashfield: Paris Press, 1996. Print.


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All this work by Aaron Moe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at http://merwinstudies.com.

Image from urbanreleaf.org

CFP for Panel at ASLE Biennial Conference, Moscow Idaho, June 23-27, 2015

Image from urbanreleaf.org

Image from urbanreleaf.org

Merwin Studies seeks to organize a panel at the ASLE Biennial Conference—Notes From Underground: The Depths of Environmental Arts, Culture, and Justice—in Moscow, Idaho, June 23–27, 2015.

The conference theme invites us to consider how looking “down, under, beneath and below” can lead to “imaginative, aesthetic, critical, pedagogical, and activist responses.”

Many of the suggested topics readily resonate with Merwin’s ecopoetics including geological time, soil biopolitics, gardening, roots, reclaiming, insects, witness, mycorrhizal networks, migrations, poetics of darkness (roots, mud, night), and grassroots politics and cultures. For the Conference’s full CFP, click here.

Merwin has had his hands in the earth, planting in Hawaii, for nearly four decades now. His practice of planting and poetry has lead to the grassroots formation of The Merwin Conservancy that actively brings people into interaction with Merwin’s forest of 850 species of palms. For Merwin, planting and poetry and activism are intimately interconnected. As such, they provide a fertile ground—perhaps even a mycorrhizal network—that could be explored further at the ASLE conference.

For instance, in “Place” from The Rain in the Trees, the speaker imagines the roots of the newly planted tree growing “in the earth full of the dead.” Merwin establishes the connection between planting and writing poetry when, in one poem later titled “Witness,” he explores the interrelationship between biological and linguistic extinction: “I want to tell what the forests / were like // I will have to speak / in a forgotten language.” In the poem just before “Place,” a native Hawaiian tree sits in a “plastic pot” waiting to be planted with its name, in “Latin,” written nearby. Writing a poem, planting a tree, and calling it by its native name are acts of resistance that reclaim the “forgotten language” of the forest as well as help restore a portion of the earth ravaged by the monocrops of the pineapple industry. To plant a tree, to write a poem, helps bring to fruition a soil biopolitics (or a politics of bioregionalism).

This small sampling of poems from The Rain in the Trees is but one place where these themes emerge in Merwin’s work. We therefore seek presentations that explore further Merwin’s activist tendencies as a poet/planter.

ASLE’s CFP encourages innovative panels from a wide range of participants:

We particularly encourage non-traditional modes of presentation, including hybrid, performative and collaborative works; panels that minimize formal presentation in favor of engaged emergent discussion; interdisciplinary approaches; environmentally inflected (earthy?) readings of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, film, theatre and other media; and proposals from outside the academic humanities, including submissions from artists, writers, teachers, practitioners, activists and colleagues in the social and natural sciences.

And so, presenters have flexibility to be creative in how their work helps unleash the energy of Merwin’s poetry and poetics.

Send 300 word abstract, contact information, and brief biography to one of the following email addresses by November 15. If interested, though, please communicate early as we will be actively seeking panelists:

merwinstudies [at] gmail [dot] com

amoe [at] saintmarys [dot] edu

Old Growth Forest

On Merwin’s “Tale”; or The Poetics of Intertextuality

Old Growth ForestThe following is a section titled “The Poetics of Intertextuality” from an essay that almost (but never) found a home as a whole. The essay focuses first and foremost on “For a Coming Extinction,” but to set up that exploration, I explore “Tale”–a simple but profoundly provoking short poem.

II. The Poetics of Intertextuality

For some readers, my approach may not seem substantiated due to some of its leaps. I place “For a Coming Extinction” in dialogue with several other texts, including three of Merwin’s whale poems, several of Merwin’s poems from The Lice and beyond, one of Merwin’s fables, the Judeo-Christian creation narratives (Genesis, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, and Isaiah), Edmund Burke’s Enquiry into the Sublime, a photograph of a whaling ship, Jacques Derrida’ The Animal that Therefore I Am, Whitman’s Song of Myself, interviews, and of course the work of several scholars. However, Robert Scholes’ ideas in “Reading Merwin Semiotically” encourages such an approach. Part of Merwin’s poetics involves a freedom and a responsibility on the part of the reader to create an intertextual fabric: “The poetic text is seen as ‘intertextual,’ based on other texts. The reader’s role is held to be a creative, productive one, in which the reader helps to make the poem” (Scholes 65). Scholes emphasizes the word make, reminding us of the etymology of poet, from the Greek poiesis, meaning maker. We may choose another metaphor based upon the Latin root of text, which is textus meaning to weave. Both choices perceive the reader as an integral part of the creative process: a maker, a weaver, a co-creator of the poetic text.

This concept resonates with Julia Kristeva’s theory of intertextuality.  She sees a “textual plurality . . . as a mental activity able to open a psyche to the creative process” (8–9).  The process of becoming a “polyphony of voices” places the subject in an “unstable articulation of identity and loss leading to new plural identity” (9). The text, as a “subject in process/on trial,” becomes unstable, but through the process, many interrelated texts generate a rich compost of ideas. I draw on Jed Rasula’s ideas from This Compost in the comparison of intertextuality to decomposition (6–9).  He sees the trope as “poetry’s composting medium” that synthesizes a “nomadic and renegade intertextuality” (9, 124).  The trope encourages one text to readily interact with another text.  Rasula sees his work in This Compost to be “consanguineous” with Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (Rasula 141-42 footnote).  Indeed, an intertextuality that traces “lines of flight” through texts—thereby exposing the “assemblage” of many texts captures—in part, the nature of a rhizome (Deleuze and Guattari 3, 4, 7, 22).  Deleuze and Guattari provide many images and metaphors to outline what a rhizome is, including the “logic of the AND”:  “the fabric of the rhizome is the conjunction, ‘and . . . and . . . and . . .” (25). What I aim to do here, then, is less to analyze the text as written, but to creatively expand upon the themes and meanings contained within it by putting it into dialogue with works that enrich and illuminate its ecological message. Exploring several tropes—including “the temple,” “the sublime,” and the “irreplaceable hosts”—encourages lines of flight to be drawn between many texts, aiming to create a synergetic assemblage that does justice to Merwin’s poem.

Scholes highlights that in order to weave an intertextual fabric, the reader must have “a special knowledge of [the text’s] tradition” (67). This language echoes T. S. Eliot’s understanding that the poet, and here I add the reader, must have an “historical sense . . . not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence” (112). The poet and the reader must work “not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of literature . . . has a simultaneous existence” within the composition (112). For Eliot, the creation of a new poem alters “the whole existing order” which preceded it (112). This alteration, however, only happens within the mind of a reader who is aware of the tradition, who sees the new poem within the context of that tradition, and who then senses the shuddering of the established order. Scholes and Eliot’s ideas complement each other well. Eliot calls for a poet who writes with a deep awareness of the situatedness of the new art within the intertextuality of the old, while Scholes calls for a reader to innovatively make an intertextual context. It is no wonder, then, that Scholes gravitates to Merwin, for Merwin writes with the sense of the contemporary and the historical coexisting, thereby creating poems that are understood best in an intertextual context. Merwin epitomizes Ezra Pound’s admonishment that poets master traditional forms of poetry before breaking into the new (67) as well as Eliot’s call for the poet to write with all of literature within one’s bones. Unlike Pound and Eliot, however, Merwin leaves no footnotes to help the reader make intertextual connections. Instead, readers must innovatively create the tapestry for themselves.

Later, I apply Scholes’ approach to Merwin’s “For a Coming Extinction,” but first it is useful to see the technique applied to two short poems. Scholes exposes the possibilities created by placing Merwin’s “Elegy”, from The Moving Target (1963), in an intertextual context. The poem is extremely terse: “Who would I show it to” (Second 226).

Scholes observes the rich history evoked by the title, including Milton’s “Lycidas,” Shelley’s “Adonais,” Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” and Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed” (66). When the reader keeps this historical sense in mind, the poem becomes a meta-elegy that simultaneously deconstructs and reconstructs the elegiac tradition, all the while suggesting that the one who has died (the beloved, or the species, or perhaps the planet) not only leaves too vast of a void for an elegy to address, but also is the very recipient with whom Merwin desires to converse. Writing it, therefore, would be an absurd gesture.

Merwin’s “Tale,” also from The Moving Target, further demonstrates the possibilities of intertextuality (note: I keep the poem in full as it can also be found on The Merwin Conservancy’s Poem of the Week feed):


After many winters the moss
finds the sawdust crushed bark chips
and says old friend
old friend (Second 183)

Like “Elegy,” the title “Tale” invokes a rich literary tradition. We have cautionary tales, fairy tales, folk tales, fables, old wives’ tales, tall tales, but “tale” also connotes a flavor of the epic in which a series of combined incidents or smaller tales encapsulate a much larger slice of the human condition: The Canterbury Tales, tales from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, the tales of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, and of course The Tale of Two Cities. Merwin’s tale explores the best of times and the worst of times as well, for the poem exhibits tension between despair and hope—between ecological destruction and yet the enduring resiliency of the earth—all in the brevity of a title and four lines. The tale contains four incidents: 1) the inferred “prelapsarian” state in which the moss and bark exist in an old growth forest; 2) the destruction of forests for economic gain in order to produce the “sawdust crushed bark chips”; 3) a long period of precarious separation during “many winters”; and 4) the reunion within the fabricated landscape of a home, “old friend / old friend” (ln 3-4). The tone of the reunion is not easily determined. Is it mournful?—or celebratory?—or a mixture of both? Since the new ecology between the moss and bark is a mere vestige of the once sublime relationship in an old growth forest, a tone of anguish and bewilderment emerges as well, which can inspire a posture of humility. The poem captures a tragedy of epic stature, and it now has a place within a long literary tradition of telling tales.

And yet, Merwin leaves no footnotes to guide the reader’s intertextual approach. It is clear, though, that Merwin encourages the reader to make connections, for what else would we do with “Tale” and “Elegy”? Admittedly, there is an element of subjectivity in the intertextual approach, but it ought not be whimsical. With Merwin’s work, intertextual pairings ought to be made on an informed basis; it is the sense of tradition that enables one to make riskier leaps. What texts do the titles point to? Are there direct allusions? Does the language carry a biblical cadence that suggests other connections (like “Leviathan,” to be discussed later in the essay)? What theories illuminate otherwise overlooked or dismissed ideas within the text? How have Merwin’s poetics developed? How does the given poem dynamically relate to that development? Does the intertextuality skew the poem or deepen the poem?—obscure it or illuminate it? Is there synergy? Whether Merwin intended the connections is beside the point, for the poems encourage readers to connect, to weave, and to make. The above questions guide the discussion that follows where I place “For a Coming Extinction” in an intertextual context to demonstrate how the poem encourages the reader to reconsider the Judeo-Christian origin of entitlement. “For a Coming Extinction” aggressively and provocatively alters the creation narratives through its dialogical interaction with them.


Works Cited
Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987. Print.

Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry. Ed. Dana Gioia, Meg Schoerke, & David Mason. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004. 111-16. Print.

Merwin, W. S. The Second Four Books of Poems. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 1993. Print.

Pound, Ezra. “A Retrospect.” Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry. Ed. Dana Gioia, Meg Schoerke, & David Mason. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004. 63-71. Print.

Rasula, Jed. This Compost: Ecological Imperatives in American Poetry. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2002. Print.

Scholes, Robert. “Reading Merwin Semiotically.” W. S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson & Ed Folsom. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987. 65-77. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. “‘Nous Deux’ or a (Hi)story of Intertextuality.” Romantic Review 93.1-2 (2002): 7-13. Print.

tweet tweet

On Aphorisms and Twitter

tweet tweetOver the last several months, we have been thinking about how Merwin Studies could best use Twitter and Facebook. We thought about tweeting lines from Merwin’s work, but that would take us in a direction we don’t want to go. Our role is to circulate discussions of Merwin’s work through communities—not necessarily the lines themselves. I am cautious to do so even though some Fair Use Policies suggest it would be fine. In the future, we might tweet lines from our contributing author’s essays—but our aim is to circulate thoughts and insights concerning poetry rather than the poetry itself.

And so, one day, I picked up Theodore Roethke’s Straw for the Fire—a collection of aphorisms. After floating through the pages and lines, I suddenly thought, Roethke would have loved Twitter!—and then I once really enjoyed writing aphorisms—and then Why not tweet aphorisms about poetry, poetics, and teaching?

Several years ago, I wrote a couple hundred aphorisms, but had let the discipline go. I wrote a couple dozen prior to launching into my dissertation, and they became a way to clarify and envision the impetus of that work. However, after a few days of writing aphoristically, I had to attend to, well, the dissertation and other scholarly work.

Reading Straw for the Fire a couple of weeks ago stirred up all those latent energies, and I began writing aphorisms again. Just a few pieces of straw a day. One of them contextualizes the roll of Twitter in the history of aphoristic writing:

After wandering through scrolls, vellum, and the dusty pages of books for millennia, the aphorism found Twitter.

Twitter, on one hand, seems to revolutionize how we write and think and circulate ideas through communities. On the other hand, it is a perfect place to practice an ancient thought pattern. Philosophers, poets, sages—all radicals—have gravitated to aphorisms. The aphorism can be like the mountain pine beetle that bores into and weakens large, monolithic systems of thought.

Nietzsche once said it all:

In the mountains the shortest route is from peak to peak, but for that you must have long legs.  Aphorisms should be peaks, and those to whom they are spoken should be big and tall of stature.

I make no claims that my aphorisms have vast, mountainous terrains beneath their peaks, but a few might. Readers, it is hoped, will glimpse at least one vertiginous valley when stepping (or leaping) from one tweet to the next. Regardless, Twitter is an excellent space to undergo an ancient practice. My hope is that these aphorisms carve out space for silence amidst an interface known for its white noise.

Tweet tweet, says the aphorism!




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