Merwin and Thoreau Part II

Frost-Leaves_tn2It turns out that the two sources I requested are simply reprints of the section from the interview “Fact Has Two Faces” with Ed Folsom and Cary Nelson. I have not yet found a thorough comparative study of Thoreau and Merwin, but it seems that such an exploration would further unleash the “stored energy” of both writers’ works.

In the interview, Merwin, Folsom, and Nelson discuss Thoreau for a couple of pages, comparing and contrasting him with Whitman and Henry James. The discussion exposes how Thoreau was an enduring figure for Merwin. He says,

And for Thoreau, when he sees [nature], it’s alive, completely alive, not a detail in a piece of rhetoric. And he leaves open what its significance is. He realizes that the intensity with which he’s able to see it is its significance. This is an immense gesture of wisdom in Thoreau that I miss in Whitman. . . . The last page of Walden is certainly one of the most beautiful things ever written, and of a kind of elevation that Whitman himself was trying to reach all the time. (324)

Folsom asks Merwin if he reads Thoreau often, and Merwin replies, “Well, I keep him in the john. He’s been there for years. So I go back and read things over again. I think Walden is an incredible book. I feel grateful to Thoreau in a way. He’s been a companion” (324).

Later, Merwin further emphasizes that “Thoreau is really the main [American writer he goes] back to” (325).

Nelson asks Merwin whether Thoreau has been “behind some of the prose” Merwin had been writing, but Merwin isn’t sure: “Maybe so, who knows? (325).

This is exactly why a comparative study could be so rewarding. Thoreau has clearly impacted Merwin’s poetics. One way of beginning the exploration involves grappling with how listening plays such a crucial role in both Walden and Merwin’s poetry and poetics.

One of the ways Thoreau cultivates what Nelson and Merwin call “his humility before the phenomenal world” (325) is through attentively listening to sounds. In the chapter “Sounds,” Thoreau provides one such example:

The sumach, (Rhus glabra,) grew luxuriantly about the house, pushing up through the embankment which I had made, and growing five or six feet the first season. Its broad pinnate tropical leaf was pleasant though strange to look on. The large buds, suddenly pushing out late in the spring from dry sticks which had seemed to be dead, developed themselves, as by magic, into graceful green and tender boughs, an inch in diameter; and sometimes, as I sat at my window, so heedlessly did they grow and tax their weak joints, I heard a fresh and tender bough suddenly fall like a fan to the ground, when there was not a breath of air stirring, broken off by its own weight. (80)

Thoreau, here, gravitates to that agential force in all plants, for the buds grew “as by magic,” and the passage culminates in the subtle sound of a break and a whoosh. This passage establishes how the sounds Thoreau listens to are often nearly imperceptible. One must be still, and silent, and aware in order to hear them.

Another instance from Walden that illustrates this occurs on its last page that Merwin so adamantly lauded. The “strong and beautiful bug” that emerges from the table that had “stood in the farmer’s kitchen for sixty years” was noticed, first, by the faculty of listening. They “heard” the bug “gnawing out for several weeks” (224).

And so, when Merwin attentively listens to the “sound / Of frost stirring” for instance, he is dusting the furniture of the mind, as Thoreau would say. Thoreau suggests that morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. It seems that Merwin was awake in “The Cold Before the Moonrise” with that dawn, in the dead of night, as he listened to the frost stirring “like an animal asleep / In the winter night” (1:294).

Make no mistake about it. Merwin’s manifesto at the end of “The Cold Before the Moonrise” resonates with his companion’s approach to dwelling: “If there is a place where this [the sound of frost stirring] is the language may / It be my country” (1:294).


Works Cited

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

Merwin, W. S., Ed Folsom, Cary Nelson. “‘Fact has Two Faces’: Interview.” Regions of Memory: Uncollected Prose 1949-82. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987. 320-361. Print.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Other Writings. Ed. William Rossi. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 2008.


Merwin and Thoreau

I have been reading Thoreau’s Walden gravitating to the passages on listening. I will write a more substantial blog post soon. Seems important to read Merwin and Thoreau together, though a preliminary search yielded just two published sources, both by Ed Folsom. I have requested them and await their arrival.

From “Sounds” on, Thoreau cultivates a deep listening that connects him to his environment—a process not unlike Merwin’s poetics.

This spring, I am teaching Walden, but to unleash its stored energy, I plan on complimenting our exploration with several of Merwin’s poems on listening.

Listening could be a mantra for 2014!

Happy New Years


Embedded Videos and Merwin Scholarship

In the inaugural issue of Merwin Studies, contributing authors provided digital readings of a few of Merwin’s poems that they explored. In the upcoming issue, we encourage scholars to, perhaps, provide videos of their readings instead. Merwin’s poetics suggest that listening happens not merely through the ears, but throughout the body—not unlike the lizard listening to the sound of rain on the tin ceiling through his hands (see “By the Mango Tree” from Feathers from the Hill) . The weight (or lightness) of the language manifests itself not only in the inflections, tones, and modulations of the voice of the reader, but also through the innumerable and nuanced gestures of the countenance. Furthermore, the torso may lean. A hand may reach out and hold the silence between a stanza break. All of these gestures exemplify a reader who listens with the body—and often the most attuned “reader” is the one who reads the poem, to others, with his or her whole body.

I have read “Fly” to students numerous times. It can be seen as a fable—and surely the pigeon who will not fly prompts an allegorical interpretation. However, in light of affective neuroscience that provides a weight of evidence for the “basement” of the brain—the emotions—to be similar across mammals and birds, I prefer the literal read. G. A. Bradshaw’s Elephants on the Edge exposes how other species can experience severe psychological trauma; it is not an anthropomorphic fallacy to attribute PTSD to a nonhuman animal who has suffered from abuse, isolation, and captivity.

I see the pigeon in the poem as a being who lost the will to live in a very human, very animal sort of way.

I should mention that I stop the poem early in my reading. Here is why. One time I read the poem to a class, and when I paused at the stanza break after “So that is what I am,” the silence was utterly full. The line (and its following silence) came as a surprise, and it seemed poignant to end in that unresolved, perplexed, confessional, silence. The poem had ushered the class into a strange place of bewilderment, of questions, of wanting to know what the “that” is—“So that is what I am”—what is the speaker of the poem?—now?—after finding the dead pigeon? I couldn’t break the silence with the last few lines of the poem. Instead, I waited as long as possible before closing the book.

We all know how crucial the reading of a poem is to its interpretation. Our hope is that Merwin Studies can be a place to integrate videos of scholars reading the poems, to discuss the readings, and to explore the implications of how a body listens to poetry.




The Ecopoetics of a Bowhead Whale

[I repost this from my other blog because of the many whale poems Merwin has written, including, of course, “For a Coming Extinction,” which I reference at the end of the post.]

Ecocritics often emphasize the ways in which a human writer infuses his or her language with material vestiges of the nonhuman world. John Muir, for instance, allows readers to hear the sounds of the forest when he describes his experience climbing a tree in a windstorm:

The sounds of the storm corresponded gloriously with this wild exuberance of light and motion. The profound bass of the naked branches and boles booming like waterfalls; the quick, tense vibrations of the pine-needles, now rising to a shrill, whistling hiss, now falling to a silky murmur; the rustling of laurel groves in the dells, and the keen metallic click of leaf on leaf—all this was heard in easy analysis when the attention was calmly bent. (Muir)

Like the sounds of the forest, the language booms, hisses, vibrates, murmurs, and clicks, and through the onomatopoeia, Muir epitomizes the notion that a writer can use language as a form of echolocation.

The ecocritic Scott Knickerbocker gives this process the name of “sensuous poiesis”—the “process of rematerializing language specifically as a response to nonhuman nature” (2), and he explores this dynamic in the works of several human poets.

It is time, though, to extend such poetics to other species, such as the bowhead whale. Recently, I read David Rothenberg’s Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound. Rothenberg spends a couple of pages documenting the ways the bowhead whale integrates the myriad sounds of creaking and groaning ice into the whale song (194-96). This is a form of “sensuous poiesis,” for the whale has rematerialized his repertoire of song as a response to non-whale nature. Rothenberg highlight how the whale vocalizes the song while swimming many miles in darkness, surrounded by ice. Like human ecopoetics, the whale’s song seems to be a form of echolocation as the ritual of vocalization cultivates a sense of place—especially as the song is shared amongst conspecifics.

In a forthcoming article, I discuss this further, but I needed to get this out as a blog. The rhetorician Kenneth Burke has established the notion of “terministic screens,” that is, the ways that language becomes a framework for selecting one reality and deflecting other realities. The ecopoetics of a bowhead whale selects a reality that extends the poetic tradition beyond the human sphere.

I can’t not think of the poet W. S. Merwin’s “For a Coming Extinction” and the “bewilderment” that augments as we grapple with the responsibility of driving other animal makers—along with their songs, their cultures, their rituals, their ecopoetics—into oblivion (304-5).


Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: U of California P, 1966. Print.

Knickerbocker, Scott. Ecopoetics: The Language of Nature, the Nature of Language. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2012. Print.

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

Muir, John. “‘A Wind-storm in the Forests,’ Chapter 10 of The Mountains of California.” Sierra Club: The John Muir Exhibit. 2012. Web. 11 Jan. 2012.

Rothenberg, David. Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound. New York: Basic Books, 2008. Print.


. . . . .


Inaugural Issue

MS VOl 1We have launched the inaugural issue of Merwin Studies, and we invite you to peruse it: http://merwinstudies.com/current-issue/

Each article explores some aspect of the journey throughout Merwin’s work, arriving in his 2008 The Shadow of Sirius. Ed Folsom explores air; Russell Brickey traces time and animals; M. P. Jones IV foregrounds the hybridity of the lyric-epic mode of Sirius; and Kate Dunning engages Merwin’s trees in order to explore his ecopoetic evolution.

In keeping with Merwin’s poetics of listening, we include audio files of the authors reading select poems. Their readings expose the silences permeating Merwin’s poetry, and we hope that they add a welcome texture to the experience of reading.

Kate Dunning has also provided an audio file of her full article. The reading can be found at the beginning of her article or here: http://merwinstudies.com/volume-1-2013/

To navigate the contents of the flipbook, use the “Bookmark” tab on the left. Readers may prefer “single page” reading, which can be selected through the button “more options” at the top. Then select “single page.” A pdf can be downloaded through the print option, also at the top.  We also provide a pdf version here: http://merwinstudies.com/volume-1-2013/

We hope that you enjoy the issue.

Our very best,

Aaron Moe and Rebecca Stull, Editors


Swinging, Resonance, & the Line of a Poem

What is a line of poetry?—what does it do?—what can it do?

One way to explore poetry and poetics in the long 20th century is to examine what constitutes a line of poetry, for whom, and at what time.

Dickinson. Whitman. Crane. Frost. Stein. Cummings. Eliot. Pound. Williams. Stevens. Moore. Hughes. Bishop. Rukeyser. Ginsberg. Olson. Merwin. Graham. Hillman.

Maybe it is as “simple” as a line is a line is a line . . . or maybe we need thirteen ways of looking at a line—and thirteen ways of hearing a line—before we get anywhere.

A couple of years ago, I read Folsom and Nelson’s interview with W. S. Merwin, “Fact Has Two Faces,” and I was struck by Merwin’s sheer bewilderment (and adoration) of what constitutes a poetic line. Why break the line there, in that moment?—toward what effect?—toward what poetics? Though bad form, I quote a long passage from the interview in order to capture Merwin’s sustained bewilderment/adoration concerning what exactly is a line of poetry. He is committed to both preserving the ineffable nature of a poetic line and yet striving to understand it. (This passage erased the stock answers I used to offer when teaching what a line is all about):

There’s a huge amount of talent around now, including some really gifted young people coming out of colleges, but some of them have a very shaky sense of what a line is. This is obviously bad for individual poems, but it’s also very bad for the possibility of their development as poets or for the development of anything resembling a tradition—even for the continuation of an Olson or a Williams tradition. You can’t go anywhere if you’re not fairly clear about what a line is. Yet I’m not even sure that I want to say what I think a line is, though I’ve thought about it. I’ll describe how I’ve taught the topic, though that may prevent me from doing it again.

With students in certain places I’ve thought it was valuable to try to force them to figure out what they thought a line was. A year and a half ago I was at Oberlin, where the students were very gifted. I read a lot of manuscripts and said, “I’m not going to do the workshop thing of going over your papers and making little suggestions. I don’t think that’s really the most appropriate thing. What I’d like to do is go around the room and make everybody who wants to be involved in this try to figure out what a line of verse is.” After two hours, we hadn’t got very far. They realized that they’d never really thought about it. We left it with my saying, “I think this is what you have to think about the next time you stop a line somewhere. At the risk of losing a great deal of spontaneity for awhile, you need to look closely, to figure out what in hell you think you’re doing: why you stop it after three syllables, why you stop it after two beats, or why you stop it where you do—what are you doing? Are you just writing prose and saying, ‘I like it better this way,’ or is there really some reason for doing it?”

As far as they could get spontaneously in two hours, these young people who’d read a lot—mostly in their own contemporaries, but they were addressing themselves to poetry with some seriousness—was to realize that a line was a unit of something. What it was a unit of was something they couldn’t agree on. (59–60)

A few moments later in the interview, Merwin suggests that a line need not relate to (Olson’s notion of) breath, though it could. Rather, he sees it relating more to the material gestures of the body: “[a line break is] a rhythmical gesture and also as a gesture of meaning. . . . it’s important to stop in such a way that the stop itself has something to do with impetus” (61).

The theory of gesture and impetus can be expanded if we think of swing sets.

I recently read Carolyn Hill’s “Changing Times in Composition Classes: Kairos, Resonance, and the Pythagorean Connection” where Hill discusses the art of pumping. Drawing on K. C. Cole’s work, she establishes how each kick must be timed. If the swinger kicks with a tremendous amount of force at the wrong time, all that power does nothing: “adding energy without timing gets you nowhere” (qtd. in Hill 218). A kick at the right time generates resonance, or to use Merwin’s language, generates impetus. Later in the essay, Hill shares how she uses the phenomenon of resonance of swinging in order to illuminate what is actually happening on a page of text: “I have come to believe that the energies needed for writing (and its close relation, reading) must come first from a much stronger sense of one’s own resonance with the many kairotic situational rhythms within which one writes or reads” (221). This is very similar to Merwin’s admonition for writers—and readers!—to listen to the “actual weight of the language as it move[s]” (62).

So, I have been looking at a line of poetry as something that generates momentum and resonance through the gesture of the break. It brings the energy of the line to fruition, and the break—like the kick on the swing—must be timed so as to generate more momentum. A break at the wrong time generates no resonance, impetus, momentum.

Easier said than done.

But the image of the timed kick on the swing clarifies what happens during a brilliant line break. Merwin has plenty of such lines, and I may discuss some of them in the future. Now I want to turn to some lines from Brenda Hillman’s Practical Water:

i understand the horse
who broke her front
legs trying to run
i understand that horse

all women understand her
we all understand that
horse we all understand

her all of us do (65)

The resonance of the line breaks generate new meanings, new rhythms, new energies. If Hillman was on a swing, she’d be looking well over the top bar:

i understand the horse
who broke her front
legs trying to run
i understand that horse

all women understand her
we all understand that. . . .
horse, we all understand

her all of us do

Like Merwin outlines, these line breaks are a gesture of meaning and a gesture of rhythm; they create impetus. Suddenly, the word “that” becomes full of resonance: we all understand that, i.e. the desire to extend beyond ourselves, the passion of the moment, the willingness to run beyond what we can do. The next line, then, due to the break, allows us to turn to the horse, to speak to her, to empathize with her: “Horse, we all understand.” I find myself caught up in the repetition, the resonance, the timing of each kick in these lines, and I must say that I agree with Merwin. This is not about the breath. A line break, rather, is about the body and achieving resonance through the body. I am not exhaling and inhaling with each line break, but my body gestures with each stop—each timed kick.

Line breaks are difficult because kairos is difficult. When is it the right time? When should one kick? Where and when does the energy reach fruition? What time and what place will a break generate resonance from the line throughout the stanza, poem, section, and book?

Moreover, on a swing, one must lean back and pull with the hands in conjunction with the kick. Both must be timed. Well, what other gestures accompany a brilliant line break?

The theory of the swing helps illuminate the ineffable nature of the line break—and though it may bring some understanding—the mystery is still preserved. The line break cannot be prescribed. It must be intuited through a body who “gets” resonance. The theory helps.

The problem with some literary theories, though, is often they become too esoteric. They exclude and alienate before the illuminate. I am more interested in theories that can illuminate, for broad audiences, the dynamics of reading and writing poetry. Too many people “don’t get” poetry already. The theory of swinging and resonance is simple. Anyone who has learned how to swing understands it. We all understand that. . . .


Note on Hill’s Essay:

Hill’s essay appears in Sipiora and Baumlin’s Rhetoric and Kairos: Essays in History, Theory, and Praxis. This collection of essays helps place kairos back on the map. It is a fascinating concept, untranslatable to English. Each essay in the collection adds another perspective of kairos, Hill’s, of course, adding the concept of resonance within writing. For starters kairos is all about the timely; it is qualitative time existing within quantitative time (46–49); it is the vintner’s grapes coming to fruition (51); it is a god who has wings on his shoulder blades and on his heels, carrying a scale balanced on a razor sharp edge, with a forelock encouraging the swift to seize him (xii); it is the opportune time and the opportune place for something to happen (2); it is the fitting and the timely (143); and I add here that it is the poetic line coming to fruition at the break.


Works Cited

Hill, Carolyn Eriksen. “Changing Times in Composition Classes: Kairos, Resonance, and the Pythagorean Connection.” Rhetoric and Kairos: Essays in History, Theory, and Praxis. Ed. Phillip Sipiora & James Baumlin. Albany  NY: State U of New York P, 2002. 211–225. Print.

Hillman, Brenda. Practical Water. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2009. Print.

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 Studies & Social Media

I write to address what may seem to be an incongruity. We, at Merwin Studies, have just launched our social media interfaces in Facebook and Twitter. And yet, in an interview, Merwin shares his circumspect suspicion surrounding today’s incessant time spent reading and writing in digital spaces. Such practices may hinder one’s ability to hear a line of poetry:

One of the things that disturbs me about a lot of recent poetry, undergraduate poetry, and people starting to write poetry at school for the first time—I have a feeling that they don’t hear [the line] at all. I have the feeling that writing on and looking at a computer all day has something to do with that. I don’t know how poetry’s going to survive that—I’m not quite sure that it will. I think it’s going to make the distinction between prose and poetry more obvious, because poetry won’t exist unless it’s heard. . . . If you’ve been reading a lot of students’ poems you can begin to sift out quite quickly the ones who are hearing it and the ones who aren’t. How do you say “you have to hear it . . .”? If the students don’t hear it, they don’t know what you mean. (Merwin, “Raw Shores” 118)

Merwin reminds us that the materiality of “the meter of Middle English” arose from the fully embodied act of chanting while rowing—the caesura emerging from the bodily pause between strokes (Merwin, “Raw Shores” 119). To actually hear a line, then, suggests listening with the entire body and not just with one’s eyes and thumbs. When poetry circulates in online spaces, much noise surrounds what could be the silences amongst the printed page. If we have learned anything from Merwin, it is that hearing a line of poetry means hearing/feeling the silences; the vowels; the punctuation of the consonants, line breaks, stanza breaks—leading us back to the silences.

It means feeling the gathering of strength before dipping the paddle once again.

Merwin Studies works to carve out space to hear the line, and we are willing to use social media to do so—even if it means threatening and complicating our ability to listen. Too much is at stake not to.

I recently read Charles Bergman’s “Nature Is a Story That We Live: Reading and Teaching ‘The Ancient Mariner’ in the Drake Passage.” In it, Bergman recounts how he takes his literature class to Antarctica, reading Neruda in Chile and reading Coleridge next to the “stiff-winged silhouettes against a dark smear of sea and sky.” It is a phenomenal article. Here, I only foreground Bergman’s sense that the reading of literature faces its own coming extinction:

Over the last three-plus decades, I’ve written widely on endangered animals and conservation issues. At the same time, I’ve been teaching college literature and writing. I’ve been unable to shake the sense that literature is also becoming endangered in my students’ lives. Or more precisely, my students don’t read literature much anymore, and care about it less. I have found myself wondering if there is a more-than-coincidental connection between the endangerment of nature and the widely publicized decline of reading in our students. (661, 674–76)

Bergman follows up his observation with research outlining the decline of reading literature. It makes sense. A poem’s context extends beyond the printed page, and when a reader’s engagement with an ecosystem diminishes, she or he may have a much more difficult time experiencing how the poem cultivates place within a given ecosystem.

I am very much heartened by the fact that Bergman and his students dwell in Coleridge and Neruda’s poetry while simultaneously lingering where the poems take place. They enter a feedback loop where turning towards the earth generates momentum to turn towards the poem, which ushers one back to the earth.

At Merwin Studies, one can turn to discussions of the poetry, which contributes to the feedback loop of listening to a line and listening to the earth.

Listening is difficult. I, for one, am just beginning to really hear a line of poetry after nearly two decades of serious teaching and studying and writing. The art of listening to a line of poetry coincides with the art of listening to all that environs us, including the lady-bugs and hyacinths in (sub)urban spaces.

But, an alphabetic letter, is, after all, technology too—with its own baggage of noises. A book is a form of technology that carries letters and words—as is a webpage or a post or a tweet. A book can eclipse one’s engagement with the earth just as much as a smart-phone—or they could both enhance it. Merwin Studies recognizes this tension, with a fair amount of fear-and-trembling.

It is our hope that social media—as it circulates discussions of Merwin through myriad communities—becomes a catalyst to turn to the places where poetry happens (See Merwin, “Open Form” 298–300). On the page. In the embodied act of listening. During a walk. In frost stirring. In the spinning of a web or the making of a nest.

I don’t disagree with Merwin that the incessant engagement with digital interfaces threatens one’s ability to hear a line of poetry. However, Merwin Studies exists in online places to enhance and cultivate the ability to listen.

More on listening soon.



Works Cited

Bergman, Charles. “Nature Is a Story That We Live: Reading and Teaching ‘The Ancient Mariner’ in the Drake Passage,” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 19. 4 (2012): 661-680. Print and Web.

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.

Merwin, W. S. “On Open Form.” Regions of Memory: Uncollected Prose, 1949-82. Eds. Ed Folsom and Cary Nelson. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987. 298-300. Print.


Recent Book of Essays on Merwin

Image of Continuous AgainI just added Jonathan Weinert and Kevin Prufer’s Until Everything Is Continuous Again: American Poets on the Recent Work of W. S. Merwin to our bibliography. For readers unfamiliar with this 2012 publication, I fear that it is buried at the bottom of that list. I write this post to draw attention to it as I surmise it contains current and valuable discussions of Merwin. I am eagerly awaiting my copy, and plan to provide a review once I have read it.