March 3, 2013
For the condition of poetry is not enclosed in a book, but knitted into your skin; it folds your wrinkles into its holography; it makes reading a compact with writing, becoming wreading.
From This Compost
While reading the essays in Jonathan Weinert and Kevin Prufer’s Until Everything is Continuous Again: American Poets on the Recent Work of W. S. Merwin, I thought of Jed Rasula’s theory of wreading (84-85). Of course, Rasula often places a fragment of one poem next to another by a different poet—leaving off titles, names, and other identifying features—thereby enhancing the material (de)composition of poetry. Such “reading” only takes place in the (de)composition of writing. I am not the only one who has gravitated towards Rasula’s work in order to better understand the energy generated by this kind of wreading.
The essays in Weinert and Prufer’s collection retain identifying features of the poems they explore, but one still gets the sense of a deep wreading and composting of Merwin’s oeuvre. Several of the contributing essayists/poets speak of the first-edition paperback of one of Merwin’s books. How the book is now well-worn. Dog-eared pages. Weak spines. Some contributors discuss the bookstore where they purchased the book, underscoring the memorable experience of engaging Merwin’s new work in the first moments of publication. While the essays focus on The Rain in the Trees on through to The Shadow of Sirius, the authors discuss the recent work in light of Merwin’s earlier publications.
And so the wreading taking place spans decades. Eric Pankey shares, “These are the sorts of questions I was asking myself thirty years ago” when he read “When You Go Away” from The Lice. He continues, “I am still asking them” (43). In order to read “The Nomad Flute” from The Shadow of Sirius (2008), Mark Irwin reaches back to Merwin’s 1954 “On the Subject of Poetry.” Both poems explore Merwin’s “uncanny ability to listen” (32–36, 32). Mathew Zapruder discovered Merwin when he was “just starting to understand the possibilities of language as material,” and he emphasizes how he has returned to Merwin “again and again” (78, 85).
Many of the authors blend their keen insights with personal stories. They engage Merwin as humans. As poets. As people grappling with the work of poetry amidst ecological devastation, 9/11, and the last decade of wars (see Sarah Kennedy’s “Millennial Merwin,” 129–36). Jerry Harp reminds us of the “deep etymological roots” that relate lore to the process of learning: “To learn means to participate in the lore of a tradition.” Part of the wreading, then, explores how poetry “connects with the recurrences” that are “woven into human experience” (Harp 181). Debra Kang Dean emphasizes the “act of both recovery and witness” in Merwin’s poetry and poetics, and she locates the “reader’s experience” with the poems “in the actual world” (50–51). Most of the essays exemplify H. L. Hix’s call to explore the existential question of “What is at stake?” in Merwin’s work (102).
One contribution, though, seems out of key: Mark Halliday and Michael Theune’s “The Shadow of Sirius: A Critical Conversation” (137–72). I recognize that the inclusion of Halliday’s acerbic criticism is contextualized by Ed Folsom and Cary Nelson’s earlier collection of essays on Merwin. Folsom and Nelson include positive and negative perspectives on Merwin’s work. However, if we read closely, we see that Marjorie Perloff’s more negative essay critiques not Merwin per se, but rather several critics’ unsupported claims. She pushes against the critics while leaving the question of the quality/value of Merwin’s poems alone (122-144). Halliday, on the other hand, seems trapped within the workshop mentality, not recognizing the larger scope of what is at stake in Merwin’s poetry and poetics. He imposes his standard of what makes a good poem, and he cloaks his criticism with many sarcastic and glib comments. He undermines (i.e. places mines beneath) Merwin’s work by superficially discussing Merwin’s poetry and poetics only as a way to posture his argument. Because he cannot move beyond his criteria for a good poem, he reminds me of Tony Hoagland’s title What Narcissism Means to Me. As such, the “critical conversation” never gets beyond whether the poems are “good.” As H. L. Hix argues in his contribution, so much of contemporary criticism fails to move beyond “Is it good?” in order to engage the more existential question, “What is at stake?” (102–103, 107–111). The conversation does not address what I see to be one of the most crucial aspects concerning Merwin: his palimpsest poetics . . . the way you can hear vestiges of older lines amidst the new . . . and how the palimpsest poetics teaches us how to better listen to the “actual weight of the language as it move[s]” (Merwin, “Fact,” 62). As Jeanie Thompson suggests, “the construction of Merwin’s lines teaches us how to be still and listen” (89). She refers to The Vixen, but her observation resonates with Merwin’s work as a whole. We learn to listen to language, the earth, anguish, and to a frail and tenuous “hope.” I am not against negative criticism, but Halliday pushes things too far. Perhaps some humility is needed. Lisa Spaar, for instance, recognizes that she “wasn’t yet ready for Merwin” until Present Company (2005). Only then did she “see the prescient voltas in Merwin’s work . . . as deep hinges of emotion and perception” (22, 25).
I fully recognize how negative perspectives push others to more fully articulate the work of a given poet. In 1931, R. P. Blackmur wrote a scathing critique of Cummings’ early work (EEC rather than eec for reasons I won’t get into here). Over eighty years later, Cummings scholars still reference Blackmur’s essay. Ironically, the essay is included in Blackmur’s book Language and Gesture. He had the right title, but he still wasn’t ready to engage the gestures of Cummings’ craft.
Though Halliday’s negative criticism may, in a similar fashion, push others to better articulate the dynamics within Merwin’s oeuvre, he seems invested in merely stirring things up.
Let’s be clear: Halliday is not wreading.
And it takes centuries to wread a poet like Merwin who has published across seven decades. As a whole, Until Everything is Continuous Again contributes to the wreading of Merwin’s recent poetry, folding it into his earlier books in ways that allow readers to participate in the rich, ongoing compost.
Aaron M. Moe
Washington State University
Blackmur, R. P. Language as Gesture: Essays in Poetry. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1952. Print.
Merwin, W. S. “‘Fact Has Two Faces’: An Interview with W.S. Merwin.” Interview by Ed Folsom and Cary Nelson. The Iowa Review 13.1 (1982): 62. Print.
Perloff, Marjorie. “Apocalypse Then: Merwin and the Sorrows of Literary History.” W. S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry. Ed. Ed Folsom and Cary Nelson. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987. 122–144. Print.
Rasula, Jed. This Compost: Ecological Imperatives in American Poetry. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2002. Print.
Weinert, Jonathan, and Kevin Prufer, eds. Until Everything is Continuous Again: American Poets on the Recent Work of W. S. Merwin. Seattle: WordFarm, 2012. Print.