02/2/16

W. S. Merwin as Gardener

Urtica Dioica Stinging Hair, from Wikimedia Commons

Urtica Dioica Stinging Hair, from Wikimedia Commons

One characteristic that becomes apparent about Merwin in his prose, such as The Lost Upland, and in his poetry, such as his most recent book of poetry, The Moon before Morning, is that he loves to garden. In a way, though, the word “garden,” seems to hardly contain what he is doing now on his 19 acre palm forest on the island of Maui. There he is nurturing over 2700 individual palm trees. For lack of a better word, I will use the term “garden,” but I must use it an expanded sense. He is creator and keeper of a forest that contains one of the largest collections of palms on the earth.

Let me begin by looking at “The Rose Beetle” from The Rain in the Trees. The subject of the poem is a Chinese Rose Beetle, an invasive species that is thought to have come to Hawaii in the larval stage in the soil of plants being shipped over 100 years ago from China, Taiwan, or neighboring areas. It is native to Japan and Taiwan. Merwin gives us its history:

It is said that you came from China
but you never saw China
you eat up the leaves here

your ancestors travelled blind in eggs
you arrive just after dark from underground
with a clicking whir in the first night. (78)

The beetle is associated with darkness and night; it arrives blindly. It is not a creature of the light and the damage it does is extensive. It aggressively eats the leaves of countless plants, making a lace-work of them. Merwin notes that the native Hawaiian hibiscus, abutilons, and royal ilima fall victim to this species. But the poem, at the end, does not demonize the insect. The poet rather matter-of-factly states that the beetle makes “an arid net” of the leaves; it turns them into “sky / like the sky long ago over China” (78). A lesser poet would not have ended the poem that way. But Merwin sees that the beetle had its place somewhere. Humans brought the beetle to Hawaii. There is no need to vilify the insect. It no doubt has natural predators in its homeland, and it was an act of human ignorance that brought the beetle into Hawaii. As a point of comparison, Merwin makes note of other imports to Hawaii, such as the innocuous eggplant and strawberry. It was something of a bit of luck that these plants did not become problem invasives. Merwin shows us in the poem that as gardener he sees that the cultivated world is intricate, and nature always has the upper hand.

And there are times when Merwin is able to revel in the garden, when he is able to truly celebrate what is being grown there. Poems such as “High Fronds” from The Moon before Morning exhibit this praise. Another poem from the volume, “Urticophilia,” celebrates what to many is simply a nuisance plant, the nettle. The title derives from the genus name of nettles, “urtica,” and, obviously, “philia,” “to love.” Most people think of nettles as simply a plant with hair-like projections which sting to the touch. Merwin has another perspective:

Oh let me wake where nettles are growing
in the cool first light of a spring morning
the young leaves shining after a night’s rain
a green radiance glistening through them. (69)

The nettles have a “story.” They “open” and discover a “world they know and a season / they inherit” (69). They are part of the “conversation” of people, or perhaps, the conversation of the natural world (69). The poet asks for the “world’s sense” to come to him from the nettles, “my true elders,”

. . . and not from the voices
with something to sell not from the spreading
scar tissue of pavement numbing the flayed earth
not from the latest words of the fast-talkers
to whom the nettles never listen. (69)

Commerce and developers have done their damage; there is a knowledge the poet turns to and that knowledge must come from the living world. Wonder may be found in the lowliest of plants.

These are but two examples of many poems and prose works on the subject that run throughout Merwin’s canon. His love of gardening is documented in that work and in his conservancy in Hawaii and in decades of hands-on labor there that attest to his dedication to the health of the plant world and all that lives there. In one poem from The Vixen, “Present,” the narrator speaks of a woman in France (no doubt) who gives him a gift of mirabelle plums, and how, as the two of them sit on a wall by her garden, she notes how you can see through them. And then they look at them “and each of [them] [holds] up / a small golden plum filled with the summer evening” (21). The trope is perfect for Merwin’s poetry of the garden. The light of the summer evening fills the plums, and it is this light which Merwin sees as he works in his garden.

_______________________

Jane Frazier
Lincoln University of Missouri

_______________________

 

Works Cited

Merwin, W. S. The Moon before Morning. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, Print.

—. The Rain in the Trees. New York: Knopf, 1988. Print.

—. The Vixen. New York: Knopf, 1996. Print.

 

 

 

03/24/15

Wendell Berry and W. S. Merwin: Caretakers of the Earth

Search results for merwin blog

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It seems to me that Wendell Berry and W. S. Merwin share much in common. They are both essayists and poets (and both ecopoets I must add), they are dedicated environmentalists, and they both take care of a piece of ground, treating them very painstakingly for their preservation for future generations. Berry is a small farmer in Kentucky; Merwin is conservator and gardener of a native palm garden in Hawaii.

In “A Vision” Berry speaks of giving back to the earth and what it means to be a good steward of it. And from that will spring the promise of a rich, sustained land. Through hard work, the hard work of physically tending to the plants, not taking from and abusing the land wholesale for the sake of monetary gain, will sprout the promise of “abundance.”  His promise is this:

If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow-growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it,
if we will make our seasons welcome here,
asking not too much of earth or heaven,
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
here, . . . (Selected Poems 102)

Berry lists the richness of this world if we will just preserve it: clear rivers, birdsong, green meadows, springs, and old forests. Berry’s natural world will have families “singing” in the fields.  Whatever is taken from the earth is returned to the earth.  Berry is a farmer on his modest plot in Kentucky who speaks in “Enriching the Earth” of plowing in clover and grass to feed the soil, of planting grains and legumes to be plowed in later when they have grown, thus, to be an organic farmer, as “natural” as possible, and not dependent on the wide array of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and commercial fertilizers used by mainstream agriculture.

Merwin has long been known for his heartfelt ecological positions on many issues, from the protecting of the whales and the diminishing animal species on earth to the preservation of native plants in Hawaii to his concern over our often tainted air and water.  Merwin’s own palm forest that he is restoring had been the victim of logging, erosion, and detrimental agricultural practices (The Merwin Conservancy).  Merwin’s palm collection contains 2,740 individual trees, of more than 400 taxonomic species and 125 unique genera. The collection contains 900 different horticultural varieties. This garden is one of the largest and most diverse palm collections on earth (The Merwin Conservancy). Thus, when he writes in “Garden Notes” of:

a seed in its early age
or a great frond formed
of its high days and nights
looking at the sky
made of daybreak the morning sun
and the whole of daylight (The Moon Before Morning 21)

. . . we know that this is the garden, these are the very plants, he has invested much of his life into.

Merwin’s Conservancy attests to the fact that he wishes to dedicate a part of his life to a parcel of the earth and it shows us that in whatever we do in relation to the earth we can take care too. Berry has long been the small farmer working at odds with and in spite of the agricultural-chemical-industrial complex. Two poets working in small, sustaining ways relative to the forces of commercial agriculture and land development which works most of the time against common sense. These poets simply call for sustainable living.  The earth has long been giving her signals of being scarred and depleted. Berry often speaks of “industrial” agriculture’s depletion of the soil, massive soil erosion, pollution by toxic chemicals, depletion of aquifers, exploitation of cheap labor, genetically modified food, and the list goes on (“Death of the American Family Farm”). The problems are ubiquitous. But some in commercial agriculture are catching on to Berry’s and Merwin’s wisdom. Some land developers are saving native forests and fields on the properties that they put into commercial use. These two poets have for decades been crying out against the metaphor of “the machine,” as Berry puts it, in which the machine believes it owns all.  Nature has two strong voices saying “no” to the machine.

_______________________

Jane Frazier
Lincoln University of Missouri

_______________________

 

Works Cited

Berry, Wendell.  “Death of the American Family Farm.” Organic Consumers Association. Home Page. Organic Consumers Association.  2002. Web. 18 March 2015.

Berry, Wendell.  The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry.  Washington: Counterpoint,1998. Print.

Merwin, W. S.  The Moon Before Morning.  Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2014.

The Merwin Conservancy.  The Merwin Palm Collection.  The Merwin Conservancy. 2014. Web.  18 March 2015.

01/15/15

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.

10/10/14
earth

“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.

 

Creative Commons License

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.

06/7/14
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):

Tale

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.

09/19/13

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.

 

. . . . .