03/24/15

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

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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.

03/10/15

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.

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.