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.





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.


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.



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.


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.




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.