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.



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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.


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.




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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.


“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.


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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.

Image from urbanreleaf.org

CFP for Panel at ASLE Biennial Conference, Moscow Idaho, June 23-27, 2015

Image from urbanreleaf.org

Image from urbanreleaf.org

Merwin Studies seeks to organize a panel at the ASLE Biennial Conference—Notes From Underground: The Depths of Environmental Arts, Culture, and Justice—in Moscow, Idaho, June 23–27, 2015.

The conference theme invites us to consider how looking “down, under, beneath and below” can lead to “imaginative, aesthetic, critical, pedagogical, and activist responses.”

Many of the suggested topics readily resonate with Merwin’s ecopoetics including geological time, soil biopolitics, gardening, roots, reclaiming, insects, witness, mycorrhizal networks, migrations, poetics of darkness (roots, mud, night), and grassroots politics and cultures. For the Conference’s full CFP, click here.

Merwin has had his hands in the earth, planting in Hawaii, for nearly four decades now. His practice of planting and poetry has lead to the grassroots formation of The Merwin Conservancy that actively brings people into interaction with Merwin’s forest of 850 species of palms. For Merwin, planting and poetry and activism are intimately interconnected. As such, they provide a fertile ground—perhaps even a mycorrhizal network—that could be explored further at the ASLE conference.

For instance, in “Place” from The Rain in the Trees, the speaker imagines the roots of the newly planted tree growing “in the earth full of the dead.” Merwin establishes the connection between planting and writing poetry when, in one poem later titled “Witness,” he explores the interrelationship between biological and linguistic extinction: “I want to tell what the forests / were like // I will have to speak / in a forgotten language.” In the poem just before “Place,” a native Hawaiian tree sits in a “plastic pot” waiting to be planted with its name, in “Latin,” written nearby. Writing a poem, planting a tree, and calling it by its native name are acts of resistance that reclaim the “forgotten language” of the forest as well as help restore a portion of the earth ravaged by the monocrops of the pineapple industry. To plant a tree, to write a poem, helps bring to fruition a soil biopolitics (or a politics of bioregionalism).

This small sampling of poems from The Rain in the Trees is but one place where these themes emerge in Merwin’s work. We therefore seek presentations that explore further Merwin’s activist tendencies as a poet/planter.

ASLE’s CFP encourages innovative panels from a wide range of participants:

We particularly encourage non-traditional modes of presentation, including hybrid, performative and collaborative works; panels that minimize formal presentation in favor of engaged emergent discussion; interdisciplinary approaches; environmentally inflected (earthy?) readings of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, film, theatre and other media; and proposals from outside the academic humanities, including submissions from artists, writers, teachers, practitioners, activists and colleagues in the social and natural sciences.

And so, presenters have flexibility to be creative in how their work helps unleash the energy of Merwin’s poetry and poetics.

Send 300 word abstract, contact information, and brief biography to one of the following email addresses by November 15. If interested, though, please communicate early as we will be actively seeking panelists:

merwinstudies [at] gmail [dot] com

amoe [at] saintmarys [dot] edu

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):


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.

tweet tweet

On Aphorisms and Twitter

tweet tweetOver the last several months, we have been thinking about how Merwin Studies could best use Twitter and Facebook. We thought about tweeting lines from Merwin’s work, but that would take us in a direction we don’t want to go. Our role is to circulate discussions of Merwin’s work through communities—not necessarily the lines themselves. I am cautious to do so even though some Fair Use Policies suggest it would be fine. In the future, we might tweet lines from our contributing author’s essays—but our aim is to circulate thoughts and insights concerning poetry rather than the poetry itself.

And so, one day, I picked up Theodore Roethke’s Straw for the Fire—a collection of aphorisms. After floating through the pages and lines, I suddenly thought, Roethke would have loved Twitter!—and then I once really enjoyed writing aphorisms—and then Why not tweet aphorisms about poetry, poetics, and teaching?

Several years ago, I wrote a couple hundred aphorisms, but had let the discipline go. I wrote a couple dozen prior to launching into my dissertation, and they became a way to clarify and envision the impetus of that work. However, after a few days of writing aphoristically, I had to attend to, well, the dissertation and other scholarly work.

Reading Straw for the Fire a couple of weeks ago stirred up all those latent energies, and I began writing aphorisms again. Just a few pieces of straw a day. One of them contextualizes the roll of Twitter in the history of aphoristic writing:

After wandering through scrolls, vellum, and the dusty pages of books for millennia, the aphorism found Twitter.

Twitter, on one hand, seems to revolutionize how we write and think and circulate ideas through communities. On the other hand, it is a perfect place to practice an ancient thought pattern. Philosophers, poets, sages—all radicals—have gravitated to aphorisms. The aphorism can be like the mountain pine beetle that bores into and weakens large, monolithic systems of thought.

Nietzsche once said it all:

In the mountains the shortest route is from peak to peak, but for that you must have long legs.  Aphorisms should be peaks, and those to whom they are spoken should be big and tall of stature.

I make no claims that my aphorisms have vast, mountainous terrains beneath their peaks, but a few might. Readers, it is hoped, will glimpse at least one vertiginous valley when stepping (or leaping) from one tweet to the next. Regardless, Twitter is an excellent space to undergo an ancient practice. My hope is that these aphorisms carve out space for silence amidst an interface known for its white noise.

Tweet tweet, says the aphorism!




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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.