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.


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.


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