I write to address what may seem to be an incongruity. We, at Merwin Studies, have just launched our social media interfaces in Facebook and Twitter. And yet, in an interview, Merwin shares his circumspect suspicion surrounding today’s incessant time spent reading and writing in digital spaces. Such practices may hinder one’s ability to hear a line of poetry:
One of the things that disturbs me about a lot of recent poetry, undergraduate poetry, and people starting to write poetry at school for the first time—I have a feeling that they don’t hear [the line] at all. I have the feeling that writing on and looking at a computer all day has something to do with that. I don’t know how poetry’s going to survive that—I’m not quite sure that it will. I think it’s going to make the distinction between prose and poetry more obvious, because poetry won’t exist unless it’s heard. . . . If you’ve been reading a lot of students’ poems you can begin to sift out quite quickly the ones who are hearing it and the ones who aren’t. How do you say “you have to hear it . . .”? If the students don’t hear it, they don’t know what you mean. (Merwin, “Raw Shores” 118)
Merwin reminds us that the materiality of “the meter of Middle English” arose from the fully embodied act of chanting while rowing—the caesura emerging from the bodily pause between strokes (Merwin, “Raw Shores” 119). To actually hear a line, then, suggests listening with the entire body and not just with one’s eyes and thumbs. When poetry circulates in online spaces, much noise surrounds what could be the silences amongst the printed page. If we have learned anything from Merwin, it is that hearing a line of poetry means hearing/feeling the silences; the vowels; the punctuation of the consonants, line breaks, stanza breaks—leading us back to the silences.
It means feeling the gathering of strength before dipping the paddle once again.
Merwin Studies works to carve out space to hear the line, and we are willing to use social media to do so—even if it means threatening and complicating our ability to listen. Too much is at stake not to.
I recently read Charles Bergman’s “Nature Is a Story That We Live: Reading and Teaching ‘The Ancient Mariner’ in the Drake Passage.” In it, Bergman recounts how he takes his literature class to Antarctica, reading Neruda in Chile and reading Coleridge next to the “stiff-winged silhouettes against a dark smear of sea and sky.” It is a phenomenal article. Here, I only foreground Bergman’s sense that the reading of literature faces its own coming extinction:
Over the last three-plus decades, I’ve written widely on endangered animals and conservation issues. At the same time, I’ve been teaching college literature and writing. I’ve been unable to shake the sense that literature is also becoming endangered in my students’ lives. Or more precisely, my students don’t read literature much anymore, and care about it less. I have found myself wondering if there is a more-than-coincidental connection between the endangerment of nature and the widely publicized decline of reading in our students. (661, 674–76)
Bergman follows up his observation with research outlining the decline of reading literature. It makes sense. A poem’s context extends beyond the printed page, and when a reader’s engagement with an ecosystem diminishes, she or he may have a much more difficult time experiencing how the poem cultivates place within a given ecosystem.
I am very much heartened by the fact that Bergman and his students dwell in Coleridge and Neruda’s poetry while simultaneously lingering where the poems take place. They enter a feedback loop where turning towards the earth generates momentum to turn towards the poem, which ushers one back to the earth.
At Merwin Studies, one can turn to discussions of the poetry, which contributes to the feedback loop of listening to a line and listening to the earth.
Listening is difficult. I, for one, am just beginning to really hear a line of poetry after nearly two decades of serious teaching and studying and writing. The art of listening to a line of poetry coincides with the art of listening to all that environs us, including the lady-bugs and hyacinths in (sub)urban spaces.
But, an alphabetic letter, is, after all, technology too—with its own baggage of noises. A book is a form of technology that carries letters and words—as is a webpage or a post or a tweet. A book can eclipse one’s engagement with the earth just as much as a smart-phone—or they could both enhance it. Merwin Studies recognizes this tension, with a fair amount of fear-and-trembling.
It is our hope that social media—as it circulates discussions of Merwin through myriad communities—becomes a catalyst to turn to the places where poetry happens (See Merwin, “Open Form” 298–300). On the page. In the embodied act of listening. During a walk. In frost stirring. In the spinning of a web or the making of a nest.
I don’t disagree with Merwin that the incessant engagement with digital interfaces threatens one’s ability to hear a line of poetry. However, Merwin Studies exists in online places to enhance and cultivate the ability to listen.
More on listening soon.
Bergman, Charles. “Nature Is a Story That We Live: Reading and Teaching ‘The Ancient Mariner’ in the Drake Passage,” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 19. 4 (2012): 661-680. Print and Web.
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.
Merwin, W. S. “On Open Form.” Regions of Memory: Uncollected Prose, 1949-82. Eds. Ed Folsom and Cary Nelson. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987. 298-300. Print.