Embedded Videos and Merwin Scholarship

In the inaugural issue of Merwin Studies, contributing authors provided digital readings of a few of Merwin’s poems that they explored. In the upcoming issue, we encourage scholars to, perhaps, provide videos of their readings instead. Merwin’s poetics suggest that listening happens not merely through the ears, but throughout the body—not unlike the lizard listening to the sound of rain on the tin ceiling through his hands (see “By the Mango Tree” from Feathers from the Hill) . The weight (or lightness) of the language manifests itself not only in the inflections, tones, and modulations of the voice of the reader, but also through the innumerable and nuanced gestures of the countenance. Furthermore, the torso may lean. A hand may reach out and hold the silence between a stanza break. All of these gestures exemplify a reader who listens with the body—and often the most attuned “reader” is the one who reads the poem, to others, with his or her whole body.

I have read “Fly” to students numerous times. It can be seen as a fable—and surely the pigeon who will not fly prompts an allegorical interpretation. However, in light of affective neuroscience that provides a weight of evidence for the “basement” of the brain—the emotions—to be similar across mammals and birds, I prefer the literal read. G. A. Bradshaw’s Elephants on the Edge exposes how other species can experience severe psychological trauma; it is not an anthropomorphic fallacy to attribute PTSD to a nonhuman animal who has suffered from abuse, isolation, and captivity.

I see the pigeon in the poem as a being who lost the will to live in a very human, very animal sort of way.

I should mention that I stop the poem early in my reading. Here is why. One time I read the poem to a class, and when I paused at the stanza break after “So that is what I am,” the silence was utterly full. The line (and its following silence) came as a surprise, and it seemed poignant to end in that unresolved, perplexed, confessional, silence. The poem had ushered the class into a strange place of bewilderment, of questions, of wanting to know what the “that” is—“So that is what I am”—what is the speaker of the poem?—now?—after finding the dead pigeon? I couldn’t break the silence with the last few lines of the poem. Instead, I waited as long as possible before closing the book.

We all know how crucial the reading of a poem is to its interpretation. Our hope is that Merwin Studies can be a place to integrate videos of scholars reading the poems, to discuss the readings, and to explore the implications of how a body listens to poetry.