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.

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