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.