Our next installment of The Poetry Lab focuses in on an incredible, independent effort to explore all aspects of W.S. Merwin’s ecologically minded poetry and poetics. Merwin Studies is an annual journal whose mission is to circulate discussions of Merwin’s work through wide audiences. The project recently published it’s first volume in 2013, which can be read online here.
We asked Merwin Studies founder Aaron Moe, PhD to share more about his inspiration and feelings towards this important and well-executed work. We hope you enjoy this in-depth look at W.S. Merwin’s work.
Aaron on the inspiration behind the Merwin Studies project:
Being born a decade after The Lice was published, I did not have the opportunity to eagerly anticipate each publication of Merwin across the decades. I didn’t discover him until 2005 with the publication of Migration. At the time, I taught at the secondary level, and I created an elective on ecopoetics. Poems like “Tale,” “The Cold Before the Moonrise,” “For a Coming Extinction,” “Place,” “Witness,” and “Song of a Man Chipping an Arrowhead” slowly settled into my consciousness and directed my thoughts and imagination in compelling directions. As the years have unfolded, I find that the poems I first read by Merwin have continued to grow and expand my consciousness in how I see humans dwelling in language and co-existing with other species on this shared planet.
When I was not teaching, I worked as an arborist in the summer climbing and pruning trees along the front range of Colorado. Poems like “Place” continued to impact me as I had the chance to be a caretaker of a suburban forest, so to speak. During one Arbor Day event, I made a 200 foot timeline along a sidewalk that showed how long various species of trees could live. When a group arrived at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine at the end (trees that can live 4,800+ years and counting), I passed out a bookmark with Merwin’s “Place” on it, and we would read it. I appreciate the tension of how the pastoral of planting a tree happens amidst the apocalypse of mass extinction, for the tree stands in the earth full of the dead. It is already the last day of the world. Implicitly, though, I hope that participants saw how poetry can deepen one’s experience planting a tree.
And so, my motivation for co-developing Merwin Studies grew out of these early experiences teaching Merwin and sharing his poem with participants on Arbor Day. As I pursed my graduate work and teaching on the college level, I wanted to find ways to establish a larger community involved in discussing Merwin. I am very thankful to Rebecca Stull for being the graphic designer for our journal and for helping getting Merwin Studies off the ground. Likewise, I am thankful for Ed Folsom, Kate Dunning, Russell Brickey, and M.P. Jones IV as they contributed such excellent essays to our first issue. They also enthusiastically provided audio files of them reading the poems they discuss in their essays. I know one has to dig into the online “flipbook” to find the audio, but that sort of thing just doesn’t happen in many online journals. Merwin’s absence of punctuation presses us to listen to the weight of the language as it moves through the poem (to echo the interview “Fact Has Two Faces“). It is mesmerizing to listen to each of our authors doing just that. Listening to the language through a vocal performance of feeling that weight in one’s mouth.
We are still in our beginning stages, though. We now have an editorial board, and I am thankful that each member has joined us and the contributions they have made circulating Calls for Proposals, writing blog posts, and more. I hope that as the months unfold, we will have a second issue soon. We need submissions.
I know that we are being read. Our stats show that quite regularly a visitor has come and stayed on the site, opened up the online journal, and continued flipping pages. Of course, I don’t know what the reader is thinking or how she/he is responding, but I like to think that they are expanding their consciousness with regards to how reading poetry impacts our dwelling on earth.
Aaron on ecopoetics and how writing creatively can fuel environmental awareness:
Like many people involved in ecopoetry, my starting point is the etymology: eco from the Greek oikos meaning home and poetics from the Greek poiesis meaning a making. “Ecopoetics,” then, suggests that the process of dwelling (homemaking) deeply in language can nurture, direct, and guide one’s dwelling on the earth. This is why “The Cold Before the Moonrise” is a life-long mantra for me. That turning to the sound of frost stirring wanting it to be the language of one’s home. Many years ago on the first day I taught that poem a student observed how we paradoxically hear the silent sound of the “frost stirring” through the onomatopoetic hissss of the s’s that span across the first three lines. Turning toward language nurtures that turning toward the earth. And that, for me, is one of the crucial forces behind ecopoetics.
Interested in contributing to Merwin Studies‘ next volume? Submissions are accepted year-round!
Have an idea for the next installment of The Poetry Lab? Email us!