The Ecopoetics of Merwin and Ammons

I take the road that bears the leaves in the mountains
I grow hard to see then I vanish
On the peaks it is summer

W. S. Merwin, “The Dream Again”

In an online interview, transcribed by Don Boes, that appears in a literary magazine our of Wooster, Massachusetts, the Artful Dodge, W. S. Merwin was asked about any affinities he might have with a poet we read last week, Robinson Jeffers. “It’s been a long time since I read him,” Merwin comments, “and I may be very unfair and I love some of Robinson Jeffers,”

But there seemed to me to be a kind of relishing of his misanthropy, a kind of hugging to himself of a bitterness which really, I thought, in the long run, was egocentric, feeling very superior to the world around him, to the human race, a real kind of hatred of it. I don’t feel close to that at all. I certainly feel it with a sense of elation or relief, but one of great sadness, a feeling that if I stay there it would be a kind of moral defeat. One really has to find a way to move out of there. One doesn’t stay in nihilism, I think.

The interviewer Don Boes then points out that both poets are still similar, and Merwin’s response is interesting in our conversation about ecopoetics, and the wilds of poetry:

The one thing I feel close to is his sense of our self-importance as a species, which I think is one of the things which is strangling us, our own bloated species-ego. The assumption that human beings are different in kind and in importance from other species is something I’ve had great difficulty in accepting for 25 years or so. To me, it’s a dangerously wrong way of seeing things. I think that our importance is not separable from the importance of all the rest of life. If we make the distinction in a too self-flattering way, if we say we are the only kind of life that’s of any importance, we automatically destroy our own importance. Our importance is based on a feeling of responsibility and awareness of all life, the fact that we are a part of the entire universe and our importance is not different from the importance of the rest of the universe. We’re not in that way the only valuable and interesting thing to have appeared in the universe.

In the early 1960s, in the poems of his collection The Moving Target (1963), Merwin’s poems seem to reflect the paradox of language in light of “the fact that we are a part of the entire universe and our importance is not different from the importance of the rest of the universe.” His poems dropped punctuation as he incorporated insights of Ch’an and experimented with the silent and nameless presence beyond the language, thought, self, and the human. Merwin’s voice conjures, as David Hinton describes it,

a presence beyond speech, but which is somehow speaking. A presence that speaks in a more primal grammar: no punctuation; lines following primal rhythms, some long and some short; end-breaks designed to heighten mystery, sometimes following oral breath-rhythms, sometimes frustrating those rhythms and confusing meaning. A presence that takes silence and namelessness as its homeland, that voices a mysterious weave of consciousness and Cosmos in an almost post-apocalyptic sense of human consciousness dying back into the earth (204)

The silence and nameless depths of presence echoes in the comment by A. R. Ammons, the other poet we are considering this week, who says that poetry “is a means to a nonverbal source.” Ammons says this near the end of a talk called A Poem is a Walk that he presented at the International Poetry Forum in Pittsburgh, in April 1967, and that was published in the magazine Epoch in 1968:

But poetry, the imagination, can create a vehicle, at once concrete and universal, one and many, similar and diverse, that is capable of bridging the duality and of bringing us the experience of a “real” world that is also a reconciled, a unified, real world. And this vehicle is the only expression of language, of words. . . .

At the end of his talk, Ammons admonishes the members of his audience to teach poetry as a mode of discourse that differs from logical exposition, and that unlike logical exposition “can reconcile opposites into a ‘real’ world both concrete and universal. He also suggests that they

teach that poetry leads us to the unstructured sources of our beings, to the unknown, and returns us to our rational, structured selves refreshed. Having once experienced the mystery, plenitude, contradiction, and composure of a work of art, we afterward have a built-in resistance to the slogans and propaganda of oversimplification that have often contributed to the destruction of human life. Poetry is a verbal means to a nonverbal source. It is a motion to nomotion, to the still point of contemplation and deep realization. It’s knowledges are all negative and, therefore, more positive than any knowledge. Nothing that can be said about it in words is worth saying.

The last sentence circles back to the epigraph for the essay by Lao Tzu, and the problem of the self-enclosed realm of linguistic structures that inevitably take us away from “the unstructured sources of our beings.” It is not surprising that Ammons poetics are preoccupied with motion, formlessness, the forms motion takes. His poems are always in motion and the form of his poems—with the use of the colon as a favored form of punctuation—keep the motion going, and each parts in the play of the larger whole. Hinton describes the experience of reading Ammons, each poem

feels like another ripple in a larger movement, the mind responding to whatever it encounters at the moment, always provisional, always on its way to the next possibility, the next poem (a fact inadvertently emphasized in the Collected Poems where each poem is followed directly on the page by the next). The poems are often self-reflexive, talking about how they work—and so, teaching us how to read them (223)

On Thursday evening this week we will read Merwin and Ammons. Let’s look at one of the representative poems included in the anthology by Ammons, Corson’s Inlet, and I’ll bring in the book-length poems for some exemplary instances of a singular poetic project.

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