Resilience of the Oracular in W.S. Merwin’s “Forgotten Language”

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Contribution to a Book

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American Literature Readings in the 21st Century



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Since the early 1950s, Merwin’s poetry has engaged in a project to interrogate and reconstitute, in a Poundian sense, the old mythos of the continuance of history, and replace it with a new one that more directly addresses our age with its ruptures and threats of impending sociopolitical and ecological collapse. As David Baker suggests, characterizing The Carrier of Ladders (1970), “Merwin’s task is concurrently to displace the old mythologies, dispatching them as departures, and to propose ingredients of a new mythos.” I track the trajectory of Merwin’s oracular style, offering close readings of lines from many poems written at different points in his career, poems that range from the prophetic to the personal. I will trace elements of Merwin’s evolving style, including his poems’ characteristic lack of punctuation, the variability of line length, syntax, and caesura, audible music as well as the poems’ use of aphorism, litany, parable, paradox, oxymoron, and non sequitur. Merwin said in an interview with Ed Folsom that punctuation “seemed to staple the poem to the page, but if I took those staples out the poem lifted itself right up off the page. A poem then had a sense of integrity and liberation that it did not have before. In a sense that made it a late echo of an oral tradition.” The removal of punctuation and other effects of lineation and figurative language lead these poems to produce their often-startling orality and feel of transformative amazement. I further track how the tone of Merwin’s poems begins to lighten, to become a little less dire and more hopeful, and to contain more personal references in later books beginning with The Compass Flower (1978) culminating in The Rain in the Trees (1988). My interest here is how poems from Merwin’s later books become the site of both the recounting of loss but also of strategies for preservation and reclamation—through language or memory—of the intrinsic native vitality that is disappearing from the world, even from the biosphere.


English and Comparative Literature