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Merwin Across Borders

International Conference, Université Paris Cité and the École normale supérieure Ulm, October 21-22, 2022
Samantha Lemeunier

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1“Remembering” is not only the title of a 1997 poem by American writer William Stanley Merwin (1927-2019) but the very aspiration of the October 2022 international conference dedicated to the poet. This first Merwin conference entitled “W.S. Merwin Across Borders” was organized by Hélène Aji (ENS Ulm), Olivier Brossard (Université Gustave Eiffel / Institut universitaire de France), Cécile Roudeau (Université Paris Cité), Thomas Dutoit (Université de Lille) and Françoise Palleau-Papin (Université Sorbonne Paris Nord) and it took place on October 21st and 22nd 2022 at Université Paris Cité and the École normale supérieure Ulm before being followed by a day in Lacam in Occitanie where the participants visited Merwin’s house and garden with Romilly Waite and heard the testimonies of the poet’s friends thanks to the support of the organizations Sur les pas de Merwin, Cauvaldor and Art’Zimut. This international conference invited the participants to walk in the footsteps of the poet by making them cross numerous borders, whether they be geographic, temporal, linguistic, cultural or stylistic while the event benefitted from the support of the LARCA (Université Paris Cité), the CECILLE (Université de Lille), Pléiade (Université Sorbonne Paris Nord), VALE (Sorbonne Université) and the ERIAC (Université de Rouen). If the conference had a retrospective aspect as the life and works of Merwin were reviewed, it also pointed at the anticipation of an upcoming ecological disaster as evoked in the poet’s writings. The conference thus highlighted the contemporary necessity of taking Merwin’s poetry into account, a poet for whom the colors of nature were fading out as “yesterday was green” in “Echoing Light” (1997).

2The conference opened with a poetic communication paying homage to the writer. Robert Becker, a second cousin of Merwin, gave an overview of his relationship with the poet. He highlighted what Merwin considered as the bond between nature and poetry, a theme that was central to the whole conference. Merwin indeed cherished the nature which surrounded him in Hawaii, and Becker’s non-lucrative organization, namely the Merwin Conservancy, is now aimed at preserving this land. His dwelling on the island was “not a vacation house” but a practiced space made of living elements growing around the poet who was himself living according to the cycles of nature. Merwin’s horticultural metaphors are thus to be read as a symbol of resistance. His work with nature indeed constitutes a statement of environmental advocacy in the face of climate change. The result of both his actions in favor of the preservation of nature and his poems is, as the speaker underlined, “a work of art, an environmental sculpture, a place where silence speaks.” Therefore, contrary to Thoreau’s works in which the wilderness is lost, Merwin’s wilderness is a place of abundance for those who endeavor to discover it.

3Becker’s reference to Thoreau introduced another major theme of the conference, namely the comparison between Merwin and transcendentalists who worshipped nature. This was the topic of the plenary address delivered by Ed Folsom (University of Iowa) and entitled “Crossing Interior Borders: W.S. Merwin’s Search for Walt Whitman, Whoever He Was.” He considered Merwin as inseparable from Whitman despite Merwin’s dislike of Whitmanesque tropes. During the interview that Ed Folsom organized with Cary Nelson, he even said that “Whitman does not develop in musical intellectual sense, it repeats more and more details.” To Ed Folsom, this complex relation with Whitman partly derives from T. S. Eliot’s and Ezra Pound’s own appreciation of the transcendentalist poet as they kept highlighting the “crudity” of Whitman’s poetry. The plenary speaker thus concluded that what Merwin liked were the passages where the rhetorical, or crude, dimension of Whitman’s poetry disappeared. Moreover, according to the scholar, Merwin’s poetic investigation was focused on “extinction.” In other words, contrary to Whitman who often used the pronoun “you,” Merwin was never sure of whom his poetry was addressed to. Moreover, as Ed Folsom remarked, Merwin always had doubts about who the poetic “I” was, thus accounting for the line “whoever I was” in the poem entitled “To the Book” in Present Company (2005).

4In order to know more about “whoever” Williams Stanley Merwin was, Cécile Roudeau and Thomas Dutoit then interviewed the poet’s editor Michael Wiegers, who was the featured guest of the conference. This interview was entitled “Against the Coming Extinction: an Interview with W.S. Merwin’s Editor.” He mainly had to work on the poems orally, since Merwin’s works were supposed to be read out loud as they were inspired from oral tradition (namely songs and toubadour poetry for instance). As a matter of fact, Wiegers noted that Merwin eventually removed punctuation because otherwise it “stapled the poems to the page.” The atmosphere of loss is thus intentional in the writer’s works, and disorder is even part of the compositional process. Among other questions, the interviewers asked about the poet’s own influences: were there works by Whitman in Merwin’s library? Even if Wiegers did not find books by Whitman, he gave examples of other authors or works which inspired the poet. The editor found uncountable fairy tales in Merwin’s library. Moreover, William Blake’s “The Garden of Love” in Songs of Experience (1789) and the denial of the sensuous that it evokes give a glimpse of Merwin’s own perception of gardens. The poet conceives this space as a return to the source of creation, a hypothesis all the more reinforced by the constant feminine presence which is reminiscent of Eve in Merwin’s garden descriptions. According to Wiegers, his movement towards the origin contributes to the poet’s process of de-centralizing the human, or undoing anthropocentrism. Indeed, Merwin’s treatment of pronouns illustrates this desire to remove the personal in order to create a poetic space in which both nature and the cosmos can be preserved.

5This life-long attempt to celebrate nature was also hinted at by Peter Vernon (Université de Tours) in his paper entitled “‘Neither knowing nor not knowing’ in the Poetry of W.S. Merwin.” He opened the first panel of the conference whose chair was Hélène Aji (ENS) and in which all three speakers focused on nature, understood as both the biosphere and the nature of poetry. Vernon notably analyzed why Merwin’s communication about the natural world in The Vixen collection (1996) reflected uncertainty and doubt. For instance, the poet’s arguments and definitions are mainly apophatic: he builds his arguments from the negative, and instead of saying, his writings are “not saying” as the scholar explained, thus accounting for the ambivalent quote “neither knowing nor not knowing” from “The Bird” (The Vixen 23). Moreover, Merwin’s use of preterition, disrupted logical or rhetorical structures as well as his lack of punctuation all contribute to ambiguity and uncertainty. Vernon also analyzed the synesthetic aspect of Merwin’s works and remarked that man’s separation from nature was prosodically depicted by the poet. The latter indeed breaks lines while his innovations with rhythm transfigure breath into a place of poetic experimentation. Just like a migrating bird which comes and goes, harmony oscillates with disharmony. Merwin’s duality is thus deeply anchored in the idea of migration, a concept which reflects the stability and permanence of nature. Peter Vernon ended his paper by remarking that the poet’s tone was slightly different in The Folding Cliffs (1998) as Merwin wrote more about loss than absence (for instance, the cliffs surround the protagonists to protect them and their graves), but something permanent remains: the poems themselves.

6The themes of loss and destruction were also evoked by Sarah Jonckheere (Université de Lille) in her paper entitled “‘Astronomy of Spiders,’ Ecology of Insects: Merwin’s Anthropocene Entomology (A Study in Zoo-eco-poetics).” Insects, just like birds, disappear from Merwin’s poetry, hinting at the poet’s depiction of the Anthropocene, a liminal period, or a threshold, in which human agency and authority become destructive according to Timothy Clark in Ecocriticism on the Edge: The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept (2015). This idea of a threshold that is crossed is notably identifiable in Merwin’s essays such as “The Ends of the Earth” (2004) where the forest is “edged out” (194). In this essay recounting his journey to the Transvolcanic Range in Mexico, he acknowledges the disappearance of the butterflies which used to migrate there. Another reference to liminality is perceptible in the etymology of the word “insect,” which comes from insecure in Latin and literally means “to be cut up or into.” Merwin’s use of pronouns furthermore suggests that poems are “multispecies events” according to Aaron Moe’s definition of the concept in Zoopoetics: Animals and the Making of Poetry (2013). This oscillation of pronouns, which mirrors an oscillation between the human and animal world, shows how nature and human beings are interwoven. Thanks to Merwin’s stylistic devices, the poems are thus transfigured into organic objects, a spider web made of ramifications as Jonckheere demonstrated.

7In her paper entitled “Resist Globally and Care Locally: The Poetry of Naomi Shihab Nye and W.S. Merwin,” Samia Al Hodathy (Princess Noura University) wondered if this “spider web” could not be extended to the American canon itself by analyzing the links between Merwin and the poetess Naomi Shihab Nye. As Al Hodathy explained, the poetess granted a political dimension to poetry. She felt compelled to do so as she considered that responding to the world around her was an ethical and moral obligation. As for Merwin, he also held the same beliefs. During his Ted Talk held on January 22, 2012, he declared “those of us who can speak have a responsibility to say something for those who cannot.” Similarly, in an interview collected in Conversations with W.S. Merwin (2015), the poet stated: “the part of you that’s writing propaganda is always there” (95). Therefore, Al Hodathy identified a responsibility across borders shared by the two writers.

8If the first panel of the conference was principally focused on the themes and motifs of Merwin’s poetry, the second panel chaired by Françoise Palleau-Papin (Université Sorbonne Paris Nord) revolved around language and form. Michael Alm (Université Paul Valéry – Montpellier 3) notably analyzed the Occitan influence in Merwin’s poems in a paper entitled “Finding the Source: Occitan in W.S. Merwin’s Language Ecosystem.” Occitan was the language of the Troubadours who inspired so many lines by Merwin. The scholar elaborated on how Merwin came to the Occitan region. It was initially thanks to Ezra Pound, at a time when the latter was resident at a psychiatric ward. The poet told Merwin that the only way to find one’s voice was to translate the works of previous generations, notably the Provençal poets. Merwin thus translated Troubadours such as Richard I’s and Bernard de Ventadour’s Occitan songs. More than merely translating Occitan works, Merwin also dialogued with other translations such as Pound’s. For instance, “Peire Vidal” (1995) is a biography of the Troubadour, but also a conversation with Ezra Pound’s translation of Peire Vidal’s songs. Merwin later explained that these translations changed the way he perceived and used his own language. In this regard, Michael Alm suggested that William S. Merwin might have abandoned punctuation in order to stress orality as an ode to the Troubadours.

9This discussion on punctuation was pursued by Austin Robert Smith (Stanford University) in his paper “Unpunctuated Line(age)s: Follain, Merwin, Stanford.” In the introduction of The Second Four Books of Poems (1975), Merwin declared that he wanted to move away from conventions. Actually, “The Last One” (1969) was one of the last poems in which he used punctuation, and the final dots of the lines appear as chops, as if punctuation impaired the fluidity of poetic form. The speaker thus wondered if Merwin’s decision to cut punctuation was political or aesthetic. The scholar offered a hypothesis according to which Merwin’s formal choices were inherited from Jean Follain, a French writer and poet who limited his use of punctuation. This analysis tends to be reinforced by Merwin’s translation of Follain’s Transparence of the World in 1969, a work in which punctuation seems to progressively disappear.

10The theme of translation was then pursued by Helmbrecht Breinig (Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg) and Susanne Opfermann (Goethe University Frankfurt am Main) who evoked the various techniques they had to resort to when translating Merwin, which corresponded to translating a translator. Their paper was entitled “Translating Merwin: Navigating Nature, Place, and the Apo Koinou.” In 2016, they translated Merwin into German and published Das Auge des Raben schwarz. The two translators evoked the poem entitled “Leviathan” (in the 1956 collection Green with Beasts) to illustrate one of the difficulties they encountered when working on Merwin’s writings. The poem indeed ends with ambiguity: the word “Creator” (11) might refer to god, man or even nature, and the translators had to find ways to maintain such polysemy in German. This is the reason why they argued that translating meant deciphering the images chosen by the poet. Moreover, if symbols are sometimes described in Merwin’s poems, they are often only suggested, which is why translating his works is a form of analysis according to Breinig and Opfermann. Their publication of Merwin’s poems in German thus constitutes the result of a work of investigation as they attempted to preserve the poet’s precise images.

11This theoretical talk was followed by practical application as those who attended the conference were invited to participate in a translation workshop. The poem to translate was “One Day Moth” (2014), and the title was a first difficulty. Several questions emerged, notably “how to maintain the three monosyllables in French?” and “can moth be translated by papillon or should it be mite in French?” Then, the poem being highly suggestive, participants were confronted to the need of keeping the imagery at stake without telling too much:

One Day Moth

The lingering late-afternoon light of autumn
waves long wands through the arches
of fronds that meet over the lane
the bright rays dance in the shadow
and a giant moth like a waving hand
of gray velvet unfolds and dances among them
one moment of dappled brightness
and the next another darkness
surfing the shadows now
this shadow in the curve of the lane
that I have known through these years
the place of parting and of returning (The Moon Before Morning 17)

12The rather impersonal style of Merwin was also to be maintained in French, which was possible thanks to the use of the pronoun on. All in all, the attendants agreed on the following translation:

Sphinx d’un jour

La lumière automnale de la fin d’après-midi s’attarde
Ondule en longs faisceaux par les arches
De frondaisons qui s’embrassent au-dessus de l’allée
Les rayons vifs dansent dans l’ombre
Un grand sphinx tel une main
De velours gris se déplie, salue et rejoint la danse
Un instant de clarté pommelée
Et puis une obscurité nouvelle
Portée maintenant par les ombres
C’est l’ombre au tournant de l’allée
Que je connais depuis tant d’années
On s’y sépare et s’y rejoint

13The second day of the international conference took place at the École normale supérieure, rue d’Ulm. Chaired by Xavier Kalck (Université de Lille), the third panel was centered on the idea of depth as Ed Folsom remarked when exchanging with the three contributors. The first person to speak on the depths of psychology and memory was Françoise Palleau-Papin (Université Sorbonne Paris Nord) with her talk “Merwin’s Prose and Poetry: Collective Memory in Uncanny Short Fiction.” If Merwin’s works tend to resist interpretation and classification, Palleau-Papin offered to read them in the light of critical tools from other disciplines than literary criticism that might help understand Merwin’s poems and prose. She notably demonstrated that the poet’s short stories depicted uncanny resurgences of the past pertaining to the collective unconscious. By drawing inspiration from various literary traditions, the poet brings realism and surrealism together, which contributes to the uncanny aspect of his works. Published in 1970 in The Miner’s Pale Children, the 49-line piece “The Dachau Shoe” transfigures a shoe into a symbol of the repressed memory of an entire generation, while the experience of looking at the shoe becomes uncanny: “He kept it on the mantelpiece for a while but he explained that it wasn’t a trophy” (15). The syntax of the short story, which is made of short sentences full of reiterations, also contributes to the uncanny aspect of the work. These repetitions equally fuel the literary depiction of repressed memories while syntactic fragmentation invites the reader to recompose the pieces. All in all, stylistic elements (repetitions, passive forms or figures of disruption such as anacolutha) are converted into symptoms in Merwin’s short stories, and, as Palleau-Papin remarked, the more personal the reminiscences are, the more collective the memories are. Reading these short stories thus requires an active response on behalf of the reader who has to put together information and connect the vignettes. Indeed, in his foreword to the short story collection, Merwin declared that his works “resisted any easy reading.”

14In a paper entitled “‘To Soul’: Brush Encounters with Hyperobjects in the Poetry of Merwin and Whitman,” the next talk by Aaron Moe (Independent Scholar) analyzed deep time in Merwin’s works. If Whitman wrote odes, Merwin created elegies, yet, the scholar nonetheless wanted to identify and analyze the “brush encounters,” or unexpected similitudes, between the two poets. Aaron Moe’s demonstration was grounded in the philosophical theory of hyperobjects. In Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World (2013), Timothy Morton defines hyperobjects as objects spread over space and time (such as plastic). Yet, other more intangible objects such as sounds, notably songs composed of Sanskrit syllables, also constitute a form of hyperobjects. Aaron Moe thus considered Merwin’s poems as “slices of vanished ghosts of sound.” Indeed, in Merwin’s poetry, a vast range of harmonics can be observed. In “Utterance” in The Rain in the Trees, a “whispered sighing” is notably heard by the persona and is described as “spinning its one syllable” (44). This description is reminiscent of Morton’s definition of intangible hyperobjects. The sound evoked by Merwin in this poem also echoes Whitman’s “Whisper of Heavenly Death” in Passage to India (1871). Merwin’s reinvestment of such tropes gives way to a form of “reincarnation in the age of the Anthropocene” according to Moe. Therefore, beyond the hyperobjects that bring about a sense of deep time, deep space and deep sound in Merwin’s works, the scholar concluded that the poet also shared a deep sense of gratitude and that the emotions he transmitted were thus profound.

15In order to convey such emotions, the poet resorts to deep images that Hélène Aji (ENS Ulm) studied in her paper “‘When the war is over […] we will all enlist again’ (The Lice): W.S. Merwin P(r)o(ph)etic.” Hélène Aji created a parallel between the experiments led in The Lice (1967) and what she identified as a Merwinian attempt at conveying a sense of deep sympathy as defined by Kenneth White in Une Apocalypse tranquille (1985). In “W.S. Merwin and Postmodern American Poetry” (1990) Neal Bowers explains that in Merwin’s poetry, “language and the world depend upon one another” (257), leading Hélène Aji to analyze the way language engages with the world in The Lice. In “The Last One” for instance, the textual meditation conveyed by the poet contributes to the replacement and destruction of elements of the world. The text thus becomes a devouring monster while the anaphoric pronoun “they” sounds as an accusation. The poem therefore constitutes an angry depiction of how humankind destroys the environment, but it also works as a cataphoric description of a future which is not under control. The past, the present and the future thus seem to crisscross in Merwin’s poetry. The concept of causality is therefore constantly questioned in his works and one of the characteristics of the poems is that they open the poet’s eyes to the reality of the world, which crystallizes into deep sympathy. In other words, Merwin’s poems draw the emotional contour of objects, and thus correspond to the definition that Jerome Rothenberg and Robert Kelly coined for the notion of “deep images.” Similarly to Paul Célan, who gave his name to the ENS room in which the conference took place, Merwin’s discourse is thus one of extinction and global holocaust, or an apocalypse that extends beyond the text and engages with the world.

16The last panel of the conference chaired by Aaron Moe focused on the idea of knowledge and hermeneutics. In his paper “W.S. Merwin and the Great Outside,” Peter Feng Dong (Qingdao University) showed that Merwin moved “in the miraculous realm of what is not said but already known.” The poet explored mental imprints, which is the reason why emotions are important in his poems. In the last works he published, Merwin built a mode of communication with what the scholar called “the outside,” coined as “pure darkness” in The Shadow of Sirius. Actually, Feng Dong explained that Merwin’s late works resembled the Book of the Dead as the poet crossed the threshold of the world, or of death as a way to “unexperience the experience,” to reuse Jacques Derrida’s words. Therefore, according to the scholar, reading Merwin requires practice and “blindness” since the real world is vanishing from the view. Feng Dong then resorted to the theories developed by French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux to account for death, cosmic darkness, cognitive blindness, and the shadowy in Merwin’s works. In Après la finitude (2006), the philosopher explains that the existence of the world is in correlation with the existence of human beings: it is impossible to conceive of the world without taking into consideration the existence of humans and vice versa. The oscillation between presence and absence in Merwin’s poetry thus hints at the existence and disappearance of both the world and humankind.

17This sense of knowledge emerging from darkness and codification was also evoked by Thomas Dutoit (Université de Lille) and Cécile Roudeau (Université Paris Cité) in “‘Even though the whole world is burning’ (W.S. Merwin): Poetry Still? Poetry Now?” The two scholars wondered about the use of poetry in the Anthropocene. Quoting Pierre Vinclair’s Agir non agir (2020), they asked: “what can poetry do against the current ransack?” (« que peut faire la poésie contre le saccage en cours ? »). In Merwin’s works, the poet sometimes seems to flee: in an interview published in the Black Warrior Review, he declared that “a poem is not going to be the most effective way of changing something.” Yet several passages by Merwin hint at the writer’s poetic activism. All seems as if Merwin’s poems could reverse the course of the world. For instance, in the ekphrastic poem “The Mapmaker” in Garden Time, the poet drew inspiration from Johannes Vermeer’s The Geographer (1669). The map of the painting is turned into a poem, the first and last letters of each word replacing each other (MaP / PoeM) just like the names of their creators seem to be reversed (VER-MEER / MER-WIN). This inversion motif is also identifiable in “Autumn Equinox” in Garden Time, a poem in which antithetical notions are drawn together: the equinox is no longer perceived as the separation between day and night but as the moment when day and night encounter. This conception of the equinox thus contributes to the neutralization of oppositions taking place in Merwin’s works. In other words, the poet “surpasses dichotomies” as Dutoit and Roudeau explained. Such stylistic devices, combined with the deletion of diacritic signs, unveiled multiple levels of signification and allowed the poet to experiment with new modes of punctuation as he wrote in “On Open Form” (1969): “I saw that I could use the movement of the verse itself and the movement of the line – the actual weight of the language as it moved – to do the punctuation” (Folsom and Nelson 298). Thanks to the diverse levels of meaning contained in Merwin’s poetry, Dutoit and Roudeau thus demonstrated how the writer’s agency was both poetic and political as it redistributed subjects and objects while creating unexpected combinations.

18All in all, to reuse the poet’s words in “Term” (1999), “everyday recurrences of living” and the fact of “speaking of the ordinary” (The First Four Books of Poems 667) make the beauty of Merwin’s poetry. His celebration of nature conveys all the more sympathy as the Anthropocene witnesses its destruction. His works as well as the conference (about which more information is available on a dedicated website) have suggested that language, notably poetry, should not be abandoned or suspended in the face of the ecological disaster: words are vectors of beauty, wonder, memory, peace, and other values that are disappearing with the decay of the natural word. Merwin epitomized what could be done for the planet at an individual scale, him who always remembered that even if the clock is ticking, “at the last minute a word is waiting” (The First Four Books of Poems 667).

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Samantha Lemeunier, « Merwin Across Borders »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2022, mis en ligne le 02 décembre 2022, consulté le 02 février 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Samantha Lemeunier

ENS Ulm, ED540, République des Savoirs, équipe CRRLPM

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