Desire and Infinity in W. S. Merwin's Poetry
222 Pages / 5.50 x 8.50 x 0.62 in
- Hardcover /
- 9780807176115 /
- Published: December 2021
- eBook /
- 9780807176863 /
- Published: December 2021
In the first monograph on W. S. Merwin to appear since his death in 2019, Feng Dong focuses on the dialectical movement of desire and infinity that ensouls the poet’s entire oeuvre. His analysis foregrounds what Merwin calls “the other side of despair,” the opposite of humans’ articulated personal and social agonies. Feng finds these presences in Merwin’s evocations of what lingers on the edge of constantly updated socio-symbolic frameworks: surreal encounters, spiritual ecstasies, and abyssal freedoms. By examining Merwin’s lifelong engagement with psychic fantasies, anonymous holiness, entities both natural and supernatural, and ghostly ancestors, Feng uncovers a precarious relation with the unarticulated, unrealized side of existence.
Drawing on theories from Lacan, Žižek, Levinas, and Heidegger, Desire and Infinity in W. S. Merwin’s Poetry reads a metaphysical possibility into the poet’s work at the intersection between contemporary poetics, philosophy, and psychoanalysis.
W. S. Merwin surely was one of the greatest American poets of his generation. In a career of nearly seven decades, he created a poetic oeuvre that was unique in its imaginative reach, its moral clarity, and its deep engagement with the history of world literature. How fitting that now a distinguished young Chinese poet-scholar of English and European poetry, Feng Dong, has written the most penetrating and original study of Merwin’s work thus far. Drawing on a double frame of Lacanian psychoanalysis and post-Heideggerean philosophy, Feng Dong closely attends as well to individual poems and the trajectory of Merwin’s life and works. He shares with his protagonist an understanding of poetry’s liminal powers, writing “Poetry carries with it a phantasmal inner force that constantly breaches its own form.” In the end, as he considers the ever-evolving dynamic between notions of finitude and oblivion in Merwin’s poems, Feng Dong reveals not only the consequences of Merwin’s genius, but also the sources of his melancholy.
It is no surprise to discover a Lacanian poet in W. S. Merwin, for whoever has glanced at his towering mass of poems will have noted the relevance of terms like the Thing, the Real outside language, or an Other jouissance, but what is truly surprising is to see how subtly and lightly, how deftly and deeply these concepts can limn an entire body of work. Feng Dong’s brilliant synthesis conjures up the figure of an American Hölderlin who avoided visionary madness by realizing an erotic ecology, by making one with his sexual paradise.
As he traces the dynamic of propulsion toward the infinite—followed by necessary withdrawal—Feng reveals the nuances of Merwin’s profound grief and yet relentless mysticism. Like Merwin’s decade-spanning poetry, Feng’s work is a gift: it’s focused, and yet expansive; it’s a much-needed inflection point in Merwin scholarship; and though it is not a primary aim, Feng provides one of the most illuminatory ways of seeing Merwin’s ecopoetics to date.