Selected Translations by W. S. Merwin
To have watched from one of your patios
the ancient stars
from the bank of shadow to have watched
the scattered lights
my ignorance has learned no names for
nor their places in constellations
to have heard the ring of water in the secret pool
known the scent of jasmine and honeysuckle
the silence of the sleeping bird
the arch of the entrance the damp
—these very things may be the poem.
-Jorge Luis Borges, Spanish, 1899-1986
To enter Merwin’s larger poetic project, whether in his translations or his own poems, the reader weighs life’s experiences captured in language so that “these very things may be the poem.” This collection gathers poems spanning 2,500 years, from thirty-eight languages, seventy-eight different poets whose names are known, and twenty-six anonymous poets, the latter including songs from communal oral traditions. Two previously gathered selected translations (1948-1968 and 1968-1978), join those Merwin has selected from 1978 to 2011. Each of the three sections is preceded by Merwin’s explanation of his evolving project of translation.
“Since the eighteenth century, and especially since the beginning of modernism, more and more translations have been undertaken with the clear purpose of introducing readers (most of them, of course, unknown to the translators) to works they could not read in the original, by authors they might very well never have heard of, from cultures, traditions and forms with which they had no acquaintance . . . . (by) poet-translators who do not, themselves, know the languages from which they are making their versions, but must rely, for their grasp of the originals, on the knowledge and work of others.” (from “Forward, 1968-1978”)
Merwin honors his fellow poets who have helped him in his project of translations from not only languages more familiar to Western ears, and the haikus of classic Asian writers of the form, but also ancient Egyptian, Quechua, Kabylia, Dahomey, Caxinua, Vietnamese, Tartar, Urdu, and so forth. Beyond French and Spanish, Merwin explains that he is dependent on dictionaries and other translations; he might not work from the original but from, say, a French translation of the original.
Your horse is black your cloak is black
your face is black you are black
you are all black—is it you Yscolan?
I am Yscolan the seer
my thoughts fly they are covered with clouds.
Is there no reparation then for offending the Master?
I burned a church I killed the cows that belonged to a school
I threw the Book into the waves
my penance is heavy.
Creator of living things you
greatest of all my protectors forgive me.
He that betrayed you deceived me.
I was fastened for a whole year
at Bangor under the piles of the dam.
Try to think what I suffered from the sea worms.
If I had known then what I know now
the liberty of the wind in the moving treetops
the crime could not be laid to me.
-Myrddyn, Welch, ca 6th century
Merwin at age 19 visited Ezra Pound when Pound was incarcerated in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital; Pound told Merwin that the best apprenticeship is to translate the masters, to draw from the well from which poetry arose. In following this advice, Merwin grounded himself in ancient poets and even more so in medieval poetry from Romance languages. The medieval poetry shares with Merwin’s larger poetic project the crystallizing use of images; these images carry deeper into the psyche than mere words on the surface might discursively capture. One doesn’t need to know the legend story cycle from which “Yscolan” is taken to hear the experience suffered from sea worms while being imprisoned under a dam, and then contrasted to the freedom of winds in a tree.
Merwin does this in good company, during an important moment in time of world letters for English speakers. In the late 1960s into the 1980s, one larger poetic project/school was referred to as “deep imagists.” Along with Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, Mark Strand, Charles Wright, and Robert Hass (among others), Merwin shared a use of seeming surrealist images which bypassed rational thought to reach emotional/spiritual reality. These writers also translated poems of varying eras and geographies in what seems in retrospect to be a new blossoming of translations into English.
In the first “Forward,” Merwin points to this impulse for both deep image and translation: “Translation may be no more dangerous than any other to a growing recognition of the true original that, in del Vasto’s words, ‘tastes of the source.’ It is love, I imagine, more than learning, that may eventually make it possible to be aware of the living resonance before it has words . . .” The Borges poem cited previously evokes this ‘source’ with ancient stars and the silence of a sleeping bird; the poet does not know the names of stars and constellations imposed by people, but does enjoy direct apprehension of them, and the smell of jasmine, the sound of the “ring of water in the secret pool.” Poetry bypasses intervening mythological/scientific constructs to grasp reality itself.
from “Looking Across the Field”
A peony appears
in my mind
after the petals have fallen
The evening I cut
a peony stem
and felt my spirit whither
The summer night is short
on the hairy caterpillars
-Yosa Buson, Japanese, 1716-1783
Merwin’s own poetry continued to grow and change in subject matter. He has deep ecological concerns, so nature figures significantly in both his own poems and those he translates. Love and its challenges figure importantly. Liminal moments—twilight, an approaching horizon, seasons as they are changing (especially into fall and winter), and most recurrent—the inevitable reality of death—thread through Merwin’s larger poetic project. The Buson poem Merwin chose presents all this by content and form: the natural world suffuses the images—a peony both mentally conjured and in a garden and a summer night’s dew fall—lovely, yes?—but the third line of each stanza, not only finishing the brief thought/image each in lines longer than the two preceding, but also turns the building image into something troubling—all the petals fallen, a spirit withered and, most graphic, a wet hairy caterpillar.
Formally, Merwin’s own poetry omits punctuation (since his first four books); he explains that punctuation seems to nail down the words and poem to a page in a limiting manner. Perhaps this is one of many reasons why Merwin is drawn to the Asian haiku-like verse of Asian poets such as Buson in addition to more recent, European authors:
They were talking about
at the old table
riddled with worms
the fire warmed up the stove
the lentil darkened as it cooked
and in the open doorway
facing human words
composed in well-tried syntax
the beauty of the bitter foliage
and birds with red breasts
-Jean Follain, French, 1903-1971
This photographic tableau captures conversation around this decaying table in a kitchen/dining room that is not comfy, but in a place of falseness and paucity. Over against the interior space is the exterior, which has beauty—albeit somewhat bitter—and is alive with the shining red quickness of the birds.
This former Poet Laureate of the US, Pulitzer Prize winner, author/translator of over 50 volumes of poetry and prose, is now in his mid-80s. Of interest is how the poet returns to the same sources of ancient languages and medieval poets in the third, most recent period of translating; this after a middle period more characterized by modern poets. His forward to this last section is also ruminative, recalling his life as a poet through personal detail; he is no longer as caught up in the issues of translation.
Next month his Collected Poems will come out from the Library of America to make him the second only living poet to be so honored (John Ashbery is the other). Other poets may join him in importance for American poetry of the 20th/21st centuries. None surpass him. This Selected Translations is amazing in scope, mastery, themes, artistry, imagination: a testimony to a life time of consequential work.