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
dew gathers
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
pretend love
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
were shining.

-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.

Comments are disabled for this article.


Selected Translations by W. S. Merwin
By Various
Translated by W. S. Merwin
Reviewed by Grant Barber
410 pages, hardcover
ISBN: 9781556594090
The Odyssey
The Odyssey by Homer
Reviewed by Peter Constantine

Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.

–(The Odyssey, Book I, line 10. Emily Wilson)

In literary translation of works from other eras, there are always two basic tasks that a translator needs. . .

Read More >

I Remember Nightfall
I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio
Reviewed by Talia Franks

I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio (trans. From the Spanish by Jeannine Marie Pitas) is a bilingual poetry volume in four parts, consisting of the poems “The History of Violets,” “Magnolia,” “The War of the Orchards,” and “The Native. . .

Read More >

Joyce y las gallinas
Joyce y las gallinas by Anna Ballbona
Reviewed by Brendan Riley

This review was originally published as a report on the book at New Spanish Books, and has been reprinted here with permission of the reviewer. The book was originally published in the Catalan by Anagrama as Joyce i les. . .

Read More >

Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World
Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders
Reviewed by Kaija Straumanis

Hello and greetings in the 2017 holiday season!

For those of you still looking for something to gift a friend or family member this winter season, or if you’re on the lookout for something to gift in the. . .

Read More >

The Size of the World
The Size of the World by Branko Anđić
Reviewed by Jaimie Lau

Three generations of men—a storyteller, his father and his son—encompass this book’s world. . . . it is a world of historical confusion, illusion, and hope of three generations of Belgraders.

The first and last sentences of the first. . .

Read More >

Island of Point Nemo
Island of Point Nemo by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès
Reviewed by Katherine Rucker

The Island of Point Nemo is a novel tour by plane, train, automobile, blimp, horse, and submarine through a world that I can only hope is what Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s psyche looks like, giant squids and all.

What. . .

Read More >

The Truce
The Truce by Mario Benedetti
Reviewed by Adrianne Aron

Mario Benedetti (1920-2009), Uruguay’s most beloved writer, was a man who loved to bend the rules. He gave his haikus as many syllables as fit his mood, and wrote a play divided into sections instead of acts. In his country,. . .

Read More >