Academic journal article Hollins Critic

The Gift of Tongues: W. S. Merwin's Poems and Translations

Academic journal article Hollins Critic

The Gift of Tongues: W. S. Merwin's Poems and Translations

Article excerpt


Selected Translations 1948-1968 * is W. S. Merwin's twelfth book of verse in sixteen years. It excludes his full-length translations of medieval epics, but ranges, in a highly selective miscellany, from an Egyptian prayer for the dead to Iosip Brodsky's poem about a monument to "The Lie." About one-third of Merwin's translations are from widely disparate folk poetries, songs of primitive tribes, and lyrics from sophisticated but ancient and exotic cultures. Nearly all the remainder are poems by contemporary post-symbolist poets: Lorca, Neruda, Parra; Jean Follain, Pierre Delisle, Esenin, Mandelstam, and Brodsky. Some of these and other poets more meagerly represented are well known, others hardly known at all here. Of the great poets of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Romantic and Symbolist periods there is barely a page.

Such a book of translations, technically fastidious, crossing many linguistic barriers, avoiding the conventional choices while it enlarges our acquaintance with the ancient and modern enthusiasms of the translator, suggests comparison with such similar enterprises as the translations of Pound and Lowell's Imitations. These works are not notorious for fidelity to their originals; Merwin's, in the few cases in which I have been able to parse his texts, seems much more so. Yet he has put his own thumbprint on every page. As with Pound's and Lowell's adaptations, one virtue is that Merwin's brings us closer to poems we couldn't or didn't read before, but another virtue is the relation such a book makes clear between its contents and the original work of the translator himself.

Pound and Lowell clearly integrate their translations into their own oeuvres. Merwin on the other hand, in his foreword, disclaims any such connection. Many of these poems, he says, were undertaken from

   a wish to embrace, even through wrappings, poetry that was written
   from perspectives revealingly different from our own.... And I have
   not come to use translation as a way of touching off writing that
   then became deliberately, specifically, or ostentatiously my own.
   On the contrary, I have felt impelled to keep translation and my
   own writing more and more sharply separate.

One appreciates the poet's wish to protect his own style from the imputation of influence from the texts he has chosen to translate, as well as to protect his translations from the imputation of being all made in the cadences of his own style. Yet the matter of reciprocal influence is not so easily put by. The very choice of materials translated has, inevitably, some connection with the thematic and stylistic preoccupations of the poet. Even his desire to embrace the unlike is determined by the sort of poet he is. The full register of Merwin's accomplishment as translator is more easily determined if we are familiar with his own poems.


It would be hard to imagine the shape of Merwin's Collected Poems after reading his six books of verse. His career seems to break into halves, with The Drunk in the Furnace (1960) the pause between them. In fact there seem to be two poets named Merwin, each very prolific and wonderfully accomplished, but what do they share? The younger Merwin wrote long dextrous poems based on ballads, myths, and medieval emblems, using with great brio and surety of touch the traditions and conventions available to the student of Romance poetry and English prosody. Typical early poems are "Ballad of John Cable and the Three Gentlemen" and "Dictum: For a Masque of Deluge," from A Mask for Janus. The ballad, in slightly awry lilting quatrains, retells an archetypal fable of a final journey, like that in Everyman but without the consoling theology. "Dictum" is a fable of rebirth, the matter of Noah's voyage. The ten-line blank verse stanzas unspool with felicitous inventiveness. This is a style which, like the later Stevens, builds and balances glossy parapets in stanzas held together by the bolts and braces of syntax and rhetoric. …

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