The Two Deserts of W.S. Merwin

By Stern, Fred | The World and I, September 2010 | Go to article overview

The Two Deserts of W.S. Merwin


Stern, Fred, The World and I


He is perhaps America's most widely celebrated living poet. During his six decade-long career, W.S. Merwin has established himself as one of the poetic greats, earning him the crowning achievement of 17th Poet Laureate of the United States, an honor he currently holds.

No one in our time has been more instrumental in structuring and affirming his own identity than Merwin (1927-) who was born in New York City, raised in New Jersey and Scranton, Pennsylvania and who now lives in Hawaii. W. B. Yeats, the famous 19th Century poet, had once firmly defined the function of the poet, saying, "It is myself that I make." Merwin in the poem "Air" sets out to define the vast boundaries of the poetic enterprise, as he sees them, with the hand of a master practitioner:

   Naturally it is night
   Under the overturned lute with its
   One string I am going my way
   Which has a strange sound

Merwin's writing career began in his youth when he composed hymns for his minister father, a stern and forbidding presence in the poet's formative years. After graduating from Princeton, Merwin in deciding on his career path, avoided going the academic route unlike so many poets of our time who hold lifetime chairs in English departments of universities and colleges. Merwin wanted to be a poet, pure and simple. He felt the academic scene would be too confining, that campus life would interfere with meeting his goals.

Instead Merwin chose a unique pathway to become a poet. He writes that he went to Washington D.C. where Ezra Pound, the disgraced fascistic, but hugely talented poet of the Second World War era, was confined to a hospital. Pound told him "Translate. You haven't got anything to write at 18, and you have to write every day. The only way to do that is to learn languages and translate." So Merwin traveled to Europe, first as a tutor to the children of an American family and later to become a leading translator of poetry.

He translated Italian, French, Spanish, Rumanian--the romance languages--into English. But he didn't stop there. He also translated Chinese, Vietnamese and African texts, although with the assistance of native speakers. Among his outstanding achievements is a translation of Dante's "Purgatorio," "The Song of Roland" and "El Cid." His credits also include translations of the great literary names of our own time including Garcia Lorca, Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda and importantly the Russian poet Ossip Mandelstam.

Was there a downside to working in translation? Merwin candidly admits to carrying over some of the thinking and the ways in which other poets work. But he also says that it expanded his vocabulary and helped him to see language in a variety of new ways during his more than 60 years of writing. These early translation experiences continue to provide him with dividends.

Merwin's first career break came when he was picked as the winner of the prestigious Yale Younger Poets series by W.H. Auden for the poem "A Mask of Janus." Auden was angered when Merwin chose to donate his prize to anti-Vietnam War organizations. The young poet was, and continues to be, unwavering in his opposition to violence in any form, a stand that is confirmed by his conversion to Buddhism.

Also unwavering has been his commitment to the environment. Merwin has gone beyond just words in his commitment, taking an active role as an environmentalist by converting an old, abandoned pineapple plantation into a last resource for rare oriental plants. These include rare specimens of palm trees planted at his residence on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

"The assumption that human beings are different ... in importance from other species is something I've had great difficulty in accepting for 25 years or so. For me it's a dangerous way of seeing things ... Our importance is not different from the importance of the rest of the universe. We are in that way not the only valuable and interesting thing to have appeared in the universe. …

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