Last summer I had one of those happy experiences in the life of a reader: I found the perfect book for my purposes. Those purposes were vague, and I found the book by accident, but it was the book that put everything into focus. I was going to Tuscany for the first time, and I wanted to feel closer to Dante, whose poetry I fell in love with when I was nineteen. Surprisingly, what I got was a book about the French Occitan region, not Tuscany, written by W.S. Merwin, whose poetry of love and righteous anger at the planet’s despoliation by humanity owes a debt to Dante’s crucible of political anger and spiritual love.
The Mays of Ventadorn (2002) covers some territory familiar to readers of Merwin’s prose. In 1954, the poet bought an abandoned farmhouse in Quercy, above the Dordogne River, and lived there on and off for decades, writing among other things his breakthrough collection of poems, The Lice (1967). His study of village life and small-scale agriculture—which had hardly changed for a millennium—informs the short stories of The Lost Upland (1992), but it is in The Mays of Ventadorn that one reads the full story of Merwin’s immersion in the land and language of his poetic forebears, the twelfth-century troubadours. Interleaving anecdotes of his explorations in the Causse region with retellings of the vidas of Guilhem IX, Comte de Peitau (William of Aquitaine), and Bernart de Ventadorn, the book amounts to a bildungsroman—written in his seventies—about how poets are made.
In passages rife with portents, Merwin recounts that in 1946, on Easter weekend (he was eighteen), he made a pilgrimage to visit Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. By chance he had a book by John Peale Bishop in his pocket, and in it were translations of Bertrand de Born and Jaufre Rudel; on the bus a young stranger (“Dark bangs across her forehead. Very pretty”) looked over his shoulder and remarked “how much she loved poetry.” At the facility, “Pound was led down an inner flight of steps that looked like the bottom of a circling staircase in a tower”—clearly an image out of the Inferno. And then he tells Merwin—the boy with the troubadours in his pocket—something so surprising that it seems like fate:
“If you’re going to be a poet,” he said, “you have to work at it every day. You should write about seventy-five lines a day. But at your age you don’t have anything to write about. You may think you do, but you don’t. So get to work translating. The Provençal is the real source. The poets are closest to music. They hear it. They write to it. Try to learn the Provençal, at least some of it, if you can.”
Now ninety years old, Merwin is the author of almost fifty volumes of poems and translations as well as eight books of prose fiction and nonfiction. He has maintained his fidelity to this early vision of poetry, bequeathed by Pound and summed up in his famous line from The Spirit of Romance: “All ages are contemporaneous.” Translation has freed Merwin to refuse stultifying academic appointments. It has facilitated his travels—despite the French farmhouse, he led a fairly peripatetic life before settling in Hawaii in the late 1970s. But most of all, translation has provided him with “the literary world. Another plane of existence.” In other words, a grand company continually needing rescue from the abyss, an ennobling endeavor, a way to communicate across time and space.
After those first translations from the Occitan, he went on to the medieval epics The Poem of the Cid and The Song of Roland, specializing in Spanish as well as French—commissions, in the beginning, from the BBC, which hired him to adapt them into radio plays. But translation became a practice verging on spiritual discipline. His third Selected Translations (2013) contains works originally in Sanskrit, Egyptian, Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese; translations from Quechua, Eskimo, native Crow; translations from Russian (Mandelstam, Brodsky, et al.) and German (Nietzsche, Benn, et al.). Greek and Latin are a given, plus Middle English and Welsh. He has translated the entire Purgatorio. (Dante and Villon, he has said, are his “talismans.”) This is only a partial list. Merwin’s introduction to the 2013 Selected Translations reprises his visit with Pound in a condensed memoir of his life as a translator-poet, offering an apologia for an “impossible, unfinishable” art.
All this to say that Merwin’s conception of poetry is devotional in its service to other languages and cultures. The Mays of Ventadorn is not only a story about troubadours handing down their songs through the ages, but about how poetry itself seems to engineer twists of fate in the lives of its acolytes. Early in the book, Merwin relays the story of how Richard, Coeur de Lion, was captured and held prisoner while en route to England after the Third Crusade. His enemies “worked out a ransom for the king that was meant to cripple Richard’s kingdom before he was returned to it”—in addition to stipulating, among other things, that his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (or Queen Aliénor, as she’s called in the book), marry Count Leopold of Austria’s son. But apparently Richard’s jongleur, Blondel, was pursuing the king’s whereabouts on foot in Austria, when out of nowhere he heard Richard
singing one of his poems, a tenso: a poem written as an exchange of alternate voices. When pthe first stanza ended, Blondel sang the second in reply, and so they went on to the end of the poem, each certain by then of who the other was, and Blondel spread the news.
This delightful tale may seem improbable, but is it any less amazing that Richard was the son of Aliénor, the granddaughter of Guilhem IX (considered the first troubadour), who brought their language, the langue d’oc, to Poitiers, where she established a court devoted to chivalric love and song? And that Bernart de Ventadorn followed her entourage as a courtly lover? And that the Holy Roman Emperor himself, Henry of Hohenstaufen, would sit with his prisoner, Richard, and talk about poetry, agreeing to exchange verses? Out of their chat came Richard’s most famous poem, and eight hundred years later, it became the first translation Merwin ever published. It begins, in his updated version:
No prisoner ever said what he was thinking
straight out like someone who suffers nothing
but to ease his mind he can make a song.
My friends are many but are poor at giving.
It is their shame that, with no ransom coming,
these two winters I am held.
Richard’s poem comes at the beginning of the “Miscellaneous Translations” section of The Essential W.S. Merwin, and is the third poem to be presented, after his first two books (A Mask for Janus and The Dancing Bears) are represented by one poem each. Among selections from all the poetry books of his long career, the number of poems in “Miscellaneous Translations” is equaled or exceeded only by the number from The Lice (1967) and The Shadow of Sirius (2008). Translations stand at the head of his work as a kind of abode of the blessed where Richard Coeur de Leon, Guilhem, Bernart, Apollinaire, Follain, Neruda, Borges, and others survive in a gift exchange whereby the translator extends the life of their words, and they accept his poems into their company.
Two aspects of troubadour poetry insinuated themselves into Merwin’s oeuvre: a bent toward orality and the chivalric ideal of the amor de lonh, or love of what is distant. Merwin writes:
The recurring burden of Bernart’s song is distance—a constant theme of the love poetry of the world—the distance between the lover and the beloved, between the present and the past or an imagined future, between one place and another.
At least since his ecological-apocalyptic book The Lice, Merwin has been read as an elegiac poet. His long commitment to environmental causes goes hand in glove with poems that lament endangered species, like “Witness,” from The Rain in the Trees (1988):
I want to tell what the forests
I will have to speak
in a forgotten language
But the environmental catastrophism, it seems to me, was prefigured by his attraction to poets from “the distant.” He remembers being thunderstruck by the language of the King James Bible as a small child (his father was a Presbyterian minister). By the time he discovered Pound’s Personae, a rift loaded with the ore of translations and versions of poems from world literature, his imagination had already crystallized around a passion for ages lost and unattainable. The imagination that can ardently conjure les neiges d’antan can also more easily imagine our own destruction from an impoverished future (“all ages are contemporaneous” cuts two ways). In “Witness” the longing for lost forests is rendered mute; the forest dies twice, once in the world and once in language. But in “Learning a Dead Language,” an earlier poem from Green with Beasts (1956), the death of languages foretells human extinction, and contrariwise their recovery holds hope for ours:
There is nothing for you to say. You must
Learn first to listen. Because it is dead
It will not come to you of itself, nor would you
Of yourself master it. You must therefore
Learn to be still when it is imparted,
And, though you may not yet understand, to remember.
What you remember is saved. To understand
The least thing fully you would have to perceive
The whole grammar in all its accidence
And all its system, in the perfect singleness
Of intention it has because it is dead.
You can only learn one part at a time.
The poem may have arisen from Merwin’s attempts to learn the dialect of his Quercy neighbors. A sort of amor de lonh informs his zeal for his adopted home—“the awareness of the deep past was inseparable from the lure of the land.” The ghost of a sestina (invented, they say, by the troubadour Arnaut Daniel) haunts these six-line stanzas, with their repetitions of individual words (though they don’t repeat mechanically at the ends of the lines, as they do in the sestina). What is repeated? Learn, dead, remember, understand. As the poem goes on, it repeats saved, intention, order, passion. Here is the fifth and final stanza:
What you remember saves you. To remember
Is not to rehearse, but to hear what never
Has fallen silent. So your learning is,
From the dead, order, and what sense of yourself
Is memorable, what passion may be heard
When there is nothing for you to say.
The poem turns on what “nothing” means, either the “nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is” from Wallace Stevens, an early influence on Merwin, or Guilhem IX’s enigmatic “Farai un vers de dreit nien” (“Sheer nothing’s what I’m singing of”), or both. It may be that a speaker is deprived of language because the language is dead; it may also be that the speaker must suppress his own voice, or vanity, in order to listen for something greater than he is. This is a profound recuperation of the self through suppression of the self (“What you remember saves you”). It is one paradox among others: what was thought dead turns out to be “what never/has fallen silent”; the dispassionate voice of the speaker turns out to be listening for “passion.” Paradox is, the troubadours knew, the emblematic trope of the lover. “She kills me, and from death I answer,” wrote Ventadorn.
The repetition in troubadour poetry (as in a sestina’s end words) is a relic of its function as song lyric. Merwin’s poetry isn’t written to be sung (though it’s worth mentioning his early memory of writing hymns for his father’s services), but he has explained in interviews that his abandonment of punctuation beginning with The Lice was intended to bring his verse closer to the conventions of oral poetry, to compel the reader to say it out loud, as in his “Lament for the Makers”:
Lowell thought the shadow skyline
coming toward him was Manhattan
but it blacked out in
once he read his
Notebook to me
at the number he had uttered
to the driver a last word
then that watchful and
wanderer whose words
went with me
Bishop lay alone in death
they were leaving the
our elders it came
home to me
Since abandoning the formal conventions of the English tradition (his first book, The Mask of Janus, was written while he was in Robert Graves’s employ in Mallorca; W.H. Auden chose it for the Yale Younger Poets series), Merwin has rarely used a conventional English device; in this case, he is riffing—if that isn’t too playful a word—on the late-fifteenth-century Scots ballad “Lament for the Makaris” by William Dunbar. Here Merwin lists his elders and contemporaries who died in his own lifetime (the poem appears in The River Sound, published in 1999). The original “Lament,” too, was meant to be chanted or sung. Merwin updates the oral ballad, not by jettisoning the form but by deranging it just enough to jar the ear and eye; the sentences seem to overflow the stanza in a surge of anxiety. Yet performed out loud with proper pauses, the reader can interpret the pace and the tenor; when Merwin reads his work (video clips abound on YouTube), he sounds like an exceptionally gifted preacher.
Merwin wanted that tension between the poem’s look and its sound: “There must always be, I think, a tension between the form and the limits of the form, and it’s from that tension, the harmonizing of that tension, that you get the energy that makes the poems that are worth keeping, and that are different and a new phase of the tradition.” “Lament for the Makers,” as several other poems in his oeuvre—“Berryman,” “Rimbaud’s Piano,” “Chord”—do, presents poets as yet another kind of endangered species. They, too, are always having to adapt to new conditions.
For all Merwin’s preeminence as an American poet in the decades since his first book—for all the acclaim and the prizes, including two Pulitzers and the US poet laureateship—he has succeeded in living at the periphery (or in the shadow) of America; even his residence in Hawaii feels extraterritorial. He has said, “The human institution that I feel is the context…is certainly not the nation of the United States; it’s the English language”—though he is entirely aware of the imperialist uses to which it has been put, especially in Oceania. “But what it is to be an American poet I still don’t know,” he told Edward Hirsch in a Paris Review interview in 1986. Perhaps many of his contemporaries felt the same way; a number of them, like Robert Bly, John Ashbery, and James Merrill, had expatriate periods or translated extensively, looking for sources outside their native country.
Yet Merwin is perhaps alone among his contemporaries in his intransigence toward the American ur-poet, Walt Whitman, whose approach to lyrical public address inspired Merwin’s generation as it mounted poetic solidarity movements against the Vietnam War, sexism, and racism. He complained: “The positivism and the American optimism disturb me…. In particular it’s his rhetorical insistence on an optimistic stance…as a world view and as a program for confronting existence it bothered me when I was eighteen and bothers me now.”
Merwin is at pains to qualify his antipathy toward the poet whom Harold Bloom declared every American’s “imaginative father and mother.” But nothing can be more germane to a poet of Merwin’s affinities than the ways in which an endemic American optimism quashes criticism on either end of the political spectrum. His pessimism is salutary, and he has always stopped short of despair: “The fact that that chair may be destroyed tomorrow is no reason not to pay attention to it this afternoon, you know.” It is his clearsighted view of American destructiveness, unmitigated by any hint of exceptionalism, that makes his deliberate crabwise move away from his native land and poets attain a kind of Dantean majesty, tantamount to self-exile.
Since purchasing an old pineapple plantation on Maui, Merwin—with his late wife, Paula—has succeeded in replenishing the soil and growing a garden of endangered native palm trees; it was recently established as a conservancy. He never forgot that Ezra Pound’s advice to him was couched in an ecological metaphor: “Read seeds not twigs EP.” Pound meant by this that literature is rejuvenated by going back to original sources. Merwin extrapolated from this that biological life itself is rejuvenated by returning to its elemental source.
Despite the dire threat posed by climate change and pollution, and the threat of his own mortality, Merwin continues to write and publish prolifically: his last two books, The Moon Before Morning (2014) and Garden Time (2016), mesh the two kinds of life—botanical and linguistic—with the intimacy of a lifetime of dwelling and thinking. That old friend of poets, the amor de lonh, has only intensified with age—the true gift, possibly, that age can give us.
The farther the past retreats from Merwin, the more his love surges forth, even for his unhappy American childhood (“middle-class and in every sense provincial,” he once wrote). A late poem, titled “Antique Sound,” mingles nostalgia for turntables with an awareness that the miracle of recorded music is undermined by the errancy of materials, which no innovation can entirely forestall:
There was an age when you played records
with ordinary steel needles which grew blunt
and damaged the grooves or with more expensive
stylus tips said to be tungsten or diamond
which wore down the records and the music receded
But as in a fairy tale, the child Merwin and his friend “had it on persuasive authority/that the best thing was a dry thorn of the right kind,” which they scour a forest to find. The thorn is not only a subversion of technological innovation—this is a regression, of course—but it will necessarily encode the nonhuman music of the forest, which takes decades or centuries to mature:
an earthly choir of crickets blackbirds finches
crows jays the breathing of voles racoons
rabbits foxes the breeze in the thickets
the thornbushes humming a high polyphony
When the boys finally retrieve the magic object and listen “to Beethoven’s Rassoumoffsky/quartets echoed from the end of a thorn,” we find that in a very short space Merwin has harmonized the myths of the suffering composer, Christ (the god with the crown of thorns), Philomel (the nightingale who sang her best song with a thorn in her breast), and Orpheus (the poet whose lyre domesticated wild animals and made stones leap up in accompaniment). These ghosts from the history of the art don’t intrude, and you can ignore them, but you can’t ignore that thorn, that intractable thorn, touching down into the musical groove.