Whole Earth Troubadour

Sarah J. Cavanaugh
W.S. Merwin in the palm forest at the Merwin Conservancy, Haiku, Hawaii, 2011

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 bildungsromanwritten 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…

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