Ange Mlinko

The Es­sen­tial W.S. Mer­win edited by Michael Wiegers Gar­den Time by W.S. Mer­win The Moon Be­fore Morn­ing by W.S. Mer­win

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Ange Mlinko

The Es­sen­tial W.S. Mer­win edited by Michael Wiegers. Cop­per Canyon,

338 pp., $18.00 (pa­per)

Gar­den Time by W.S. Mer­win.

Cop­per Canyon, 71 pp., $24.00

The Moon Be­fore Morn­ing by W.S. Mer­win.

Cop­per Canyon,

121 pp., $17.00 (pa­per)

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 eco­log­i­calapoc­a­lyp­tic 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 were like

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 the taxi once he read his Notebook to me

at the num­ber he had ut­tered to the driver a last word then that watch­ful and most lonely wan­derer whose words went with me

ev­ery­where El­iz­a­beth

Bishop lay alone in death they were leav­ing the party early 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 con­ 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 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.

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

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