W. S. Merwin

W. S. Merwin
An Informal Poetry Colloquium

The Jean & Bill Lane Lecture Series
Margaret Jacks Hall, Building 460,
Terrace Room 426, Stanford University
Tuesday, April 27, 2004, 11:00 am-12:15 pm

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Preface: Walking to Margaret Jacks Hall, I noticed that the tiles around Stanford's Quad had an 8-petalled flower logo which resembled the cover of Merwin's The Compass Flower (1977). I got here early and found an aisle seat in the 2nd row. A woman in the front row had a copy of Merwin's Vixen which she borrowed from the Los Altos Library. I asked her to see the book and jotted down some lines which I missed in my notes at yesterday's Merwin reading. Eavan Boland, Director of the Creative Writing Department at Stanford introduced Merwin to the Colloquium that was packed in the Terrace Room of Margaret Jacks Hall. Merwin began right away with a Q&A session. Below are my quickly jotted notes. Items in [brackets] are my additions along with Merwin books and web links. After the colloquium, lunch was served on the patio and I had a chance to talk to Sam Hamill, the publisher of Copper Canyon Press. I told him that Robert Bly used his translation of Lu Chi's Wen Fu in his Poetry Workshop at Asilomar (1988), which I enjoyed reading. Hamill told me about his time in the Orient learning Chinese. He knew Kenneth Rexroth who did many translations of Chinese poetry. I had read somewhere that Rexroth had all the Bollingen editions of mythology and sacred texts, and asked Hamill whether this was true. He said yes— Rexroth's personal library was voluminous with signed first editions of most of the major poets and scholars of his generation. When I mentioned Stephen Mitchell's translations of the Tao Te Ching, Hamill said it was not a faithful translation as Mitchell doesn't know Chinese. I defended Mitchell saying that he had studied with Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn, and I had attended many of their Dharma Talks at the Cambridge Zen Center. Hamill said "Mitchell's work is not a translation but a rendition. The original Chinese words of Lao Tzu are not even present in Mitchell's version." I then asked, "How about the translations of William Porter (Red Pine) on the Tao Te Ching and Cold Mountain Poems of Han-shan?" Hamill replied, "Now that's someone who paid his dues. Porter spent many years in Taiwan's Buddhist monasteries studying both Zen and Chinese. So the spirit shows in his translations." Hamill and I exchanged email addresses to keep in touch. Merwin doesn't do email, but gave me his P.O. Box address in Haiku, Hawaii. No wonder Merwin's writing is so uplifting and inspirational— he is living in poetry!

Q: Paradox plays an important role in your poems.
"Listen to darkness" sounds like a Zen koan.
How much Zen is there in your poems?
A: Any relation to Zen koans is unconscious.
Zen certainly influenced me. I was brought up as a Christian Presbyterian.
In reading the Diamond Sutra, Subhuti asks Buddha:
"Does the Tathagata has a teaching?"
and Buddha answers "The Tathagata has no teaching to teach."
Paradox is built into everything.
It's amazing that we have language at all.
Poetry is the original fun. Poetry is living prose
just as gardening is living agriculture.
Recognition of sound as experience— it becomes a word.
It's unique— a word is used for a certain circumstance
Language, poetry, Zen all have paradox.
Dogen says "One side of your hand is in the daylight.
The other side is in the dark.
In my latest book The Pupil:
Pupil of the eye is a reflection of yourself.
Pupil is also the student, the child learning.
The pupil is the darkest part of the eye
the only part of the eye where light comes in
English has double meanings
French subscribes that language is rational
They find Shakespeare very chaotic.
Q: I'm curious in your process of writing The Folding Cliff?
A: I found this story from a compendium.
The central character is a Hawaiian woman in her mid-30's— Pi'ilani
The story I encountered was a chocolate-covered box.
The cliffs are 4000 feet high— she went down by herself.
I carried this idea around for ten years & couldn't forget this story.
After The Fixen, I spent 2-1/2 years studying with an Hawaiian woman
[Agnes Conrad] who unearthed an archive of the Board of Health.
I'm not a historian or novelist, so I told this story as a poem.
Poetry is much more malleable and shape-shifting than prose—
go from Hawaiian chant to correspondence with the Board of Health
going to all the patients' records— the names mentioned are real.
Q: The last time I heard you read was a year and half ago.
Could you say something about the Iraqi war
and the convergence of politics and writing.
A: My friend Sam Hamill is here. He organized "Poets Against the War"
Something is so rotten now. Swallowing lives— is extremely upsetting
I don't think it's a war.
I don't think Bush is the President— it's a stolen election
Every path of ourselves is history.
The other side is not history.
People's lives are tuned to Fox News all the time.
It's very psychotic and unreal situation.
I don't have all the answers.
We shouldn't put it down.
Human treatment of animals are terrible.
People are not aware—
Suffering is OK, but creating suffering is not.
We don't have the right to do it.
[ Merwin's February 4, 2003 Statement]
Q: The Folding Cliff is a continual narrative, but each page
seems independent. Did you plan this in the beginning?
A: In a way, both things happened. If I did it like
Wordsworth's Prelude, it wouldn't have worked.
Many could be read as a gage or even a single sentence.
I wanted to evoke an oral tradition like Homer
The number 40 recurring through the whole poem—
passages are discrete, evoke the Hawaiian chant,
the way Welsh stories are broken up.
The last word of each section is picked up
as the first word in the next section.
Dr. Samuel Johnson said of Milton's Paradise Lost:
"No man ever wished it longer."
Q: I'm taking a course on ecology. Rachel Carson said "If we had more more choices
of how to get around or if our cities were not planned, around the needs of cars,
fewer people would drive. Your own work has been compared to Walden.
Do you celebrate nature, raising awareness on ecology of the earth?
A: I try to write every morning. I write on things that demand on my grief,
pain, wonder, and awe. I'm suspicious of "nature"— what's unnatural?
I wonder if advertisement is part of the natural world. I'm getting into
Sam's [Hamill] world now— political writing. There is danger of
political writing, especially if you're certain— then you could be wrong.
A poem has to emerge slowly. Frost says "Poetry arrives as a piece of ice on
a stove." If you force it, someone will detect it. Most political poems are bad.
Most love poems are bad. When I was 19, I asked [John] Berryman whether
anything you write is good, and he told me: "You can't never be sure."
That's a jewel. If you think you do, the muse will hold it against you.

[Merwin's poem "Berryman" from Opening the Hand (1983):


I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war

don't lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you're older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity

just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice

he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally

it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop

he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England

as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry

he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can't

you can't you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don't write

W. S. Merwin, Flower & Hand: Poems 1977-1983
Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, WA (1997) pp. 155-156]

Q: In your book The Lice [1967] and Carrier of Ladders [1970],
you name places in your work— are these places sacred?
A: It's a process of getting older and finding ways to anchor and to name places.
I felt a mixture of contemporary poetry with history. Robert Lowell in his
Life Studies is not my favorite work of his but quite remarkable.
He named people and situations. In The Drunk in the Furnace [1960],
I was talking about my family even before Lowell's work. I was moving in
that direction. The Vixen, Travels, Folding Cliffs all have names.
But if you name by force, you could ruin the poem.
Q: Line living in history and pushing forward. How do you see yourself?
A: We began talking about paradox. Richard Blackmur said to me once:
"Stick around. A good education won't do you any harm."
Knowledge is a good thing— valuable.
Finally, poetry comes and goes to a place
where we do not know.
"Shall I compare thee to a summer day"
this line is a miracle.
Where does it come from? Where does it go?
(Howard Moss did a parody of this Sonnet 18.)
It moves between the known and unknown— like a bird.
Basho didn't write haiku like that.
How long did it take you to write it— ten seconds?
or is it 25 years [up to that moment]?
Q: Could you tell us about your visit with Ezra Pound?
A: This account has already been published in The Mays of Ventadorn [2002]
I was 18 at the time [1945] and called up St. Elizabeth Hospital
in Washington D.C. where he was staying. He would be happy to see me.
There was a huge gulf between us [Pound was 60 & Merwin 18].
Pound was very generous to talk to. Hugh Kenner had written
that Pound's 100 Cantos was like a capstone to a building.
The Cantos are extremely chaotic— an amalgamation
of his cranky notions. But embedded in them are gorgeous lines.
He talked to me about himself. To my amazement, he took an interest in me.
I was not impressed with the idea that if you're going to be a poet,
you must write every day. He told me to write 75 lines a day,
to learn languages or be a slave to the translators.
Translations will make you find out what is possible.
Pushing languages to a place where it spills over—
You're forcing English to do something it couldn't before.
Pay attention to the Provencal poets and the romance language.
Those guys were writing with music in their head—
they were at the beginning of poetry.
Bessie Smith came out of the Troubadours.
The Troubadours came from the Arabs in Spain.
Q: I wonder when you finish a translation, do you feel that the poem is yours
or the original author? I ask this because when reading your translations of
Indian Love Poems, it's hard to tell which is which.
A: Use the ear you've got when doing the translations.
Bad academic translations don't use anybody's ear.
Poetry begins with hearing. When I was translating
the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, I got discouraged
with one poem. A friend told me, "Don't worry about it—
it loses a lot of the original anyway." You can't even use
the ear of the original during the translation because it's
in a different language. But sometimes it happens rarely,
there is a miraculous moment when a translation really
captures the original poem. I'm going to give an example
which I'm sure no one in this room has heard before.
There is a poet of my generation— John Peale Bishop.
He died in his 40s [5/21/1892-4/4/1944]. He was a friend
of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a literary editor of
Vanity Fair. In Bishop's Collected Poems
edited by Allen Tate, there is one translation of Rimbaud
in the middle of the book that's truly remarkable:

"Far from the birds, the herds, the village girls"
from Rimbaud's "Loin des Oiseaux, des Troueaux, des Villageoises"

[Note: I found a copy of Bishop's book in the Stanford Library
after Merwin's Colloquium and have typed this poem here below:

from the French of Arthur Rimbaud

Far from the birds, the herds, the village girls
What did I drink, in heather to my knees,
Within a tender grove of walnut trees
In the warm green mist of an afternoon?

What could I drink in that young stream,
—Tuneless reeds, flowerless grass, cloudy sky!—
Drink from those yellow gourds, far from the dreamed of
Hut? Gold that drunk brought sweat to the skin.

I might have swayed a queer sign for an inn.
— A long wind swept the clouds away. That night
The waters of the wood were sunk in sands
And a wind from God flung glass on all the ponds.

Weeping, I saw the gold,— and could not drink.

[The Collected Poems of John Peale Bishop,
Edited by Allen Tate, Scribner's, NY, 1944, p. 178]

Q: Could you tell us on how you did the translations of Indian Erotic Poetry
A: Jeff Masson would sent me a page of poem which he translated from the Sanskrit.
We corresponded entirely my mail. I didn't meet him until many years later.
I would then render it into a poem in English. To make a poem in a new language,
one is not follwing the formalistic in the original. The Italian sonnet has a
whole range of associations. It's hard not to rhyme in Italian whereas English
is a language often hard to rhyme— almost against its will. One could
get the rhyme & metre of the original and lose everything else.


Books by W. S. Merwin: (at Amazon.com)

Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam
translated by W. S. Merwin & Clarence Brown
New York Review of Books, NY (2004)
The Pupil: Poems
Knopf, NY (2002)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:
A New Verse Translation
, Knopf, NY (2002)
The Mays of Ventadorn
National Geographic, NY (2002)
Dante's Purgatorio : A New Verse Translation,
translated by W. S. Merwin, Knopf, NY (2001)
The Song of Roland, translated by W. S. Merwin
Modern Library, NY (2001)
The River Sound: Poems
Knopf, NY (2000)
The Folding Cliffs : A Narrative
Knopf, NY (2000)
The First Four Books of Poems
[A Mask for Janus (1952), The Dancing Bears (1954),
Green with Beasts (1956), The Drunk in the Furnace (1960)]
Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, WA (2000)
The Vixen
Knopf, NY (1997)
Flower & Hand: Poems 1977-1983
(Compass Flower; Opening the Hand;
Feathers from the Hill
Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, WA (1997)
Rain in the Trees
Knopf, NY (1988)
Knopf, NY (1992)
The Second Four Books of Poems
[The Moving Target (1963), The Lice (1967),
The Carrier of Ladders (1970),
Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment (1973)]
Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, WA (1993)

Web Links to W. S. Merwin

W. S. Merwin: The Steven Barclay Agency
W. S. Merwin (born 1927, New York City)
  (Academy of American Poets Biography)
About W. S. Merwin
  (By Jay Parini, Oxford Companion to Twentieth-century Poetry in English, 1994)
Modern American Poetry: W. S. Merwin
  (Compiled and Prepared by Cary Nelson)
W. S. Merwin Bio
  (Infoplease: Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Ed., 2003)
Borzoi Reader: W. S. Merwin
  (Merwin's books highlighted at Knopf)
Featured Author: W. S. Merwin
  (News & Reviews from the Archives of the New York Times)
Book Review: W. S. Merwin's The Ends of the Earth: Essays From All Over
  (By Rand Richards Cooper, New York Times, May 30, 2004)
W. S. Merwin: Bibliography & Archive Articles
  (New York Review of Books, April 8, 2004)
Armchair Traveler: W.S. Merwin: A Poet's Reflections on Life in the French Countryside
  (NPR's Renee Montagne interviews Merwin: Aug. 7, 2003)
W. S. Merwin, Doctor of Letters
  (Dartmouth Commencement, June 2003)
W. S. Merwin Receives the 2003 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award
  (Judge Robert Bly, NYC, May 21, 2003)
Working Their Way to the Top (W. S. Merwin translation of Dante's Purgatorio)
  (By Daniel Mendelsohn, New York Times Book Review, July 23, 2000)
Swimming Up Into Poetry: Reflection on the Career of W. S. Merwin
  (By Peter Davison, The Atlantic, August 28, 1997)
3 Poems by W. S. Merwin ["Another River", "Echoing Light", "Remembering"]
  (The Atlantic, April 1997; 7 other Merwin poems on this site)
The End of More Than a Book [James Merrill's A Scattering of Salts: Poems]
  (Book Review By W. S. Merwin, NY Times, March 26, 1995)
A Poet of Their Own [W. S. Merwin]
  (By Dinitia Smith, NY Times, Feb. 19, 1995)
A Conversation With W. S. Merwin
  (Interview by Daniel Bourne, Artful Dodge)
The Mays of Ventadorn (W. S. Merwin)
  (National Geographic website, 2003)
The Mays of Ventadorn by W.S. Merwin
  (Book review by Gary Hunt, Iconoclast Books)
W.S. Merwin translates Canto XXXI of Dante's Purgatorio
  (Cortland Review, Issue #7, May 1999, RealAudio read by Robert Pinsky)
W. S. Merwin's The Vixen
  (By Richard Howard, Boston Review, Summer 1996)
W. S. Merwin's translation of Dante's Purgatorio
  (By Brett Foster, Boston Review, February/March 2001)
PBS: Fooling with Words Is the Play of Poets
  (W. S. Merwin reading on Bill Moyers's PBS program)
On Reading W. S. Merwin in the New Yorker
  (a poem by James Deford, 1994)
Poet Seers: W. S. Merwin
  (Contemporary Poets from vasudevaserver.com)
Ezra Pound's manuscripts at University of Indiana
  (Correspondence of young poets seeking Pound's advice and counsel:
  Paul Blackburn, Robert Creeley, W.S. Merwin)

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