W.S. Merwin

A Conversation With W.S. Merwin

Often a poet’s contribution to his national literature is measured by awards, fellowships, and grants. W.S. Merwin’s importance in the world of literature runs deeper and broader than acclaim and recognition. Merwin, as a historic figure, serves as a link from Pound and Auden (Auden selected Merwin’s first book, A Mask for Janus, for the 1952 Yale Younger Poet Series) to the contemporary scene. However, it would be a mistake to view Merwin’s growth as a mere rejection of contemporary neoclassicism for the pursuit of “daring experiments in metrical irregularity and thematic disorganization” of the sixties. His concern for discipline remains paramount. What makes his poetry attractive is more than an intangible charm. In Merwin, there is something to be learned.

Merwin has published nine books of poetry, including The Carrier of Ladders for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. Moreover, he has written plays, essays, and radio scripts. Merwin has made a large part of his living by translating French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin. His Selected Translations 1948-1968 won the P.E.N. Translation Prize for 1968. Merwin’s latest work is Unframed originals (Athenaeum, 1982), his third book of prose.

—Jim Brock


Daniel Bourne: Your poem on Berryman last night was interesting. It seemed rather un-Merwinlike, a very traditional focus, little elliptical movement. Is this a kind of departure, something new, or a return to the roots of an earlier literature, with that kind of poem?

W.S. Merwin: I have no idea. I don’t have any ideological sense of what is Merwinlike or un-Merwinlike. I’m always happy to find I’m writing a poem which is different from anything I’ve written before, but I don’t think you can really write out a paradigm. To be surprised is to find new directions and new regions you haven’t been into yet, to be surprised by your own writing,that’s what I would always be hoping for.

DB: Does that poem surprise you more than any other poem you’ve written recently?

Merwin: No. I don’t feel that very much about my own writing. I very much don’t want to repeat myself or imitate myself or find myself doing something I’ve already done before. If anything feels as if that’s what’s happening, then I try to move away from it.

DB: Do you see yourself coming from any springboard as a poet or translator? Did you start with any first principles or how long was it until they developed?

Merwin: Probably very few first principles. I started out realizing I didn’t know very much and still don’t know very much. At some distance, translation obviously has always been of great importance to writing to me. I went to see Ezra Pound when I was nineteen or so. He told me something that I think I really already knew. He said that it was important to regard writing as not a chance or romantic or inspired, (in the occasional sense) thing, but rather a kind of spontaneity which arises out of discipline and continual devotion to something; and translation is a way of keeping one close to what one is doing, to the possibilities of one’s own language. I don’t translate very much anymore but for years I tried to translate all the time, a certain amount, and just how that’s affected my writing, I don’t know. I didn’t try to imitate while I was translating or anything like that. The familiarity with one’s medium, a familiarity with language and with the practical details of dealing with tension and language which come out of translating — I think are of great importance to me in writing. What I’ve chosen to translate is as much a matter of affinity that I recognize as I went along as it is an influence on what I actually wrote. I’m sure it’s worked both ways, but I haven’t tried to follow it. Just as I don’t really theorize much about my own writing, I don’t even pay too much analytical attention to it. What I’m really interested in is not what I’ve written but what I haven’t written, the next poem, if there is one. I don’t know if there is a next one. It’s the part that doesn’t know that I believe it comes from, if it comes at all. I don’t do it by forming an idea of what the next poem is supposed to be or what kind of poem it’s supposed to be or where it’s supposed to go, or anything of the kind.

DB: Are you afraid that there won’t be another poem?

Merwin: I feel that it’s quite possible there won’t be another one. I hope there will be. But I don’t understand people who can program themselves to the point where they can predict another one. Of course, you can sit down after years of discipline and years of writing and you can write a poem. What kind of poem is it going to be if it is as deliberate as that? I don’t want to sound spooky or romantic about it either. I think that the sitting down and trying to write is terribly important, the regularity with which one works. If you do try to write regularly, you will notice that the results are irregular. There are times when you just can’t stop writing. Everything contributes to it. I suspect that everything is contributing to it all the time but there are long periods when it seems very hard to put words together that are at all satisfactory, that are doing what you want them to do. These things come in waves or cycles.

DB: You said that translation seems to be able to serve as that disciplinary force.

Merwin: An example, I guess, of what I’m saying is that in the late fifties, after The Drunk in the Furnace, there was a period when I knew perfectly well I wasn’t going to write for awhile. There wasn’t anything I could write that didn’t seem to me to be simply a continuation of what I’d been writing before. I didn’t want to do that. It seems to me that I had to come to the end of a way of doing something. And ten when I began to write again, I wrote about half of The Moving Target in a few weeks.

DB: You said that you translated those works towards which you felt a strong affinity. I noticed that your translations of Jean Follain and Antonio Porchia are definitely not the broad cultural works you translated earlier. (Merwin: Those were done in the mid-Sixties, too.) Is there some kind of movement from the broader appeal…?

Merwin: No, in most cases they were people whom I found and they weren’t very well known. Antonio Porchia wasn’t know at all in this country. I found a not very satisfactory French translation of him by accident. That led me to write off and get the Spanish original. I took to carrying it around wherever I went. I was fascinated by Antonio Porchia. Since I couldn’t remember some of the Spanish aphorisms I found myself making little notes in English in the margins, which I could remember for reference. These gradually turned into translations and I found I had translated about half the book. That was how I did the Porchia. Again, there was no schematic or programmed view of what I should be doing. This is one of the problems with a lot of literary history. Critics tend to assume that writers work out some sort of program for themselves, that it (writing) is much more calculated than it is. If it’s any good, talent or the gift of somebody is an urgency, a moving force, and all one can do is try to direct it, and hope that it stay there, and keep it fed and alive, and alert, awake… I don’t know much about fiction writers, of course. My small experience with writing with the theater is rather different. But with all of them, I think there is a great, I almost said blindness, a movement that begins out of what you don’t know rather than what you think you should be doing next. It’s not some kind of intellectually calculated program that you conform to. Faulkner says in several places that The Sound and the Fury really began with an image in his mind of that little girl’s wet panties as she was climbing down out of the apple tree. The whole novel came out of this image. Where did this image come from? Heaven knows… Faulkner’s own imagination. But the image was first and the whole thing rose out of that. I think if it is too calculated there’s something fishy about it (writing). Frost says that about individual poems. If you know too much about a poem to begin with, you’ll probably write a phony poem. I think there is a danger in writing a lot of so-called political poetry. I said yesterday I think all poetry is political. But most political poetry doesn’t turn out to be poetry in the long run because you have double-guessed about it too much to begin with, you know too much about it. You know what it’s supposed to be saying, apart from the poem itself, what it’s message is going to be. If it arises out of a real feeling for rage or oppression or something that’s close to visceral experience, then it saves itself, it becomes a real poem, a piece of propaganda.

DB: You speak so much about sound. Is that the basic unit you strive to transpose in translation? Do you think it’s more important than metaphor?

Merwin: I think that’s one place where I do believe in being calculating and programmed in translation… deciding what aspect it is of translation that one really wants to make in the new language. I think that it is very seldom sound. I think usually the sound itself is pretty obvious although it’s missed again and again by both critics and translators. I think really the sound is part of the original language just I think the sound plus the form is part of the original language and all the association that go with it. What one can try to transpose is the role of the sound. What is the function of the sound? How important is it? What does it do to the effect, the power of the poem? I see if I can remake that function in the translation.

DB: How close do you think translation of syntax is tied up with translation of sound?

Merwin: I don’t know that there is an answer to that because it depends wholly on whom you’re translating. In the original, sound and syntax are inseparable, if you’re translating a really accomplished and interesting first-degree magnitude poet. But in translation, they’re bound to be separate because the sound is part of the original language and the role of the syntax in the original language is not the same as the language into which you’re translating. But it’s related to the value of translating as an exercise, I think. The ability to have some kind of flexibility of syntax, to recognize the enormous importance of the different syntactical ways of trying to say something, each of which is slightly different, is something that’s being lost sight of, I think, in the educational system. Students come to the point where they think they want to write and they have very little syntactical experience, very little dramatic education. They reach a certain point where they feel there’s only one way of saying anything. The obvious way, the way one is used to saying it, may not be the right way of saying it. Unless there’s been a real education in the grammar of your language, translation helps you to finish your education. Otherwise, the choices that are opened to you are much more limited and you feel they are the only choices. That’s to bad. It means you can hear only a few choices, that your ear is closed off to all kinds of possibilities. I don’t know the answer to this. It’s right there in the educational system and in the fact that English is taught so badly now. It goes along with the way vocabulary is getting imprecise, not just in our speech but in our writing. The example I was using is where “convinced” is used more and more often when the person really means “persuaded.” “I convinced him to take the afternoon plane rather than the other one.” What the person means is, “I persuaded him to take the afternoon plane.”

DB: In a way then, the acquisition of good syntax and varied ways of saying something is almost as important as the image.

Merwin: Well, it’s a tool. It’s like trying to be a fine carpenter when your only hammer is a six-pound sledge and you have a cold chisel. You’re going to have a hell of a time, you’re handicapped. I think this is related to the matter of the life of the language coming our of colloquial speech. In real vernacular, in real colloquial speech, there’s always the energy of the language and we know of contemporaries, critics, and writers, who insist that one must have the colloquial and not the formal or that one must have the control of the form that the colloquial line is put in. I think these are poles which make the tension in which the language operates and the literature can be written. You can’t let go of either one without the tension just all disappearing, one must honor them both, absolute energy of colloquial speech, as long as it has not been totally debased by debasing uses of it, such as advertising, communal abstractions, committee English, and things of that kind, and on the other hand, the honoring of the tradition of the language itself and its formal possibilities. They’re both assumptions of the life of the language, into the life of what we can write in the language.

DB: When translating Lazarillo de Tormes, were you seeking an idiom, and what do you think of rendering local color in translations?

Merwin: I wasn’t trying to imitate or invent any particular locality. I think in some ways it was one of the most difficult translations I ever did. It led me to realize the importance of translating comedy. Translation of comedy is one of the great disciplines I know of. Because if you are translating jokes, for example, if you get anything wrong, nothing works. You have to get it absolutely right. Then you realize that all translating is really that way. With Lazarillo de Tormes, I was trying to get that. These are several things happening. This was a very literate man who wrote Lazarillo, and that’s very evident in the book but also he’s writing in the voice of a fully-formed and funny character, a kind of much harder, much more difficult Huckleberry Finn. It’s sort of the original form from which the other picaresque people descended later. I imagine Huckleberry Finn, is certainly in this tradition, whether Mark Twain was aware of any of the others or not. I certainly wasn’t trying to make him sound like Huckleberry Finn but there’s a real closeness between those two characters.

DB: Did that book come before Boccacio’s Decameron ?

Merwin: No, I don’t think so. The Decameron was earlier.

DB: I thought there was a lot of picaresque in that book.

Merwin: But’s there’s no single character. Lazarillo is the original picaresque because it’s the original role-hero going from episode to episode. The only continuity is one character who goes from one episode to another. I think it’s one of the first books in literature which actually does that and has a character who, by the standards of the society around him is a rogue, in all senses a rogue. He’s an outsider and an oddball. Lazarillo is also a very winning and touching character, I think, very funny. The whole book is full of those ironies which Cervantes uses not so very long afterwards in Don Quixote, which are also virtually untranslatable. The subtlety of Cervantes’ irony is one of the things that is lost in translation. I wasn’t trying to make him sound like Huck Finn or something like that. He had to sound like a child, very intelligent, very straight, a very courageous and funny child.

DB: Do you feel that maybe the key in translating that book was the voice?

Merwin: Absolutely.

DB: You mentioned last night about the heavy impact of reading Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind. Why do you think that during a period like the Sixties (which was very political), the book did not really get any attention?

Merwin: I simply don’t know. I think that the only theory that I have about it is that Milosz was so critical of the Communist world and there was a great deal of leftist sympathy in the Sixties. For example, the SDS-oriented people felt that Milosz was right-wing just as many Marxists felt about Camus and The Rebel. I’ve always felt that this was wrong, I mean in the sense of being incorrect. There’s a kind of outlawry that I have been drawn to all my life which is not doctrinaire, which is neither right nor left. In fact, it’s opposed to them both. Every time I come back toward a political stance, I never stay in one very long because every time I move toward one I tend to partake of that anarchy, a suspicion of all their houses. That’s the only explanation I can think of as to why Milosz was not accepted more widely and was not read more widely in the Sixties. I don’t remember when The Captive Mind was published, 1958, 1959, somewhere along in there. I know some of my friends read it and were excited about it at the time and it just seemed to disappear. I think it went out of print, too. It’s been out of print for a long time because I’ve tried to get copies of it for my friends and couldn’t find it.

DB: The Seventies seemed a time of political relaxation, or at least part of it did. Was it for you? Do you think your poetry seemed to turn away a bit…?

Merwin: It depends on what you mean by politics. If you mean concern with the manipulation of human beings by other human beings, if you want to define it that way, you could say that’s true. I was trying to say last night that what’s happening to the world, what organized human activity is doing to the world, is that same thing it’s doing to language and culture around us and to other cultures, to other people and species. The natural world, as a whole, is all the same thing and to me it’s all political. One picks it up where one feels most strongly and most immediately about it. Sometimes I feel more immediately concerned with what’s happening to the elements, the sea, the animals, the language, than I do with any particular society. I don’t make a distinction. The poisoning of the soil, the imminence of nuclear disaster, are absolutely the same thing. You shut your eyes and you open them and you’re staring at the same thing but the form of it looks different. Here you are at a different movie but it’s all the same thing.

DB: Do you think you are influenced or have any sort of affinity for Robinson Jeffers?

Merwin: It’s been a long time since I read him and I may be very unfair and I love some of Robinson Jeffers. But there seemed to me to be a kind of relishing of his misanthropy, a kind of hugging to himself of a bitterness which really, I thought, in the long run, was egocentric, feeling very superior to the world around him, to the human race, a real kind of hatred of it. I don’t feel close to that at all. I certainly feel it with a sense of elation or relief, but one of great sadness, a feeling that if I stay there it would be a kind of moral defeat. One really has to find a way to move out of there. One doesn’t stay in nihilism, I think.

DB: In many ways, both of you seem to be dealing with the same thing or the same perspective, but that you’re both attacking in completely different ways.

Merwin: The one thing I feel close to is his sense of our self-importance as a species, which I think is one of the things which is strangling us, our own bloated species-ego. The assumption that human beings are different in kind and in importance from other species is something I’ve had great difficulty in accepting for 25 years or so. To me, it’s a dangerously wrong way of seeing things. I think that our importance is not separable from the importance of all the rest of life. If we make the distinction in a too self-flattering way, if we say we are the only kind of life that’s of any importance, we automatically destroy our own importance. Our importance is based on a feeling of responsibility and awareness of all life, the fact that we are a part of the entire universe and our importance is not different from the importance of the rest of the universe. We’re not in that way the only valuable and interesting thing to have appeared in the universe.

DB: Would you answer the criticism that’s been leveled about there not being any people in your poems with the fact that this perspective on your work might arise out of Anne Sexton-Sylvia Plath analysis-type poetry?

Merwin: I don’t know where it comes from. I can see where it comes from in some of the poems, I suppose. It seems to me that people who make the criticisms have been reading other critics rather than reading the poet, generally. Are there any people in poems like “Western Wind” or “Ode to Melancholy”? Are there people-less poems? A poem that is made of human language and human perception and refers to human experience has people in it, I think. Whether it has drama in it, whether there are people in the third person is another matter. I think the first and second person are more common in my poems, probably, than the third person. This may be what whoever it was who first said that had in mind. Do you think there are people in the poems?

DB: One of my favorite poems of yours is “A Letter From Gussie.” That has people in it. I think it’s a very clever and human poem. So I really don’t agree with the criticism at all. But I’d like to switch over to talking about the genre confusion that’s going on now in poetry and prose and what you have said about it. Recently I was re-reading William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and I sensed that he was consciously taking the narrative further away from poetry even though he used poetic diction. I was wondering if you could say some more of things you did last night about how you’re trying to separate the narrative from the poetry.

Merwin: I wasn’t suggesting that narrative is anti-poetic at all. I don’t even think of prose as being anti-poetic. What I was suggesting is that I think that the more imaginative intensity there is in poetry or in prose the more it calls in question the difference between poetry and prose, so that if you get a great deal of intensity in prose, rhythms begin to emerge, powerful rhythms, and various things happen in the texture so that people begin to say it’s poetic, whatever they mean by that. If there’s great intensity in poetry, sometimes it leads toward a rhetorical thickening of texture, but sometimes it drives the poetry toward a greater and greater surface simplicity so that it begins to seems almost like prose. The example that I was giving was Dante — an enormous freight of meaning and experience and enormous intensity. As Eliot said somewhere, if you imitate Shakespeare, you’re going to get inflated, but if you imitate Dante the worst thing that’s going to happen is that it may sound a little flat. I’m trying to say that from either side great intensity follows this shifting, this undefinable boundary in question. What is the difference between poetry and prose? You can make a definition but it’s not going to be applicable forever in all circumstances. This confusion arises out of the fact that the old categories are getting in the way rather than helping to direct and to provide energy. I don’t mean that I think there are never going to be categories but we’re going to have to remake them, or else they’re going to form themselves again.

DB: I guess what I was trying to get at was the decisions you made back twenty years or so when you evolved the absence of punctuation and you were doing things that tried to make your work more poem-like.

Merwin: I was trying to do things that I suppose poets always try to do. I was trying to write more directly, and in that sense more simply. One of the ironies of that was there were critics who immediately and for a long time called poetry hopelessly obscure. They thought it was simply willfully obscure and that I was trying to write incomprehensible poetry. I was really trying to make it more direct but at the same time more inclusive, to make it contain more experience and to transmit it more directly in words and do it in a way that carried more of the cadences of pure language, of speech.

DB: Were there any poetics that you can think of behind why you started using what I call the “gapped-line”?

Merwin: You mean just a few years ago? Yes, we were talking about that yesterday. I realized that the predecessor, not even the predecessor (I think of it as the subterranean tradition) of English prosody is the Middle English line that was over laid at the time of Chaucer, by Chaucer, a great genius who brought this Romance meter into English and did it so brilliantly and beautifully. It became the classical meter of English. But is is an importation and I think Middle English line is absolutely native to English and it’s been there all along. I think that it is even deeper and older than that. I think it is a manifestation of a parallelism that is the basic structure of verse in most languages that I know anything about. I was simply trying to pick that up and use it in a way that would make it available to me and possibly suggest to others that this was every bit as native to our language and consequently as legitimately useful to us as iambic pentameter, which is rather a weary form when most people use it nowadays. It carries a terrible freight of habit, of mere habit, although I think that students should read an awful lot of it and write an awful lot of it to start, to be able to master it, to be able to hear it, to be able to talk it if they have to. Otherwise these bits of the tradition are liable to come as ghosts and use us rather than our using them. Stevenson used to complain about that, that he couldn’t write prose without its being filled with iambic pentameter.

(Transcribed by Don Boes)


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