W. S. Merwin|
An Informal Poetry Colloquium
The Jean & Bill Lane Lecture Series
Edited by Peter Y. Chou
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?|
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.
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?
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."
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
|Q:||In your book The Lice  and Carrier of Ladders ,|
you name places in your work are these places sacred?
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 ,
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?|
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?|
This account has already been published in
The Mays of Ventadorn |
I was 18 at the time  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.
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:
LOIN DES OISEAUX, DES TROUEAUX, DES VILLAGEOISES
|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)|
Web Links to W. S. Merwin
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