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The nature of things
W.S. Merwin on the preciousness of life and our memory of language

W.S. Merwinís work has spanned genres, languages, and hemispheres. His poems have garnered him the most prestigious awards for poetry since his first volume appeared in 1952, including the Pulitzer Prize, the Bollingen Prize, and the Tanning Prize. Collections of short prose pieces have appeared periodically. A memoir/literary history published last year (The Mays of Ventadorn) gained praise and a broad readership. And he has completed more than 20 books of translations, primarily from Spanish, French, Italian, or medieval variations of those languages. Merwin will come to Providence on Tuesday to read his poems at Brown University.

Raised in the gritty Northeast (Union City, New Jersey, and Scranton, Pennsylvania), Merwin discovered the quiet river valley of the Dordogne in southern France in his í20s and the lofty mountainsides of Hawaii in his í40s and has made his home in both places. At 76, he makes biannual visits to the French farmhouse he bought shortly after college, but he is content to tend the rare palms on his land in Maui and to stoke the creative fires in a house from which he can see no other signs of human habitation.

In the last seven years alone, Merwin has turned out four books of new poems: The Vixen, Flower & Hand, The River Sound, and The Pupil. He has chronicled a 19th-century Hawaiian story ó of a family forced to flee government persecution ó in more than 300 pages of gripping poetic narrative (The Folding Cliffs, 1998), and penned an homage to poetry and 24 poets who were his contemporaries, in 52 tight, four-line rhyming stanzas (Lament for the Makers, 1996). He has completed new verse translations of Danteís Purgatorio and of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. And he has written a short history of the troubadours who gathered at Ventadorn in the 12th century.

Yet Merwinís writing never collects dust in the halls of academe. His translations of The Poem of the Cid and The Song of Roland are the standard versions for every high-schooler. His poems have appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books as often as in The Paris Review or Poetry. And his concerns in his poems touch the heart and move the spirit in a subtle but quite remarkable way, whether he is writing about family members, the Marfa lights in West Texas, a remembered moment from long-ago, the killing of Matthew Shepard, or the way language and words work. The following is taken from a recent phone conversation with Merwin from his home in Maui.

Q: Do you think that the things you write about have changed over the years? Do certain themes return?

A: I donít plan them ahead of time. I look back and realize that there is something the poems have in common. A lot in The Pupil have to do with light and darkness, with sight and not-seeing, which is one of the reasons for the title. That is a central theme in the book. I have a wonderful dog, now 14, and she lost her sight when she was eight. I had been thinking about it a lot anyway. I didnít set out to do that, but there it was.

Q: In The River Sound, you write about getting older, about how wisdom comes, what it means to you. Here you are, four or five years farther into your life ó how are you feeling about those same things now?

A: Probably more of the same. What do we think of every day? I hope we do. We think of the preciousness of life and its fragility. Isnít that so? Those two things go together. The more precious it is, the more oneís aware of how fragile and how brief it is. I donít think thereís anything strange about that. But I think it means that one should revere it and respect it, wherever one finds it, in other peopleís lives too.

Q: Some of your poems talk about living in the moment, not trying to live so far in the future. We all struggle to do that, donít we?

A: I think that we have to do it all the time. One of the things about the human mind is the imagination which is the source of everything wonderful and the source of being able to put ourselves into other peopleís situations and to recognize that suffering is universal and to recognize that other peopleís joys and sorrows are not so very different from our own. But itís also something that insinuates itself between us and what is immediately around us. Even in moments of great joy and pleasure, we find ourselves thinking about something else or imagining something else. We live with both of these things. I donít think that you can undo that, but you can become aware that itís so. That makes that scrim between you and the world around you become a little bit more transparent. So that you can live a little bit more in the present. But I think you have to keep reminding yourself.

Q: You also write about forgetting and remembering. Do you think that the older we grow, the more we think back to some impressions of being a child?

A: I think so. And itís very close to what I was saying before. I think that with all of the dangers and limitations of memory and all the things we know about and how itís distorted, still itís all weíve got. Everything is made out of memory. The memoryís changing all the time. Some of it is relatively stable, but some of it isnít stable at all. Our memory of language is how we happen to be talking to each other. And thatís made out of the shared experience of many generations of people. Itís all memory. And what weíre talking about is memory. Weíre never talking about the present. Weíre always talking about something thatís happened. I think that recognizing this is very important. And yet, behind the whole thing is the immense amount that weíre forgetting. I donít know the relation between the two. And when people say you mustnít dwell in the past and you mustnít be nostalgic ó thatís silly, there is no way not to do that. Thatís what everything is made of.

Q: In addition to your own writing, do you still do translations?

A: I keep telling myself I donít. I did finish the Gawain a couple of years ago. I keep fooling around with translations ícause things get fascinating. And the troubadours are fascinating ó you canít translate them. Iíve been trying to do it all my life. Itís like trying to translate Bob Dylan ó how could you do it? And the troubadour tradition comes right down to us. They were great singers and musicians as well as being great poets. Thereís a great deal that we take for granted: the whole thing about romantic love and the anguishes of it. It was there ó after all, weíve had the requisite genes to behave that way for quite a while ó but there had never been a whole tradition of it, when everyone was writing about the sorrows of being in love and how they wouldnít swap them for any kind of happiness. It really begins with the earliest of the troubadours with that sense of longing ó of things too far away, you canít reach them.

Q: What was the life of the troubadours like?

A: They led a kind of wild and free life which upset the clergy very much. I think when spring came, everybody took to the woods and took their clothes off (laughs heartily). The roots of their poems were in strange places that nobody has wanted to talk about. People still resist the idea that the two main influences on the troubadours were the Celtic stories, the Arthurian stories, and Arabic poetry. They looked south for fun and civilization. They thought of Paris as a bunch of learned boors who didnít know anything about anything, but the Arab courts of Spain were where all the singing and pretty women and dancing and the arts of behavior and cooking and everything else was. They would come back completely in love with that ó it was a huge influence. Of the 11 surviving poems of the first troubadour, eight are in Arabic form ó they all knew Arabic.

Q: Going back to your own poems, you so often write about nature. Is there an implied message about leaving it alone?

A: Well, I donít think we should make a distinction between nature and us. Weíre nature, and I think that one of the things we suffer from is a civilization that tries to pretend that we arenít nature. I think this is a blind alley, really a blind alley. Whenever someone breaks through it, one feels great relief. I think good things are happening in a very bad time. I think more and more people are beginning to have this recognition that life is not just confined to our species. There is not this great gulf between humanity and the rest of life, but humanity is privileged to have a place in the great context of life itself. And thatís a totally different attitude. I feel very strongly the second way, not the first.

Q: So many of your poems describe the place that youíre in, but also what youíre feeling about it. How do those poems come about?

A: Robert Louis Stevenson said a writer should always have two little books: one to read and one to write in. I have had a little notebook ever since I was in college. So I take notes. Sometimes, out of them, something comes. I really donít know how poems happen. I know they begin by hearing something in language.

Q: What role do you think poetry has in this increasingly technologically-attuned age?

A: I donít know if thereís any way of knowing. People talk about the dying role of poetry. Thatís perfectly true, except for oral traditions, where everyone sat around a fire and recited poems. In any literate society, how many people actually read poems? Elizabethan England was a great exception, but that was because people knew how to listen.

When the movement of poets against the war began earlier this year and Sam Hamill asked a few poets on the Internet to contribute a few poems, they were absolutely mobbed by 15,000 entries. Thereís that kind of response. The people who edit poetry for the big slick magazines will tell you that theyíre flooded with poetry. A lot of itís bad. It doesnít mean that those people read poetry, but some do.

Q: What do you think we should be doing about the state of the world?

A: I donít think you can make poetry out of opinions, but that doesnít mean you shouldnít try. Dante didnít shrink from trying to deal with the whole historical moment that he lived in. Thatís the source of both the strengths and weaknesses of that great poem of his. Dante began as a troubadour; he wrote real troubadour poems. But I think to deliberately limit what we can write about as a matter of principle is disrespectful to oneís art itself. To assume that even if we have our minds made up about political and moral issues, that we can make good poetry out of it, we canít. But thereís no reason not to try. There were a few good poems out of the resistance to the Vietnam War. Nobody knows how to write any poem. Itís important to try to engage with what you can engage with. If we feel very strongly about the state of the world we live in, our feelings are to be honored and maybe they can be given flesh in our poems. But thereís no formula for doing it.

Q: What do you think is poetryís greatest gift to its readers?

A: Waking them up to something ó startling them, taking them by surprise. What takes them by surprise is whatís been there all the time.

W.S. Merwin will read from his work on Tuesday, October 28 at 8 p.m. in Room 101 of Salomon Hall at Brown University in Providence. Call (401) 863-3276.

Issue Date: October 24 - 30, 2003
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