W. S. Merwin / Image courtesy of inkywretch
As I learned last week (perhaps belatedly) from the Poetry Foundation’s podcast Poetry Off the Shelf, W.S. Merwin has been named as the next U.S. Poet Laureate. He’ll take up the post this fall. At one point in the interview portion of the podcast, Merwin says that poetry is something we should naturally enjoy reading and hearing:
I really believe … that everybody really loves poetry. And if they don’t think they do, it’s because something has happened to deprive them of it. I think that just as children love to draw and to dance and to sing and do all those things, they also love poetry.
I hope he’s right. In fact, that hope is what keeps me teaching and translating poetry. And students who take my poetry courses often tell me they are pleasantly surprised that studying poetry isn’t as painful as they expected it would be. So there’s reason to be hopeful.
American readers of Russian poetry also know Merwin through the translations of Osip Mandelstam that he produced in the early 1970s with Clarence Brown. Like most Russian poets, even those writing nowadays, Mandelstam wrote formal poetry, but Brown and Merwin translated his poems into free verse. As a translator myself, I probably wouldn’t have made the same choice, but I don’t see it as an error. On the contrary, their versions of Mandelstam are marvelous. Brown and Merwin’s free verse (and I suspect we can credit Merwin alone with the sound of the poems) comes alive in English in a completely singular way. As an example, consider the last few lines of Mandelstam’s 1915 poem “Insomnia. Homer. Taut sails…” («Бессонница...»), whose literal meaning would be something like this:
… And behold, Homer is silent,
and the Black Sea, orating, groans
and with a terrible din approaches the headboard.
(… И вот, Гомер молчит, / И море черное, витийствуя, шумит / И с тяжким грохотом подxодит к изголовью.)
Literal translations of Mandelstam like mine come out clunky and unidiomatic. But listen to what Brown and Merwin did with the same lines:
… No sound now from Homer,
and the Black Sea roars like a speech
and thunders up the bed.
Sure, there are no rhymes here, and the meter has been chopped to bits, but the force of Brown and Merwin’s compact, direct American idiom convinces me that their way may be the best way. The inspired simplicity of the last line, especially, knocks me off my feet.
When I heard Merwin read in Seattle this past February, he mentioned his Mandelstam translations. Joseph Brodsky, whom Merwin knew, famously railed against any attempt to translate Mandelstam into free verse, so the success of Brown and Merwin’s edition was beyond his comprehension. In Seattle, Merwin told the audience that he and Brodsky “argued about those translations as long as he lived,” but that he took solace in something Brown said when he heard about Brodsky’s critique: “Don’t worry about that one. No translation ever spoiled the original anyway.” Empowering advice for translators seeking their voice!
In any case, I think that the Library of Congress has chosen a good laureate. Now let’s just hope that Merwin, who knows firsthand the impact of a good literary translation, uses his new soapbox to get more Americans reading poetry from elsewhere.
Note: For more on Mandelstam, Brodsky, and translation, have a look at Languagehat’s 2007 blog post on the topic.