On April 15, poet and translator W. S. Merwin was the featured speaker at the Center for the Art of Translation’s Lit & Lunch program.  BY ANNE MILANO APPEL

W. S. Merwin

In its announcement, CAT described W.S. Merwin as follows: “One of the most influential poets of the late-twentieth century, W. S. Merwin has won innumerable honors including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Well-known for his poetry since the 1960’s, he is also one of America’s most recognizable translators, working with Spanish, Latin, and French poetry [and I would add, Italian]. An environmental activist in Hawaii, where he lives, his recent work has been influenced by themes of environmental preservation and deep ecology.”

What is Poetry

Speaking to a packed house at the Minna Gallery in San Francisco, Merwin began by talking about the impossibility of making a translation, and about the impossibility of writing poetry in general. “Poetry is not about what can be said,” he told his audience — prose is about that. Poetry, instead, is about what can’t be said. With regard to impossible ventures, he gave the example of the bee: any scientist will tell you that the bee can’t fly. But since the bee doesn’t know that it is scientifically impossible for it to fly, it goes on flying blithely, not caring that its fragile wings should not be able to support its weight in the air.

Translation, too, is impossible. Musing about the impossibility of substituting a word in one language for that in another (the French word “pain”, for example, means a very specific kind of bread to a Frenchman, it can’t be anything else), Merwin went on to reflect on what gets lost or left behind in the process. In his view the decision on what gets left behind is, or should be, a rational one. Generally speaking, it is the formal aspects that are dispensed with. Rhyme for example. While some languages, like Italian, naturally lend themselves to rhyming, English just doesn’t have that many words that rhyme. To force English to rhyme is to create a tension that doesn’t exist in the original poem.

Talking about the advice given to him early on by the poet Ezra Pound (while decrying Pound’s anti-semitism, which he is glad he was unaware of at the time), Merwin reported that Pound counseled him to write on a daily basis: “You should write every day. You should practice it.” Pound also told him that he should translate and that he should get as close to the original as he could: to maintain “the greatest possible fidelity of the original, including its sounds.” The impossible again! Still, there’s the bee who keeps flying… The value of translation is that it sharpens a writer’s awareness of the possibilities of his own language. By translating, Pound pointed out to him, you learn English better. In the end, Merwin said, the poem you produce is and isn’t yours: “it is your work, and it isn’t your work”.

Dante’s Purgatorio

Merwin went on to read several poems, including one by William Stafford about translation, entitled “Walking the Borders”. Finally he came to the subject that had drawn me (one of the dantisti he referred to) to attend the program that day: his translation of Dante’s Purgatorio. Explaining why he had chosen the second section of Dante’s poem, the one that generally gets the least attention, Merwin said (as he also states in his Foreword to the work) that it was partly because “only Purgatory happens on the earth, as our lives do, with our feet on the ground, crossing a beach, climbing a mountain.” Despite his fascination and reverence for the Commedia, Merwin exhibited a droll sense of humor in referring to Beatrice, whom he described as never missing an opportunity to lecture Dante the pilgrim. “Beatrice was a big disappointment”, he told us, adding that she always struck him as “Thomas Aquinas in a nightie”.

Though he did not say so, perhaps the fact that the Purgatorio is about hope (absent in the Inferno, while the Paradiso is about fulfillment) accounts in part for Merwin’s choice. After all, he had “even lectured on Dante and demonstrated the impossibility of translating him”, as he writes in the Foreword. And yet the bee goes on flying: “Translation of poetry is an enterprise that is always in certain respects impossible,” Merwin continues, “and yet on occasion it has produced something new, something else, of value, and sometimes, on the other side of a sea change, it has brought up poetry again.” It has emerged a riveder le stelle, “to see once more the stars,” as Dante would say.