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Poetry W.S. Merwin’s ‘Selected Translations’ and two new versions of classic poetic works show why we need world literature

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, April 28, 2013, at 8:40 a.m.

“Selected Translations” by W.S. Merwin (Copper Canyon Press, 424 pages, $40, hardback)

“Poet in New York” by Federico Garcia Lorca, edited by Christopher Maurer; translated by Greg Simon and Steven F. White (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pages, $17 paperback)

“The Divine Comedy” by Dante Alighieri, translated by Clive James (Liveright/W.W. Norton, 560 pages, $29.95, hardback)

In this age of social media, where Twitter and Facebook can spark political revolutions overnight, superlatives have about as much weight as cliches. (Although cliches seem to last longer.)

But even while hearing that caveat rattle around in my head, I still want to praise W.S. Merwin as the finest living poet in America.

For one thing, his pedigree exudes excellence: advice from Ezra Pound, instruction from John Berryman and R.P. Blackmur, and influence from Spain’s great 20th-century poet, Federico Garcia Lorca.

For another, his more than 25 volumes of verse give voice to an unmatched depth of existential resonance: haunting and incantatory. He repeatedly shows a facile dexterity of diction, and insight into our tenuous role in nature. His works pull readers into the presence of something greater than themselves —— something primordial, spiritual, elegiac.

Spare and allusive, unconstrained by punctuation in his later years, his poems leave ample room for an originating silence. Indeed, he sings what Mexico’s Nobel laureate Octavio Paz called “the other voice” —— the voice that “is a thousand years old and as old as you and I, and it has not yet been born.”

This alone would make Merwin a national treasure. But when we look to his work as a translator, we find that he also holds the world in his hands. From anonymous Egyptian poets in the 20th century B.C. to Guillaume Apollinaire in 19th-century France, he has made available to an English-speaking audience a bounty of global riches. We —— and world literature —— are in his debt.

whatever you are

lord of the sight beyond

where are you

you above at this moment

you below at this moment

—— Anonymous, Incan

Pushing 90 years old, Merwin has gathered his most wide-reaching work in “Selected Translations,” covering more than two millennia and 37 languages. Turn to any page and you will discover the creative genius of other cultures.

No one sings the other voice like Merwin —— in whatever language, from whatever age. He tirelessly invokes infinity in the finite image. He translates always with the aim of making us more authentically human:

beings beyond number

that are nothing but what they are

and have no wish

to be anything else.

—— Alberto Blanco, 20th century Spain

‘Poet in New York’

In a telephone interview I had with Merwin on the publication of his selected poems, “Migrations,” in 2005, he said that, as a young poet, he was spellbound by Lorca, by “that kind of life, that kind of vibrancy, that kind of creativity, that kind of sound.”

Sadly, Lorca’s sound was cut short by the firing squads of Fascist dictator Francisco Franco in 1936. But before his execution, he visited the United States in 1929, staying in New York City, writing, lecturing and traveling. The result was his book-length poem, “Poet in New York,” published posthumously —— a travel journal in verse of his outrage and disgust at the spiritual poverty, obtuseness and blatant racism of the world’s most powerful capitalist society.

This newly translated and edited volume of the poem proves a delight to read, capturing the nuances of Lorca’s “poetic events” —— his passionate, fanciful and multivalent imagery that expresses and contains, as he intended, his experience.

This chaste, burning desire of mine,

this confusion from longing for equilibrium,

this innocent sorrow of gunpowder in my eyes,

will lighten the anguish of another heart

consumed by the nebulae.

Many critics have labeled this type of writing “surrealism,” but the term misleads. For what spawns Lorca’s strange poetic idiom has less to do with the subconscious mind than with the Spanish persona of duende, a force the editor of this new book only touches on. Perhaps for good reason.

Duende is notoriously hard to define, but in a lecture in New York, Lorca said, “We only know that [ duende] burns the blood like a poultice of broken glass, that he exhausts, that he rejects all the sweet geometry we have learned, that he smashes styles. . . .”

Duende feeds on the impermanence of form, Lorca tells us. Hence, the dark, drastic, dreamlike quality of his poems, which will endure far beyond the fury of duende —— echoing from the streets of Brooklyn to the mountains of Granada.

Another ‘Divine Comedy’

T.S. Eliot claimed that the final cantos of “Paradiso” —— the concluding volume of Dante’s epic poem, the “Divine Comedy” —— constituted the most sublime poetry ever written.

Like all literary opinions —— high- and low-brow —— Eliot’s assessment is open to challenge. I wholeheartedly concur, however, and have claimed for several years that “Paradiso,” with its celestial spirituality, outshines “Inferno,” the best known and most widely read of the “Comedy’s” three books.

What amazes me more than superlatives about the 13th-century Italian poet, however, is the continued interest in him. Translations keep popping up —— from the absurd cartoon of Mary Jo Bang’s “Inferno” to Andrew Frisardi’s authoritative rendition of “La Vita Nova.”

Now, the British cultural critic Clive James offers his version of the “Divine Comedy,” translated (or paraphrased, as one reviewer has already put it) to be as readable and engaging as a modern poem can be.

James has made a name for himself in the U.K. as an irascible media celebrity. He almost single-handedly turned television into a respected art form, and when not in front of a camera, he writes incisive, iconoclastic prose, mostly about himself.

All of which makes him a surprising translator of Dante, even though he has written his fair share of poetry. But as he tells us in his introduction, he discovered the great Florentine poet in the 1960s, when his girlfriend (and soon to be wife), Prue Shaw, read passages of the “Comedy” to him in Italian, her specialty. He was hooked for life

Given that his life may be in jeopardy from a prolonged battle with leukemia, he can thank providence (if he believes in it), or his lucky stars (which figure prominently in Dante’s cosmos), that his lifetime achievement has come to print.

James’ version reads easily and agreeably, even though he has taken liberties with the rhyme scheme (quatrains instead of Dante’s demanding three-line terza rima) and incorporates all material that typically would be relegated to end notes into the text itself.

For an authoritative verse translation of the “Comedy,” I still recommend Allen Mandelbaum’s 1984 edition. But if ease of understanding trumps your loyalty to the letter, then James’ Dante may sound divine indeed: a fast-paced, engaging epic still reaching for the stars.

Arlice Davenport is Books editor for The Eagle. Reach him at 316-268-6256 or adavenport@wichitaeagle.com.

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