Thursday, April 17, 2008

W.S. Merwin, Poet and Translator, 15 April 2008

I am enjoying lunchtime presentations at the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco. On 15 April 2008, poet and translator W.S. Merwin began at the beginning, ready to suppose that poetry and language were born at the same time, “as a reaction to unbearable passion, like a mother in Iraq confronted with the body of her murdered son.”

Merwin said that one of the lines that always comes to mind for him as a perfect line that symbolizes the mystery of language is Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” As well as I can remember, or discern from scrawled notes, Merwin explained, “Shakespeare never said that line to any woman or man. It is not something you would say to someone, and yet it is perfect. So where did it come from? It is not stilted. It has the flow of natural speech.”

Merwin quoted Pound who said that young writers should write a lot but they don’t have anything to write about at that age so they should study languages instead and make translations. “Translation will teach you your own language,” said Pound.

Merwin said he was originally simply a translator – translating plays and other materials for the BBC, and only then did he think of writing his own poetry. Merwin read a verse by William Stafford (probably in a particular cohort of poets including Merwin). Then he read his own verses “The Blind World” and “Gifts.” Merwin spoke of the influences that Pound liked to write about – that modern verse was born with the Troubadours of Provence who got rhyme, he said, from the Arabs. [I think others, such as the Welsh, would feel that poetry began with their own early bards.]

Before reading from his new translation of Dante’s PURGATORIO, Merwin said that he sees Dante’s INFERNO as being a succession of stories that demonstrate the “locked-in ego,” never able to escape itself – hell as it reappears in Sartre’s NO EXITS. In the INFERNO, Dante becomes whatever he is looking at, afflicted with anger when he sees and hears those in the circle of the Wrathful, etc. With the PURGATORIO, Dante emerges back into the light, steps from the underground back onto earth. After reading a passage from his translation of the PURGATORIO, he read from his translation of SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT. As he enjoyed that Welsh work, he seemed to welcome the card on which I wrote the name of Welsh-American poet and translator (of THE AENEID), Rolfe Humphries and the title of his book that spells out and demonstrates all the elaborate verse forms of the Welsh bards, GREEN ARMOUR ON GREEN GROUND. I hope he can find it in print.

When I had last seen Merwin in person, he was not this old man with white hair. It was at a party that the poet John Logan was throwing for the poet Jon Anderson (Jon, who died in the fall of 2007, was still a young man, and at that time in his life Mr. Logan had grown very fond of young men). Almost a side tableau at that party, Merwin was lolling on pillows, a beautiful woman on either side of him, symmetrically, as if they were attendants. I thought, “This must have been how Dante Rosetti looked,” for Merwin and both women comprised living figures in a pre-Raphaelite painting. I think he was wearing a brocade vest, and perhaps velvet trousers, but I may be wrong. The two beautiful women were also glowing with a natural splendor of feather and cloth and different textures. In 2008, the glamour of youth was gone, but the frail-looking, white-haired Merwin of today had a sweetness that was more impressive than the romantic image of the late 1969.

Jon Anderson and his second wife, Linda, were staying with Robert Minichiello (They had been friends in their native Boston) and me, and so we were there with them. I had just guided Jon and Linda on their first acid trips (a foolish thing to do) in Golden Gate Park, starting at the lagoon by the ancient giant ferns that some called Paradise #1 in those days – a good original starting point for first acid trips.

My lover at the time joined us at the Logan party – Robert Helps, composer and pianist, alternately teaching six months at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and six months as the Boston Conservatory of Music. Jon said that at last I had a lover he approved, having seen some of those I was always trying to “save,” and certainly Bob was at ease in his usual milieu, an intellectual and artistic crowd.

My memory fails about the others who were there, but I remember that poet Linda Gregg was there and her lover, a poet of equal reputation.

It was 1969 and there had just been an epic poetry reading at Glide Memorial Church in support of those involved in the San Francisco State Strike, with a stellar line-up of poets, John Logan included with the likes of Muriel Rukeyser. The alcoholism that was destroying John was no secret, especially as, at that event, he read his hymn to his failing liver. Poet and teacher, and onetime student of Logan, Louise Nayer said that Logan was bemused by the word "La Foie" as it could be either his "faith" or his "liver,” as both drink and the Roman Catholic Church were his obsessions; a series of his verses were dedicated (tongue in cheek?) to Mother Cabrini.

John Logan was high with spirits or high with the pleasure he took in bringing Jon Anderson out to the world of poetry with such a splendid gathering, spilling over from the Strike Benefit. Logan scanned my eyes happily as he took my hand, the hand of one of Jon's friends. Except for that evening, my impression of him is created from his poetry and the stories of others.
But I was impressed with John’s sweet personality, and somehow ended up writing a verse about him later, when he died:

Memorial Remarks on a Poet

Like the man in the Dada film who watched
ants crawl out of his palm, he used his body
as an inkwell and wrote with his blood. Father
of nine, then lover of young, talented men,
he came at last to be the saint he wished to be,
Mother Cabrini's child. He tattered himself
with drink, feathered his flesh with fire, changed
in the phoenix nest of the Church to keep love
stronger than life. At last he winked into light.
His blood twinkles now, black wit on bright pages.

-- James McColley Eilers, copyright 2008

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