A prolific writer and translator of poetry, W.S. Merwin was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States of America on October 25, 2010. Because he lives in Hawaii, on an old pineapple plantation which he restored to its original rainforest state (the 83-year-old Buddhist ascribes to deep ecology), Merwin will not be making many public appearances during his tenure.
But on April 30, he will give a reading at the New World Center in Miami Beach to close the month-long O, Miami poetry festival. O, Miami organizers P. Scott Cunningham and Peter Borrebach recently spoke to Merwin over the phone in advance of his visit. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Mr. Merwin, what’s your knowledge of Miami? Have you been here before?
WSM: I have been there, several times. [Miami’s] a paradoxical town in a lot of ways. I know Fairchild [Tropical Botanic Garden] very well.
We made a conservancy of our land here [in Maui]. We live on 19 acres, where I’ve planted over 850 species of palm. We’ve even been credited with saving one species of palm, hypon indica. You know, the whole planet is being paved under tarmac and asphalt, traded back and forth, so I’ve always wanted to save a bit of the earth’s surface.
And that’s what brought you to Fairchild?
WSM: Yes, I’ve been to Fairchild a number of times, and they’ve given me seed, which is one link between the gardens here and there. But there are all kinds of tie-ups that are important. William Kline used to be at Fairchild before he came to National Tropical Botanical Garden [on the island of Hawaii].
You graciously lent us your poem, “On the Old Way”, for the “One Poem, One Community Project” we’re producing with our friends at Florida Center for the Literary Arts. How’d you choose that poem for us?
WSM: It’s a poem that seemed the right length to start with. But more importantly, it’s a poem about returning to a place I was very fond of, which seemed appropriate for my return to Miami.
The translation of the poem [into Spanish, also for the project] is by Alberto Blanco. How did this translation come about?
WSM: I’ve known Alberto for many years. We’ve done many translations of each other’s work. Our friendship goes back to when he interviewed Octavio Paz and me together. Spanish was my first love of the foreign languages I didn’t know very well. I love Mexico and Spain, and I’ve lived in both of them. There’s a link with Cuba too. My wife spent her adolescence in Cuba, though she was born in Argentina. We feel very fond of the language. It’s lovely to have things translated into Spanish.
You’re known as one of the preeminent translators in American poetry. When did you begin translating?
WSM: I went to college quite young, and the first modern poet I read was Lorca. I read Lorca before I read any modern poets in English. I had a professor from Spain who was homesick and wanted some help translating Lorca, so I worked on some plays with him. I thought [the plays] were OK, but what I was really interested in was the poems. They were very important to me, a revelation really because they were totally different from anything else I’d read.
Knowing nothing of his politics at the time, I also visited Ezra Pound in the hospital when I was 18, and he urged me to go on with translation. He said it was the best way for a poet to learn his own language because you’re trying to make something that is the kind of poem in English that that poem is in its original language. Translation’s impossible, but writing is impossible to begin with.
It’s not like writing your own poems. No translation is ever final. When I was collaborating with Clarence Brown* on some Russian translations, he used to say, “No translation ever spoiled the original.” You’re stretching your own language, really. It’s a good school.
It’s also a good way of earning a living. In the 50s, while I was living in England, I translated plays and poems for the BBC, and I earned just enough to stay alive. I would never, ever take a contract to write a poem, but I figured I could take one to translate.
What’s poetry’s debt to the history of translation?
WSM: Enormous! Everybody wants translations to be like the original but if they were, you wouldn’t be able to read them! No matter how many languages you know, there will always be some you don’t, and the only way you’ll be able to read that literature is through translation. Any of us who love literature are indebted to it. How many people know Ancient Greek? Sanskrit? It shouldn’t only be scholars who have access to this literature.
Imagine poetry in English in the last 100 years without [Arthur] Whaley’s translations from the Chinese. His effect on poetry in English is enormous and it’s still going on.
Our mission for O, Miami is to get all 2.5 million people in Miami-Dade County to encounter a poem during the month of April. We get asked a lot, “Why should anyone care about poetry?” (with the assumption that they shouldn’t). So we’ll ask you now, Why should anyone care?
WSM: There was a time in everyone’s life when he or she liked poetry, whether they remember it or not. Poetry is pleasure. Most people don’t paint or dance or sing anymore either, but there was pleasure in those things too.
One of things I always admired about the Hispanic world is that it was taken for granted that poetry was a part of life. Newspapers would have double-spreads of poetry, and people read them, and discussed them. I remember when [Mexican poet] Jaime Sabines read for the last time in Mexico City. The place was jammed, and the entire audience recited a poem with him.
Last question: most United States Poet Laureates choose some sort of theme for their appointment. For instance, Kay Ryan made a point of advocating for America’s community colleges. Do you have a theme for your Laureateship?
WSM: The President [of the United States] himself asked me this question. Yes, there is a theme: the fact that there’s no separation between human imagination and the rest of life. Put another way, humans are not a separate species. The world is a part of us. It should be part of our joy and our pleasure. When we destroy the world, we’re destroying ourselves.
*The collaboration with Clarence Brown was Selected Poems of Osip Mandlestam (Atheneum, 1983)