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‘the externalization of our infinite inner world': Reviewing W.S. Merwin’s Selected Translations

By Harriet Staff

The Rumpus reviews Merwin’s latest, Selected Translations. Joe Winkler has these sage thoughts on the nature of poetry translations:

In a way that Merwin doesn’t elucidate, an understanding of the nature of language provides the best justification for the continuous effort to translate poetry. In a sense, translation most aptly describes the use of language in general, but more specifically the nature of artistic writing. If poetry attempts to give voice and shape to ineffable experiences, to that which lies outside the range of simple expression, then all poetry already entails an act of translation, something that cannot simply reproduce the original feeling. Poetry as the externalization of our infinite inner world already represents a misrepresentation of sorts, but a necessary evil to allow for artistic expression and communication. If so, then translation, albeit removed from the original experience, represents a poem through the prism of one artist interpreting the other. Merwin’s new book, a collection of his selected translations from his brilliant and prolific career, proves this point and then some.

Winkler goes on to talk directly about Merwin’s effors:

On a poem to poem level the books achieves wonders, and on a more holistic level it accomplishes numerous feats. The book offers a true treasure trove of representative poetry from an array of different cultures throughout the ages. Set up less by era and more by culture, Merwin provides access to the Egyptian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Eskimo, Quechan, Welsh, Caxinua, Irish, Greek, Latin, Spanish-Jewish, Spanish, French, Italian, Russian, German and the list goes on.

What makes this effort unique is not only the ability to glimpse a taste of the singularity of each culture, of its poetic output, but to realize that which ultimately persists across boundaries, the artistic vision that transcends both time and space to create a compelling case for Yeat’s Spiritus Mundi. While it’s hard to prove this any substantive manner, it’s more of an ineffable feeling that these poems emanate, a sense that they are all woven from the same fabric. This universalistic sense struck me in the use of a metaphor that crossed 1000 years and disparate cultures. Both poets use the elegant phrase of “wrapped in mourning,” and this type of serendipitous overlap occurs numerous times throughout the book.

Winkler goes on to find a few shortcomings in the book, calling it “an essentially lacking effort.” Make the jump to see why.

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Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, October 24th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.