An episode from 10/25/20: A reading from the poet W. S. Merwin’s memoir, The Mays of Ventadorn, where he recalls meeting the poet Ezra Pound in 1949. Merwin, who died in 2019 at the age of ninety-one, was just starting out when he paid a visit to Pound.
For his part, by 1949 Ezra Pound (1885-1972) had already known and influenced every great Modernist poet since 1900, going to university in America with William Carlos Williams and H. D., living in London with W. B. Yeats for a time as his secretary, and famously editing T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.
Pound was also consumed with his own political and economic theories, and it was his time in Italy, and later broadcasts made in support of Mussolini during World War II, that prompted his arrest when he returned to American in 1945. Found mentally unfit to stand trial for treason, he was placed in St. Elizabeths, a psychiatric hospital in Washington, DC.
It was in this setting that the elder poet was nevertheless able to give the younger poet some tremendous advice, the most important of which was to become a translator. Merwin writes: He told me he imagined I was serious, and that if I was I should learn languages, “so as not to be at the mercy of translators.” And then I should translate, myself. “If you’re going to be a poet,” he said, “you have to work at it every day. You should about seventy-five lines a day. But at your age you don’t have anything to write about. You may think you do, but you don’t. So get to work translating…. Get as close to the original as you can. It will make you use your English and find out what you can do with it.”
Merwin, of course, became one of the great poets of his generation, in part because of his translations, beginning with The Poem of the Cid in 1959.
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