As I’ve mentioned, I’m in Corfu, and so somehow missed the news last week that W.S. Merwin is the new U.S. poet laureate. Merwin is almost solely responsible for the course my life has taken, and since I’m convinced I have few if any readers, I feel no qualms about sharing the story here. I’ve been trying to write a poem for him for years. Maybe someday I’ll get there, but for now, memoir it will be.
At fifteen I had very little Spanish, despite being third-generation Puerto Rican. We didn’t speak Spanish at home, and I grew up in the suburbs of Boston. I had then a Venezuelan friend who gave me a copy of Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems in the original, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. So she gave me the only translation she could find, by W.S. Merwin. I had been writing poetry, if you can call it that, for years, but never before cared to read it (the sign of a bad poet). And, because the timing and intensity in my life was perfectly timed for it, I fell in love. Poema XX became my mantra, I read it so often I could recite it from memory, and so carefully that when I encountered another translation of it by Merwin in an anthology, I wondered why he had changed “The night is shattered” to “The night is starry” which seemed much less interesting to me. When I finally learned enough Spanish to read it in the original, I found that I preferred the translation in many ways, perhaps from over-familiarity, but for reasons I’ve been able to justify nonetheless.
For example, a few years ago I had a tattoo designed that incorporated one line from Poema XX, along with two images from the poem and the Neruda Foundation symbol. The line comes towards the end of the poem, and in Spanish is “Es tan corto el amor, y es tan largo el olvido.” In Merwin’s English it is “Love is so short, forgetting is so long.” The gain here is clear: in English the articles are unnecessary, as is the conjunction, so the compression of the line emphasizes its acuity and minimizes the risk of cliché. So I chose to have the translation inscribed on my skin permanently. The line is stronger, and for a translator and poet the significance is doubled. As an aside, a picture of the tattoo is being included in a book on literary tattoos, along with a short paragraph on the meaning of the tattoo. I’m thrilled that the artwork on my body is part of it, and also that I had the opportunity to talk about translation.
In any case, it was Merwin’s Neruda that I fell in love with, that made me believe there was a purpose to writing poetry, and the memory of this discovery compelled me to start work in translation in college. It was then I discovered Merwin was himself an exquisite poet, though it was no surprise given his handling of Neruda. Anyways, the N.Y. Times has a short write-up on him, and the afternoon sun is past its peak and calling me to write by the water. Someday, I’ll finish my Love Letter to Merwin. But today, I’m thrilled that he’s being recognized for the master he is. And perhaps he’ll use the opportunity to talk about the importance of translation and of translated poetry.