- W. S. Merwin (1927–2019)
Upon his death on March 15, 2019, W[illiam] S[tanley] Merwin was memorialized for his efforts in the 1960s and 70s U.S. antiwar movement, for his efforts to restore the land in Hawai‘i, and, most significantly, for his superlative creativity as a poet of the English language and a philosopher of our time (see Aizenman).
Margalit Fox described Merwin in The New York Times as “one of the most highly decorated poets in the nation, and very likely the world. He was the United States poet laureate from 2010 to 2011; won two Pulitzer Prizes [in 1971 and 2009], a National Book Award [in 2005] and a spate of other honors.”
What this and other obituaries have failed to signal is his contribution to recognition of medieval Occitan poetry, work that may have begun when he visited the south of France in the 1950s (see Taylor, “William S. Merwin” 17), though Michael Taylor suggests that it was Ezra Pound who offered Merwin the first push towards troubadour lyric (13). Peter Ricketts pointed to Merwin’s importance as an anthologizer of troubadour lyric in his review of the Paden and Paden translation of the same poetry. Merwin had a very long career as a translator of world poetry—he turned the Satires of Persius, the Song of Roland, Dante’s Purgatorio, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Cid, poems by Pablo Neruda, Osip Mandelstam, and Muso Soseki, and more into English.
More importantly for readers of Tenso, he composed The Mays of Ventadorn, described by Taylor as a “livre de voyage” written for the National Geographic Society in 2001 (Merwin, L’Appel, 83). The work was summarized by Peter Ricketts in these words (Review of Les Fleurs, 97):
Merwin’s book … gives an account of the castle of Ventadorn, seen by him as a center of inspiration. There is, however, behind the castle, which dominates the work, a complex network of influences, which start with Ezra Pound and his advice to the young Merwin to go back to the source of poetry, the troubadours. Next, is Merwin’s voyage to Europe and his subsequent purchase [End Page 307] of a house in a small village in Quercy, and, lastly, the fascination with trobar, on which the Western poetic and musical tradition is based. At the same time, he discovers Occitan, and a village life, almost petrified and marked by its links to a distant past, then, after many years of absence in the United States, his return, when he finds that the civilization of which he had had a last glimpse, had died.
The Mays of Ventadorn was considered so important to an appreciation of troubadour lyric that Luc de Goustine translated it for French readers as Les Fleurs de mai de Ventadorn.
As Ezra Pound made troubadour poetry new again, so did W. S. Merwin, whose death we signal in the pages of Tenso.