And if the song is sung truly

From The Selected Poems of Osip Mandlestam (NYRB edition translated by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin, no.54 of the selection from Stone):

Poison in the bread, the air drunk dry.
Hard to doctor the wounds.
Joseph sold into Egypt
greived no more bitterly for home.

Bedouins under the stars
close their eyes, sitting their horses,
and improvise songs
out of the troubles of the day.

No lack of subject:
one lost a quiver in the sand,
one bartered away a stallion …
the mist of events drifts away.

And if the song is sung truly,
from the whole heart, everything
at last vanishes: nothing is left
but space, the stars, the singer.

I’ll make a song of pure nothing

A poem by Guilhelm de Poitou/Guillaume IX de Poitiers/William IX, Duke of Aquitaine. He’s likely better known now as the grandfather and source of inheritance of Eleanor of Aquitaine but he was also the first of the troubadours (or at least first whose works at all survived). Here first is W.S. Merwin’s translation (from Mays of Ventadourn, pg 99-100).

I’ll make a song of pure nothing,
not about me or another being,
not about love or being young
or anything.
It came to me while I was sleeping
on my horse riding.

The hour I was born is unknown to me.
I am not happy nor unhappy,
neither aloof nor friendly,
and the choice is not mine:
I am what a fairy made me
at night on a mountain.

I cannot say whether I
am asleep or awake. Somebody tell me.
My heart is nearly broken by
a pain I feel
for which I will not even sigh,
by St. Martial.

I’m sick and fear that I will die
and all I know if it is hearsay.
I want a doctor who pleases me
I don’t know who.
He’ll be good if he can cure me;
if it gets worse, no.

I have a lover I don’t know.
Never saw her. No use to.
No good or ill to me did she do
that I could notice
nor ever was Norman or Frenchman who
was in my house.

I never saw her but love her warmly.
I was never right and she never wronged me.
When I don’t see her I manage nicely,
don’t give a rooster.
I know one with more charm and beauty,
and her better.

I’ve made the verse, whose is unknown,
and I’ll give it to that one
who’ll pass it on to someone
going toward Anjou
so she’ll send back a countersign
in his portmanteau.

And here is the original in Occitan, which is far less terrifyingly odd than first appears if you set it alongside a French translation. But I include it more as textual accompaniment to this performance. I imagine the music is an educated approximation.

Farai un vers de dreit nien,
Non er de mi ni d’autra gen,
Non er d’amor ni de joven,
Ni de ren au,
Qu’enans fo trobatz en durmen
Sus un chivau.

No sai en qual hora-m fui natz,
No soi alegres ni iratz,
No soi estranhs ni soi privatz,
Ni no-n puesc au,
Qu’enaisi fui de nueitz fadatz
Sobr’un pueg au.

No sai cora-m fui endormitz,
Ni cora-m veill, s’om no m’o ditz!
Per pauc no m’es lo cor partitz
D’un dol corau,
E no m’o pretz una fromitz,
Per saint Marsau!

Malautz soi e cremi morir,
E re no sai mas quan n’aug dir.
Metge querrai al mieu albir,
E no-m sai cau:
Bos metges er si-m pot guerir,
Mas non, si-m mau.

Amigu’ ai ieu, non sai qui s’es,
C’anc no la vi, si m’aiut fes,
Ni-m fes que-m plassa ni que-m pes,
Ni no m’en cau
C’anc non ac Norman ni Franses
Dins mon ostau.

Anc non la vi et am la fort,
Anc no-n aic dreit ni no-m fes tort;
Quan no la vei, be m’en deport,
No-m prez un jau,
Qu’ie-n sai gensor e belazor,
E que mai vau.

Fait ai lo vers, no sai de cui,
Et trametrai lo a celui
Que lo-m trameta per autrui,
Enves Peitau,
Que-m tramezes del sieu estui
La contraclau.

Read seeds not twigs

From W.S. Merwin’s The Mays of Ventadorn – his meeting Ezra Pound as a young college student (with Pound still locked in St. Elizabeth’s).

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 write 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. The Provencal is the real source. The poets are closest to music. They hear it. They write to it. Try to learn the Provencal, at least some of it, if you can. Meanwhile, the others. Spanish is all right. The Romancero is what you want there. 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.”
[afterwards] we managed to maintain a flurry of correspondence for a while. He sent me bits of gnomic instruction on post cards, always scrawled in pencil, the handwriting clearly reflecting his quick impulsiveness. The most memorable of them read, in full, “Read seeds not twigs EP.”

A robe of flowers from Arashiyama

From The Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson, translated by W.S. Merwin and Takako Lento. The selection includes a full thirty or so on cherry blossoms, a few of which I give in honor of the approaching season.


Cherry petals float down behind him

Landing on

A monk’s heavy knapsack


A storm of cherry blossoms settles

On a raft pilot’s straw rain cape

A robe of flowers from Arashiyama


Courtesans come out

To see the cherry blossoms

As though they were betting on their next life


I’ve come here to see the flowers

And I nod off among the cherry blossoms

Sleepy for a moment

I left my locked mouth hanging on the wall

Some more of Muso Soseki in W.S. Merwin and Soiku Shigematsu’s translation Sun at Midnight.  

[I’ve discovered that this site reformats my line spacing – indentation on the second and double indentation on the third of every three-line verse – but I haven’t the energy to look into ways of overriding this]


All on my own I’m happy
in the unmapped landscape
inside the bottle
my only friend
is this
wisteria cane
Last night
we stayed up talking
so late
that I’m afraid
I was overheard
by the empty sky

No-Word Hut

I left my locked mouth
on the wall
With the brushwood
door shut tight
I delight in my own freedom
my secret talk resounds
like thunder
Even the bare
posts and the lamps
can’t pretend they don’t hear

Hut in Harmony

When the master
without a word
raises his eyebrows
the posts and rafters
the cross-beams and roof-tree
begin to smile
There is another place
for conversing
heart to heart
The full moon
and the breeze
at the half-open window

Forced to become pygmies in order to find room in Pandemonium

From Chamfort’s Maximes et Pensees, number 65 in my edition. I’ll first give W.S. Merwin’s rendering even though I very much feel he improves the thought by mistranslation:

Men becomes little as they become alike. They are Milton’s devils, forced to become pygmies in order to find room in Pandemonium.

Les hommes deviennent petits en se rassemblant ; ce sont les diables de Milton, obligés de se rendre pygmées, pour entrer dans le Pandémonium.

I can find no dictionary entry for ‘rassembler’ as resemble, which is where Merwin’s ‘become alike’ has to have originated. Unless there is an alternate reading of ‘ressembler’ not given in my Folio Classique edition.  More accurate to my text but less well phrased would be:

Men become small as they are gathered together – they are Milton’s devils, forced to make themselves pygmies in order to enter Pandemonium.

The distinction I’m making is that Merwin’s version is rosier than the original. By his rendering, reduction of personhood/character/etc. is a product of assimilation, not of the act of gathering together. This would seem to leave open the possibility that one could exist in a social context without being reduced by it (provided you didn’t ‘become like’ your peers). But Chamfort – as I read him at least – makes that reduction an automatic byproduct of all existence in a social context – that we in our totalities and potentialities are necessarily diminished by being crammed against one another.

My failing, and the frailty of wayward flesh

From Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (beinning ~2430) in the W.S. Merwin translation – which I much preferred to the Armitage I read last year.

“But your belt,” Gawain said, “God reward you for it!
I will be glad to wear it, not for the gold on it,
Nor the sash itself, nor the silk, nor the pendants around it,
Nor its value, nor the honor in it, nor the glorious workmanship,
But I shall look at it often to remind me of my wrongdoing.
When I ride in triumph remorse will recall to me
My failing, and the frailty of wayward flesh,
How easily it is splashed with stains that defile it.
And so when pride from prowess at arms stirs me,
The sight of this love token will humble my heart.

‘Bot your gordel’, quoþ Gawayn, ‘God yow forзelde!
þat wyl I welde wyth guod wylle, not for þe wynne golde,
Ne þe saynt, ne þe sylk, ne þe syde pendaundes,
For wele ne for worchyp, ne for þe wlonk werkkez,
Bot in syngne of my surfet I schal se hit ofte,
When I ride in renoun, remorde to myseluen
þe faut and þe fayntyse of þe flesche crabbed,
How tender hit is to entyse teches of fylþe;
And þus, quen pryde schal me pryk for prowes of armes,
þe loke to þis luf-lace schal leþe my hert.