Yet to Merwin’s generation of poets, Pound—who helped shape the careers of T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats and whose epic poem, The Cantos, was already becoming a sacred text—remained the very embodiment of the modern bard and America’s closest touchstone to Ovid and Dante, poets of old who had risked all for art. Pound counseled Merwin to go abroad, to find his voice, as Pound had done, by translating the work of foreign poets. Merwin listened. Over the next two decades, he lived in England, France, and Spain. He tackled the work of Federico García Lorca, Pablo Neruda, and Osip Mandelstam. He made friends with tortured lovebirds Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. He tutored Robert Graves’s son in Latin on the island of Majorca.
Most important, he proved Pound a prophet by discovering a voice as unique and prolific—and as refreshingly unadorned—as any in American poetry in the last half century. Ultimately it’s that voice—whose concern with the natural world seems prescient given the realities of climate change and the Gulf oil spill—that has secured for Merwin, here in the winter of his career, a return ticket to Washington.
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