Category Archives: W. S. Merwin

Juxtaposed: Merwin and Atwood

I like juxtaposing these two short poems because they both take familiar (and similar) images and turn them on their heads, and yet do so to opposite effects and purposes:


Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

— W. S. Merwin

From The Moving Target (1963).

you fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye

— Margaret Atwood

From Power Politics (1971).

More background, and other poems:


Translation: Osip Mandelstam

Should translations of rhyming poetry also rhyme? Below are two translations of the same poem—the second of which makes much use of full and slant rhymes. Is one a better poem? Is one more accurate? Does one demonstrate greater skill in translation? (I don’t know!)

The Age
Translated by Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin

My animal, my age, who will ever be able
to look into your eyes?
Who will ever glue back together the vertebrae
of two centuries with his blood?
Blood the maker gushes
from the throats of the things of earth.
Already the hanger-on is trembling
on the sills of days to come.

Blood the maker gushes
from the throats of the things of earth
and flings onto a beach like a burning fish
a hot sand of sea-bones,
and down from the high bird-net,
out of the wet blocks of sky
it pours, pours, heedlessly
over your death-wound.

Only a metal the flute has melted
will link up the strings of days
until a time is torn out of jail
and the world starts new.
The age is rocking the wave
with human grief
to a golden beat, and an adder
is breathing in time with it in the grass.

The buds will go on swelling,
the rush of green will explode,
but your spine has been shattered,
my splendid derelict, my age.
Cruel and feeble, you’ll look back
with the smile of a half-wit:
an animal that could run once,
staring at his own tracks.

— Osip Mandelstam

Written in 1923. Translation from The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam.
The Age
Translator unknown

My beast, my age, who will try
to look you in the eye,
and weld the vertebrae
of century to century,
with blood? Creating blood
pours out of mortal things:
only the parasitic shudder,
when the new world sings.

As long as it still has life,
the creature lifts its bone,
and, along the secret line
of the spine, waves foam.
Once more life’s crown,
like a lamb, is sacrificed,
cartilage under the knife –
the age of the new-born.

To free life from jail,
and begin a new absolute,
the mass of knotted days
must be linked by means of a flute.
With human anguish
the age rocks the wave’s mass,
and the golden measure’s hissed
by a viper in the grass.

And new buds will swell, intact,
the green shoots engage,
but your spine is cracked
my beautiful, pitiful, age.
And grimacing dumbly, you writhe,
look back, feebly, with cruel jaws,
a creature, once supple and lithe,
at the tracks left by your paws.

— Osip Mandelstam

Giorgio Agamben discusses this poem in his essay “What is the Contemporary?,” using yet another translation (of which excerpts can be read).

Here’s a translation of an earlier version of this poem.

More background, and other poems: