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75 at 75: W. S. Merwin on Jorge Luis Borges

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A special project for 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary and beyond, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to recordings from our archive and write a personal response. Here, W. S. Merwin writes about sharing the stage with Jorge Luis Borges in 1976. The reading, which featured commentary by Borges and readings from his work by Merwin, Richard Howard and Emir Rodríguez Monegal, was recorded live at 92Y on April 29, 1976.

Posted on May 1, 2015

W. S. Merwin headshot100Having been invited to send a comment on Jorge Luis Borges and the evening we shared at the Y in 1976—when Professor Emir Rodríguez Monegal read his work in Spanish, I and Richard Howard read from his work in English translation and Borges himself provided a running commentary—I find that my memory is as sharp as though it had happened only a short time ago. Even my memory of the moment captured in the photo below—Borges, in his elegant suit, speaking to me perched on the arm of the couch backstage. I remember not only the occasion but what Borges was saying to me. He had just recited, in his perfect, deliberate English, the whole of Milton’s “On His Blindness,” which Milton had written at the age of twenty four. “Ere half my days in this dark world,” he says. I had known the poem when I was some years younger than that. Milton and Shelley were the two poets I first loved when I was sixteen. But the memory of Borges’ full, deep, rough-sanded voice bringing out the words, “When I consider how my light is spent,” is to me as startling now as when I first heard it.

I read Borges’ writings as they were published in English, and I have gone on reading and re-reading him over the years and always, even works I have read many times before, with a sense of discovery of something rich and strange. No one else is like him, and, for all his vast reading, clearly he was not trying to be like anyone else. All my life—an age rich with great writing (and fraught with catastrophes)—he has been a treasure. I feel very lucky to have met him at the Y and to have had one lifelong friend, Alastair Reid, who was for many years a personal friend of his and one of his best translators. I am very happy to have this recording to go with these memories.

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W. S. Merwin and Jorge Luis Borges backstage at 92Y on April 29, 1976. Photo by Thomas Victor.

Borges1976program
The program for Jorge Luis Borges’ 92Y appearance on April 29, 1976. Woodcut by Antonio Frasconi.

W. S. Merwin’s most recent collection of poetry is The Moon Before Morning.