Tropes, Translations, and the Mantra “To Listen”

Image from the Merwin Conservancy

Image from the Merwin Conservancy

Trope from the Greek tropos meaning a turning.

In Trickster Made This World, Lewis Hyde explores how the trickster is a polytropic shapeshifter (see 52–54), turning, turning, and turning again into some new form not unlike Proteus who shapeshifted into a “whiskered lion’s shape, / a serpent then; a leopard; a great boar; / then sousing water; then a tall green tree” (Homer 66).

To experience a trope, then, is to experience holding on to Proteus. In my teaching, I find myself using the above discussion, more and more, as a point of entry for students into the vast landscape of poetry and poetics. Sadly, many readers want a polytropic poem to stop turning. They want to defeat Proteus, and then have Proteus divulge the “answers” to any question asked (not unlike Menelaus and his men).

But this is a mirage of knowledge. I don’t think we can “get” a poem by making it sit still, for to “get” a poem, one must continue holding on.

As W. S. Merwin returns to the mantra of listening throughout his oeuvre, he finds new tropes and new ways of listening. In the essays that precede the sections of Selected Translations, he shares how translation enriched his poetics of listening. “The work of translation,” he writes, “did teach, in the sense of forming, and making available, ways of hearing” (171).

With all this in mind, I recently discovered one of Merwin’s translations, “Water pouring from clouds” (257), from the Sanskrit (12th century or earlier)—a language that readily lends itself to discovering new ways of hearing. As a colleague shared with me, a Sanskrit chant sends vibrations to locations of the teeth and bone structure not needed when speaking English words. Translation, then, becomes the impossible task of turning a language’s sounds into another. Another way of looking at it, though, sees the translator holding onto Proteus as one way of hearing shapeshifts into some new form.

The content of “Water pouring from clouds” includes some tropes (turnings) that further discover new ways of hearing.

[In lieu of Fair Use, I provide an audio file of my reading of the poem. Pauses indicate line breaks.]


The palm leaves become ears, and the forest listens, in its own way, to the vibrations of rain. And then, by implication the leaves turn specifically into elephant ears—or elephants could be in the forest, listening as well. The metaphor is apt—large leaves, large pachyderm ears—but I am interested more in the ways elephants write their own texts of sonorous vibrations that travel through air and along the jungle ground, and how those vibrations enter the ears of other elephants and make their way into the hippocampus (which is larger than a human’s hippocampus), and therefore into memory and dream. The trope suggests that forests, too, listen like elephants but in their own way, which is an idea one might dismiss before reading more on the fascinating findings surrounding plant intelligence.

We cannot know, fully, what it is like to listen like an elephant, or like a palm tree, or like a forest. Some of us (like me), do not know what it is like to listen to the vibrations of Sanskrit resonating through my jaw bone.

But by holding onto Proteus through these many turnings, space opens up to consider, imagine, and perhaps discover new ways of listening, which is one of Merwin’s lifelong mantras. Indeed, in Selected Translations he writes “It is love, I imagine, more than learning, that may eventually make it possible to be aware of the living resonance before it has words” (11).

His poetry and his translations invite us to make the mantra—that search for the living resonance—one of ours as well.


Works Cited

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. Print.

Lewis Hyde. Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. Print.

Merwin, W. S. Selected Translations: 1948-2011. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2013. Print.