While I must admit to having read none of Merwin’s poetry, I found myself quite curious about his book, The Mays of Ventadorn; since encountering the most famous of the songs of Bernart de Ventadorn, I have always considered him my favorite troubadour. (And while this is not unusual–Bernart was something of a rockstar in his day, and is well-remembered today–I was pleased to discover that my fascination was shared by Merwin.)
This book was published by National Geographic Directions, and is part of a series titled The Literary Travel Series, a job for which Merwin is well-suited, having spent many years in Southern France and specifically in the land of Occitania, where the troubadours flourished a little less than a millennium ago. As a “literary travel” book, it combines some discussion of the literature for which the region is famous, namely the songs of the troubadours, with some historical research and Merwin’s personal anecdotes about the region.
This could, very easily, have made for an uneasy mixture, or a garish one, but I found Merwin’s book a wonderful read: thoughtful and detailed, sensitive to the language of the work he studied and to the landscape he describes, conscious and interested in the blank spaces which constitute much of what we still don’t know about the lives of the troubadours. There is a love of Occitania evident in the text, without indulging in nostalgia or too much romanticization… there is some, but it is appropriate and lovely, as the tales spun by Merwin are increasingly bound to the ruins of Château Ventadour.
What I liked the most, though, was all of the historical narrative bound up in the geographic travels–the tales of the troubadours of the area, with all their (admitted) fancies and half-truths and secrets still secret; this, in a book that began by telling of a young man who met old Ezra Pound while he was still at St. Elizabeth’s, and who, in traveling to Southern France, ended up becoming a poet and man of letters himself.
Recommended, to those few out there to whom this sounds intriguing interesting.
(And yeah, I picked up the book because of my Pound reading project… but an interest in Pound is quite unnecessary to enjoy the book.)