Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry

Started reading this anthology, edited by J.D. McClatchy, some time back, and then got diverted to Nadler's biography of Spinoza, then to What I Loved, then to Vendler's Poets Thinking, then to Hard Times. It's so hard to settle on one thing, when life eddies around you. The other day I heard Nemo reading a poem at Nightingale Lounge, a poem with a brilliant iambic pentameter refrain "Widening, widening, widening," and thought about how ripples lose power as they move outwards from the dropped stone. There is a great stillness in the widening of a ripple. Does one necessarily lose energy as one takes in more of the world?

The world in the Vintage anthology comprises Europe (39 poets), the Middle East (5 poets), Africa (7 poets), Asia (12 poets), Latin America (11 poets), the Caribbean (6 poets). Do the numbers reflect the editor's knowledge or taste? If knowledge, the big factor of course is the availability of English translations, crucial in the case of non-European languages. If taste, what does the omission of Australia say?

This morning I read two poems by Hans Magnus Enzensberger (Germany, b.1929). The directness of his language appeals to me. The authoritative cadence. We are always writing our own elegies.

For the Grave of a Peace-Loving Man

This one was no philanthropist,
avoided meetings, stadiums, the large stores.
Did not eat the flesh of his own kind.

Violence walked the streets,
smiling, not naked.
But there were screams in the sky.

People's faces were not very clear.
They seemed to be battered
even before the blow had struck home.

One thing for which he fought all his life,
with words, tooth and claw, grimly,
cunningly, off his own bat:

the thing which he called his peace,
now that he's got it, there is no longer a mouth
over his bones, to taste it with.

Translated from the German by the author and Michael Hamburger


Rui said...

Michael Hamburger. Very familiar name - he translated the Celan that i'm reading now in one of my courses, and that i have totally fallen in love with. Absolutely haunting poetry, and that's just the English versions. i'm sure the original German is even more... well, even more 'more'. Words fail when talking about Celan. And i'm not just saying that cos i'm too lazy to think of the words.

Jee Leong Koh said...

I must get to Celan some time.