By Peter Riley.
The World Record
International voices from Southbank Centre’s Poetry Parnassus
Edited by Neil Astley and Anna Selby.
Bloodaxe Books 2012. 360pp, £10.00.
‘POETRY PARNASSUS’ WAS a six-day poetry festival at London’s Southbank Centre in June. It was a very ambitious project conceived by Simon Armitage and Jude Kelly, to invite one poet from each nation taking part in the Olympic Games, thus an enormous gathering of “poets of the world” of which The World Record, which contains 204 poets, is the accompanying anthology.
I was able to be at the event for an hour and a half on my way to something else in the neighbourhood on the afternoon of the penultimate day. Having read carefully the publicity for the event I was at once struck by two things. Firstly, although there is mention of poetry being “one of the most democratic of art forms” (I don’t know why that should be so), it was immediately evident that not all the poets of the world have the same status. Some got to read in the real auditoria of the complex, and you had to pay to hear them, up to £35. These were the special poets – mostly top sellers and prize-winners in U.K. The rest of the poets, which was the vast majority, gave free readings in various foyers and open spaces in which they had to contend with interference from external noise and activity, such as a large and busy bar, as well as a general feeling of camping. The other thing was that although there was supposed to be one poet each of some 200 nationalities, there were evidently plenty of back doors through which British poets could get in on the show, sessions promoted by various book and magazine publishers and organisations, probably not officially within Poetry Parnassus but on the ground very much a part of it and included in the brochure. These had an international content at the discretion of the editors but I reckon that in all some 15 to 20 “extra” British poets took part, some of them (Armitage, Motion and Muldoon) doing extended solo sessions or lectures. I can’t help wondering whether all 200 poets democratically got the same fee, but as there’s no information available on that let’s assume they did.
There was also, of course, quite a lot of tomfoolery, as you’d expect, mostly in the form of participatory sessions aside from the main menu in which people played fun and games with poetry. Here’s one of them:
Saturday, 6pm-9pm. POETRY PYJAMA PARTY
Bring your own torch, some pjs and a copy of The World Record Anthology, then crawl under a blanket and read along with poets by torchlight. Bed sheets provided. (Free).
I have known poets to crawl under a blanket with whom would be an extremely dangerous proposition for almost anybody. Less threatening games included “edible poetry” (a kind of cookery class), a mock poetry exam, a fast reading competition, the “Poetry Takeaway” (poems written for you on the spot) and so on. Of course these are all fun and if you complain about fun you’re a dreadful killjoy, even if fun is capable of destroying cultures. The various sessions of rap and slam poetry and poetry with jazz or other kinds of band would to me have been a great relief after all this bourgeois fun.
But in the short time I was there I heard a poet who I thought was a real discovery. This was the Jamaican Ishion Hutchinson, at a reading for The Wolf magazine (which somehow got two of the extra sessions during the week). I at once thought I was hearing poetry of an enticing and rich seriousness, a finely tuned harmony of narrative and lyrical. I was so impressed that I bought his book.1 Sandeep Parmar was in the same reading (see my previous “Poetry Notes – Books Received” in Fortnightly Review ). But neither of them is in the anthology.
THE ANTHOLOGY, ONE poem by each of 204 poets from 204 nations, makes very big claims for itself, which any realistic consideration of the editorial process, that is, the sources of information required for such an exercise, will at once cast doubt on. Whatever treasures lie hidden in this book I think it’s necessary to begin by pointing out what it isn’t.
It is not a guide to or sampler of world poetry; it is not “a snapshot or cross-section of global poetry”. It does not “uncover the world”. You cannot here “discover the world” through its poets. The poetry does not “cross all international barriers” (these phrases are all from the blurb and introductions). In fact it is not a world anything; the concept “world” is quite irrelevant to this collection, as it is to the market known as “world music”. It is no more than a gaudy framework on which is hung a heterogeneous collection of poems, good bad and indifferent among them, whose presence was dictated largely by available resources and the taste of the two editors (“we identified […] poets […] whose work excited us”). It is surely obvious when you look at familiar areas, Britain, U.S.A. France, Germany, Italy… and see that out of all the possibilities of current activity, each is represented by one poem (poems moreover rather similar to each other), that no representation is taking place at all, and why should it be any different for Djibouti? Yet representation is presented as the raison d’être of the book.
From far distant and, to us, remote places one might reasonably expect difference. But when I attempt to survey the contents of the book, the impression I get is of a lack of variety. It is difficult to generalise, but again and again poets from far and near, and from greatly differing cultural contexts, after they have been fed through the editorial filtering processes seem to be united in writing a poetry of prosaic declaration, generally personal and/or political, close to the most popular forms of poetry in England. The declaration is more often than not dispassionate, as is the fashion here, though sometimes a form of protest is encountered which is indeed passionate, without becoming highly individuated. It is as if a world-wide culture has sprung up in poetry which whatever the traditions of particular zones were at one time, now produces a very straightforward poetry of declarations, accounts, confessions, etc., free from interference from poetical forms, highly figurative or imaginative language, word-play or phonetic play, syntactical unorthodoxy, difficulty, literary reference, landscape, and in some cases quite free from any concept of beauty in the idea of what is a poem. Many amount to plain histories of the defeated self, especially in exile.
AMONG 204 POETS there are of course many exceptions to this, and the fact that a number of them are essentially performance poets of one kind or another, sometimes coming directly from an aural tradition, whose works are perhaps less happy in print than in the air, must add to this sense of an ubiquitous belief in direct explicatory address as the essential mode of poetry.
And of course there is the question of translation, a problem which is rather skated over. In fact quite a lot of the poetry was written in English but otherwise it is assumed that translation effects a pure transition, that you “get” the poem in translation as you would if you knew the original language. Probably you do sometimes, especially with poems of prosaic declaration, and there are some poets who just seem to “translate themselves” in the sense that the poems are so strong that the translator can hardly seem to go wrong (e.g. in my experience Rilke, Mandelstam, Bobrowski, Lorca). But if we are fully dependent on translation how can we expect to experience the full impact of a poetical intervention into language, how can we recognise freshness and accuracy achieved by a slight shift from normal discourse, or faint echo of predecessors, values of rhythmical movement… Are we not in constant danger of losing whatever subtlety the poem has? This is not of course a problem with prosaic declaration etc., which doesn’t have any. But I’d be inclined to worry about poems from places with a rich classical tradition or a more recent reputation for distinguished modern poets.
To check on this I surveyed separately the poems from four areas of the world where I would have expected to see the results of such poetical traditions, to see if they differed from the run of the world stuff and showed truly poetical qualities emerging from the translation, and here is what I found:
Caribbean. Most poems written in English so none of the translation problems. Dominant mode: prosaic declaration, etc., tending to a rather ponderous way of dealing with the self and the generality. Cuba no exception here, but the Cuban poet lives in London anyway. Some poems in patois but never too strong. Effective poems showing personal experience of cultural contrast came from Jamaica, St Kitts-Nevis, Grenada and US Virgin Islands. But I saw nothing as good as Ishion Hutchinson.
Arabic. Mere traces of the vast classical tradition in pieces of prosaic verse tempered with light figuration and poise. Outright prosaic for political protest. Good poems from Oman, Lebanon and Kuwait, owing something, I think, to the passionate richness of Darwish but little to the passionate experimentation of Adonis. A very nice prose piece by the London-Jordanian Amjad Nasser.
Latin America. Dominant mode: prosaic declaration, etc. The rich surrealist legacy surfaces, becoming rather mechanical. The poetry generally more literary or constructed than many other zones. Impressive pieces from Mexico, Guatemala, Dominican Republic.
Eastern Europe. Dominant mode: prosaic declaration, etc. Again with a ‘literary’ leaning – in fact several poets seeming to make a point of displaying their familiarity with modern European classics. Strong stuff from Albania, Armenia, Latvia and Romania (an enlivened version of the rather mechanical joke surrealism translators have been serving up from there lately). And on p.51 the best thing I found in this vast gallimaufry, “People Talking” by the Bosnia and Herzegovinian Adisa Bašić. This is a found poem consisting of seven brief quotations from survivors of the Srebrenica massacre, apparently collected by the poet herself, delicately lineated judging by the translation, and a refreshing piece of objectivity in contrast to the many subjectified protest poems in the book—
I know who killed my wife and
I know, one of them came back.
Opened a bakery.
But I make sure
I never buy anything there.
All my zonal categorisations above are, of course, untrustworthy, being based on one poem from each nation in each zone.
THE ‘BIOGRAPHICAL NOTES’ section at the back, which is of course enormous, proved to be the most thought-provoking part of the book. There are far more nations in the world than most people realise; most of them are small, and most of them are former colonies now independent. But cultural independence does not necessarily follow from political independence and it is obvious from the careers outlined in these notes that to gain eminence in poetry in these places often means directing your energies outside your country, usually to the former colonial base. Thus a remarkably high proportion of the poets of Poetry Parnassus turn out to live in Britain (secondarily U.S.A.), temporarily or permanently, quite a lot of them writing in English.
This must have greatly eased the editorial process, though I don’t know if it qualifies as corner-cutting – it must anyway have been an unbelievable headache to make this compilation. The quantity of poets employed by universities, usually western universities and often in professorships, is also high – a condition I thought was mainly that of American poetry. In fact, most of the poets from small and post-colonial countries are career internationalists, floating all over the world from post to post, festival to festival, conference to conference, and few seem to live permanently in the countries they represent; in some cases you wonder whether they ever visit home. It seems that few of these countries are culturally self-contained; higher education seems for many of them to take place in U.S.A. or the former European colonial capital. The list also mentions hundreds of prizes, most poets having won a bunch of them, and many of the prizes are awarded from the west.
To make matters worse, an ever increasing number of countries, not necessarily either small or post-colonial, seem to suffer from political repression and/or unbearable living conditions (now add Greece) and many of the poets collected here fled into exile. Such poets are favoured here, the notes taking a pride in our having rescued them, which is no doubt a very western view of the situation in many places, though not necessarily unjustified.
So there is an impression of an international floating poetry elite focused on the west, which must go to explain a certain standardisation of procedure in the anthology. Even the ‘Russian’ poet lives in U.S.A. and writes in English. The only time the notes make you anticipate something entirely foreign is when the poet is or has been a state official, ambassador, or the actual president, or when there appears to be no tradition of written poetry in the country at all, and these are both very rare. With however many exceptions, there is a distinct impression that if this is ‘world poetry’ we are mainly getting our own poetry back from all over the world.
THIS ANTHOLOGY IS a kind of lucky-dip. You may get a certain amount of information out of it, but you’ll need luck. You may discover beautiful poems from places you’ve never heard of (I didn’t do very well in this pursuit). If you’re the kind of enthusiast who buys anything with a poem by Seamus Heaney in it, be warned that it is a short poem reprinted from his Open Ground (1998). If you share the editors’ enthusiasm for poems of political, social or gender protest there is plenty of meat for you here, if all rather standard produce. Finally, apart from Adisa Bašić’s poem and, I think, thirty or forty seemingly impressive performances from here there and everywhere, I give my personal prize to the Romanian Doina Ioanid for the best of the several hundred book titles listed at the back – ‘Ritmuri de îmblânzit aricoaica’ – Chants for Taming the Hedgehog Sow2 (2010).
Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry – and some of prose. His latest book is The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet, 2011). He lives in Cambridge and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.