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BlOomsbury Review
MAY/JUNE 2008

Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry
from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond
edited by Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal, Ravi Shankar
W.W. Norton & Co.

New European Poets
edited by Wayne Miller, Kevin Prufer
Graywolf Press

BY RAY GONZALEZ

These two anthologies of world poetry in translation, spanning 1,200 pages are massive in content and scope. They cover major geographic regions of the globe, with more than 500 poets represented and perhaps 95 percent of them unknown to English readers. For poetry lovers who use anthologies as encyclopedias and as kaleidoscopes of surprise, these books are a treasure. For those who conduct deeper studies of poetic movements and styles worldwide, these are breathtaking volumes, but the huge number of poets included makes it more difficult to understand what is happening today with poetry in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. As an experienced anthologist I say this because of choices I had to make when I did anthologies in the past. As an editor, should I include as much good work as I can find, even if it means only one or two poems per contributor? Or do I limit the number of writers, so each one can have more poems, thus giving the reader a deeper look at each poet? The editors of these new volumes have chosen hundreds of new poets to show the range of styles across the continents and, despite the overwhelming cast, have presented two of the most dynamic and overpowering anthologies to appear in a long time.

Language for a New Century offers a different perspective on areas of the world that too often appear on the daily news because of violent events. By presenting the vital poetic character of these places, the editors give English readers more to think about when it comes to Sudan, Syria, Iran, Cambodia, and 55 other Eastern countries. The poems are arranged thematically, with topics rising from childhood experiences to religion and family. Insightful essays by the editors open each section and are helpful in setting the context for the dense sequence of poems.

One interesting aspect of this anthology is the inclusion of almost 100 U.S. poets, all descendants of families from the various countries represented. This brings up the debate over whether poets writing in the U.S. regardless of their background, have a totally different approach to poetry than poets who live and write in other countries. In other words, is their work too “Americanized”? Most of the U.S. poets included have built their reputations in the U.S., and for some their careers would not be possible outside of the frantic “publish as much as you can” atmosphere of the domestic poetry scene. Perhaps a true anthology from the Eastern regions would exclude U.S. poets.

Among many memorable, important poets are Hsia Yu (Taiwan), Grieve Patel (India), Noozar Elias (Afghanistan), Majorie Evasco (Philippines), and Alvin Pang (Singapore). An exiting exercise is to find numerous individual poems from previously unknown poets and speculate as to whether any of them will have full-length books translated into English. This type of anthology is a translator’s paradise for future work and includes fine translations by Martha Collins, Marilyn Hacker, Samuel Hazo, Pierre Joris, and others who have worked in these regions before.

New European Poets may be the most vital collection of its kind since Willis Barnstone’s groundbreaking and long out-of-print Modern European Poetry of the early 1970s. It is uncomfortable to read a collection of European poet that does not include masters like Paul Celan, Anna Akmatova, Federico Garcia Lorca, Eugenio Montale, or Czeslaw Milosz. Yes, it is a new century and this is a book of poets born after 1970, but the shadows of the powerful masters will be hard to shake. European poetry was the foundation for the rise of world poetry and the proliferation of translations into English in the sixties and seventies. Many English readers turn to European poets first when they seek poetry outside of the U.S. so this new anthology should have a large audience. Yet the young American editors admit in their introduction that their generation of poets has lost touch with many of their European peers. Unlike older generations of U.S. poets who were highly influenced by Garcia Lorca or Milosz, perhaps younger American poets have been hurt by the highly incestuous and self-promoting atmosphere that has dominated the U.S. poetry scene in recent years.

Influence is an argument in itself, and it is only fair to give this new wave of Europeans a chance to establish themselves. There are many outstanding, stunning poets here. Like the Asian book, this volume requires patience of the reader as it unveils sequence after sequence from dozens of countries whose younger writers show both independent styles and new ways of preserving the rich poetic traditions of their homelands. Despite its size, the anthology often includes several poems by one contributor—a decision made by several regional editors invited to find the new work. Amazing and wonderful poems come from Rui Pires Cabral (Portugal), Maurizio Cucchi (Italy), Marigo Alexopoulou (Greece), and Andras Petocz (Hungary), among others. This anthology is also hard to put down: an experienced poetry reader, appreciating foreign poems in translation, initially wants to identify or relate to a style seen before, but this group of poets is already going in new directions. New European Poets will break new ground for translation and for shifting attention back to the grand European tradition—a timeless dimension of poetry whose vibrancy is vital in keeping global writing connected.

One interesting side note: Both anthologies include poetry from Turkey. Language for a New Century promotes itself as a contemporary collection, though it includes the grand Turkish master Nazim Hikmet, one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, who died in the early sixties after 13 years in exile. New European Poets includes several Turkish poets but excludes Hikmet. Go figure. And, while you formulate infinite connections between the masters and the young, enjoy these monumental accomplishments from a group of committed editors and publishers, because Language for a New Century and New European Poets are proof that American poetry can only sustain itself when it acknowledges that the origins of timeless poetry lie elsewhere.