Nicholas Birns Reviews Another English: Anglophone Poems from Around the World

By | 1 February 2015

Todd Swift’s Canadian section repeats the pattern of the others so far: starting off with old-timers who either have a world reputation or should (Margaret Avison, P. K. Page, A. M. Klein) before going on to a poet more famous as a novelist (Margaret Atwood) and some mid-career luminaries (George Elliott Clarke, Steven Heighton, Christian Bök) of widely different regional, ethnic, and stylistic dispositions. It is a tough challenge for Swift to at once give, as he puts it, ‘Fifteen Essential Canadian Poems in English’, that also provide a sense of Canada as a nation … but his selections do this, from Avison’s ‘Snow,’ where ‘Sedges and wild rice/chase rivery pewter;’ (231) to Clarke on Whylah Falls, ‘Selah, I tell myself when I come to Whylah Falls/To spy the river crocheted with apple blossoms;’ (239) to (veering from physical to psychological vistas) Klein’s lengthy, poignant, and masterful ‘Portrait Of The Poetic as Landscape’, ending ‘in his secret shines/Like phosphorus. At the bottom of the sea’ (250). As with the Slessor lines I envy the reader encountering the Klein ending for the first time.

Younger poets such as Sina Queyras, Jason Guriel, and Adeena Karasick, as well as those mentioned in Cordite 48.1: CANADA, might have been included, but Swift’s selection is nimble and gratifying. I especially like the way he includes Mary Dalton and David McGimpsey – mid-career poets just now coming in to the notice they deserve telling us what is important in them, Newfoundland-Irish lyricism and breezy Montréal pop-colloquialism respectively – while giving us poems that briskly exemplify these traits. I assume Swift’s reference to Justin Bieber as being an example of ‘Canadian couture making great leaps outward’ (336) is tongue in cheek.

As mentioned, the Caribbean section acknowledges a multiplicity of island nations, and several other poets who supervise sections from their own nations assist Ishion Hutchinson as curator here. The overall pattern of the other sections is conformed to: we have senior figures such as Edward Baugh, from Jamaica, with his winsome ‘the Carpenter’s Complaint’

             That bwoy have to learn
That a man have pride. But bless mi days!
Good enough to build the house that him live in,
But not good enough hot make him coffin! (42)

followed by some other well-known names in Olive Senior and Derek Walcott, followed by mid-career poets like Kendel Hippolyte from St. Lucia and Lorna Goodison from Jamaica, who delights in the crisscross of language in the name of the Maroon town Accompong in ‘To Us, All Flowers Are Roses’

Accompong is Ashanti, root, Nyamekopon
Appropriate name. Accompong, meaning
Warrior to lone one. Accompong,
Home to bushmasters, bushmasters being
Maroons, maroons dwell in dense places (43)

The late Guyanese poet Mahadai Das’s shaped poem about the travails of colonial migration was new to me and I very much enjoyed discovering her work.

The South Africa section is as varied and pleasing as most of the others, concentrating, like the Ghana one, on poets born in the 1940s and 1950s, like Jeremy Cronin, the too early-lost Arthur Nortje, Ingrid de Kok, and Kelwyn Sole. These poets display South Africa’s ethnic and experiential diversity at the same time as they show an introspective side to the country’s turbulent and often tragic experience. Peter Horn’s ‘Plumstead Elegies’ was a great discovery for me from this section:

Men of this town, why are we winter sad?
Have we not, like migrating birds,
Communicated our intention? (96)

Where Another English runs aground (to continue with Mahadai Das’s nautical metaphor) is on the India section as it lacks the documentation and background given by the other regional curators (other than Les Murray whose age and eminence excuse him from this duty). In addition, it departs from the norm set up and adhered to by the other sections – even by the idiosyncratic Murray – of starting with the old master or two, progressing to poets in their prime and perhaps giving a peak at the emergent generation. Instead, the India section is totally dominated by Generation X poets, born in the 1960s and 1970s. All the poets included are accomplished, especially Michelle Cahill, Arundhathi Subramaniam, and Amit Chaudhuri, the latter best known as a novelist and essayist, but even in their generation there are others that should have been in: Jerry Pinto, Menka Shivdasani, and, urgently, Ranjit Hoskote. Even more, the India section should have matched the senior eminences included by all the other editors.

Even if such once-lauded figures as Dom Moraes and Nissim Ezekiel might seem a bit shopworn now – as Todd Swift admits is true of Irving Layton, Alden Nowlan, and Milton Acorn in Canada – and even if Meena Alexander and Agha Shahid Ali are excluded because of expatriation (yet then why include Walcott and Brathwaite in the Caribbean section), Jayanta Mahapatra, Keki N. Daruwalla, Gieve Patel, Adil Jussawalla, Saleem Peeradina, Santan Rodrigues, Arun Kolatkar, and Manohar Shetty all should have been in. Yes, recent anthologies by Jeet Thayil and Bhisham Bherwani give us most of these, but within the book under discussion, considering the great modern masters of all the other Anglophone literatures addressed therein are honored, surely the same should be true in India?

This is particularly regrettable because India, given its size and influence, is a major part of world literature in English. It is regrettable because, as Jahan Ramazani has noted, postcolonial poetry in English lags far behind the visibility of the postcolonial novel. It is with respect to India particularly that Ramazani’s plaint rings true, as any literate person can rattle off the names of fifteen living Indian or Indian-diaspora novelists, but few could name even one such poet. Barnett and Yanique’s anthology is designed to introduce the Anglophone lyric to those already familiar with Anglo-American poetry; but it is, just as much, to get the enthusiastic reader of postcolonial novels enthusiastic about postcolonial poetry. The Indian section does not choose to take up this mission.

I admire the fact that this anthology is willing to leave so much out. It makes the book supple, portable, and negotiable. As Todd Swift says of Canadian poetry, many door-stop size anthologies have been produced in the past ten years, precisely to voice Canadian literary aspirations in the US and UK, to little actual affect. Admirable but overstuffed anthologies from Australia and New Zealand have met the same fate. So the discipline, the willingness to choose decisively that Barnett and Yanique have shown is to be applauded. That this book was produced as part of the Poets In The World series, curated by the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute of the Poetry Foundation, and thus has a semi-official imprimatur from the heart of the US poetry world, should call for high standards and idiosyncratic taste (and Another English has this) spotlights the quirkiness of the Indian section as a notable drawback. As it is, Barnett and Yanique have produced a book that will give any new reader access to important poems, and that is to be celebrated.

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