Ryan Scott Reviews New European Poets

19 October 2009

New European Poets edited by Kevin Prufer and Wayne Miller
Graywolf Press, 2008

The editors of New European Poets have made their intentions quite clear. They aim to reinvigorate the transatlantic conversation between American and European poets. Such an ambitious task is not without compromise. In order to achieve their aim, the editors have had to set some constraints, some they admit are arbitrary. The final anthology then is one that sparkles with the brilliance of many poems, but which can only hint at the broader context from which they emerged.

To give space to a younger generation of poets, whom they felt were being neglected, the editors selected 1970 as the cutoff date; poets who were considered had to have a volume published after this date. This decision speaks volumes of the practical considerations which go into making an anthology of this scope. Given that the date doesn't mark a particular period in the poetry of all Europe, this decision will raise some objections, especially if important poets are excluded because of a year or two. There is no easy answer to this. The editors need to cast the net wide. Simultaneously, if they wade too far they come back with nothing.

Equally problematic was how to group the poets. To avoid alphabetisation and to maintain some geographical context, the editors settled on grouping the poets in nations and then embarking on a 'linguistic and geographic' tour of Europe. The poetic-national journey starts in on the Iberian peninsula, heads east through France and Italy the Balkans, down into Turkey, up though the Ukraine and Russia, then loops back via the Baltic states, Scandinavia, back into central and north western Europe and finishes in the British Isles. This idea has a certain charm to it, but may reinforce a false notion of national or regional homogeneity, a characteristic not found in the poetry.

Consider, for example, Italian poets Raeffaello Baldini's 'The knife' and Dario Bellazza's '[I licked you between dirty sheets]'. Both are certainly visceral, but Baldini places us in the drama of skinning a rabbit through naturalistic language: 'What is this you brought me? It doesn't cut at all. / Don't just stand there looking at me, go get me another one.' Bellazza's concerns are, however, simultaneously sexual and sublime, allowing meter and imagery to voice his longing: 'I explored your body, submerged / Refuge of my refused sex'. That the former writes in his Romagnolo dialect and the latter could be categorised as a queer poet are not the only differences. Italy, as with any other nation, is a place of poetic diversity.

Language may be a more natural categorization since poets work in language. The editors' answer to this is an appeal to common sense. Most people think in terms of nations. It is perhaps counter-intuitive to think of language regions, at least for non-specialists. Equally, language groupings can also imply a homogeneity which does not exist. We can't assume that all Francophone or Anglophone poets have any more in common than French poets or English poets.

Which brings us to the issue of the general dominance of national languages. Grouping by nation or by language would mean little change to the groupings. Except in the case of the Italian, Spanish, Finnish and Irish sections, little attention is given to dialects or minority languages. It could be that poets because of formalized education and a desire to reach a greater audience choose to write mostly in the national idiom. But were there really no Sorbian poets from Germany worth including? Where are the Hungarian poets of Romania? Not to mention Romani poetry, which cuts across national borders. The language tapestry of Europe is much richer than the impression created here.

Of course, it is important to avoid judging the anthology purely on its stated function, i.e. how well it represents the new European poetic generation. It's important to see these poems as individual works. Many of them were conceived as such, probably without the poets considering that they would one day be included in such a book. These poems are not just 'literary snapshots' but – to labour the analogy – individual portraits or landscapes or studies and should be approached as such. Consequently, a reading of this anthology invites a critical tension between the whole and the parts

When poetry is anthologized based on region it is expected that some readers will hope for an evocation of place. But not all the poets are tied to their homeland. Quite often, they write about other parts or even other histories of Europe. When poets choose to focus on home, the effects can be sublime or startling as evinced in the evocative yet emotionally separate pieces by S’pmi poet Nils Aslak Valkeap”. Valkeap”s 'Trekways of the Wind' emerges from the terrain and his engagement by mentioning yoik, a traditional type of S’pmi song:

The yoik is alive in my home
the happiness of children sounds there
herd-bells ring
dogs bark
the lasso hums

Yes, the language is simple. Nothing is unfamiliar. Yet, its simplicity and directness evokes the sparseness of his homeland. Everything stands alone, uncluttered, opening us up to the space around them.

A similarly understated approach is used by Bosnian poet, Semezdin Mehmedinovi?, though the effects don't transport us in the same way as Valkeap”'s poem. His poem 'War' creates an apparent normality out of what for many is not normal. Line by line, we are lured into an almost recognizable world of banal domesticity:

in ten years we haven't been together as much
as we have these five months –
now you've got my sweater on all day.

This poem could be seen to be about a feeling some have probably felt about a lover or a friend, until we remember that it is war that has brought the poet and his addressee together and made them closer. Such a realisation, far from romanticising war, is a solemn concession to war's capacity to shape the tiniest part of an individual's life. This melancholy of the everyday as changed by war is reinforced by the closing lines:

There isn't a single pane of glass left in the our windows
and there's just no way to get rid
of the lagging flies.

The poets presented in this anthology do not restrict themselves to the concrete and also deal with more abstract concepts and themes. Of these, the one dealt with most often, either directly or obliquely, is language. Most poems express the limitations of language. For the Portuguese poet Rui Pires Cabral, the limitations of language – in this case, of a foreign one – mean a return to an extra-linguistic state, a state Cabral calls intuition. Ukrainian poet Oksana Zabuzhko seeks expression in those languages she doesn't know, although the implication is that they will become exhausted like the ones she already calls her own. Her fellow Ukrainian Serhiy Zhadan regards the opacity as a sought of game, a means by which he can avoid expressing his feelings.

Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis treats language as material, specifically as an addictive substance. Her growth into a linguist is compared to adolescent experimentation with drugs. In 'Mother Tongue', she writes:

I started to translate in seventy-three
In the schoolyard. For a bit of fun
To begin with – the occasional 'fuck'
for the bite of another language's smoke
at the back of my throat, its bitter chemicals.
Soon I was hooked on whole sentences
behind the shed, and lessons in Welsh
seemed very boring …

… Soon I was snorting Simenon
and Flaubert. Had to read much more
for any affect. One night I OD'd
after reading far too much Proust.

In one way this is a comic and very sassy look at the perils of being a 'language addict'. What exactly does it mean to OD on Proust? Crippling asthma? A weakness for meandering sentences? The humour is in the casual speech of an everyday drug user deployed to discuss the less popular practice of language learning. Beneath the humour, there is the acknowledgment that language is a substance, one which won't necessarily lift us beyond this world but merely subjects us to a life of cravings.

Why these poets are, at best, reserved about language, or, at worst, pessimistic about it, is hard to say based on these few examples. As artists who work in language, it is understandable that from time to time they will reflect on the material of their trade. However, not all are doubtful. The Dutch poet Nachoem M. Wijnberg and the Austrian Michael Donhauser both suggest that language, especially speech, is an act of creation. Wijnberg's hope for transcendentalism is clear and elegant. In his poem 'The dream of angel', a single, potent word proves even that which isn't fully provable. Donhauser has more fun in 'The Apple'. For him, to say a word is to place the power of speech in the object, but the object is never totally of the language. Therefore, his work is resolutely playful, with object and language becoming intertwined.

For the Belorussian poet Valžyna Mort language is an impulse, which she equates to freedom. In 'Belarusian I', she writes:

and when we discovered we ourselves were the language
and our tongues were removed we started talking with our eyes
and when our eyes were pocked out we talked with our hands
and when our hands were cut off we conversed without toes
and when we were shot in the legs we nodded our heads for yes
and shook our heads for no

Perhaps, Mort does not enjoy the luxury of questioning language as many other of the European poets presented in this anthology. In her country, language remains an important avenue to expression. Maybe, this is the reason she builds such a brutal image through plain almost repetitive language. Unfortunately, the deeper implications of how different societies approach language cannot be dealt with here. What is clear from this small sample is the creative range and the works' thematic richness. Along with language they touch upon the body, spirituality, love and most significantly the self when considering language. Suffice to say, these poets illustrate that Europe does not speak with one voice.

And what about all those literally different voices that Europe speaks with? How well does the anthology capture the poetry of those languages? The honest answer is that this assessment is far beyond my linguistic knowledge. Many of the poems have been translated by the poets themselves, renowned translators of poetry such as David McDuff and Eswald Osers, or English language poets such as John Ashbery, Justin Quinn, Thomas Shapcott, Charles Simic and Derek Walcott, just to mention some of the more well-known translators. Given this talent, we have to expect that each poem was translated with care and attention to the poetic demands of individual pieces.

I stated in an earlier review that no anthology is definitive. At best, anthologies are a starting point. To return to the editors' analogy of a tour, anthologies give us a sense of the terrain. This was never going to be an easy task, but New European Poets prepares us, as any good anthology should, for exploring the terrain of contemporary European poetry.

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About Ryan Scott

Ryan Scott lives in the Czech Republic. His poems have appeared in journals and on websites from Australia, USA, UK and Switzerland.

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