Don’t mistake the Painted Bride Quarterly’s “International Poetry Supplement” for another friendly exhibition of the exotic species of poetry that flourish in other countries. Instead, think of it as a kick aimed at contemporary American poetry’s corpulent ass. Years of inbreeding have produced a surfeit of lazy poems that are either too hermetic to be understood or larded with homely anecdotes that pant for readers’ sympathy. I want to wrench poets’ attention away from their own cliques and direct it toward some brave writers working outside the atomized world of American poetry—poets whose work points out paths to rejuvenation.
There may be more “poets” now than ever before, but their tendency to write for their own “schools” or scenes has diminished the art’s influence on American culture. Politicians, intellectuals, journalists, and even fiction writers and essayists, readily avow that they read little poetry and neither understand nor like what they read. Despite a glut of new volumes of poetry, newspapers and general interest magazines rarely review new poetry and almost never publish articles on even the best contemporary poets. What flourishes instead are hordes of widely ignored literary magazines, university-sponsored journals, micropresses, and webzines, all devoted to publishing the work of their editors, friends of their editors, and others who subscribe to their particular poetic theories.
What unites the work of the writers featured in this supplement isn’t an aesthetic program, or an academic affiliation, but boldness. If you have gotten used to the competent but dull work that clogs many literary magazines, you may be startled by the chances these poets take. Their poems are driven by strong feelings rather than the desire to fit into a particular tradition or “school.” Instead of endless chains of allusions or in-group references, you will find an array of original images—proof that these poets intend to reach as large an audience as possible.
Nearly two years ago, when PBQ first decided to publish an international poetry supplement, senior editor Daniel Nester and I immediately decided that we needed to talk to Bob Holman, the American poet most committed to bringing vivid, living poetry (and, in particular, international poetry) to a mass audience. While other poets bitched impotently about the power of the media, Bob had the guts to put poetry on television, liberating it from its academic ghetto. His widely praised (and just as roundly condemned for its allegedly “slick” production values) PBS series television The United States of Poetry was the biggest of invasion of the airwaves poets have ever staged. Millions watched as poems were read, shouted, and sung by rock stars, Nobel Laureates, and complete unknowns.
For more than three years, I worked with Bob and co-producer Josh Blum on an even more ambitious follow-up project called The World of Poetry, a mutimedia exploration of the eclectic, eccentric, or simply overlooked poetry created in countries throughout the world. The goal was to put together a series of episodes focusing on a specific theme, language, or region of the world. These programs would then both be broadcast on television and also stored digitally, along with supplemental audio and visual footage, at The World of Poetry Web site.
Bob’s interest in international poetry has led him to the work of the griot poets of West Africa, which he discusses at length in this supplement’s featured interview. His playful transcription of griot Papa Susso’s song “How Kora Was Born” illustrates how open, accessible, and fresh poetry remains when in touch with its oral roots.
In his own work, with lines like:
Through the mandhara of your eyes,
I see each second of eternity pass, frame-
by-frame, over Sana’a
A Shadow constantly seeking its Object
from the poem “On Changing the Past,” Bob concentrates on evoking intensely subjective, inner states. The otherworldy imagery and frequent repetition of enigmatic words and phrases create an almost incantory mood that represents an exciting departure from his generally more outward-looking work.
Chinese poet Yang Lian’s own intensive investigation of inner states and explorations into the nature of his native language have yielded equally exciting results. His essay “In the Timeless Air” provides a potent reminder of the crucial role that translated poetry played in the formulation of modernism. Lian points out that it was Ezra Pound’s study of classical Chinese poetry that inspired the “early Imagism that revolutionized the expression of the English language.” He claims that Pound, in spite of an incomplete understanding of the Chinese language, intuitively grasped the essential difference between “synchronic,” “timeless,” Chinese poetry, with its juxtapositions of images and actions that all exist simultaneously, and “diachronic,” Western poetry and its linear arguments and strictly ordered series of events. Lian argues that this discovery inspired Pound to try to create synchronic poetry in English, and that these attempts culminated with The Cantos. But in Lian’s opinion, Pound’s work only truly achieved the synchronicity he had worked towards for years with the recent translation of his masterpiece into Chinese. Interestingly, the Chinese version of The Cantos has in turn influenced a number of contemporary Chinese poets, including Lian.
Lian’s own poetry combines the dislocations found in The Cantos with a passionate surrealism. Remarkably, for a poet dedicated to creating strikingly original images (he claims that one of his foremost goals is to avoid repeating himself), Lian’s poems are full of emotion. In lines like:
I have accepted any place
in a corner of this village there is snow
the snow has small crystal balconies
and towers twilight sniffs the station
a daughter studding the glass with stars
tree monsters posting up night outside water
locking the door tight destination infinite black
enchanting as the womb mother once used
from the poem “Notes of a Blissful Ghost,” Lian conveys the strange combination of disorientation and exhilaration that comes from living in exile from his native language and culture. (Since the crackdown in Tiananmen Square Lian has been unwelcome in China because of his involvement with the Democracy Movement.) When I read Lian’s poetry, I don’t feel that he intends to shock, annoy, or outsmart his audience (as I do when reading the work of too many “avant-garde” American poets) but is instead making every effort to communicate utterly unique and specific feelings and observations.
Danish poet Katrine Guldager’s work at first seems more earthbound than Lian’s dark, dense poems. “It happens, of course, that you get a flat, that you will have to get by with one that’s too high:” Guldager writes at the beginning of “Crash” and drops us in the middle of the street next to a bike with a flat-a situation that we all recognize. It is not until she reminds us of the “strange inklings” in our hands, the “accidents hanging in the wind,” and the “small stones that you hide under your skin,” that we realize how unfamiliar we are with the everyday world we unthinkingly inhabit.
There’s earth and asphalt and a city: There’s a city on top of the earth: There’s a city
on a city, there’s asphalt on top of asphalt, earth above earth, and there’s no way getting
down to it, or around it, that’s how it’s always been:
she writes a few lines later, and confronts us squarely with the sordidness of the world we have made for ourselves. But the relentless repetitions suggest that the narrator feels something more than frustration. As she bores deeper and deeper beneath the street, Katrine actually seems thrilled to have penetrated to the utter arbitrariness that underlies our seemingly well-ordered world. And she doesn’t brood over her discovery, but allows an unexpected, almost perverse, sense of delight to glow beneath the grim, angry imagery. Her willingness to confront the world’s ugliness without feeling sorry for herself only reminds me how much gloomy self-pity could be banished from similarly anecdotal or narrative American poetry.
And that is the extent of the work that I can take credit for bringing to PBQ; the rest of the poetry in this supplement came either through the efforts of other editors or though good luck. PBQ senior editor Greg Pardlo’s translations of Danish poet Niels Lyngsø’s “constellation” poems provide the supplement with a dose of formal experimentation that it otherwise lacks. I don’t know if I have ever come across a more effective visual device than the wonderfully simple, yet subtle, idea of spreading groups of words across the page at distances that determine their “gravitational influence” upon the rest of the poem. Lyngsø’s work is certainly livelier than most of the poems created by a return to conventional forms.
Yet for me, it is these poems’ essential and elemental subject matter that brings the conceit to life. Lines like:
bent body in a temple of meat I cannot There is flesh beneath bark
wrest me free which in large flakes
for The apple falls but perhaps new seeds fall from branches and lie plainly
sour and green throbbing bluish-purple film
and hard as heaven with a mold of white
are full of wonder and dread. These powerful feelings allow the unconventional arrangement of the text to deepen and intensify the poems’ effect, rather than simply exist as an end in itself.
Greg also brought us the playful, yet cerebral, work of Jacques Roubaud, as translated by Professor Richard Sieburth and Françoise Gramet. Poems “I.” and “II.” from Six Little Logical Pieces parody Gertrude Stein-style, high modernist poetry through repetition and delicately skewed logic. Roubaud takes his experiment so for that it goes beyond wit and raises troubling questions about language’s transparency and about our ability to truly communicate with each other.
Daniel Nester brought to my attention Matthew Zapruder and Allan J. Sorkin’s translations of Romanian poetry. I immediately admired Zapruder’s ability to put across in English the earthy intensity of lines like “Her teeth had all fallen out. She was still beautiful./She had hips made of gulfs, and she swayed bluely,” in Eugen Jebeleanu’s poem “Venus XX.” In Nora Iuga’s poetry there is a similar vitality, along with some violently surrealistic imagery that Sorkin renders lucidly and deliciously, in passages like:
hey you gellu naum shouted at me you buried woman
then he shoved a handful of leaves down my throat
what a green agony just imagine
what a green agony.
And then there is Rilke. Annie Boutelle’s brilliantly clear, unfussy translations of four of Rilke’s New Poems allow us to re-examine the inexhaustible work of the poet who, at the beginning of the last century, showed how powerful lyric poetry could be. By demanding that we go beyond melancholy and longing and learn to really see the things of the world, Rilke taught us to write short, intense poems that addressed largest of themes. I only regret that so few poets have followed his example. In the early twenty-first century’s myopic poetry scene, it is rare to find poets (like those featured in this issue) bold enough to contemplate a call out to the hierarchies of angels.