Lost voices echo through the centuries;Poetry;Books

11th September 1998 at 01:00
Sian Hughes finds the verse of Renaissance women as relevant to our lives today as the poems of Seamus Heaney

We delight in crossing boundaries of time or culture or language, in finding a common human thread. The new anthology, Women Poets of the Renaissance, edited by Marion Wynne-Davies (Dent pound;25), places the writers in their historical setting but still gives their words space to hit home with an uncluttered and immediate emotional impact.

Elegies for sisters, children, grandchildren, and poems written out of fear of death in childbirth need no more than the most cursory nod at history, but perhaps more surprising is the immediacy of Anne Bradstreet's stories of life in the New World, or Isabella Whitney's eloquent love song to London. This extraordinary poem gives an account of the city's life and times in the form of a will in which all the contents of the city and the money in the Mint are bequeathed to the inhabitants. I cannot imagine any anthology of London writing being complete without this poem - yet, like most of these works, it is missing from many of the other obvious places I checked.

Although you won't need the generous notes section in order to enjoy the poems, don't pass them over entirely - the biographies of writers make a fascinating set of short stories in themselves, not only as accounts of the poets' lives but also of what happened to their work between their lifetimes and ours.

To an extent, the Women's Press anthology of lesbian love poems, Love Shook my Senses, edited by Gillian Spraggs (Women's Press pound;7.99) is another attempt to rescue lost voices. It's good to see poets such as Dorothy Nimmo and Mary Dorcey alongside Renee Vivien, Adrienne Rich and Emily Dickinson, and to find that a politically ring-fenced anthology can keep bad verse firmly on the other side of the barricade.

The arrangement of poems into "themes" rather than by poet or century (or any other method that groups like by like) makes it a somewhat serendipitous read, one designed for browsing rather than study. It's unfortunate that this book will probably end up in a corner of a bookshop labelled "gay interest" when it is, above all, a book about women by those who know what they are talking about. Next time I'm looking for Shakespeare's sonnets, I'll ask if they're in "gay interest" too. Obviously no one else would want to read them, eh?

One book that runs no risk of being marginalised is the almost-collected Seamus Heaney Opened Ground, Poems 1966-96 (Faber pound;20 pound;12.99). In a time characterised by violence, disharmony and urban life, it's extraordinary that these rural lyrics, songs of loyalty and loss, should have come to be a talisman for late 20th-century poetry.

Reading from "Digging", "Mid-term Break" and "Follower", those first tastes of poetry read aloud in early secondary school, through to "The Ministry of Fear" ("Well, as Kavanagh said, we have lived In important places") and "A Kite for Michael and Christopher" ("take in your two hands, boys, and feel the strumming, rooted, long-tailed pull of grief. You were born fit for it) and the line from the Nobel Prize lecture to "walk on air against your better judgment", I was struck, this time, by a sense of the poetry being porous, open to its world. And not just the world I remembered it for, the one stained with blackberry juice and awash with ghosts, but a steady drip of a wider political universe.

For readers well-versed in Heaney there may be fewer surprises than delights, but I'd put money on there being at least a few eye-opening moments, whether it's the strange and lovely dedication of the title (taken from "Act of Union") or the new poems towards the end of the book.

Other border-crossing pleasures from Faber can be found in Francis Ponge's Selected Poems (pound;9.99). They are published here in their original French alongside their translations by Margaret Guiton (the editor), the American poet C K Williams and John Montague. C K Williams's strung-out eloquence in particular seems ideally suited to these finely-textured prose poems.

I am a particular fan of just this sort of deliberate compressed writing, where vagaries in my powers of comprehension are held suspended by the sen-tence holding out against its noun, and the translations do nothing to break the spell.

Expect surprises, too, from Polish poet Adam Zagajewski's Mysticism for Beginners, (Faber pound;7.99) translated by Clare Cavanagh: "You are my silent brethren, psychiatric ward."

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