Silk lining;Book of the week;Books
To mark World Book Day on Thursday, Sian Hughes takes stock of an anthology of poetry from all times and all places
When I open a worthy-looking volume of poetry, I turn first to the letter the last reader left folded in page 74 ("send kisses to Lucy, and if I were you I'd ignore that business in Spain").
But what if the whole of the world's poetry could be slipped, section by section, inside the flyleaf of the novel you're not quite ready to read, or used to line your sock drawer, each dish on the menu reduced to a spoonful, now spicy, now sharp, now cool?
Losing an afternoon or two between the covers of Norton's anthology is like snacking one's way through a huge private library, making brief forays into ancient Hebrew or modern Serbian, returning to check out which Ben Jonson poem they chose and who is sitting next to Donne, or behind Wyatt.
It's a challenge to anyone's poetry world view to dig out favourite poets and find which 16 lines they have been reduced to. I started with Larkin, who has occupied a comfortable suite of rooms since the A-level syllabus left me with "Whitsun Weddings" more or less by heart, and found him occupying the corner of a stairway with the slippery little ''Days'' and the less familiar ''Going''.
There is an evening coming in
Across the fields, one never seen before
That lights no lamps.
Silken it seems at a distance, yet
When it is drawn up over the knees and
It brings no comfort.
Where has the tree gone, that locked
Earth to the sky? What is under my hands,
That I cannot feel?
What loads my hands down?
Seeing these almost flippantly clean and evasive images somewhere between the Song of Songs and 20th-century Vietnamese laments opened my ears to their very Englishness, and the peculiarly English sensibility of Larkin's many followers.
Those already addicted to international browsing will be warmed by the dedication of this volume to Stanley Burnshaw and The Poem Itself - a well-loved companion on many real and literary journeys. Burnshaw's own poem, "House in St Petersburg" is one of my favourite discoveries so far:
If the young recruit had been briefed with the well-bribed word
by his well-bribed captain before he walked by the house,
Or, if he had never tripped on a cobble of ice And ripped his shirt as he
sprawled on a gashing stone,
I would not be writing these lines -
If he had not then remembered the house with the sign
Because of the word it had always said to the street,
Or if when he asked the service
of needle and thread
Father or child could have brought him needle and thread,
I would not be writing these lines -
Many poets appear as translators as well as in their own words. The book has a contemporary feel, because although the poems stop just short of the present day, the translations do not. Vikram Seth appears as the translator of an eighth-century Chinese poem, "Moonlit Night":
In Fuzhou, far away, my wife is watching
The moon alone tonight, and my thoughts fill
With sadness for my children, who can't think
Of me here in Changan; they're too young still.
Six other translators take on works by the same poet - David Lattimore's "Crossing the Border" (Drawing a bow you must draw a strong one choosing an arrow choose a long one when you shoot a man first shoot his horse) could be from another century, as could Eva Shan Chou's version of "Daytime Dream" (With warm air of plum blossoms, eyes grow drunk, At sun's set by the spring sandbar, dreams lead one away).
There's a Tony Harrison version of Palladas's "Women All Cause Rue" (c.360-430), Sharon Olds translates Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska, and Ted Hughes's translation of Seneca sits alongside that of the Earl of Rochester.
Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) is represented by no less than six translators, including Vernon Watkins and Robert Lowell. It was a less well-known pen, W.D. Jackson's however, that came up with this:
Words, words, words and nothing doing!
Never flesh, my dear, my poppet!-
Never any dumplings stewing -
Always soul! No roast to top it!
But the horse of passion gallops
Pretty wildly - daily too -
And perhaps the solid wallops
Of the loins aren't good for you.
But perhaps the best reading pleasure from this book of snacks is the random sort. When I found Abraham ibn Ezra (1029-1167), for example, I thought Woody Allen had wandered into the 11th century by mistake:
On the day I was born,
The unalterable stars altered.
If I decided to sell lamps
It wouldn't get dark till the day I died.
Some stars. Whatever I do.
I'm a failure before I begin.
If I suddenly decided to sell shrouds,
People would suddenly stop dying.
And I wonder how I have survived until now without a single line from the Sanskrit Vidyakara Anthology (c.600-1100). This translation, by Andrew Schelling, of Vidya's "On Makeshift Bedding" goes straight on to my wall (and never mind the strange line-breaks):
bedding in the cucumber
garden, the hilltribe
girl clings to
her exhausted lover.
Limbs still chaffing
with pleasure, dissolving
against him she
now and again with
one bare foot
jostles a shell necklace
that hangs from a
vine on the fence -
through the night,
scaring the jackals off.
Faced by so many pages, a reader may not immediately appreciate that a volume that scans so many countries and traditions must be dedicated to many spoken as well as written traditions of verse - it's not by chance that so many poems fly off the page and into the mouth.
The book's general editor, Clifton Fadiman, in part explains the peculiar success of this aspect of the work in his introduction - early in the book's production he lost his sight, and had to rely on his ears.