Tag Archives: poetry

Ilya Kaminsky & Susan Harris, eds. — The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry

I’m not going to review this in depth, because there are many, many poets included therein, but this is a nice anthology if you want an overview of international 20th century poets from all over the world. Some older translations, some new translations, and a pretty fantastic selection.

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Love & literary taste

A week or so ago, I was reminded of this article due to a conversation I had with my boyfriend. The article itself is fairly ridiculous, though on point to a certain extent—one woman broke up with a man because he liked Ayn Rand too much. It did get me thinking, though; I always thought I would end up with someone who loved books as much as I do. Reading is such a huge part of my life that it was just hard to imagine loving someone who didn’t have that same passion. Instead, I found S., who does math problems for fun.

When we first started dating and friended each other on Facebook, I looked immediately at his info to see what kind of books he was into. “Stoppard, Chaucer, T. S. Elliot, Murakami, Burroughs.” All right, self, I thought, you’ve got enough in common that this shouldn’t be TOO bad. I should have noticed that he spelled Eliot wrong… but to make a long story short, I noticed that he didn’t have the nice collected hardcover of Eliot’s poems that I have loved, and so, when he was graduating college a few months after we started dating, I embarked on a hunt for that book. Five bookstores and a frantic day of searching later, I had it in my hands, and wrote a nice little note on the inside. Two years later, I don’t think he’s ever opened it. And two years later, I found out that he doesn’t like poetry very much… (I guess he’s too much of an engineer.)

“So why did you even say that you liked Eliot if you don’t like poetry and don’t read it at all?” I asked this morning.

“I wanted to find a girl like you,” he said.

That’s an answer I might be able to accept.

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Simon Armitage — Sir Gawain & The Green Knight; Jones — The Mabinogion

Since it’s finals week and I’m fairly preoccupied with trying to study for my Sales exam, I’m just going to write down a few brief thoughts on the two books that I read this week.

Simon Armitage, Sir Gawain & the Green Knight. This is a book that doesn’t necessarily need a translation, especially if you have some passing familiarity with Middle English. However, as Armitage himself comments, it’s a bit like looking through an iced-over lake: some of the meaning is obscured. I really enjoyed reading this translation; it was lively, moved quickly, and provided the original text on the opposite page, which I always appreciate. It was enjoyable reading, clever rhyming, and made me consider checking out some of his original poetry when I’ve some more time.

Gwyn Jones & Thomas Jones, The Mabinogion. I understand this is “the” translation of these twelve Welsh myths but I just didn’t enjoy it that much. It may have been faithful but it was oh-so-dry. And I do normally enjoy dry, and I do normally enjoy myths… I was perhaps just having an off day. Back on the horse after more studying and exams are over, I would assume.

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Brickbat Books is my downfall

Katia Kapovich's Cossacks & Bandits; Austen's Sense & Sensibility

Because I’m a student on a strict budget, I told myself I wouldn’t make any personal purchases, because I was dropping a lot of money on my boyfriend’s birthday present (a new messenger bag) but Brickbat Books is right next to the bike shop where we were picking it up, and he was late so I went to browse through the store, and then there were all of these lovely books, and I finally saw a poetry collection by Katia Kapovich in person, and they had this copy of the new Penguin classics clothbound edition, and well, I don’t know how it happened but when I left the store, my bank account was a little lighter and I had these two new beauties in my hands…!

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Seamus Heaney — Beowulf

This was a bit of a relief considering the last book I read I couldn’t pick up again; this one, of course, is a book that I can never put down. Beowulf is not a complicated story. The titular hero and his crew of Geats cross the sea in order to help Hrothgar and his men fight the scourge of Heorot, Grendel. And it’s hardly surprising that they are victorious. What follows are two more battles with monsters, one fatal, and a rumination on gold and glory, two incredibly important themes of the time.

This edition is gorgeous just from the beginning, with a slightly raised mail head covering the cover (sadly, this is a cover I’ve run my fingers along many, many times). The book is beautifully laid out, with both the Anglo-Saxon and Heaney’s translation presented side by side. Unfortunately, I’ve never learned how to read Anglo-Saxon, but it’s great fun to compare the two side-by-side, and see exactly how the sounds and syllables of these dead words remain in our own living language. I’m sure that many, many people have unpleasant memories of being forced to read a dry (possibly prose translation–horrors!) translation of Beowulf in high school, of being bored by it, hating it, not understanding it. But as Andrew Motion wrote, “Heaney has made a masterpiece of a masterpiece.” And he really, really has. It’s hard to describe just how wonderful this translation is, how enjoyable it is to read, the sort of rolling old adventure that should be told around a fire in the dark. In the equally interesting 21-page introduction that accompanies this edition, Heaney writes that he considers Beowulf to be his voice-right… and how true that is.

And just listen to this language:

…They are fatherless creatures,
and their whole ancestry is hidden in a past
of demons and ghosts. They dwell apart
among wolves on the hills, on windswept crags
and treacherous keshes, where cold streams
pour down the mountain and disappear
under mist and moorland.
A few miles from here
a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
above a mere; the overhanging bank
is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
At night there, something uncanny happens:
the water burns. And the mere bottom
has never been sounded by the sons of men.
On its bank, the heather-stepper halts:
the hart in flight from pursuing hounds
will turn to face them with firm-set horns
and die in the wood rather than dive
beneath its surface. That is no good place.
When wind blows up and stormy weather
makes clouds scud and the skies weep,
out of its depths a dirty surge
is pitched towards the heavens…

This isn’t just heroics, this is the most beautiful, evocative and slightly creep-inducing language. There’s something old and dangerous just about the words: keshes, crags, frost-stiffened woods. You can see where Tolkien drew his inspiration; this is the language and imagery of an England that no longer exists, of fens where monsters lurk, where mists over the land conceal nameless horrors, where golden-roofed halls are the only bastions of civilization, where the sword is the only way to gain honor.

And then there’s this bit:

No ring-whorled prow
could up then
and away on the sea.
Wind and water
raged with storms,
wave and shingle
were shackled in ice
until another year
appeared in the yard
as it does to this day,
the seasons constant,
the wonder of light
coming over us…

Not only is this a heroic poem, this is a poem. You can hear Heaney’s own voice in it; this wouldn’t necessarily look out of place in a collection of his own work. That’s partially what I love about this particular Beowulf translation, it really is the best of both worlds. Perhaps not the most accurate to the meter of the Anglo-Saxon, but it is definitely accurate to the spirit of it. The language that Heaney chooses keeps the sounds, which are the really important things; even if it’s not as alliterative as the traditional form would have it, you can hear and smell the language and the land behind every word of his Beowulf, it is an immersive experience. You can feel his love for this poem and the sounds of these words. I really enjoyed reading this again; it’s been too long.

I’ll leave you with this thought for the evening, because this is why I really love old English poems, and old Scandinavian poems:

…it is always better
to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.
For every one of us, living in this world
means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,
that will be his best and only bulwark.

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