Working for an American company I’ve spent a depressing amount of time 38,000 feet above the Atlantic, shuttling back and forth to New York and Boston. Regular travel can’t help but emphasize the increasingly global nature of many cultural disciplines: the same films and TV dramas are advertised in Times Square as in central London; successful novels can migrate across the Atlantic in both directions; subsets of theatre, dance, music and painting are engaged in a complex cross-timezone dialogue; architecture and fashion have long since become stateless global disciplines. The unfortunate exception is poetry.
Many of the big names in UK and US poetry are relatively unknown on the other side of the Atlantic. Yes, there are counterexamples – often poets who’ve spent time living and working overseas – and there will always be well-read poetry lovers who seek out writers from beyond their own tradition; but in general there’s not much of a conversation happening between American and British contemporary poetry.
Nor is this restricted to the nations divided by a common language. How many UK poets could name more than a handful of their European (or Chinese, or South East Asian, or South American) contemporaries? Modern Poetry in Translation makes a wealth of world poetry available to Anglophone readers, but the majority of UK poets (sadly) don’t subscribe to MPT. And the overwhelming majority of translations (or “after X” poems) published in collections are translations from dead writers.
There are plenty of admirable exceptions (especially among poets who are also translators, or magazine editors who reach out beyond the safe and local), but in general the UK poetry culture isn’t talking to (or learning from) the rest of the world.
Enter POEM magazine, Fiona Sampson’s new “International English Language Quarterly”, now permanently based at the University of Roehampton. Issue 3 arrived on my doormat a week ago and I’ve been engrossed in it ever since. Romanian, Chinese, Canadian, German, Norwegian and Brazilian poets appear alongside their British contemporaries. The issue explores ideas of “displacement” and belonging. The last third is given over to critical prose that ranges across poetic traditions and casts a translator’s cold eye on our own language. The whole is a nuanced, humane and intelligent attempt to catalyse the conversation between UK poetry and the rest of the world.
David Harsent’s “Fire: a party at the world’s end” is an unsettling piece that intercuts apocalyptic vignettes (“They are drinking the last of the wine having drunk / the last of the water. Something came out of the sea / slow and blind”) with dislocated notebook extracts (“(Docetic text) – this unadorned account / of Christ the Trickster walking on coals: he comes / towards them, untouched, striding above the pain”). Mircea Cartarescu’s “The West” is a powerful poem whose many layers of meaning and contradiction make the act of reading it a kind of displacement in its own right:
I’ve seen New York and Paris, San Francisco and Frankfurt
I went where I never dreamed I would
I came back with a stash of pictures
and with death in my soul.
and Diana Manole’s “Kiss” is perfectly-judged:
You kiss me on a frigid Saturday night
near Trinity Square
where homeless teens are partying
their youth away
I could go on. There are so many good poems in the issue that it feels misrepresentative to single particular ones out, but Ben Wilkinson’s “Once” (after Verlaine) and Jo Shapcott’s “The Hand” deserve special mention, as do Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s wonderful translations from Zhang Zhao.
In the prose section Linda Gregerson looks at different manifestations of Ovid’s influence on modern poetry (including some superb readings of James Merrill, seeing in “Charles on Fire” a “crack in the world produced by a ghostly faux pas [through which] the god makes his appearance”). Jonathan Dunne makes mercurial play out of the non-etymologies of English words:
We say that God is nowhere, but this can also be read now here. Passion in human life is related to the flesh, but flesh decomposes and pass I on. When we talk about the future in terms of the ego, we say I’ll; in terms of a group, we say we’ll. If we take away the apostrophe, these two words spell ill and well. There is some encouragement here to think in terms of the plural.
And so on for several pages, the cumulative effect of which shifts from paratactic punning to a kind of displacement (that word again) of the English language itself.
The bulk of the prose section is given over to Declan Ryan’s discussion of Ian Hamilton with some of those who knew him and his work well (Colin Falck, Alan Jenkins, David Harsent and Hugo Williams) – an excellent thirty pages that not only makes me want to head out and buy Hamilton’s Collected Poems but also raises some important questions about poetry today, about the importance of disagreement and debate to a healthy poetry culture, and about the impossible but necessary attempt to resolve what poetry is and should be.
I’ve just packed my bag for a work meeting in London tomorrow and slipped POEM in for the journey. Possibly the best test of a poetry magazine is the extent to which you re-read it: on this basis, POEM is already one of the best around. The eloquence with which it engages in the international conversation only underlines how urgent and necessary that conversation has become.
The magazine’s web presence is due for an update following the move to Roehampton, but in the meantime you can subscribe the old fashioned way by sending a cheque (£30 for 4 issues, payable to “University of Roehampton”) to the address on the inside cover: POEM Magazine Finance, Froebel College, University of Roehampton, Roehampton Lane, London SW15 5PJ.