Edited by Wayne Miller and Kevin Prufer, New European Poets
Publisher: Graywolf Press
2008, 401 pages, paperback, $18
at a party the best place to loiter is slightly off-center in a crowded room where conversations seem to converge into the best and worst bylines of an evening. A strangely sublime distillation of meaning manifests when so may voices inhabit a single space. Much in the same way, there is something immediately engaging about an anthology of poetry that works, not so fervently to add to the canon, but to reawaken a poetic discourse which is responsible for some of the great works found therein. New European Poets is a venture to rekindle a cross-Atlantic dialogue between American and European poetics. The process, involving 22 regional editors, nearly 200 translators, and 290 poets, has resulted in a compilation of poems with a remarkable diversity of voice, style, and subject matter, held together by startling moments of intimate beauty, neighboring disparate scenes of human tragedy–an ordered chaos.
Accordingly, this anthology comes with a warning of what not to expect. In their introduction, general editors Wayne Miller and Kevin Prufer provide readers with a brief overview concerning influences and intentions shaping the text, preparing readers for a “wholly imperfect endeavor.” This anthology is decidedly not a comprehensive collection of modern European poetry, nor does it aim to be, but rather serves as a wide sampling of regional fare from the European community. Allowing regional editors a great deal of freedom in the selection and arrangement of content representative of their respective cultures produces interesting sets of poems within the larger collection. The focus of each group of poems varies by locale. Some groupings are thematically connected, serving to illuminate trends and preoccupations within these societies, while others highlight specific authors or writing styles. Since the individual sections do not have introductions or any substantial transitions, dramatic shifts occasionally occur which can be viewed as negatively disjunctive or positively spontaneous, depending on the reader’s point-of-view.
While the editors seek to reestablish a connection among writers, the poets (or rather the poems among the pages of the anthology) seek to draw attention to the craft of poetry. Expanding poetic limits, these works require poetry to encompass lyrical verse and the seemingly prosaic line, the extraordinary as well as the mundane, and to cover the broad spectrum of human experience while allowing for metaphysical projection. The variety present in this compilation begs the question of what and/or where the boundaries of poetry, language, culture, and identity exist. Early on in the book, Spain’s Louis García Montero explores poetry’s place in the modern world by claiming that “poetry is useless,” then spending each line that follows exploring its uses as it speaks to the transient nature of human existence. Oksana Zabuzkho’s “A Definition of Poetry” illustrates a poet’s struggle to create meaning through connectivity. Romanian poet Radu Andriescu, with his nearly prosaic lines and colloquial, non-linear storytelling, challenges the conventional categorization of poetry into either lyric or narrative style with his poem “Bloody Bad Shit.” These poems are making statements, asking questions, and above all eliciting a response from readers. A fine synoptic analogy for the work this anthology performs can be seen in Ana Ristovic’s “Snow in Your Shoes,” a study of how a home is created through a combination of the tangible and intangible:
One does not build a house from new curtains
even though different views
from time to time
should be shielded by new cloth.
Most notably, New European Poets succeeds through its inclusion of translations written predominantly by poets, a considerable percentage of whom are American or at least reside in the USA, allowing the text itself to become an engagement of the cross-Atlantic poetic dialogue it seeks to initiate. Furthermore, in its admitted limitations for brevity, the collection’s exclusions invite the audience to make a reply through research and translation or poetic response. Meanwhile, the featured poems present ample fodder for discussion.