For poets, one of the best prophylactics against staleness and provincialism is a nice, plump anthology of poems translated from another culture. We welcome The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry and The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry in part for easing our access to a remarkably wide range of poetry arguably more deeply influenced and enriched by international and regional influence than is poetry in the United States.
My review of The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry will appear in the Fall/Winter 2012-13 issue of Cerise Press (www.cerisepress.com).
Perhaps a few readers today still dismiss the worth of translated poetry because of the long acknowledged inability of a translator to render an exact equivalent of the original. In a literary world with a post-modernist sensibility, this obvious fact is irrelevant.
The inherent imperfections of translation should matter greatly to literary scholars, intent upon understanding the originals, but not as much to poets. Most poets are interested in discovering voices, forms, styles, and techniques, without being overly fussy about what came from the translator and what from the original poet.
Anthologies are still very valuable in this regard, even though anthologies’ influences have been in decline since well before the flood of printed books and then the bigger flood of ebooks. Before book mass marketing, anthologies of English language poetry dominated English language literary culture. Some anthologies, like the Georgian, introduced new literary movements in reaction.
The most impressive anthology of all, China’s Shijing (Book of Songs or Odes), has for centuries served Chinese poets as a pattern book. Poets often composed poems “to the tune of” songs from the Shijing.
The tunes themselves in the Book of Songs have not been preserved, but poets still compose new poems on the structure and syntax of the ancient. Each skilled poet demonstrated that traditional forms can help generate rather than stifle brilliant writing.
I recall once being told a story by a playwright that illustrates the process. Planning to write a musical with a composer on the other coast, Mitch Gianunzio was tasked with writing lyrics for which the composer would write music. When Gianunzio said that he did not know enough about music to do this, he was told to simply write new lyrics for an existing Broadway song or standard, without identifying the source to the composer. If the lyrics fit an original, they would be structurally appropriate for the composer.
One can hardly imagine poets in the next millennium writing poems to the tune of “Autumn in New York” or “A Fine Romance.” That will probably not happen, alas, although worse influences on poets than The American Songbook are at work today.
Despite their diminished influence, anthologies remain formidable primarily as classroom texts, shaping readers’ attitudes and tastes, and as arbiters of worth, shaping poets’ careers. Poetry careers, with the rich bounty of residencies and readings, can be made by anthologies of contemporary poetry.
In their own way, Norton and other anthologies have probably done more to canonize or inter various poets than all of our prize committees, reviewers and literary critics.
This important power of anthologies sparked one of the most acrimonious literary disputes in recent memory when the estimable Helen Vendler attacked Rita Dove’s selections for The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry in The New York Review of Books. Vendler’s attack drew an equally caustic reply from Dove. Their exchange was alarmingly personal, or perhaps refreshingly personal, but the field they fought over involved such vast and serious matters as artistic standards, race, and the grave responsibility of anthologists.
The poet and critic William Logan, whose reviews are not to be missed, wrote insightfully about this dispute in his New Criterion review of Rita Dove’s anthology.
In our own times the idea of proper poetry models seems hopelessly antiquated, despite the alarming sameness of much contemporary poetry. Our times are dominated by a post-Romantic cult of originality and individual authenticity, edging towards a cult of personality, and by a reluctance to acknowledge influences.
Nevertheless every poet who is still developing, and knows it, is excited to find a new poet from the past whose work inspires. These two anthologies of Latin American poetry would not disappoint them.