Saturday, 23 May 2009

Poetry - Britain and Scandinavia

Poetry features quite frequently on this blog, in translation of course. And most of what we translate here is contemporary poetry, i.e. what Nordic and Estonian poets are writing now, this century.

However, in mainstream cultural British discourse poetry appears to be an insecure recital of the names of Daffodil Wordsworth, Bi Shakespeare, Papist Donne and other poets who wrote centuries ago. Or they glide effortlessly over to a few contemporary bigshots like Bowell Motion, his mentor Parental Fuckup Larkin, Deathly Leamington Betjeman, Wife-Beater Hughes, and a few other terribly British names, regurgitated and -cycled ad nauseam. Plus a few Yanks, because they write in the same language as we do, to pad out the anthologies.

As well as the recital of names, there is the recital of poetry. Poetry appears to only come alive for Brits if read in a pub while hoi polloi are pushing past for drinks, chattering loudly about things banal and venal, while the poor versifier is straining to make herself heard.

I saw Griff Rhys Jones waxing wonderful about poesy the other night on TV, and now see in the Daily MP Exposograph an article by Simon Schama, also on poetry, linked in with the appearance of this latter guru next Tuesday, also on TV. But judging by what these two gents are spouting, you could not imagine that poetry exists beyond the saintlinesse of the English language, from Anglo-Saxon to rap. Nowhere would you even get an inkling that there is verse beyond Blighty, in the bowels of Europe.

Another nuttiness is when Brits oooh and aaah about the exotic species: the Woman Poet. Now we've got a Poet Laureate who is not only a woman, but also wants to swig the free port, and as a cunning linguist is maybe even prepared to tip the velvet. And Brits, who seem to have lost their compass regarding poetry, regard this as an-ever-so exotic-vibrant-exciting-novelatory mega-event.

What is so sad about the introversion of oh-so-many British readers is that they could discover perhaps hundreds of competent women poets if only they would cross the great water, as the I-Ching would have it, and look to the shores of Scandinavia and the Low Countries, plus Germany and France.

Many of the poets translated on this blog are women; some are even lesbian, or bi, or whatever. In Scandinavia, poetry is no longer the province of cigar-smoking bachelors in student clubs, as it may have been over there in the 19th century. In fact much good poetry is indeed written by women. Why are British publishers and readers so reluctant to have translated some of these women poets from Europe and beyond?

Why must English-only poets be tediously-endlessly promoted, as if poets are a home-grown species threatened with extinction, when there are already so many more in the many countries of Europe? It would do British poetry a world of good to have some cross-fertilisation with the Continentals. Cross-fertilisation implies two directions, not just for foreigners to copy great British models.

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