New European Poets, eds. Wayne Miller & Kevin Prufer, Graywolf Press
The new anthology New European Poets is astounding, if for no other reason than its scope. While anthologies of a select few European countries (France, Spain, Germany, etc.) may regularly appear, it’s rare that an anthology tries to capture the whole of poetry in that continent. Even more surprising is an anthology that genuinely tries to represent all of Europe. With over forty countries represented, New European Poets shows a deep commitment to giving a voice to both the poets in widely anthologized countries and in those seldom anthologized.
The anthology’s aim in an important aim: it seeks to give a selection of European poetry from recent poets (only poets whose first book was published after 1970) and seeks to brings these seldom heard voices to American poets, in hopes of bringing new aesthetic possibilities and opening communication between the two continents. The editors’ note cites the mid-century precedent, when poets “dissatisfied with the legacy of Imagism” looked to (and translated) “poets such as Georg Trakl, Federico García Lorca, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Antonio Machado, Tomas Tranströmer, and César Vallejo.” But while these names may be commonplace in America today, most younger European poets remain entirely unknown in America.
The anthology has a strong aim, and much of the work selected is as surprising, challenging, and exciting as one would hope. New European Poets contains unexpected voices, such as the flat, tensed monologues of Italian poet Raffaello Baldini, which emphasize the mystery of a disembodied voice:
Go ahead, you pick, it makes absolutely no difference to me,
they should pick too, I’m not just saying it,
go ahead and pick, for me any of them are just fine.
You like this one? take it then.
Or the lyricism of Danish poet Niels Frank, whose reading of American New York School poets returns to us the often overlooked, extraordinary music of John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara and David Shapiro:
The parrot kicks. You could say
that. The parrot answers himself
in a profound voice. You
could say that. In his own way
the parrot is a genius. But no one is
in his own way and least of all
him. But how do you tell him that.
My coffee is hiding
in the cup. You could say that.
It is especially exciting to have so many poems from countries seldom read in English. Estonia, for example, is on few Americans’ literary maps, which makes the Apollinaire-tinged modernism of Asko Künnap all the more breathtaking:
O night, my car
My car’s windshield
is covered in trains.
These train couplings
are free from carriage platforms.
But Ajax washes off blood and oil
and night is swifter than ever.
The scope and ambition of New European Poets brings voices that would other be lost, and yet its scope and ambition is what weakens the anthology. The editors in their attempt to cover a wide range of countries and a plethora of poets (290 poets, according to the back cover) have undermined the distinctive vision of the individual poets. The anthology’s introduction is informative but short, there are no introductions to individual countries, and the notes on poets amount to merely a couple of sentences per poet.
For all the ground this anthology breaks, context is scant and this absence is especially felt given the anthology’s hope to introduce new aesthetic possibilities to American poets. If each poet were given an adequate context or a substantial number of pages, then it would be possible to read the poems as unique aesthetic proposals that challenge American poetic norms. By giving so little context, no new criteria or avenues of pleasure are offered: the poems can only be read by our pre-existing methods of reading. This is especially painful in those cases where the editors choose to represent a poet with a single poem.
But despite its shortcomings, New European Poets achieves what it hopes to achieve: it introduces American readers and poets to voices they would otherwise never have heard. Hopefully the readers of this anthology will take the next step, carry on the translation of these poets, and reenter a dialogue with European poetry. The voices here could reshape the future of American poetry for the better.