Universe of Verse In One Volume of Collected Poetry


Edited by Katharine Washburn, John S. Major, and

Clifton Fadiman

W. W. Norton

1338 pp., $45

In her introduction to "World Poetry: an Anthology of Verse From Antiquity to Our Time," Katharine Washburn quotes Robert Frost's aphorism, "Poetry is what gets lost in translation."

Since more than 80 percent of the poems in this mammoth volume have been translated from their original languages into English, Washburn was clearly delighted to find a rebuttal to Frost in Octavio Paz's remark, "Poetry is what gets translated."

Washburn and her co-editor John Major believe we are, in fact, living in a golden age of translation. Washburn and Major are themselves translators; she from classical and European languages, he from Chinese.

I suspect Frost may be right about the impossibility of replicating all of the densely interrelated aspects of any poem into another language, no matter how skillful and sensitive the translator.

But how many English-speaking readers can claim a working knowledge of Arabic and Incan, Chinese and Hebrew, Polish and Yoruba, Inuit and Sanskrit?

And would it not be a pity if we were to have no inkling of the splendors created by the poets who wrote in languages other than our own?

"World Poetry" presents poetry from a breathtaking spectrum of times and places. It is arranged chronologically in eight sections, from the Bronze and Iron Ages to the 20th century, with each time period subdivided by region and language.

The poems exhibit an astonishing array of qualities from mystery, grandeur, and sublimity to pathos, passion, and irony, to humor, earthiness, and ingenuity. The one quality they have in common is bite. There is scarcely a dull poem in the collection.

Beginning with the Bronze and Iron Ages, we find strange and haunting fragments of ancient cultures - Babylonian, Egyptian, Indian, Chinese - including some as far back as the 3rd millennium BC.

From a text found on the pyramids of ancient Egypt (c. 2180 BC), these darkly beautiful lines speak of a civilization that venerated death:

The sky is a dark bowl, the stars die and fall.

The celestial bows quiver,

the bones of the earthgods shake and planets come to a halt

when they sight the king in all his power,

the god who feeds on his father and eats his mother.

From the age of the classical empires, 750 BC - AD 500, come verses by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Virgil, Horace, Catullus, Ovid, as well as poets of ancient India and China. Some translations of these classic poems are themselves famous, like Samuel Johnson's imitation of Juvenal, "The Vanity of Human Wishes."

We are offered three modern translations of a lyric by Sappho, including this one by Sam Hamill:

The Pleiades disappear,

the pale moon goes down.

After midnight, time blurs:

sleepless, I lie alone.

These wise words about art and artists come from an anonymous 15th-century Mesoamerican poet:

The true artist: capable, practicing, skillful;

maintains dialogue with his heart, meets things with

his mind....

works ... dexterously, invents;

arranges materials, adorns them, makes them adjust.

The carrion artist: works at random, sneers at the people,

makes things opaque, brushes across the surface of the face of things,

works without care, defrauds people, is a thief.

Half a century later, Chilam Balam, a Mayan poet, utters these tragically prophetic lines, reminding us of the destruction of a culture and way of life that prevailed in Central and South America:

They came with a fury

with a rage without reason

with a thirst for blood,

for heads, for jewels.

Came into our lands

to conquer for no quarrel

to seize for the sake of seizing

to claim for an absent king

our lands, our corn, our people.

While the effort to cover so much of the world's poetry means that less space is devoted to the poets of Europe and the United States, Western culture is hardly neglected. Du Bellay, Ronsard, Villon, Chaucer, Dante, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Marvell, Calderon, Goethe, Nerval, Blake, Coleridge, Tennyson, Whitman, Dickinson, Baudelaire, Rilke, Yeats, Lorca, Mandelstam, Eliot, and Auden are among the many more familiar names to be found.

Many of the translators - Robert Bly, Charles Tomlinson, Richard Wilbur, Roy Campbell, Stanley Kunitz, Basil Bunting, Jane Hirschfield, John Hollander, Vladimir Nabokov - are

esteemed poets in their own right.

It is especially interesting to read Nabokov's reflections on his own attempt at translating Russia's most beloved poet, Puskhin, into English:

What is translation?

On a platter

A poet's pale and glaring head,

A parrot's screech,

a monkey's chatter,

And profanation of the dead....

Reflected words can only shiver

Like elongated lights that twist

In the black mirror of a river

Between the city and the mist.

Of course, there is much that one might criticize about this - or any - volume aiming to offer a selection as wide as the world. But none were more aware of the shortcomings of their finished product than the editors themselves.

They would agree that their collection does not include all the poets who deserve to be included. They, too, are sorry that constraints of space prevented employing the most auspicious method of presenting poetry in translation: setting the poem in its original language alongside an English version on the facing page.

If, when leafing through the book, you are captivated by some intriguing verse by an unfamiliar poet, you are not alone in lamenting the lack of headnotes and footnotes on individual writers.

Once again, the editors explain, space did not allow for notes to each chapter, let alone each poet. Some guidance, context, and background can, however, be found in the introductions to each of the eight time periods.

But, there is one flaw - unmentioned and presumably unnoticed by the editors - which cannot be blamed on limitations of space: The book has not been adequately copyedited and proofread.

Errors range from misspelled or mistaken words to printing the opening seven stanzas of Wordsworth's "Resolution and Independence," as if they constituted the entire poem, rather than merely the first third of it.

Thus, the enormous pleasure to be derived from this treasure-house of poetic riches is slightly undermined each time one spots an egregious blunder. Readers can't help wondering about the ones they didn't recognize in the hundreds of unfamiliar poems only now being enjoyed for the first time.

Although we may indeed be living in a golden age of translation, ours, alas, does not seem to be a golden age of copyediting!

This is, nonetheless, a remarkable anthology, well worth keeping.

* Merle Rubin reviews regularly for the Monitor.

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