Poets of the world, unite! Even if you can't all make the podium
The Olympics were about more than just sport. Suzi Feay looks at the 204 poems chosen from around the world to mark London 2012
Sunday 19 August 2012
The South Bank Centre's Poetry Parnassus aimed to bring a poet to London from each country participating in this summer's Olympic Games to read from their work. With 204 poets, The World Record, edited by Neil Astley and Anna Selby (Bloodaxe, £10), commemorates this astounding feat.
It's a strange and exhilarating volume. Reading poems in translation is a bit like drinking minestrone through a sock; even if the taste survives, you know some nutrients aren't getting through. The poems are arranged in perhaps the most useless way possible: alphabetically. What's gained by juxtaposing a poem from Fiji with one from Finland; pairing Serbia with the Seychelles, Monaco with Mongolia? Wouldn't it have been better to group poems geographically?
Many names will be unknown to even the most eager British poetry reader, but one hopes that the choices aren't in every case so obvious as Seamus Heaney and Jo Shapcott representing Ireland and Great Britain respectively. And the work is not necessarily new-minted. Heaney's "The Underground" is credited to a 1998 Selected, and Shapcott's "Phrase Book" is the title poem of her 1992 collection. The latter poem is great, though, and wryly appropriate to this international gathering, with its bemused, perhaps threatened speaker still insisting on her privileged status: "What have I done? I have done / nothing. Let me pass please. I am an Englishwoman."
Perhaps the ordering doesn't matter; this is a book for dipping into. Who will be able to resist turning to "The Death of Oscar Wilde" by Poland's Jacek Dehnel or "The Sell-Out Poets of the 60s" by Ukraine's Serhiy Zhadan? And who wouldn't be intrigued by the prospect of a Nepali poet's take on the "London Bombings"?
The poem from Tusiata Avia of Samoa, "Return to Paradise" begins beguilingly: "My uncle once broke a man's hands / quietly, like you would snap a biscuit / in half" and continues: "My uncle was Gary Cooper's body double." There's a fair bit of talking back to the West: "Apologies Mr Wordsworth," says American Samoa's Sia Figiel, "but I too wandered lonely as a cloud / when I first heard your little poem." Outsider experiences of London feature heavily, for example in "The Phases of the Moon in London" by Jordan's Amjad Nasser or Abdullahi Botaan Hassan's poem about a Somalian's observations of the London tube. Oren Hodge's over-alliterative "Sharks in Sharp Suits" is fun, but would leave the British Virgin Islands medal-less: "Sharks in sharp suits sworn to sharp shoot / Anyone who battles against the system / … Sinfully skilful to survive in the sceptic / it's fearfully futile to refuse it ..." etc etc. Oh lucky St Lucia, able to field the towering Derek Walcott for the men's 100m sprint!
Imtiaz Dharker dutifully writes "Honour Killing" for Pakistan, and other countries' offerings point rather obviously to their recent history and politics, as though poets were really op-ed column writers only with more white space.
The World Record admirably presents at least as many women as men, leading to poems featuring "Mama Africa", or called things such as "A Woman is a Woman" and "Thank You For Being a Woman". But women can write about other things, too .... "Google Search Results" by Sweden's Laura Wihlborg lists 28 instances of the word "single" and is as interesting as that sounds, while Tuvalu's Selina Tusitala Marsh's "Googling Tusitala" "brings / hotel tusitala dot com / brings / tusitala bar and grill in edinburgh / brings / tusitala built in 1883 scotland / brings /...."
Please, make it stop!
This crammed, frustrating and enjoyable volume is best seen as a tip of the iceberg scraping rather than a serious attempt to bottle the whole world's poetic essence.
If the editors had not played safe with Shapcott, they might have considered Kate Tempest for Team GB. Her debut collection Everything Speaks in its Own Way (Zingaro Books, £25, available from katetem pest.co.uk) is beautifully produced and includes a spoken-word CD and DVD featuring this electrifying star of slam poetry and rapping. Her vision of London is as defamiliarising and disturbing as any: "Round here, the sirens and screams float on the wind and even the street shudders, afraid of our footsteps."
Each poem is presented in short prose paragraphs, leaving the reader to pick up complex internal rhythms and rhymes. She breaks off a love poem to examine its conventions: "But 'you' is not one person, not a version of a person or a device enlisted in my rhymes to help me vent some raw emotion." She can throw off a casually brilliant phrase such as "All the yous I lied beside"; she can be funny, honest and raw all at once. If the phrase "young rap poet" makes your hackles rise, and you need all your its and it'ses to be correctly punctuated, she's not your thing; but for everyone else, she's wonderful.
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