Verse under fire

Pick of the week Sprinting from the Graveyard; Independent choice: European poetry by Michael Glover

Do extreme circumstances - experiencing war at first hand, or living under the heel of some villain like Ceausescu - help to generate great poetry? Not necessarily. On the other hand, there's no denying that putting sensitive blooms under the cosh can help to get the best out of them from time to time. Look what a bit of bruising reality on the Western Front did for that sometime neo-Keatsian Wilfred Owen, for example, during the last year of his life.

Four European poets with new volumes published here have all made poems in the teeth of barbarous public behaviour. The Bosnian Serb Goran Simic survived, with his Muslim wife and two small children, the terrible three- year siege of Sarajevo. The Romanian poet Liliana Ursu was refused permission to travel. That great long- distance runner of German poetry, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, grew up in Nazi Nuremberg. And the Serbian poet Vasko Popa, who died before the collapse of Tito's Yugoslavia, had nonetheless lived through three years of a vicious civil war in the 1940s.

All this may seem rather enviable to western poets who (in Calvino's words) live in societies where literature is allowed to vegetate as an innocuous pastime, never regarded as threatening or risky. In the west, poetry is a private diversion, no more destabilising than doing something different on the allotment this spring.

Simic's concrete backyard was strewn with skulls and ordure. The English poems that David Harsent has made from the Serbo-Croatian originals in Sprinting from the Graveyard (Oxford, pounds 7.99) are harsh, fractured and quite frightening - like the taste of rusted metal in the mouth. In one poem, Simic speaks of his wish to have his poems come as close to unembellished reportage as possible. This is how they read - seemingly jagged and fragmentary, as if they were not the well-made poems that attention reveals them to be but notes tied to a piece of ragged string hanging down from some shattered window.

Harsent's method of translation - if you can call common sense a method - has helped to bring these poems into English in an utterly convincing way. Beginning with prose cribs, he has sought not so much to make slavishly faithful reproductions of the originals but new poems in English out of all this horror, wrenching, twisting, borrowing like some poet-magpie.

Michael Hamburger's approach to Enzensberger in his new collection Kiosk (Bloodaxe, pounds 7.95) has been quite different. Hamburger is an expert translator from the German, who produced the same poet's excellent Selected Poems for Bloodaxe three years ago. He behaves like a master mimic - or like some dancer's shadow on the wall. Hamburger follows not only the elegant shapeliness of Enzensberger's public arguments about human reason and injustice, the unnatural nature of rational behaviour. He also carries into English, by means of rhythm and stanza-shaping, the way that Enzensberger conceives his effects across the entire canvas of a poem. It's also pleasing that Bloodaxe is keeping up to date with the output of such an important European poet - Kiosk was first published as recently as 1995.

Something has gone a little wrong with The Sky Behind the Forest (Bloodaxe, pounds 7.95), Liliana Ursu's collection-length debut in English. It reads in part like a failure on the part of its co-translators, Tess Gallagher and Adam J Sorkin. What exactly is wrong here? For a start, Ursu is a poet of great personal intensity, passionate about the state and its wrongdoings, equally passionate about the things of the flesh. Too often this comes over into English as a kind of unshapely gush of feelings.

The translators, desperate to keep up with the poet's restless shifts of metaphor, seldom convince the reader that any particular turn of phrase is the apposite one. The result is that the poems too often meander along in a somewhat humdrum fashion. Though the images may be sharp, the rhythms are too often broken-backed.

Vasko Popa's Collected Poems (translated by Anne Pennington and revised by Francis R Jones, Anvil, pounds 25) read rather like the sudden, shocking appearance of a box by the artist Joseph Cornell. They compose a small and perfectly functioning meta-world set in our much larger context of human relationships, political shenanigans and general throat-clearings.

There are two reasons for this: an addiction to the coded language of parable favoured by many of those embattled Eastern European poet-hero types so beloved of and envied by the likes of Al Alvarez, and a passionate engagement with the beguilingly obscure myths and mysteries of Serbian folk literature. If anyone wanted to know where Ted Hughes's Crow came from, they could do worse than start from Vasko Popa.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The Rolling Stones at the Roundhouse in London in 1971: from the left, Keys, Charlie Watts, Mick Taylor and Mick Jagger

Music ...featuring Eric Clapton no less
Arts and Entertainment
In the dock: Dot Branning (June Brown); Union boss claims EastEnders writers are paid less than minimum wage

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Roger Christian wrote and directed the 1980 Black Angel original, which was lost until 2011

film
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Green (Hand out press photograph provided by Camilla Gould)

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones reviewWarning: Spoilers aplenty
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

    ‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

    Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

    ... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
    12 best olive oils

    Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

    Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
    Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?