Verse under fire

Pick of the week Sprinting from the Graveyard; Independent choice: European poetry by Michael Glover
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
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.