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This item is taken from PN Review 206, Volume 38 Number 6, July - August 2012.News & Notes
The Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet WISŁAWA SZYMBORSKA has died in Krakow. Szymborska was born in 1923 in western Poland and as a child of eight moved to Krakow. She attended a clandestine school during the Nazi occupation, and later studied literature and sociology at Krakow’s prestigious Jagiellonian University. The reclusive author had a relatively small body of work when she received the Nobel Prize in 1996. Only about 200 of her poems had been published in periodicals and collections over a half-century, with her lifetime total standing at fewer than 400. The Polish exile and fellow Nobel Prize winner Czesław Miłosz called Szymborska’s Nobel award ‘a terrible burden’ for this ‘shy and modest’ woman. While her work avoids obviously personal subject matter, it is notable for its unexpected perspectives and its sympathy for others, be they biblical figures or contemporaries. When Szymborska’s final book, Here, appeared in translation in the United States last year, the poet Charles Simic reviewed it in The New York Review of Books, observing: ‘More than any poet I can think of, Szymborska not only wants to create a poetic state in her readers, but also to tell them things they didn’t know before or never got around to thinking about.’
The Library of Congress has named NATASHA TRETHEWEY the nineteenth Poet Laureate of the United States. Trethewey, a professor of creative writing at Emory University, is the author of three collections, including Native Guard, about the American Civil War, which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The Mississippi-born African-American is the first laureate to come from the South since the inaugural laureate Robert Penn Warren in 1986, and at 46 is one of the youngest holders of the post. She will become the first US laureate to reside in Washington and work in the Library of Congress’s Poetry Room, during the 75th anniversary year of the world’s largest library. Librarian of Congress James Billington described her Civil War poetry as ‘taking us into history that was never written’. Trethewey told the Washington Post (7 June 2012) that she was ‘excited and nervous’ about her appointment, which begins in September. She conceives the role of the poet as recording ‘across time and space what speaks to us about an historical moment and people’s responses to the historical moment in which they live’. She is concurrently the State Poet Laureate of Mississippi.
In Cambridge, Massachusetts, the legendary Grolier Poetry Bookshop off Harvard Square is in need of support as it turns a needy eighty-five. The current owner IFEANYI MENKITI says tactfully, ‘Sales are not very robust.’ Menkiti, a poet and a philosophy professor at Wellesley College, bought the shop in 2006 when it was in danger of closing. He sees it as an educational and cultural institution, not an engine of commerce. The oldest poetry bookshop in America was established in 1927 and its illustrious list of past supporters includes e.e. cummings, Marianne Moore, T.S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Denise Levertov and Robert Creeley. In the words of former US Poet Laureate Donald Hall, ‘The Grolier Poetry Book Shop is the greatest poetry place in the universe. If we love poetry, the Grolier is our temple, agora, cottage, mansion, coliseum, and estate. Support it! Support it! Support it!’ Fans of the Grolier were invited to two fundraising events, Jim Vrabel’s performance of John Berryman’s The Dream Songs and an evening of comedy called ‘Laughter at the Grolier’. For more information visit www.grolierpoetrybookshop.org.
A correspondent writes: The winners of the 2012 Griffin Poetry Prize were announced in Toronto on 7 June. DAVID HARSENT, author of Night (Faber & Faber, 2011), KEN BABSTOCK, author of Methodist Hatchet (House of Anansi, 2011), each received $65,000 CDN. The shortlist was made up of three Canadians and four international poets in separate categories. The judges for the prize, Heather McHugh, David O’Meara, and Fiona Sampson, read a staggering ‘481 books of poetry, received from 37 countries around the globe, including 19 translations’. In spite of the variety before them, the judges managed to include among the seven three authors who have previously been finalists for the twelve-year-old prize (Babstock, Harsent, and another Canadian, Phil Hall). Judge David O’Meara might have excused himself from the process when discussion around the judicial table turned to Methodist Hatchet: he is thanked in that book’s acknowledgements. In fact, a little digging reveals that O’Meara is thanked in the acknowledgements of three of Babstock’s four collections. In the fourth, Babstock’s debut, Mean (1999), O’Meara is the dedicatee. All four of the books are published by House of Anansi, which was acquired by Scott Griffin, namesake and founder of the Griffin Poetry Prize, in 2002. In what is surely a coincidence, Babstock has served as the house’s poetry editor for a number of years. A practically minded onlooker suggested, ‘The Griffin Foundation might be better served writing cheques directly to House of Anansi’s marketing department’.
A collaborative Urdu–German translation project celebrating the Pakistani poet FAIZ AHMED FAIZ (1911–84) was recently launched at the Goethe Institut in Karachi, reports the Pakistan Daily Times (26 May 2012). The bilingual book of poems, entitled Jub Tera Samandar Ankoh Main, features poems in Urdu and German by the revolutionary left-wing intellectual and poet. Faiz’s daughter Salima Hashmi, guest of honour at the ceremony, read her father’s poems and letters and spoke of his experiences following his military arrest in 1951, for alleged involvement in a communist conspiracy to overthrow Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan’s government. Goethe Institut Director Dr Mauel Negwer commented that while Pakistani literature was not very well known in Germany, he hoped that this book would serve as an introduction for Germans to the country’s most important modern poet.
In other translation news, the winner of the 2012 Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize was announced at St Anne’s College, Oxford on 7 June. JUDITH LANDRY received the Prize for her version of the novel New Finnish Grammar by Italian writer Diego Marani (published by literary translation specialists Dedalus). The acclaimed novel was also shortlisted for the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The other translators on the Oxford Weidenfeld shortlist were John Ashbery for Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud (Carcanet), Margaret Jull Costa for Seven Houses in France by Bernardo Atxaga (Harvill Secker), Howard Curtis for How I Lost the War by Filippo Bologna (Pushkin), Rosalind Harvey for Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos (And Other Stories) and Martin McLaughlin for Into the War by Italo Calvino (Penguin).
Walkers striding across Ilkley Moor ‘bar t’at’ may be surprised to stumble across a poem by SIMON ARMITAGE carved into the landscape. Stanza Stones is a project conceived by Ilkley Literature Festival to inscribe six poems at various sites across the West Yorkshire area. In an accompanying education project, local young writers were invited to join Armitage on the moors and respond in their own way to the poems and their setting. Armitage commented, ‘Moors are both brutal and blissful, an essential part of our ecology, economy, our vocabulary and our subconscious.’ Armitage’s six poems ‘celebrate or pay their respects to the element which gave shape and form to this region, namely water, which sculpted the valleys and powered the industries’. Over the course of eighteen months, the Marsden-born poet worked with lettercarver Pip Hall to etch the poems in atmospheric locations at Pule Hill near Marsden, Cow’s Quarry near Littleborough, Nab Hill near Oxenhope, Whetstone Gate on Rombalds Moor, Rivock Edge near Silsden and Backstone Beck on Ilkley Moor. Visit www.ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk to download a free Stanza Stones trail guide containing directions for the six individual walks or, for the more intrepid and spritely PNR reader, the complete 47-mile route.
On 10 June Education Secretary MICHAEL GOVE announced an overhaul of the National Curriculum across England’s primary schools, which will entail children as young as five being expected to recite poetry. The Department for Education said Gove was determined to make English teaching at primary schools ‘more rigorous’. Although any initiative to encourage the enjoyment of poetry among young people is to be applauded, the irony of attempting to realise this noble intention during the same Government term in which Gove’s suavely reprehensible colleague Jeremy Hunt has dismantled the library service and the arts funding system seems lost on him. While some parents and education professionals have welcomed the proposed development, which also encompasses changes to literacy, numeracy and compulsory foreign language learning, others have criticised the plans as heavy-handed and patronising to teachers. Russell Hobby, general secretary of the school leaders’ union (NAHT), said: ‘reciting poetry and learning foreign languages are great for young children: both useful and enjoyable. That’s why almost every primary school in the country teaches them both already.’ He added that teachers should be given the ‘respect and trust for their experience and professionalism’ to know how to teach these subjects. Former children’s laureate Michael Rosen strongly objects to the proposals, writing on his blog, ‘I detect in the latest Gove plan […] what I’ll call the itch to instruct and dictate to teachers and children because it will do them good, that teachers and children themselves can’t or shouldn’t choose, investigate and discover what is suitable and worthwhile.’ Calling it a ‘government diktat’, he added: ‘I have nothing in principle against children learning poems off by heart. My experience of going round schools is that children often know my poems better than me. They seem to have chosen to do that. Schools have chosen to do this. Many are doing it anyway. Stand by for insulting nonsense from central government talking as if teachers aren’t doing what they are doing anyway.’ Visit www.michaelrosenblog.blogspot.co.uk to read his argument in full.
The Iraqi poet and critic RASHID YASEEN ABBAS died in May in St Louis, Missouri. Among the generation of Iraqi poets to emerge during the 1940s and 1950s, Professor Abbas is considered one of the pioneers of modern Arabic poetry. He wrote of his people’s struggle for freedom and their repression, first under the British and later under a series of homegrown strongmen, and was forced to leave Iraq several times because of his views.
Born in Baghdad in 1929 into the family of a Shiite labourer-turned-businessman father, Abbas was encouraged to attend law school and obtain a government job. He quit law school to explore his youthful passion for poetry, however, and became involved in anti-British demonstrations. Exiled for a time in Syria, where he worked for a literary and political journal, he returned home briefly after the Iraqi revolution of 1958 that overturned the monarchy established by the British, leaving Iraq again in 1961, two years before Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party seized power. A period of stability, living in Beirut, came to an end in 1976 when the Lebanese civil war divided the city, and Abbas returned home. He later completed a doctorate in Bulgaria after the fall of the Communist regime, and went on to teach in universities in Yemen and the United States, where he lived from 2004.
An outspoken rebel in both his poetry and politics, Abbas enjoyed alcohol and had no truck with the strict laws of the Islamic faith. He also broke the rules in poetry – rules of some 2,000 years defining shape, rhythm and line length in traditional Middle Eastern forms. He was the author of The Knight of Death, an unabashed attack on Saddam Hussein (who liked to call himself a knight) in which he wrote, `Decades of life have passed while you drank the blood and you still are thirsty and cannot be satisfied.'
This item is taken from PN Review 206, Volume 38 Number 6, July - August 2012.