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Approaching International Poetry in 21st Century England; Part Two

written by the Judge

The second part of our article wishes to discuss the practical aspects of engaging with international poetry. It is dedicated to those who entertain an aspiration to do so. Readers uninterested in putting in the (considerable) work required to branch out of their own poetic culture are welcome to discard it, and should be aware that this article does not wish to pressure anyone into such a study. There is no moral or cultural obligation to read poetry from other countries, any more than there is to read poetry itself. It is not mandatory towards becoming a good poet or a good critic, even though it is indispensable if one wishes to take part in the European discourse that is coming to permeate the rest of the continent (and which is leaving England behind). For the rest, the benefits of approaching international poetry are your own to discover as well as to dismiss, and they can only be termed benefits as long as they are understood as a choice, and not a requirement.

We mentioned the ‘considerable work’ that is necessary to approach international poetry. This is almost entirely related to the process of learning the foreign language of your choice. The challenge involved in finding and researching the poetry is negligible; when approaching a new poetic culture, you will invariably find that selections of local verse have already been made for you, and good material is never too hard to put your hands on, provided that you can access the foreign country you are studying (yes, you do have to go there in person – most of the contemporary material has yet to be translated, and much of it never will be).

Learning the foreign language, however, is the sine qua non of all international poetry. Bilingualism is required even when reading translations into your mother tongue – you must have an understanding of how another language allows for forms of expression that are not possible in English. Lacking this fundamental prerequisite, even finding books in translation does not help, and will never take you past a certain superficial stage.

Thus, engaging with ‘international poetry’ should really be understood as engaging with only one foreign culture. You may expand that number to two or three, but in prospect, as you can only really learn one language at a time. Any use of the expression ‘international poetry’ that is not grounded in this dualistic exchange, and that wishes instead to discuss a global (or otherwise polycultural) scene as a whole, is a fiction by default. Distant poetic cultures do not interact with each other except after centuries, and sometimes not even then (the most potent proof being that literary titans such as Camoens, Mickiewicz or Tasso may remain not only unread but frequently even unknown – not by the common folk, but by the poetry pundits themselves!). And there is no such thing as a global poetry expert – to gain a working knowledge of what is going on even in one continent is a colossal task, one made all the more endless by the fact that smaller countries do not necessarily have correspondingly modest poetic outputs at all (Nicaragua, for example, has a tremendously vital scene which rivals that of other, larger Hispanic countries).

The only reasonable way to approach international poetry, then, is to choose one foreign culture (and language) of special interest and stick with it. This does not mean that you will forever be limited to your initial choice, but it is the only way to start.

Since you can only begin with one language / culture, your choice has to be carefully meditated. Countries very far away will be very difficult but also exotic and fresh, and to people around you, you will become an authority almost by default. Closer cultures and languages will be easier, and you will have many peers: this means greater competition if you wish to use your multilingual skills in criticism or publication, but also greater opportunities for sharing and communicating. Some of them open up new doors. Fluency in Spanish gives access to the entire South American continent bar Brazil, Russian is a popular second language in many Eastern European nations, and French is spoken in Canada, Africa and parts of South East Asia.

Learning a foreign language is a strange prospect. When polyglots are faced with the need of learning a new tongue, they generally approach it with excitement, and their initial progress can be very fast. People who only speak one language, by contrast, often find the whole idea dispiriting, and are slow to get into it. In reality, it is just as hard (or as easy) for both groups. People who already speak multiple languages are only more familiar with the process of learning, and they know that obstacles which initially appear insurmountable (and illusions about one’s own inability or lack of talent) require no more than a little time to be dealt with.

Learning a foreign language does not require exceptional intelligence, and it should be an option available to anyone smart enough to read this article. It does, however, demand strong commitment and patience. Like learning to play a musical instrument, it is a task that takes several years, and in which perfection can never be attained. It is almost impossible to learn only with books, so be prepared to take periodical trips to your country of choice. This is where the European Union becomes helpful. A return flight to a European capital will cost you less than one hundred pounds, with no need for visas; such a trip can be taken several times a year, over weekends if necessary. Flying to Asian, African or American countries will be priced from five-hundred to more than a thousand pounds, and the bureaucracy can be demanding and limiting. Along with the difficulties inherent in exotic languages, one understands why there are so few people who can speak Lingala or Bali.

Tackling foreign poetry means tackling the entire culture that produces it. You are unlikely to understand a poem that references a Bollicao if you don’t know what that is. This is why personal trips to the chosen country are so important, and this is also where learning a foreign language will truly reward you. Of course being able to read Dante and Baudelaire in the original is very nice, but the most surprising material is normally that which does not get translated. Finding out that a country has an entire comics culture that you knew nothing about, or a colourful underground rap scene, or a completely different approach to sports journalism – that’s when the language discloses itself to you, and really shows its benefits. Hopefully, poetry will help you on this path. You may learn a language in order to read poetry, but past a certain level the relation becomes reciprocal, and poetry in turn starts teaching you the language, adding new words to your vocabulary, new turns of phrase to your repertoire, and a new musicality to your cultural ear.

Engagement with international poetry, like engagement with poetry itself, is necessarily proactive. You must go to it, it won’t come to you. This is one of the reasons why lamenting the absence of more translations into English misses the point – no matter how many translations there are, you won’t really get much out of foreign poetry if your viewpoint remains anglocentric; if it remains rooted in the idea that things must go towards English, and not you past that bridge. Changing this perspective may be one of the most difficult things to do, especially for poets born in a culture that neither demands nor encourages learning a foreign language. But it can reward you by opening many doors you did not even know were there, and by giving access – better, perhaps, than anything else – to the particular and fascinating European multi-cultural discourse that defines this continent’s historical moment. Make your own decision as to whether that’s worth the price of admission.

Approaching International Poetry in 21st Century England; Part One.

written by the Judge

International poetry is a difficult topic. It is the specialised branch of a specialised branch: since there are few people reading poetry, it follows logically that only a very select few will read poetry from multiple countries as well. Linguistic barriers are among the most challenging to surmount, and the fact that England has one of the least polyglot cultures in Europe does not exactly help. The first part of this article wishes to discuss some of the characteristics of the current international (and especially European) poetry scene when seen from the English perspective. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or final article on the topic, only an introduction to some of the issues and problems that surround it. The second part will discuss the question of how to approach international poetry in practice.

The political reality of our continent, to the extent that both alliances and rivalries are now mediated by a common regulating body, has in the last half-century increasingly come to be defined by the European Union. Linguistically, we have therefore seen the rise of English as the union’s official language – and this is a matter of great consequence for scholars of poetry. Previous centuries saw intellectuals learning a foreign tongue primarily (though of course not exclusively) for two reasons: so as to be educated in the language of the dominant power, or else for an historical purpose. The former case is well exemplified by the French language, which was learnt and employed between the 18th and 19th Centuries by the English Romantics, by the great Russian novelists and by an assortment of literary figures (Giacomo Casanova, for example) on account of the political and cultural influence held by France. As for the second purpose that we mentioned, it refers to the popularity held by Latin and Greek in the continent’s educational curricula (at certain points, Italian joined that group as well, as the language that gave access to the great medieval authors).

Both these registers have fallen away. The language of the dominant power is now American English, and the popularity of dead languages – even among the educated – has been largely replaced by an unprecedented interest in the living languages of our neighbours. Our relationship with international poetry is now defined – even if unwittingly, unwillingly or indirectly – by our engagement with and our understanding of a collective European culture (the political expression of which is the European Union). Reading Dutch poetry, for example, is the process of interpreting how its points of convergence and divergence with your own country’s poetry reflect the way your two cultures communicate in the context of the larger political union. This is not a conscious decision, any more than reading French poetry was once necessarily intended to be a response to France’s political power. It is simply the international scenario that one is most likely to be confronted with when reaching outside of one’s own country, regardless of whether one subsequently chooses to embrace or resist it.

The European cultural register also defines our relationship with poetry from outside the continent. We understand a Korean poet or poem’s foreignness not so much to our specific country, but to European culture as a whole – even if it makes no sense to speak of this ‘culture’ as something unified. This is not as paradoxical as it may sound, because European culture in the sense that we are talking about it here is not unified, but unifying. If you are indeed able to read Dutch poetry, this will almost certainly be related to how this cultural union has connected you. (Our argument admits to several exceptions, especially when it comes to ex-colonies. The relationship of English readers to Indian literature, or that of French readers to Algerian literature, has its own special status).

In the current geopolitical context, one of the great victims has been English culture – and, by extension, English poetry. The rise of English as the ‘common tongue’ of the continent has excluded the British population from the surge of enthusiasm for multilingual studies which has filled the rest of the European soil with polyglots. The stupidity of English officials – who have seen this process happening for decades and have done nothing about it, even welcoming it as a blessing or a privilege – is mirrored by the stupidity of foreign European officials. A common continental lament may take a similar form: if the English tongue becomes dominant, then in a thousand years nobody will be able to read the books or listen to the songs that we are writing now, much like nobody can read some of the Gaelic or Celtic or ancient Hispanic inscriptions in caves dating from before the Roman (and Latin) invasion.

The oversight here is that languages do not have a half-life of a thousand years – they change spontaneously and ineluctably and become new systems of their own, in a process that is only bound to accelerate in the coming age. Since this mutability is the very source of beauty in language, there is no reason to lament it. And if you really are worried about how your poetry will be understood in 3012 (good luck to you, by the way), then rest assured – it will become illegible well before then, regardless of what language you are writing it in.

As for the present situation, almost every young educated person in non-anglophone Europe is at least bilingual, and sometimes much more than that. This means that Europeans born outside of England have more job opportunities and more academic outlets; they can travel to more countries, with all the openings for new learning and experience that that entails; they have access to more literature, music, art, journalism, criticism, ideas, as well as an instant advantage in anything related to politics, diplomacy, trade or tourism. The irony in all of this is that the ones who should be promoting anglocentrism are all non-English speaking countries, while the only ones fighting against it should be the countries in the UK. Instead it is the other way round!

British poets are but one of the categories damaged by this development. Their burden is not only that a much greater workload is required to gain access to foreign poetry – for learning a foreign language becomes an enterprise, rather than a given – but the fact that they mature and develop into a culture unaware of its own anglocentrism. Scholars and poets desiring to branch outside the confines of their own country usually find themselves funnelled towards American poetry, and this inevitably leads to a sort of provincialism. As importantly, it blinds one to the realities of the European discourse as we have sketched it in this article. The common thread that runs across the various European nations, and which defines this moment of our cultural history, is distinctly weaker and harder to perceive here in England. And if this does not seem like a big deal, remember that missing out on a cultural shift is always your own loss. The Renaissance did not stop by for Russia. Classical music did not wait for the Americans. The mutual cultural integration of the European Union is not going to wait for English literature, unless English poets themselves go out and engage with it.

And this, of course, leads us to the next part of the argument: how do we approach international poetry? The second part of our article will be dedicated to the practicalities around this question. To be published as next week’s feature, still here on


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