World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time

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9780393041309: World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time

The one necessary book of poetry for every home and library.

This long-awaited, indispensable volume contains more than 1600 poems drawn from dozens of languages and cultures, and spans a period of more than 4000 years from ancient Sumer and Egypt to the late twentieth century. World Poetry encompasses the many worlds of poetry, poetry of all styles, of all eras, of all tongues: from the ancient epic of Gilgamesh and the Pharaoh Akhnaten's "Hymn to the Sun" to the haiku of Basho and the dazzling imagery of Li Po; from Vedic hymns to Icelandic sagas to the "Carmina Burana"; from the magnificence of Homer and Dante to the lyricism of Goethe and Verlaine; from the piercing insights of Rilke and Yeats to the revelatory verse of Emily Dickinson, Garcia Lorca, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, and many more.

While World Poetry includes a generous selection of the best English-language verse from Chaucer to the present, it is designed to lay before the reader the best that all the world's cultures have to offer―more than eighty percent of the book is poetry originally written in languages other than English and translated by some of the finest talents working today, many of them brilliant poets in their own right.

This is no mere sampler: In choosing only works of the highest intrinsic quality the editors have created a book that will surprise knowledgeable readers and lead newcomers to an understanding of the glories of world poetry that is our common heritage.

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Review:

World Poetry is an incomparable collection in which the ancient and the contemporary are seamlessly interwoven; it is a cornucopia of surprises. When you turn to the Dante section, instead of finding excerpts from well-known versions of the Commedia, there are selections by poets such as Shelley, Howard Nemerov, Susan Mitchell, and James Schuyler.

World Poetry can be read in the light of Ezra Pound's dicta: points define a periphery. The editors scoured the archives for versions that would stand as poems on their own. When nothing met their standards, as in the case of Victor Hugo, Maurice Scève, or Gottfried Benn, they commissioned new translations. Louis Simpson gives new life to Hugo's famous poem about Napoleon's armies, "Expiation":

It was snowing, always snowing! The cold lash
Whistled. These warriors had no bread to eat,
They walked across the ice with naked feet.
No longer living hearts, they seemed to be
A dream lost in a fog, a mystery,
A march of shadows under a black sky.
Vast solitudes, appalling to the eye,
Stretched out, mute and revengeful, everywhere.
Perhaps the greatest reward that lies in wait is discovering stunning poems by great and good poets who are almost entirely unknown in the English-speaking world, such as Marceline Desbordes-Valmore (1786-1859), Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli (1791-1863), and the amazing Andreas Gryphius (1616-1664), who proves that Petrarch and the Elizabethans aren't the only great sonneteers.
What are we really? Pain's return address.
A ball for luck, blindfolded, to kick around.
A flick of the switch. A stage darkened by fear.
A candle doused, snow melting on bare ground.
Life slips away like gossip or last night's joke.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Whatever breathes will vanish into air.
Our graves are large and lonely. What's left to say?
We're smoke that the wind has caught, and blown away.
(from "Misery," trans. Christopher Benfey)
This book is different from other anthologies in its determination to enable us to experience all poetry as contemporaneous. You will encounter, in all likelihood for the first time, any number of anonymous masterpieces, such as "The Vigil of Venus" translated by David R. Slavitt (anonymous, circa A.D. 200) and "The Old Woman of Beare," translated by Brendan Kenneally (anonymous, circa A.D. 800). Both poems are rendered in elegant yet idiomatic English. "The Old Woman of Beare" is breathtaking: "The sea crawls from the shore / Leaving there / The despicable weed, / A corpse's hair. / In me, / The desolate withdrawing sea."

In the case of your favorite poets, you're bound to quarrel with the selection. It is thrilling to find the "At five in the afternoon" section of Lorca's great elegy to the bullfighter Ignacio Sénchez Mejías, but it seems inappropriate to publish half of Eugenio Montale's "Motets," instead of choosing several of his self-enclosed, dynamic, shorter poems. But arguing with the anthologists is part of the fun, and you're free to return with a vengeance to the poems that you think should have been included. World Poetry is an ideal book to have if you're going to be away from your own library for any amount of time. It is easy to get lost in its opulence, roaming the points of its compass.

About the Author:

Clifton Fadiman is an editor, television personality, and the longest serving judge at Book-of-the-Month Club, member of the advisory board to the Encyclopedia Britannica, and author of many books.

John S. Major is an editor at Book-of-the-Month Club and author of ten books about East Asia.

Katharine Washburn is an editor and translator. She lives in New York.

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