New Directions is pleased to announce that Albanian poet Luljeta Lleshanaku has won 2009’s Kristal Vilenice Prize—an award that will not only sustain her already well-established career, but also alter its trajectory onward and upward. She is in august company—previous recipients of the Prize have included Milan Kundera, Adam Zagajewski, Peter Handke, and Zbigniew Herbert. In awarding her the Prize, the jury summed up its sentiments:
Luljeta Lleshanaku’s poems take place in a melancholy landscape of mountain villages, chestnut trees, and collapsing futures where ‘spring kills solitude with its solitude’ and the only emotional expression not considered a sign of weakness is impatience. The place of her poems is like a zero point that can only look out from itself in all directions at once. But the poet looks inward beyond paradox, and, instead of judgment, she finds recognition. In Lleshanuku’s work, geography and soul are charted on the same map. The rhythms of her new poems are expertly managed to enact vulnerability and withdrawal. Her lines stretch out and suddenly retract into fragments with the sensitivity of snail horns. She doesn’t juxtapose so much as she integrates the peculiar and the familiar. A vernacular sentence can open into an unforeseeable corollary abstraction. The 2009 jury is delighted to present this year’s Kristal Vilenice prize to Luljeta Lleshanuku.
Luljeta Lleshanaku was born in Albania, in 1968, and came of age during the Albanian Cultural Revolution. She was only 22 when the dictatorship collapsed, relaxing the brutal censorship of the previous several decades, and resulting in a flowering of contemporary Albanian culture. As with so many writers, Lleshanaku’s career began in journalism—she was editor-in-chief of the weekly magazine Zëri i rinisë (The Voice of Youth). Lleshanaku then took a step towards poetry when she began to work for the literary paper Drita, later becoming a full-time poet. The last decade and a half has been marked by phenomenal success: Lleshanaku has published four volumes of poetry, one of which, Fresco, has been translated into English (by Henry Israeli) and published by New Directions. She has gained as much attention and as many awards and accolades as a minor-language poet can in today’s literary world, including a teaching post at the University of Iowa; her winning the Kristal Vilenice, then, culminates a brilliant period of work.
What distinguishes the poetry of Luljeta Lleshanaku? The critic Peter Constantine speaks of her poetry’s “remarkable variety of themes,” but this belies the simplicity of her works, which sometimes borders on starkness. Take, for example, the first three lines of ‘Irreversible Landscapes,’ available (with some of her newer stuff) online here: “Irreversible is the river / on whose back / dead leaves swirl.” What makes Luljeta’s poetry so daring, and so striking, is her willingness to explore old poetic tropes: there is little novel in writing about rivers and leaves, and the next two lines—“Irreversible are words / the dust of roads”—are also a familiar association. It is the ease and earnestness with which she transitions from one trope to another that are so arresting: by eschewing the abstruseness of modern poetry, Luljeta’s work is conservative yet fresh, and though it shuns irony for sincerity, her verse never falls prey to self-consciousness or self-parody.
Rivers, words, roads: another recurring theme is the connection between purity and artifice, permanence and transience, nature and man. People are characterized as earth—“even when skin comes to moss”—and forces of nature are anthropomorphized—my favorite passage from her oeuvre reads, “Where the wind with its toothless mouth blows / luring in tides…” There is something primal in these lines, as in the best of poetry. Constantine writes, “…one of the elements that distinguishes Luljeta Lleshenaku’s poetry is the absence of direct social and political commentary,” but this absence is a choice of which the reader is always conscious, especially since the poet’s background is in a blood-soaked country where, for decades, poets were not allowed to practice “abstract humanism, anarchism, bourgeois objectivism … patriarchalism, revisionism, or sentimentalism, to name a few.” By declining to mention the Revolution or the dictatorship directly, Luljeta indicates her desire to write poetry that transcends them—the Cultural Revolution comes and goes, but rivers, words, roads are timeless, “irreversible.” She concludes her first poem in Fresco with this pretty stanza, where Israeli’s sensitive translation captures the musicality of the original Albanian: “There is no destiny, only laws of biology; / fish splash in water / pine trees breathe on mountains.”
Though Luljeta surmounts and surpasses the profound difficulties of her country’s past, and its continued struggle in the present, her poetry is still subtly shaped by these circumstances: the same poem that ends with biology, fish, and pine trees begins with “There is no prophecy, only memory / What happens tomorrow / has happened a thousand years ago.” The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past, and Constantine’s introduction adumbrates this essential context for Luljeta’s work: “Poets and novelists,” he writes, “were forced to volunteer to strengthen their ties to the land by working in the fields.” And yet the past, though it determines the present, is something that fades before the immediacy and beauty of now, and now is nothing if not Luljeta’s time.
The Kristal Vilenice, though little known in the Anglophone world, is Eastern Europe’s most prominent prize for poetry. It is unique among awards of its kind for encompassing a broad swath of languages, nationalities, and traditions—from Kundera, writing in Czech, to Handke in German and Zagajewski and Herbert in Polish. Recent recipients have included Valzina Mort, of Belarus, and Kaca Celan, of Serbia. Luljeta is the first Albanian to win the prize. Though the Kristal Vilenice comes with no monetary perk, it is our hope and expectation that its prestige and publicity will enable Luljeta to continuously pursue a long, full, and successful career in poetry. At New Directions we are also very proud to welcome Luljeta into our ‘modern canon’ of published poets, which places her in equally august company—alongside Ezra Pound, Dylan Thomas, and Kenneth Rexroth. Another volume of poetry, translated into English, is forthcoming from New Directions. Congratulations, Luljeta!
More biographical information, as well as links to her poetry (online and in print), is available at the New Directions-maintained Wikipedia article.
I once heard a president of a publishing house say that the greatest joy of working in publishing was that it provided an education. Certainly, in my decade of working in publishing, I’ve been lucky to be exposed to many books in various categories that I would never have even heard of if it wasn’t for the companies I worked for and with. At New Directions, the central aesthetic of Modernism which shaped James Laughlin’s tastes abides and extends to even recent publications as an important tradition.
I was reminded of that in scanning through my shelves at work and randomly picking up Basil Bunting’s Complete Poems which were published by New Directions in 2000. Here’s a poet who was influenced by Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky (Pound’s Guide to Kulchur is dedicated to Bunting and Zukofsky), who almost fell into obscurity until the publication of the masterful Briggflatts. Yet, as someone who spent quite a few years studying poetry, I had never heard of him until, while working with New Directions, the editors presented the book. This is a language melodic but hewn, playful but elaborate and grand, words that should be read by most anyone who cares about poetry.
Here is a portion of the first part of Briggflatts.
Brag, sweet tenor bull,
descant on Rawthey’s madrigal,
each pebble its part
for the fells’ late spring.
Dance tiptoe, bull,
black against may.
Ridiculous and lovely
chase hurdling shadows
morning into noon.
May on the bull’s hide
and through the dale
furrows fill with may,
paving the slowworm’s way.
A mason times his mallet
to a lark’s twitter,
listening while the marble rests,
lays his rule
at a letter’s edge,
till the stone spells a name
a man abolished.
Painful lark, labouring to rise!
The solemn mallet says:
In the grave’s slot
he lies. We rot.
Decay thrusts the blade,
wheat stands in excrement
trembling. Rawthey trembles.
Tongue stumbles, ears err
for fear of spring.
Rub the stone with sand,
wet sandstone rending
roughness away. Fingers
ache on the rubbing stone.
The mason says: Rocks
happen by chance.
No one here bolts the door,
love is so sore.
Stone smooth as kin,
cold as the dead they load
on a low lorry by night.
The moon sits on the fell
but it will rain.
Under sacks on the stone
two children lie,
hear the horse stale,
the mason whistle,
harness mutter to shaft,
felloe to axle squeak,
rut thud the rim,
Stocking to stocking, jersey to jersey,
head to a hard arm,
they kiss under the rain,
bruised by their marble bed.
In Garsdale, dawn;
at Hawes, tea from the can.
Rain stops, sacks
steam in the sun, they sit up.
and Baltic plainsong speech
declare: By such rocks
men killed Bloodaxe.
Fierce blood throbs in his tongue,
Skulls cropped for steel caps
huddle round Stainmore.
Their becks ring onlimestone,
whisper to peat.
The clogged cart pushes the horse downhill.
In such soft air
they trudge and sing,
laying the tune frankly on the air.
All sounds fall still,
Bunting covers a range of subjects within such brief lines. His smooth transitions from a bull dancing to death and decay to a kiss and then hide-and-seek peewit are all accomplished in an alliterative language that combines plainer language with powerful consonants (such as “Decay thrusts the blade/wheat stands in excrement” with its dental sounds).
Looking through the New Directions’ library, my finger crossed over the spines of many books, quite a few yellowed and frayed edges, until I stopped upon the slender 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry: George Oppen’s Of Being Numerous. Here’s #27 of the long poem:
It is difficult now to speak of poetry —
about those who have recognized the range of choice or those who have lived within the life they were born to –. It is not precisely a question of profundity but a different order of experience. One would have to tell what happens in a life, what choices present themselves, what the world is for us, what happens in time, what thought is in the course of a life and therefore what art is, and the isolation of the actual
I would want to talk of rooms and of what they look out on and of basements, the rough walls bearing the marks of the forms, the old marks of wood in the concrete, such solitude as we know —
and the swept floors. Someone, a workman bearing about him, feeling about him that peculiar word like a dishonored fatherhood has swept this solitary floor, this profoundly hidden floor — such solitude as we know.
One must not come to feel that he has a thousand threads in his hands,
He must somehow see the one thing;
This is the level of art
There are other levels
But there is no other level of art
On reading Oppen, one cannot help but feel a somewhat awed respect at Oppen’s hewing to honesty, not so much as a style of vernacular but of choosing the words that most clearly approached his thoughts….or so it strikes me. There is something of the American Transcendentalist, perhaps, in him: that seeking for larger meaning within the details of the daily life, as well as a persistent seeking — a questioning that elicits further thinking but not necessarily answers.
Even though we no longer publish Of Being Numerous as a stand-alone volume, we do have a collected volume which contains a CD of Oppen reading. I found listening to Oppen a revelation, that deep voice that enunciated each word as carefully as they were written.
From the online independent music magazine, Pitchfork:
“Nimble indie rapper and former Pitchfork writer Rollie Pemberton, aka Cadence Weapon, is now a poet motherf–king laureate. According to The Canadian Press, on July 1, Pemberton will officially start his two-year tenure as laureate of his native city, Edmonton, Alberta.
To be clear: There is a guy who used to write for Pitchfork who is now a poet laureate. See mom, I told you this isn’t a dead-end career!
But, in true hip-hop fashion, there are a few haters none too happy with the appointment. Swagger jackers include departing laureate E.D. Blodgett, ‘a 74-year-old professor emeritus who has published 19 collections of poetry,’ according to The Globe and Mail.
But Pemberton is brushing them off, saying, ‘Maybe I should have a poet battle. If people have beef, we’ll see who has the illest prose. Who can do a poem about a flower better? I can make you feel like this flower is in your mouth, man. Delicate.’ Somebody get Smack DVD on line one!
Just last month, we released our two new selections of Kenneth Rexroth’s translations, Written on the Sky: Poems from the Japanese and Songs of Love, Moon, and Wind: Poems from the Chinese.
About a week or so ago, I received an email from one bookseller commenting on the books, saying that he generally found Rexroth’s Chinese translations more interesting than the Japanese ones but also expressing an ambivalence about a certain flatness of tone in Rexroth’s translation. Not knowing any Chinese, I asked one of the editors who speaks and reads Chinese. The editor replied that the bookseller was correct, that there is a certain flatness in Rexroth’s translations but it was that exact quality which he liked so much in Rexroth’s translations. However, he went on to say that he knew poets who preferred David Hinton’s translations.
I’ve been meaning to hunt down a Chinese poem translated by various translators to do a comparison…so I turned to The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry. New Directions has a long history of publishing poems from the Chinese since they first published Ezra Pound’s translations which Pound worked through to arrive at his Ideogrammic method of poetry. Many of the classic Chinese poems that are being translated today are the same poems that were translated by Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams.
In light of the email, here are some comparison translations of a poem by Meng Hao-Jen:
William Carlos Williams’ translation:
Steering my little boat towards a misty islet,
I watch the sun descent while my sorrows grow:
In the vast night the sky hangs lower than the treetops,
But in the blue lake the moon is coming close.
Kenneth Rexroth’s translation:
Night on the Great River
We anchor the boat alongside a hazy island.
As the sun sets I am overwhelmed with nostalgia.
The plain stretches away without limit.
The sky is just above the tree tops.
The river flows quietly by.
The moon comes down amongst men.
Gary Snyder’s translation:
Mooring on Chien-Te River
The boat rocks at anchor by the misty island
Sunset, my loneliness comes again.
In these vast wilds the sky arches down to the trees.
In the clear river water, the moon draws near.
How personal and interpretative, a rewriting in essence, a translation can be is revealed in these variations. In the first translation, Williams leaves the poem untitled while Snyder and Rexroth give quite different meanings to the title. Rexroth’s Night on the Great River is quiet and static while Snyder’s uses the verb “mooring”. I was struck by how both Williams and Snyder used the word “misty” while Rexroth used “hazy.” Additionally, Rexroth’s choice of “nostalgia” has a very different tone than Snyder’s loneliness or Williams’ more dramatic “sorrow.” Rexroth’s translation is looser, less condensed. While not quite vernacular, there is an almost everydayness to Rexroth’s language.
And here’s the same poem by Li Po translated respectively by Ezra Pound and David Hinton:
Ezra Pound’s translation:
Separation on the River Kiang
Ko-jin goes west from Ko-kaku-ro,
The smoke-flowers are blurred over the river.
His lone sail blots the far sky.
And now I see only the river,
The long Kiang, reaching heaven.
David Hinton’s translation:
On Yellow-Crane Tower, Farewell to Meng Hao-Jan Who’s Leaving for Yang-Chou
From Yellow-Crane Tower, my old friend leaves the west.
Downstream to Yang-chou, late spring a haze of blossoms,
distant glints of lone sail vanish into emerald-green air:
nothing left but a river flowing on the borders of heaven.
In this poem by Li Po, if I didn’t see the two translations set side by side, I would think that they were actually two different poems. Pound’s translation embodies much of the musicality in his Cantos, and I assume that he’s freestyling much more than Hinton in order to achieve alliteration. While the difference between the two can be seen (the short title by Pound and the long title by Hinton), it is most obvious when reading the translations out loud. Pound’s short lines and muscular language makes for a more staccato read while Hinton’s word choices which are heavier on vowels forces the tongue to slow down.
By the way, even though the translations are by various translators, it’s worth mentioning that The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry, Written on the Sky, as well as Songs of Love, Moon and Wind were all put together by the singular Eliot Weinberger.
There was a recent contest by poets.org to see who could best render the text of poems in a visual way. Sixteen winners had their renderings featured on the website, including William Carlos William’s “The Red Wheelbarrow”. This was featured in the newsletter, but I thought there were other neat renderings (Denise Levertov’s “Now Shall I Walk Barefoot?” spelled out with many pairs of shoes on a sidewalk; a bar overlooking a bridge with Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning” sort of spray painted on the metal (I say sort of because the artistic culprit wrote “I’m Not Waving I’m Drowning” and credited himself…weird); as well a section of Inger Christensen long poem written in Danish on the side of a building! If anyone knows how to get to this building, please write the directions in the comment box.
I thought some of the other visualized poems that featured among others David Berman (the cake), Edna St. Vincent Millay (the candle), and Robert Frost (the swimmer’s) were fantastic. I’m not an active reader of the two latter, but I think David Berman is the bee’s knees.
In a way these remind me of Kenneth Patchen’s wonderfully visualized poems. Last year’s We Meet and The Walking-Away World were both given laudatory introductions from both musician Devendra Banhart as well as cartoonist Jim Woodring. It was great to read their words of praise for Patchen and his highly idiosyncratic visual poems. (It would be great if Patchen were “discovered” by The American Folk Art Museum adjacent to Moma…ahem). Though I was disappointed not to find any of Patchen’s work on poets.org, poetryfoundation.org had a series a year ago titled “The Poem as Comic Strip” and yes, a Patchen poem was graphically rendered in a four paneled strip by Ron Regé Jr..
Recently, Lawrence Ferlinghetti celebrated his 90th birthday quietly with the staff at City Lights Bookstore. The documentary on Ferlinghetti will also premiere in San Francisco at the International Film Festival on April 28.
While I knew about the indecency trial over the publication of Howl and had often browsed the stacks of City Lights Bookstore, as well as owning City Lights publications, I didn’t know that Ferlinghetti, as a Navy commander, had been at Nagasaki shortly after the bomb fell there. It was that experience which turned him into a lifelong pacifist and started Ferlinghetti ruminating on politics.
In an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, Ferlinghetti spoke about the beginnings of his political consciousness:
LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: I think Nagasaki did it. I mean, I had grown up as an all-American boy. I had been a Boy Scout in the suburbs, an Eagle Scout, except I got busted for stealing pencils from the five- and ten-cent store the same week I made Eagle Scout. But besides little incidents like that, I was a true blue American boy, and I—
AMY GOODMAN: So they sent you away to—
LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: I had no idea—I don’t remember ever even hearing of a conscientious objector on the East Coast during the Second World War. It was only when I came to San Francisco and I started listening to KPFA, which had been founded by conscientious objectors, and—
AMY GOODMAN: Did you know Lou Hill?
LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: Yes, I met Lou Hill. I think I was on the air while he was still around. And I knew Kenneth Rexroth through—you could say I was totally illiterate politically until I ran into these guys. I mean, that’s where I got my political education from, KPFA and from listening to Kenneth Rexroth and his Friday night soirees. And he considered himself a philosophical anarchist. I mean—
AMY GOODMAN: Explain who Kenneth Rexroth is, especially for young people.
LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: Well, Rexroth was the leading elder poet in San Francisco in the 1950s when I arrived, and he had a program on KPFA. And he didn’t review just literature. He reviewed every subject—geology, anthropology, astronomy, philosophy—and it seemed as he had this encyclopedic knowledge. And I used to go to his house on his Friday night soirees. I would just sit in the—the first six months I didn’t even dare open my mouth. I was totally out of my depth. I didn’t know what he was talking about most of the time.
New Directions recently reprinted Ferlinghetti’s Poetry as Insurgent Art. Here’s an excerpt:
Glory in the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will.
Don’t blow bubbles of despair.
Poetry is seeds and buds, not twigs. Smoke it to get high.
Generate collective joy in the face of collective gloom.
Secretly liberate any being you see in a cage.
Liberate have-nots and enrage despots.
Sound a barbarous yawp over the roofs of the world.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Ferlinghetti…poet, citizen, bookseller.
“Poetry is not language at play, but language out of work, deliberately unemployed—thus poetry commits a kind of welfare fraud upon us all.” ~Christian Bok
While I was doing my usual few minutes of Twitter, I ran across this interesting rumination by the poet Christian Bok on his Twitter page. One takes illumination where one can, whether it’s thought-provoking graffiti art, a beautiful little book of architectural projects at Kinokuniya where I was browsing this evening (one tremendous project outlined was a greenhouse made with a structure that allowed the greenhouse to sway gently in the wind, reflecting the movement of plants in the wind), graphic art on blogs, or a tweet by an innovative poet on the nature of language in poetry.
There is a sort of duplicity in the language of poetry, or as I heard Marie Ponsot once say: “Each word in a poem should function on at least three levels.” I loved that “at least” implying the infinity of language.
In a poem, language is unlike language in journalism. It is not a straightforward communication. If language can be thought of as being vertical or horizontal, language in poetry is neither but a meandering, a layering on, a drilling into, an obfuscation, a condensation, a crystallization, a multiplicity…often to convey a truth that cannot be arrived at in a straight manner. Rather than an algebra formula, I think of language in poetry as a Venn diagram with so many circles of meaning intertwining with and colliding into each other.
Raymond Queneau, along with his translator Barbara Wright, is a big favorite in the house. Each time I pick up my copy of Exercises in Style with the whimsical doodles on the cover, I want to giggle…and sometimes, I do. And almost always, I giggle out loud when I read the book. While the book itself is a novel, of sorts (if the book can be categorized in such a prosaic fashion…oops, pun unintended), it does contain some verse recounting the minor spat on the bus. Here are two accounts:
One midday in the bus–the S-line was its ilk–
I saw a little runt, a miserable milk–
Sop, voicing discontent, although around his turban
He had a plaited cord, this fancy-pants suburban.
Now hear what he complained of, this worm-metamorphosis
With disproportionate neck, suffering from halitosis:
–A citizen standing near him who’d come to man’s estate
Was constantly refusing to circumnavigate
His toes, each time a chap got in the bus and rode,
Panting, and late for lunch, towards his chaste abode.
But scandal was there none; this sorry personage
Espied a vacant seat–made thither quick pilgrimage.
As I was going back towards the Latin Quarter
I saw him once again, this youth of milk-and-water.
And heard his foppish friend telling him with dispassion:
“The opening of your coat is not the latest fashion.”
Summer S long neck
plait hat toes abuse retreat
station button friend
It’s sheer genius: to convey the anecdote in such radically different formats, the Alexandrine with its discursive long lines, and the haiku with its brevity manipulated into an almost telegram-like language. Also, kudos to Barbara Wright, the wonderful translator who managed to interpret Queneau’s French with such panache.
Speaking of telegrams…:
BUS CROWDED STOP YNGMAN LONGNECK
PLAITENCIRCLED HAT APOSTROPHISES
UNKNOWN PASSENGER UNAPPARENT
REASON STOP QUERY FINGERS FEET HURT
CONTACT HEEL ALLEGED PURPOSELY STOP
YNGMAN ABANDONS DISCUSSION PRO-
VACANT SEAT STOP 1400 HOURS PLACE
ROME YNGMAN LISTENS SARTORIAL
ADVICE FRIEND STOP MOVE BUTTON STOP
The first time I heard a ghazal was twelve years ago at a small reading at PEN America’s office in New York when they put together an intimate event for an Iranian poet. At that time, I was working at PEN and was madly typing away on my computer while the reading was going on in PEN’s open office space (cubicles to one side of shelving with an open event space on the other), and occasionally hearing a word here and there. At the end, I grabbed the folder with the poems of the poet whose name I have since forgotten…only remembering hearing that she was a poet in exile and then reading the ghazal on a xeroxed page. I have lost that xeroxed ghazal despite searching through many loose pages of xeroxed poems which are always flitting about in my messy place.
Her ghazal was a traditional love poem, but Americans have used many different topics to intervweave with the ghazal form. I was particularly struck by the two radically different ghazals by Forrest Gander and Peter Cole.
Forrest Gander’s ghazal:
Moon and Page Ghazal
Before the neutrinos could interact with matter, they went out.
His voice hardened. The foreplay went out.
Through a pocked sky he dragged her by the rope in her mouth.
She didn’t like it. When he opened the door, her stray went out.
To wound him no deeper than to awaken him, she thought.
Under eaves, the buzzing of mud daubers in their piped clay went out.
That could not be his meaning, on two legs walking backward.
But whoever heard her pray went out.
Only a fly responds to a moving hand in thirty milliseconds.
Biting the hole in her lip as each day went out.
They met at the footsteps of the altar, in a groined chamber of salt.
Forever, she said — flash — smiling as the bridesmaid went out.
And Peter Cole’s:
The Ghazal of What Hurt
Pain froze you, for years — and fear — leaving scars.
But now, as though miraculously, it seems here you are
walking easily across the ground, and into town
as though you were floating on air, which in part you are,
or riding a wave of what feels like the world’s good will —
though helped along by something foreign and older than you are
and yet much younger too, inside you, and so palpable
an X-ray, you’re sure, would show it, within the body you are,
not all that far beneath the skin, and even in
some bones. Making you wonder: Are you what you are —
with all that isn’t actually you having flowed
through and settled in you, and made you what you are?
The pain was never replaced, nor was it quite erased.
It’s memory now — so you know just how lucky you are.
You didn’t always. Were you then? And where’s the fear?
Inside your words, like an engine? The car you are?!
Face it, friend, you most exist when you’re driven
away, or on — by forms and forces greater than you are.