A Review/Essay on A World Assembly of Poets
By Jonah Raskin
Geoffrey Chaucer was the first English poet to be buried in London’s Westminster Abbey. His burial took place in 1400, before Gutenberg and his invention of movable type and before Columbus and his initial voyage across the Atlantic to a place he called America.
Ever since 1400, dozens of poets have been buried in Westminster Abbey, some of them well known—as least to poetry lovers—like Tennyson and Browning, others hardly known as all—like Isaac Barrow and Adam Fox— even to scholars of poetry.
Lord Byron died in 1824, but was not given a memorial until 1969. The congregation of so many dead poets—and novelists and playwrights, too—in one place prompted, at some unspecified date, the use of the name “Poets’ Corner” to describe it.
For thousands of years, poets have occupied a strange place not only in the pages of literature but also in the cultures and the societies they have memorialized in verse. As poet laureates, they’ve been honored, but they’ve also been treated as alien creatures that belong in a corner and not mixed-in with the likes of ordinary men and women. And sometimes, as in the case of Chaucer, they’re buried in unmarked graves.
In his essay at the start of A World Assembly of Poets (Re-Markings $19.00; re-markings.com), Professor Nibir K. Ghosh wonders why Plato banished poets from his republic, and why also ancient Athens condemned Socrates to death. The reasons are not as obscure as they may seem. Poets are inherently subversive, as the work in this new volume amply demonstrates. Read Veronique Tadjo, Frank M. Chipasula and Obari Gomba and listen to the sense of outrage and compassion.
Poetry—real poetry and not drivel or doggerel, though even doggerel has its place—undermines power, wealth and authority. Or if they don’t actually undermine the hegemony of kings, presidents and dictators they aim to unsettle the world. And sometimes as with T.S. Eliot in “The Waste Land,” they subvert language itself.
Indeed, poets pledge allegiance, if they pledge it at all, to poetry. Well they might because poetry is always in danger and in need of defending, though it’s much beloved by school boys and girls who can recite from memory lines of their favorite verse.
They also dream about growing up and becoming poets like Shelley, like Sylvia Plath, or like Tagore. But somewhere along the line they often decide, or are forced by circumstances, to become bankers, tradesmen, doctors, lawyers, midwives and teachers. Wallace Stevens worked as an executive for an insurance company. His profession didn’t adversely impact his creativity.
A great many of the poets included in A World Assembly of Poets are or were employed by colleges and universities, as their brief, fascinating biographies indicate. The Gambian, Tijan M. Sallah, the guest editor for A World Assembly of Poets, taught at several American universities before he went to work for the World Bank. The Ghanaian Poet, Kofi Anyidoho, teaches at the University of Ghana. Arun Kamal is a professor of English at Patna University in Patna, and David Ray was until his retirement a professor at the University of Missouri.
English departments in Asia, Africa and the Americans often house poets, though some poets such as the Brazilian Izacyl Gusmares Ferreira have worked as cultural attachés for their country’s embassies.
As the California poet Ed Coletti likes to say, “there’s no money in poetry.” He might have added that there’s poetry in money. (See, for example, Allen Ginsberg’s poem “The Velocity of Money.”)
In his introductory essay, Sallah makes a valiant effort to define poetry in terms of geography and nationality.
“If American poetry is geared to the individual and the particular, the poetry of Asia is dominated by public and spiritual concerns,” he writes. But what is one to make of the poetry of Meera Ekkanath Klein who was born in India and who has spent most of her adult life in California? In “Melting Pot” she writes both provocatively and proudly that she is “Americanized on the outside/ with a south Indian core/ Indian as apple pie/ American as samosas.”
Or, again, what does one make of the poetry of Ariel Dorfman, who was born in Chile, forced into exile after the coup that toppled the legally-elected government of Salvador Allende, and who then for many years served as a professor at Duke?
Whether they have passports or not, poets are exiles and émigrés who belong to the country of poetry. Poets defy categories and labels.
Sallah is on firmer ground when he writes about individual poets, and not on poetry and nationality.
“The poetry of the Chinese poet, Liu Hongbin,” he writes, “gives us the sad nostalgia of the involuntary émigré who wants to return but cannot because of inhospitable politics at home.”
Sallah also notes that Mao Tse Tung “scribbled brainwashing ideological poetry.” But not all of Mao’s poetry is propaganda and ideological. In “Region of the Great Pines,” from 1933, Mao wrote: “Red orange yellow green blue violet./ Who is dancing in the sky—holding the colorful ribbon/ of the rainbow?” As a dictator, Chairman Mao’s poetry declined in quality and quantity, but as a kind of bandit and rebel he wrote memorable verse.
In 1972, near the end of the cultural revolution, Willis Barnstone, an American poet, translated Mao’s work into English. The original Chinese sits side-by-side with the translations.
Most of the poems in A World Assembly of Poets could be described as “subversive,” but they probably would not be called “experimental” or “avant-garde.” On the page, they look box-like and boxed-in, though that’s not true, for example, of Stephen Symons four-stanza poem, “The Smell of the Sea (Or Losing My Country),” which takes liberties with its lines:
A salted tongue of
memory, licking cloud
from the moon.
Haki R. Madhubuti plays with form in “Denied Substantial and Fundamental Creation”
it is now in the
you love that may
determine that you
Only the word “God”—the very last word in the poem—is capitalized. All the others are lower case.
This volume ends appropriately with a playful, yet pensive poem by Joanna Chen titled “By the Time You Read This,” that goes, “By the time you read this/ it will be late/and I will be far away…/Or perhaps/ you will be far away/ and I will be here.”
The poems in A World Assembly of Poets are about separations and associations. They’re about coming together and moving apart, the linking of isolated experiences and the distance between lonely individuals.
In person, the poets represented here might not be as cordial as one might like them to be. Poets (at least in California, where I live) are notoriously competitive, perhaps because there is so little, materially speaking, to fight about.
On the page, the poets cozy up to one another, enhance each other’s work and echo each other’s sentiments, even while they preserve their own unique voices. Indeed, it’s the voices that make this volume a treasure. Close your eyes and you can hear the poets reciting their own work, sometimes to the beat of a drum or the wail of a saxophone.
If you read one anthology of poetry this year, make it A World Assembly of Poets. I can almost guarantee that you won’t be sorry. I can almost guarantee that you will be saddened, elated, provoked and delighted.