Sunday, 28 November 2010

Penguin Modern European Poets

Somebody thought I might appreciate the poems by Dan Pagis in the Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse. Indeed I did -- here are a couple of pages from the book. Note particularly ‘Written in Pencil in the Sealed Freight Car’. (Click to enlarge.)

‘The Portrait’ continues over the page so that the whole prose translation goes:

The child is not sitting still. It’s hard for me to catch the line of his cheeks. I draw one line and his wrinkles multiply. I dip the brush and his lips become twisted, his hair goes grey, his skin, turning blue, peels from his bones. He is gone. The old man is gone, and I, what am I to do.

I realised the name Dan Pagis was familiar and remembered that in one school or other I’d used ‘The Last Ones’, in a verse translation that I imagine I got from the journal Modern Poetry in Translation, to which my wife and I used to subscribe, I think after attending one magnificent International Poetry Festival at the Royal Festival Hall.

But at first I wondered whether I’d got it from one of the volumes in the Penguin Modern European Poets series of which I collected quite a number in the 70s and which, unlike the journals or all my lovely typed and duplicated sheets of poems and extracts (has any former colleague still got a set?) I've kept. The answer was no, but on the shelf was the volume of the other Hebrew poet, Yehuda Amichai. I used him, too -- this one, in fact (probably at Knowles Hill School in Newton Abbot in about 1981):

Poems like this I didn’t know what to do with in the classroom, beyond a rather undirected discussion or an invitation, rarely taken up, to just write something in response. (That, I think, was the result of a university education in which there was almost no serious help with reading modern poetry. The exception was some good teaching on Eliot by John Carey.) But I did know the kids should be reading it, so often we just did that - either I read it with them and came back to poems repeatedly, or I gave them batches to read on their own, which not a few enjoyed doing. As for ‘work’ on them, that more or less stumped me - and I'm not sure what was lost by its absence.

Two thoughts:

Why no Penguin Modern European Poets now? slim, popular, cheap -- older students at Walworth used to buy them. (At least, I know one who did.) Translated poetry is still published, but nowhere near as accessibly. Not everything in our society gets worse, but this is one thing that has.

Does any English teacher in any British state school now use poetry in translation that he or she has found in a real book or journal and not a school (i.e. often exam board) anthology?

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