Saturday, April 26, 2008

Review of Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond

Over the past year, I have eagerly anticipated the publication of Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond (edited by Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal, and Ravi Shankar, W.W. Norton, 2008, 734 pp.). Sometimes when you eagerly anticipate the delivery of a new book on the virtual doorstep of your local transnational online bookseller, the work itself does not meet your lofty expectations, but I am happy to say that I am delighted with Language for a New Century, which is a triumph on so many levels.

I think that the anthology greatly benefits from Carolyn Forche's foreword, Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal, and Ravi Shankar's preface, and each of Tina Chang's, Nathalie Handal's, and Ravi Shankar's short personal essays before each section, which are elegantly written and effectively contextualize the geographical, linguistic, national, and thematic terrain of the poetry. The preface thoroughly outlines the selection criteria for poems in the anthology: 1) a broad definition of "the East", 2) representation of a broad selection of countries and nationalities, 3) the definition of "contemporary poetry" as post-1946, 4) a broad representation of various schools/styles of poetry, 5) a balance of emerging and established poets from different generations, 6) the selection of many different aesthetic sensibilities, 7) the publication of at least one book, with limited exceptions, and 8) the inclusion of translations. In the preface, the editors also explain the organization of the poems into nine major thematic sections -- characterized by Forche in her excellent foreword as "childhood, selfhood, experimentation, oppression, mystery, war, homeland and exile, spiritual life, love and sexuality, from Afghanistan to Yemen" (p. xxxi). Elegant touches like the inclusion of a country index and language list, along with more traditional features like author, translator, and editor biographies, permissions acknowledgments, and a general index (along with an explanation of the rationale behind the inclusion of a country index) further exemplify the wonderful editing. In short, I think that the editors have organized the anthology clearly, intelligently, and thougtfully.

Yet while clear, intelligent, and thoughtful, the anthology is also bold, ambitious, and makes major claims about the natures and meanings of Asian and Asian-American poetry. A reader should not simply dismiss the book as a coffee-table anthology. Each of the eight criteria for inclusion noted above, though I tend to agree with all of them, raises such difficult questions as, 1) why does the "East" not include more of Europe or Africa?, 2) what about Caucasian or African-American poets who were raised in Asia or have lived in Asia for a long time, who write about Asia extensively in their poetry, or who have written poems in such forms as haiku, ghazals, or pantoums?, 3) does the inclusion of poets from so many different nationalities necessarily exclude certain poets from "overrepresented" nationalities (like Indian and Chinese poets) from having a poem appear in the anthology? I think that the editors correctly do not raise such questions in the preface, as it would have probably lengthened and disrupted the flow of the preface, but I think that such questions are worth considering in a careful reading of the anthology.

Perhaps all of these questions point to, in my opinion, one of the most interesting and provocative elements of the anthology, which is the "effort to include as many crucial voices as possible" and to do so by "cho[osing] one poem per poet" (xxxvii). I think that the editors do successfully accomplish the important goal of including as many poets as possible, though at times, that causes the anthology to have the effect of feeling like The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics in the sense that the inclusion of just one poem -- as opposed to several poems per poet, as was done in The Open Boat (ed. Garrett Hongo) and Asian-American Poetry: The Next Generation (ed. Victoria Chang) anthologies -- may limit our understanding and appreciation of the work of any particular poet. But I feel for the editors here, as the inclusion of more than one poem from a given poet would probably have led either to a volume of an unmanageable size or to the exclusion of certain poets from the anthology. I think that the editors made a justfiable decision in limiting the number of poems per poet, but it must not have been easy. One almost wants this anthology, as in the tradition of the first Star Wars trilogy, to have a volume II and volume III. At any rate, just as The New Princeton Encyclopedia remains a comprehensive and necessary work for any poet or student of poetry, at least partly by virtue of its thoroughness, so does Language for a New Century.

As far as the poems themselves go, I would make the highly subjective and throughly unjustifiable claim that they generally are quite terrific. This claim is "highly subjective and thoroughly unjustifiable," because there are just so many poets and poems! There are over 400 poems in the anthology, and I think that any generalization of the poems as a whole would be an overgeneralization. But I have already greatly enjoyed reading many of the poems and will probably be discussing at least a few of them on this blog. I would add that I think that the fact that there were three different editors with different tastes really strengthens this anthology by allowing for an even more diverse array of poetic styles and sensibilities. Language for a New Century possesses the beauty of a freshly assembled five-thousand piece jigsaw puzzle.

So, in short, I highly recommend Language for a New Century, which I think is an essential work for anyone, and not just anyone interested in Asian-American poetry, to have on their bookshelves.


Blogger Glenn Ingersoll said...

I lucked out in finding a used (like new!) copy of Language and I'm looking forward to reading it.

I like anthologies like I like sampler CDs. Maybe the poem isn't your favorite of that poet (or song of musical artist) but you get a taste and occasionally it's a taste that explodes in your mouth and you think I Gotta Get More By That One. Even if you never do you can go back & back to the original, the one that gave so much.

I read once that anthologies are characterized as much by what they leave out as what they include. A statement that sounds provocative at first then becomes banal. What you like is defined by what you don't like?

12:21 PM  
Blogger Cipher said...

Thanks for the review; I'll have to pick it up! =)

6:12 PM  
Blogger Lee Herrick said...

Hi Roger, just wanted to say hello. Hope all's well.

7:46 PM  
Blogger Sukrita said...

I look forward to reading this Anthology and wish to inform everyone of the recent publication of "Speaking for Myself", an anthology of Asian Women's Writings, just published by Penguin India, edited by myself (Sukrita Paul Kumar) and Malashri Lal. This volume carries poetry and short stories from 34 Asian countries (Yemen to Japan...)

1:55 AM  
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