Tim Dooley, Reviews Editor The stranger in the stranger
The mourning of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish throughout the Arabic-speaking world reminds us how profoundly poetry can affect large and diverse groups of people. The affection for Darwish was more than a by-product of his political situation, important as his representative role as exile and ‘present-absentee’ had been. Like Pablo Neruda’s poetry, Darwish’s writing was sensual and romantic as well as political and brought imagination to bear on the complexities of experience:
Had I known the ending from the start,
I would have had no work left in language. (‘A State of Siege’)
Poetry that is a process of discovery can reach the hearts and minds of many. Glimpses of its potentially wider appeal can still be found, even in the West. Earlier this summer Leonard Cohen, performing to 18,000 at London’s O2 centre, gained some of his most extended applause for the recitation of an alternative lyric to his song ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’, published as a poem in his collection of writing and drawings,Book of Longing. The move from Darwish to Cohen’s ‘riddle in the book of love’ may seem too sharp a descent from the sublime; but it was a genuine moment for me. And what was I to make of the impressive stack of Billy Collins’s poems (translated in a special edition of the literary review LR) that I saw, taking equal space with local editions of Cosmopolitan and Playboy, in the departure lounge of Tallinn Airport?
We have become used to a narrower compass. Sarah Crown reminds us in this issue that only five per cent of poetry books sold in Britain are by living writers; it is perhaps inevitable that poets in this market are more used to jostling one another for the attention of a limited audience than addressing crowds with confidence. A magazine like Poetry London, whose editorial team I join with this issue, has a constructive role to play in this situation.
It has been instructive, and in a way humbling, to see the range and volume of poetry arriving for review in the magazine and it will be part of my role to see that Poetry London represents that diversity and wealth of production effectively. This issue contains coverage of poets establishing their careers and those with a lifetime’s achievement such as John Ashbery, whose work is assessed astutely for us by Peter Porter. The magazine has long had an international remit, continued here in Isobel Dixon’s lively account of the poetry scene in South Africa. This will be the first of an irregular series of visits by Poetry London to other ‘cities of poetry’.
The reviewer’s task is to act as a bridge between reader and writer, representing the interests of each even-handedly. He or she has a duty to represent the poet’s work fairly and on its own terms; yet, the reviewer must represent the reader’s interest. Is the journey proposed by the poet really necessary? The reviewer needs to keep an optimism about the art’s potential while treading a straight path between the opposing vices of proscriptive (or prescriptive) gate-keeping and shameless puffery. Ideally a review will also make us think more deeply about the art. In this issue, both Philip Gross and George Szirtes address wider issues of the writer’s relationship to reader or subject. Is poetry a conversation or a lion-taming act?
The debates, and the metaphors that sustain them, will continue. A successful literary magazine can offer a creative space for ideas to be worked out and fed into our habits as readers and our practice as writers. It can make us more open to the recognition and illumination that occurs when, as Darwish wrote, ‘the stranger stumbles upon himself in the stranger’ (‘The Stranger’s Bed’).