Guest Review : Zoë Brigley on 'Language for a New Century'
A New Hybrid Muse
Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond, ed. Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal and Ravi
Language for a New Century begins with a question about the meaning and value of poetry. Yet in this anthology, the question of value acquires all the more meaning, because the poetry comes out of postcolonial and diasporic settings. In their preface, the editors suggest that ‘Where the opportunities for fatal destruction, between people and between nations, are intensified, the same age-old questions still exist: What is the role of poetry? What can it do? Can poetry still matter?’. What this anthology offers is a poetry attuned to needs of particular cultures. It is a poetry that works for these needs, by reinventing form, syntax, the lyric mode and themes such as childhood, identity, politics, war, homeland, spirituality and the body.
The writers included originate from regions traditionally sidelined by the West: South Asia, East Asia, the Middle East and Central Asia; as well as other territories like
In 2004, Brent Hayes Edwards
But this is an anthology that never claimed to be simple in its outlook, and how could it be when it covers such a multitude of voices and outlooks? What is fascinating though is that many of these poets are Anglophone, though the anthology does contain some translations to English too. ‘Slips and Atmospherics’ is a particularly important section in relation to language, because it gathers together poems that ‘stretch[es] the cords of syntax, exploding normative lineation and familiar imageries to present an avant-garde sensibility’. This statement applies to a great many poems throughout the anthology, which feel refreshingly detached from traditional forms and from the kind of uncomplicated lyrics that sometimes dominate Western poetry. The poets writing in English are certainly deterritorializing the language and making it their own, forcing it to work for their own purposes and political needs. It seems to be what Jahan Ramazani
In Language for a New Century, poetry humanises the experiences of poets working in this hybrid muse, allowing them to maintain their cultural specificity, whilst also creating a seed of familiarity that flowers to understanding. Tina Chang sums this up in introducing the section on the lyric. ‘What is it that we seek to glean from poems but a shadow of our own human experience? When we subtract rationale, logic, even narrative consistency, we are led by the essence, feeling and raw energy of the song, the purity of a given moment.’ And this sympathy, of course, is desperately needed. The East is still a mythic place created by Orientalist discourse, as has been shown more recently by Judith Butler’s
This kind of perception unravels in poetry. When, in Saadi Youssef’s
Altogether the breadth of work in Language for a New Century is hardly broached by a short review like this one. It is a pioneering anthology that, for myself, is a roadmap to poetries that I have never encountered before and I find it both inspiring and heartening. Overall, I am inclined to agree with Carolyn Forché