by Weston Cutter
Not for nothing, let’s begin this review of two recent books of poetry by just establishing the record: for the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award, there were five finalists, two of which were published by Graywolf Press (and the winner of which was, yes, published by Graywolf as well). We all know that the center of literary power in the United States is in a small cluster of blocks in Manhattan. The fact that Graywolf had a good year, that a small handful of judges (in Manhattan, for all I know) chose books published by Graywolf for a prize, doesn’t definitively mean anything, I suppose: that said, if I knew someone with that sort of track record, I’d be going out to coffee with that person as much as possible.
And the great part? There’s lots of coffee to drink with Graywolf books. Two recent books of poems they’ve published—New European Poets edited by Wayne Miller and Kevin Prufer and Another World Instead by William Stafford—serve as great examples of exactly the sort of thing that Graywolf seems to do better than just about anyone. For all the stellar new books they come out with by writers we know and love, there are releases like these—in one case, a collection of European poetry that gathers the work of writers none of whom I’d ever heard a thing about (which says nothing: I don’t know international literature beyond a few big fiction writers, but I don’t think that’s an uncommon scenario for most of us), and in another, the early, until now unpublished poems of a master.
The New European Poets collection should be a requirement for writers in almost the exact same way Graywolf’s Next American Essay (edited by John D’Agata, released in like 2002, still one of the best things they’ve ever published) should be a requirement for writers. New European Poets could, I’m sure, be read straight through, though that seems nuts. What seems more fun and rewarding, to me at least, is paging through it and finding yourself sucked into these just devastating poems and then saying to yourself “Jesus, I had no idea that poems like that were being written in Macedonia.” If you’re like me, you then go to a map and look up where Macedonia is (it’s above Greece, right next to Albania). “Poems like that” means, in this context, poems like Lidija Dimkovska’s “Decent Girl,” this incredibly powerful and magic thing whose movements a quote won’t do justice to—buy the book.
There’s something of the thrill of paging through an Atlas involved in the book, too. Oh!, you think, seizing on a poem: that’s what Spain’s like, or that’s what Poland is like. Of course none of the countries are like any of the poems, and each country’s represented by at least one writer (poor Malta)(though also, really: every country. Sapmi, the independent state of the Sami people in northern Scandinavia, is also represented by a single poet, but still: the country doesn’t even have borders). There might be a thin thread connecting many of these poems simply because every few pages you’ll find a poem that might real generously fall under the thematic heading oppression, and when you consider the last half century in most of Europe, it’s not really hard to imagine that, in fact, that’d be right up there in terms of things people might write about.
Wayne Miller and Kevin Prufer are the editors of the book, but reading through it feels like the whole thing’s really this wonderful, massive party—there were regional editors chosen, and then there were the writers themselves, and then there were translators. The biographical section, with notes on the writers, translators, and editors, runs 54 pages and which on their very own make for interesting reading (the number of people with fingers just all over the place in terms of projects is sure to make you feel like a slacker (unless you’re one of those people, in which case: infinite thanks)).
This book is the closest thing I can imagine to a necessity for anyone with even a passing interest not in world poetry, nor European poetry, but just an interest in poetry, in what it can do and new ways that we all (poets and readers alike) might be able to approach it.
The new/old Stafford, Another World Instead, is a little bit harder to talk clearly about because of two facts. First is that Stafford was just a tremendous poet, and his The Way It Is is gonna be on the bookshelf of anyone who gives a tenth of a shit about good writing. Second, though, and harder, is that these are Stafford’s early poems—the collection actually includes what editor Fred Marchant has reason to believe is Stafford’s very first poem.
The biographical stuff maybe merits mention: Stafford was a conscientious objector during the second world war, and so spent time serving his country in Civilian Public Service camps, working jobs in forestry and soil-conservation. The poetry reflects not just his growing sense of pacifism, but his awareness of the larger scope of that pacifism—an awareness of nature as something holy, of his church being outdoors, under trees, away from the cellophane wrapped world of supermarkets and Main Street.
I don’t know if I’m just getting older, or if I’m starting to understand poetry differently, but this new book of old Stafford holds up incredibly well not for the poems themselves—plenty of the 176 poems within are worth the price of admission—but more for the movement in the collection. Another World Instead reads like a sort of map, a map where the center’s somewhat defined—Stafford had been put in Civilian Public Service camps in the same way draftees were put in combat—and the territory is illuminated and clarified page by page.
Anyone who cares for Stafford’s work will find plenty of good food in this book. I mean, God, just right there, page 113:
Two Kinds of Faith
Some things I know hard,
the way a tree
believes the wind.
Some things I know easy,
the way long grass
and says yes.
Every few pages there’s something like this, a good solid whoomp-inducing poem of startling compactness and beauty and that uniquely Stafford-ian faith in the world as something true, something to grasp and seek answers from and counsel within. I have (like many, I fear, in my generation and maybe even the generation older than me) a certain level of anxiety about openly political poems, which makes something like half of this book anxiety-inducing for me. I’m working on it. All of the political poems are fine and worth reading, but I literally don’t have the tools to handle them, I don’t think. Which might be one of Stafford’s biggest feats: the ability to write poems that keep, poems that will not simply draw readers but poems which will teach readers how to read and understand them better.
I’ve said it before on this site, but I’m going to shout it until it’s on a billboard the next time I come back to Minnesota: Graywolf is the best press in the country, and one of the very best things about Minnesota, and if you think Minnesota’s only cold winters and Jesse Ventura as governor, I urge you to think differently next time you need some good poetry (and the next time, for what it’s worth, you hear a Dylan song, but whatever).