“By paying tribute to the men and women whose only instrument is free speech, who imagine and act, UNESCO recognizes in poetry its value as a symbol of the human spirit’s creativity. By giving form and words to that which has none – such as the unfathomable beauty that surrounds us, the immense suffering and misery of the world – poetry contributes to the expansion of our common humanity, helping to increase its strength, solidarity and self-awareness.”
—Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO
For UNESCO World Poetry Day, we’re celebrating poetry in translation from all over the world! Check out these five international poets, culled from the past several years of the Griffin Poetry Prize shortlists:
Colonies by Tomasz Rózycki (shortlisted in 2014)
Translated from Polish by Mira Rosenthal
Tomasz Różycki walks to work every day through the city of Opole, in the Polish region of Silesia, where he has lived since his birth in 1970. The fact that he is walking is important: the rhythm of feet on concrete and cobblestone, the familiar view across the Odra River, the regular length of time it takes him to reach his destination. Poetry has a long friendship with walking, good for pacing the flow of thought and establishing a strong rhythm. We are familiar with the idea in the Anglophone tradition from the late eighteenth century, when the Romantic poets transformed walking into a cultural and aesthetic act of taking pleasure in a landscape. For William Wordsworth, almost daily excursions on foot as well as longer walking tours functioned as a way to compose and revise poems that sprung from his meditations on the countryside. But what is important in Różycki’s daily walking is not so much any pastoral awareness it brings about but the fact that such rambling often leads to more sustained interest in the history of a place. Wordsworth’s pedestrian experience of the Lake District moved him to write a guidebook that traced the history of the region; so, too, Różycki’s paced knowledge of his part of Silesia roots him in a historical curiosity. In Colonies, his sixth collection, this curiosity blooms into an outright aesthetic obsession.
—from the translator’s introduction
Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, and Other Poems by Ghassan Zaqtan (2013 winner)
Translated from Arabic by Fady Joudah
In this inspired translation of Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, Ghassan Zaqtan’s tenth and most recent poetry collection, along with selected earlier poems, Fady Joudah brings to English-language readers the best work by one of the most important and original Palestinian poets of our time. With these poems Zaqtan enters new terrain, illuminating the vision of what Arabic poetry in general and Palestinian poetry in particular are capable of. Departing from the lush aesthetics of such celebrated predecessors as Mahmoud Darwish and Adonis, Zaqtan’s daily, delicate narrative, whirling catalogues, and at times austere aesthetics represent a new trajectory, a significant leap for young Arabic poets today.
In his preface to the volume, Joudah analyzes and explores the poet’s body of work. “Ghassan Zaqtan’s poems, in their constant unfolding,” Joudah writes, “invite us to enter them, exit them, map and unmap them, code and decode them, fill them up and empty them, with the living and nonliving, the animate and inanimate, toward a true freedom.”
Something Crosses My Mind by Wang Xiaoni (shortlisted in 2015)
Translated from Chinese by Eleanor Goodman
Perhaps it is poets most of the world who require the most protection from it. Wang Xiaoni is nothing if not grounded in China—its people, its fauna and flora, its politics. Yet to have that world look in on her is a nightmare. Even more, it is a betrayal of the compact the poet has made with the world: to live in it as a stranger, but to give it full life on the page. This agreement at times infuses Wang’s work with an almost mystical sense of estrangement.
That is not to say that Wang Xiaoni is a poet with her head in the stars. Rather, she is grounded in the earth: she writes of potatoes and peanuts, scarecrows and corn. The animals in her poems are water buffalo, pigs and sheep. What interests her most is people and how they relate to their natural and unnatural environment. The unnatural environment is the one created by man: politics, economics, social hierarchies, inequalities. These issues are addressed, but subtly. They appear in her poems about the countryside and the implied social inequities therein, in her observations of severe environmental degradation, in her metaphors of wounds and bones, in her abandoned fields and defiled mountains.
—from the translator’s introduction
Cold Spring in Winter by Valérie Rouzeau (shortlisted in 2010)
Translated from French by Susan Wicks
When Valérie Rouzeau’s first poem sequence was published in France a decade ago under the title ‘Pas Revoir’, it met with immediate critical acclaim. These poems are an urgent, stammered lament for her dead father, a scrap-merchant, in which the poet’s adult voice and that of the little girl she used to be combine in an extraordinary blend of baby-talk, youthful slang, coinages and puns – a breathless delivery of tremendous power.
The influential poet and critic André Velter has described Rouzeau’s poetry as ‘violent in its capacity to exalt and disturb’. This quality comes to the fore in Susan Wicks’s remarkable translation, the excellence and ingenuity of which, in Stephen Romer’s words at the conclusion of his introduction to this volume, ‘make good the transposition of this pure and singular voice into English’.
The War Works Hard by Dunya Mikhail (shortlisted in 2006)
Translated from Arabic by Elizabeth Winslow
“Yesterday I lost a country,” Dunya Mikhail writes in The War Works Hard, a revolutionary work by an exiled Iraqi poet. Her first to appear in English. Here is an important voice that rescues the human spirit from the ruins, unmasking the official glorification of war with telegraphic lexical austerity. Embracing literary traditions from ancient Mesopotamian mythology to Biblical and Qur’anic parables to Western modernism, Mikhail’s poetic vision transcends cultural and linguistic boundaries with liberating compassion.