March 21, 2013

PIP Anthology of World Poetry of the 20th Century, Volume 4, "American Values" (Introduction)

by Douglas Messerli

Douglas Messerli, ed. The PIP Anthology of World Poetry of the 20th Century, Volume 4 (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2003)

In this, the fourth volume of my ongoing series of the PIP (Project for Innovative Poetry) Anthologies of World Poetry, I have again chosen, basically at random, balancing a wide selection of modernist figures from many countries. I now see the whole series as encompassing at least fifty volumes. Only two factors will determine whether or not I can achieve this idealistic enterprise: finances and my death!
     What has become increasingly apparent, in this horrible year of war, is the true need for such a series, the importance of helping English-language readers to know the writing and, by extension, the cultures of poets from around the world. In an interview with a Brazilian journal, I was recently asked to comment if I felt Americans, and by extension American poets, knew of the poetry in other countries. My conclusion was a bleak one: most Americans don’t even know a poet in this country, I quipped; and, even more disturbing, is my guess that most American poets could name, perhaps, twenty poets from other countries. I recounted the story of a poet friend, very interested in international writing and who is engaged in reading the poetry of other cultures, innocently asking me who was the poet whose book I held in my hands. The book was a collection of poetry by Léopold Sédar Senghor, the great Senegalese poet, former President of the Republic of Senegal, and one of the founders of the Negritude movement of French-speaking Caribbean and African writers who utterly transformed Francophone writing in the 20th century. My fear is that precisely this lack of knowledge of the writing and experiences of other cultures underlies the American arrogance and beliefs that not only is our culture superior to others, but that it should be the culture of others.
     It is no accident that a president who had traveled very little before taking office, would be unable to comprehend that American values and methods of achieving those values would not be shared with all others. I am not suggesting that poetry will change these conditions, but certainly it may help us to comprehend a world which—despite its astounding ability to quickly communicate—seems to be splintering apart rather than sharing ideas.

Los Angeles, 2003
Reprinted from The PIP Anthology of World Poetry of the 20th Century, Volume 4 (Los
  Angeles: Green Integer, 2003).

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