In July 1971 Poetry International took place in the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank, and in Cardiff and Edinburgh. Readers included Yehuda Amichai, Tadeusz Różewicz, the Austrian Ernst Jandl, W.H. Auden and Denise Levertov. An issue of Modern Poetry in Translation served as the programme for the festival. It appeared in a beautiful gold cardboard cover, courtesy of Benson and Hedges who donated the card from their cigarette box production, and the design featured striking red, black and grey lettering.
The Queen Elizabeth Hall seats nearly a thousand and it was sold out for three nights. Of course poets of Auden’s calibre were a big draw then and would be now, but there was genuine excitement about the poets from overseas whose work was published in MPT. It was a heady time for poetry in translation – inside the front cover there was an advert for the popular Penguin Modern European Poets Series, and at the back a full-page advert for Modern European Poetry, a widely-owned compendium which helped define the tastes of a generation. Each participating poet had a full selection of poems and a photograph and the programme altogether had the feel of something necessary and exciting.
There is one oddity: the issue includes the poems of the extraordinary Slovenian poet Edvard Kocbek, but his name doesn’t appear on the programme. I speculated, reading his biography, that he may not have been able to travel to the West. The poet who wrote: ‘Evening descends, pure and bottomless, | and my words fly without a nest, | soon they will die of thirst and hunger.’ (translated by Michael Scammell and Veno Taufer) was persecuted by the Communist Yugoslavian government, and suffered for his principled confrontations with power.
The first editors of MPT, Ted Hughes and Danny Weissbort, were concerned with such dissident poets, especially from the Eastern European Soviet bloc, and considered MPT a means of allowing these voices of moral authority to resound in English. David and Helen Constantine, the subsequent editors of MPT, believed in the political importance of poetry, not just as a witness or a prophetic voice, but as the irreducible utterance of the individual poet and as such a powerful force against the lies and corporate speak, euphemism and Newspeak of modern life.
My own editorial stance is affected by the current political situation, just as the previous editors’ positions were. A Russian friend and I were recently discussing gloomily our sense that history ‘had started up again’ – we were both in our late teens when the Berlin Wall fell and for more than twenty years we have lived in a post-cold war history. Now the spectre of a new cold war hangs over the continent, there is fighting in Ukraine and a host of repressive and retrograde laws have been passed in Russia. Meanwhile an ugly rise in nationalism bedevils Europe and finds its apologists amongst the political establishment.
Poetry is neither written nor read in a vacuum, it need not be outwardly political to be freighted with the meanings of its time. The poetry-reading community, as large or as small as it is, is a community who believe in the power of the word: to entertain, to provoke, to inspire and comfort and reconcile, but most of all, to transform us in some small way.
At the Poetry Parnassus Festival in 2012 I listened to a poet and editor talk about his experiences of being a writer and editor of a literary magazine in an area and time of war. We were talking and I couldn’t note it all down, but some of what he said I noted later in my diary and I have reread his words many times in the last months.
His region had many languages and he published work in three languages without any translations because everyone understood all these languages. But mutual comprehensibility, he said, was neither a definition nor a guarantee of common identity. He added that there was a good community around the magazine, quite as if the war had never happened, as if – here he gestured astonishment – ‘what was that!?’ That anomaly. War.
Having lived through war, he truly believed that what he was doing was important: fostering and feeding writing and reading communities to be strongholds against the passions of war, because mutual comprehensibility isn’t enough. Now in Europe, he said, the cracks are appearing. We mustn’t allow them to become greater, because once war is in people’s minds it is too late. Time only for the futile gesture of lying in front of tanks.