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World Poetry Project

Updated on April 25, 2011

The Plan

A used bookstore and a new-to-me monster of a book:World Poetry: an anthology of verse from antiquity to our time, edited by Katharine Washburn and John S. Major, under the general direction of Clifton Fadiman. 1,238 pages. Not a volume I am going to carry with me on a lunch break, but one I plan to enjoy in pieces. Having recently taken to Hub writing, and seeking to balance in my own mind my current historical efforts with a bit of literature, I am going to share with readers my excursion into the international. I doubt every poem in the volume will be commented upon by me; I will use my own discretion and taste. I will do my best to be fair and accurate, but more than that I cannot say. I have never read in quite this way before, thinking of an audience other than myself as I go. It could be fun.

World Poetryis a 1998 update and expansion of Mark van Doren's 1928 Anthology of World Poetry, with an emphasis on including works that are not English. According to editor Katharine Washburn, the book is "a museum without walls", in which more than 80% of the included poems are translations. The two editors agreed on basic rules for inclusion: no authors born after World War II. John S. Major writes that he wanted to choose poems that "able to surprise and delight the common reader. Every page should be a source of pleasure and discovery." In the interest of emphasizing discovery, the editors chose to limit the representation of those authors and works easily found in other collections or other forms in order to allow for the inclusion of worthy, but not so well-known, works.

These poems are not meant to be read as translations. The editors do not want the reader to focus on the distance and dilemma of translation. That is a quandary for the experts to wrangle over. This is a book for the general reader, willing to share in an international heritage of artistic endeavor, and they are meant to be good poems in English, "not too battered by the voyage between one foreign port and another or too deeply compromised by those interlocking compacts with necessity that all gifted translators must make, regret, and stubbornly refashion once more". Katharine Washburn, herself a translator, offers this advice, but I do not think I shall take it. Of course, I will pay attention to each poems as it plays out in English, as a piece of art independent of the original work which I cannot access, but I will also, except in those cases where it is clear the translator has abandoned the content of the original, try to be attentive to the context of the original creation.

The anthology is divided into chronological chunks: the Bronze and Iron ages, the Classical Empires, the Post-Classical World, etc. Within these chronological chunks poets and works are grouped by geographical affinity and original language. The translators are themselves poets, and many of the included works were suggested by poets. It promises to be a journey full of surprises.

I do not know how well this will work. I have no design other than to read, record my responses to what I read, and make those connections between what I read and the larger world that seem appropriate. I hope this exercise will make me a better reader. It will certainly make me pay more attention to what I am reading and compel me to look for the value in that which leaves me initially unimpressed.

World Poetry, Major Divisions

  1. Part One: Poets of the Bronze an Iron Ages, 2200-250 BC
  2. Part Two: The Classical Empires, East and West, 750 BC to 500 AD
  3. Part Three: The Post Classical World, 250-1200 AD
  4. Part Four: The Rise of the Vernacular, 950-1450 AD
  5. Part Five: The Renaissance in Europe; Late Traditional Verse from the Americas, South Asia, and East Asia, 1350-1625
  6. Part Six: The Seventeenth Century, 1600-1700
  7. Part Seven: Fromt he Eighteenth Century into the Early TWentieth Century, 1700-1915
  8. Part Eight: The Twentieth Century, 1915-


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