Poetry is an escape, an avenue to gain a different perspective, a space where you can leave behind everything that is going on in your life and inhabit a new space. So why is it that, with this extensive opportunity for experience, that many people only tend to explore a world they know? The poetry landscape of the world is so diverse and, particularly at a time when travel is so difficult, it offers the perfect window to other worlds, cultures, and lands. So, let’s do just that. Let’s travel around the world with eight poets.
Alice Oswald (United Kingdom)
Alice Oswald writes in a very human way, her work feeling as natural as the subjects it discusses. She is able to take on the voice of her subjects and draws on her understanding of classics to provide a depth and rhythm to nature and myth.
Her poetry is the product of extensive research, her book Dart taking years to complete as she researched the eponymous river so to best capture it. Its long form ebbs and flows much the same as its subject and conjures up some truly brilliant imagery of the British countryside.
I keep you folded in my mack pocket and I’ve marked in red where the peat passes are and the
good sheep tracks
cow-bones, tin-stones, turf-cuts
listen to the horrible keep-time of a man walking,
rustling and jingling his keys
at the centre of his own noise,
clomping the silence in pieces and I,
in the pit of his throat, I
summon him just out of earshot
Oswald has an ability to place you right in the heart of a landscape without it feeling alien, due to her obvious passion. Her work immediately feels comfortable, almost homely, and has done ever since her debut collection, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile. Our world and our relationships to it is placed front and centre.
This is what happened
the dead were settling in under their mud roof
and something was shuffling overhead
it was a badger treading on the thin partition
(From Falling Awake)
Artis Ostups (Latvia)
Artis Ostups writes stark poetry that focuses intently on imagery, using it as a tool to explore his own history and experiences. He also has the ability to look beyond himself and expand his world, bringing in international themes and localizing them to explore emotion and identity.
His use of predominantly prose poetry creates a narrative that fully immerses you in the worlds he creates. Poems, such as ‘After Regaining Independence’ become personal experiences and invite you into the mind of Ostups.
When we left the church, stars gathered around the moon’s crumbled horn above the red cornice of the post office, seen through greasy glasses. My mother wore a black felt coat – winter pulled chalk across it like a schoolboy on a blackboard.
His poetry has the quality of a photograph, an evocative snapshot of a moment, and carries this familiarity in its tone. The almost clinical nature in which he writes is utilized both playfully and intimately, emphasizing further his linguistic capabilities.
– everything will remain partially unsaid, but once someone wrote – my chest is like a lamp, lit up by a look, and it truly did shine for the pleasure of cicadas, as I inhaled the nightly scents of the mountains.
– From ‘After Rilke’
(Translated from Rilkes Motīvs)
Togara Muzanenhamo (Zimbabwe)
Togara Muzanenhamo has a unique perspective in his poetry, and his control in displaying his own emotions, as well as inhabiting those of others, is near unrivalled. His provocative work embodies the landscapes and the stories of Zimbabwe with perfect imagery.
In his collection, Gumiguru, there is a longing for Zimbabwe and a feeling of distance from it that allows a gateway into the culture of the country. ‘In the Music of Labour’ is the perfect example of this.
All day the work, shuffling steps into shuffled clearings,
beetles and crickets rising off cordite clicks sparking
off stone, bearded chin sequinned with sweat. The heat
seems not to bother him, but steels his concentration
There is an intimate connection to the subject of this poem that does not pull any punches. You are involved as it moves in on the subject before opening up again to the wider world, creating a universal understanding from a personal story. This imagery and focus can also be seen in ‘Gates of Dawn’ and ‘Facsimile of a Quiet Country.’
His work is not purely visual, also managing to tap into the political environment of black history, through the story of two black jockeys. They were viewed as somewhat of a fad in the late 1800s and their struggle is delicately portrayed through beautifully controlled language.
This is a writer in touch with his history and in tune with his culture.
Tishani Doshi (India)
Tishani Doshi writes with the brilliant rhythm you might expect given her background in dance, yet her poems are more than well-constructed beats. These sounds come together to create powerful commentaries on her experiences as a woman. Her work is about empowerment, best surmised by ‘Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods.’
Girls are coming out of the woods,
wrapped in cloaks and hoods,
carrying iron bars and candles
and a multitude of scars, collected
on acres of premature grass and city
buses, in temples and bars.
No subject is off limits for Doshi and the visual nature of her work attests to this. She will write about aging and violence if that is what she is experiencing culturally and societally. Doshi’s poetry is lived and personal, inviting you to share in her emotions thanks to her honesty as a poet.
‘How to be Happy in 101 Days’ again shows the power she has when she writes. It is a reclamation of the self, packed with visceral images that evoke something almost primal.
Adore stone. Learn to manoeuvre
against the heat of things. Should
you see butterflies gambol in the air,
resist the urge to pinch their wings.
Doshi has said that to her “…India is all about leaving and returning … When you are away too long you get homesick, and when you are there too long you are sick of home.”
Wrestling with where to place herself makes her poetry, and wider work, a haven for those who struggle with their own feelings of home and belonging.
Lionel Fogarty (Australia)
Lionel Fogarty has spent much of his life as a political activist, campaigning for the rights of the aboriginal people in Australia. This has informed his poetry, but it would be doing him a disservice to label him purely a political poet. Fogarty combines his activism with his experiences of his culture in order to preserve tradition.
I am a moody Murri
my temper as black as me.
I am a moody Murri
drink and smoke.
Sail me away to Africa.
This, from his poem ‘Mad Souls’, talks about perceptions in Australian culture and introduces elements of his own aboriginal background. There is a relatability in his themes of ‘other’ that travel beyond his specific focus of the Murri people.
There is a clear passion in the way Forgarty writes and his integration of aboriginal language in his works helps to emphasize his blending of cultures. This engineers a dialogue that allows others to begin to understand his societal position in the world. There is an effecting rhythm that comes from this use of language and it places cultural issues centrally in his work.
Ngujoo nye muyunube
Little black buree
You must respect golo
You must praise to junun
You must seek love with googee
little black buree hear your
song ‘nuyeeree munu juwoon
– Joowindoo Goonduhmu
(From New and Selected Poems)
Selina Tusitala Marsh (New Zealand)
Selina Tusitala Marsh pulls on her rich heritage to occupy a space that is entirely her own, offering up a powerful fusion of her Polynesian roots and the modern landscape of New Zealand. She is not afraid to confront issues and stereotypes she experiences to create powerfully affecting works.
Her work wants to be read and you want to read it, it’s infecting, and places you right at the heart of Tusitala Marsh’s world. Even if it feels unfamiliar, the draw is undeniable.
‘Two Nudes on a Tahitian Beach, 1894’ gives voice to its subjects that is otherwise typically ignored in the west.
you piss me
You strip me bare
assed, turn me on my side
shove a fan in my hand
smearing fingers on thigh
pout my lips below an
almond eye and silhouette me
in smouldering ochre.
This is confounded in ‘Guys Like Gaugin’ and in highlighting the appropriation of Polynesian history and culture for art casts an introspective shadow over any western reader.
for desiring ’em young
so guys like Gauguin could dream
Tusitala Marsh’s strong sense of voice lends itself perfectly to performance, to be spoken, and in doing so opens itself up to anyone to may wish to enter her culture and her world.
Natalia Toledo Paz (Mexico)
Natalia Toledo Paz is a poet who truly understands the power of language, both in the written word itself and its place in a persons own identity. She writes both in Spanish and her native Zapotec and, in doing so, has help to improve the visibility of indigenous Mexican culture. Toledo Paz has said herself that Zapotec has “a great aesthetic sensibility for creating images and beauty.” And reading her work, even translated, this is easy to see.
You sleep covered in red tulips,
your body numbed by honor.
You are a flower only just prized by a pinky finger,
a new aroma is baptized as night falls,
a rabbit drinks milk from the colorless moon,
a cornfield dances with the wind in your house.
– First Resting Place
(Translated from Ba’ tobi)
Speaking in her native tongue allows her imagery to take on an even more cultural and natural feel that resonates more effectively. It feels raw and unrestricted. It is this that make it all the more affecting when she addresses women and their position in society within Mexican culture.
‘The Black Flower’ talks candidly about wanting to be able to support the subject but how she feels unable to do so.
A girl lifts her laughter to the black-leafed tree
golden leaves open
on a bare branch
so she can count the marks of desire.
The leaves will tell her how many loves she’ll have
for each blemish her finger counts
destiny will reveal a name.
There is strength in Toledo Paz’s imagery that shows her Zapotec heritage whilst also giving a nod to the wider cultural powers that have shaped her own experiences.
Kei Miller (Jamaica)
Kei Miller has said that, to him, poetry is music and, in reading his works, this is immediately evident. Miller has a beautifully lyrical approach to his poetry that blends perfectly with his natural rhythm as a writer. He manages to conjure up vivid images of his native Jamaica whilst immersing you in its culture.
His collection, In Nearby Bushes, typifies this even in its title, drawn from a common Jamaican phrase that suggests something hidden. Something that Miller is about to reveal.
‘Here Where Blossoms the Night’ acts as a summary for the inspiration of the collection, describing the landscape of Jamaica and some of the darker sides to it.
Here where blossom the orchids, two hundred
& twenty in variety. Some have adapted to bone
dry places, to being purple amongst the stone.
It is a visceral exploration that sets you down in the country he knows so well and works the senses before exploring some of the social and cultural issues of his homeland.
Miller uses his landscapes as a character in his work and this allows the exploration of these wider issues through this lens. For this you need look no further than The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion.
Reading – A Very Human Study
Reading, even at its most basic, is an anthropological exercise. It allows you to occupy the cultural or societal space of the writer and, even if this action is subconscious, educate yourself in a diverse range of experiences. Often a cliché but birthed from truth, reading is a gateway to other worlds, and by opening up to these worlds you are able to gain an appreciation for the trials and tribulations that cultures different to your own may face. Poetry, visceral, emotive and packed with imagery provides the perfect vessel for an anthropological journey of cultural discovery.