Victoria Moul reviews The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse: 101 Poets on the Divine edited by Kaveh Akbar (Penguin, 2023)
I think anthologies are the most important type of poetry publishing there is. Anthologies are how I started to read widely and seriously in poetry as a teenager, and I’m sure that’s true of most new readers, whatever their age. If your local library or bookshop has just a single poetry shelf, it’s likely to have more anthologies than anything else. Anthologies are also how more experienced readers expand their range: I still buy and read anthologies regularly – especially old ones, second-hand – for the pleasure of discovering work that is new to me.
So a new Penguin anthology, which will be stocked widely (even on all those single shelves), is a big deal. This one, though, seems somewhat unsure of what it is doing. Let’s start with the title. “Spiritual Verse” sounds as though they wanted to avoid putting the word “religion” on the front cover. “Verse” suggests to me, not unreasonably I think, a collection containing verse, not prose, though in fact quite a few of the extracts are translations of prose, not verse (albeit, perhaps, “poetic prose”), and a large number are no doubt verse in the original but have been translated into lineated prose.
And then the subtitle: “101 Poets on the Divine”. If these are all poems about the “divine”, why not just say “religious”? Perhaps because, in practice, both “spiritual” and “divine” have been interpreted here loosely. Many of these extracts are not obviously in either of these categories. Around a core of recognisably religious (or, OK, “spiritual”) pieces, from a fascinatingly wide range of traditions, we find many examples of more generally mythological material, some moralising or meditative extracts, quite a lot of erotic verse with no obvious spiritual application (justified in the introduction by the observation that “divine and erotic” loves are often associated with each other, and that sex can be a kind of transcendence), and a great deal that we might call generally “profound”, like this three-liner translated from the seventeenth-century Japanese of Bashō by Akbar himself (though the facing page says the translator of the two poems by Bashō is Jane Hirshfield, the source notes clarify that Akbar translated this poem and she the other):
Death-sick on my journey
My dreams run out ahead of me
Across the empty field
I rather like this, but is it really “spiritual” verse? Perhaps. It could be, for instance, that the original Japanese for “empty field” activates the full spiritual and philosophical force of the Buddhist idea of emptiness, śūnyatā. But without any contextual information to that effect – the very brief note tells us only that Bashō was one of Japan’s “haiku masters” – I don’t think most readers would take this to be a specifically “spiritual” poem at all, unless we are prepared to admit that essentially all “serious” poetry is also “spiritual”.
Some of the choices seem more vogueish than appropriate
Some of the choices seem more vogueish than appropriate. In a collection with so few pieces from any one language or period, why choose Anne Carson’s versions of two of Sappho’s fragments (22 and 118)? (The only other piece from ancient Greek is from Homer – nothing from Pindar or Aeschylus or Sophocles.) Number 22 is vividly erotic, but not really spiritual by any ordinary description. Number 118, a two-line invocation to the lyre, could be by almost any ancient poet. The originals are fragmentary, which makes them hard to access, and Carson’s fine versions make no concessions to accessibility: the names Gongyla, Abanthis and Kyprogeneia (the latter an epithet for Aphrodite) all appear without gloss or explanation. Conversely, Sarojini Naidu’s ‘In the Bazaars of Hyderabad’ is a fine and very accessible poem, interestingly reminiscent of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’: I did not know Naidu’s work, and I’m very pleased to have encountered it, but it’s equally hard to see how this lyric portrait of an Indian marketplace counts as “spiritual”. (The preface suggests that “in many of her poems we see her land and her people becoming divines unto themselves”, which might be true, but doesn’t obviously describe this poem.)
So the target of the anthology is not entirely clear, and this is, I think, exacerbated by its chronological arrangement. A chronological order makes sense when you are inviting readers to notice and think about changes or similarities over time, or, pragmatically, for ease of reference. But in a book with as vast a range as this, spread across more than four millennia and every inhabited continent, there is never going to be any meaningful sense of development or conversation, and it is never going to be a reference work. The anthology would have been much better served by some careful thought about how best to group poems in categories. Readers could then make meaningful comparisons between, say, verse hymns or prayers addressed directly to the divine across many times and places; or, equally, between various creation narratives, examples of mythological verse, moralising poetry and so on. As it stands, there’s just too much going on here. If you happen across one piece you like, or turn first to an old favourite, there’s no scaffolding in place to lead you from there to another poem you might also enjoy, or now be better placed to appreciate.
The editor has had to grapple, of course, with some of the perennial problems facing any anthologist. Everything is represented by passages of roughly the same length – between a few lines and, occasionally, a few pages – which means short poems are here in their entirety, and everything else is excerpted – massively in the case of texts like the Aeneid, Odyssey and Mahabharata, and unfortunately without giving us any indication of exactly where the passage is from. In such cases perhaps it is worth attending to tradition more than the editor generally has. There are certain passages of Virgil and Homer, for instance, which have for hundreds of years been commonly excerpted in anthologies of just this type, and which for that reason have a place in the tradition – and an allusive currency – distinct from that of the works they come from. A passage like the speech in Iliad 6, which compares the generations of men to the leaves of a tree, for example, might have been an ‘obvious’ choice, but perhaps still the right one. It has Biblical parallels, has very often been alluded to by subsequent poets, and there are a host of excellent translations to choose from.
The anthology would have been much better served by some careful thought about how best to group poems in categories
This is a fat little hardback, running to 369 pages including the indices, though it contains less poetry than you might think (116 pieces, by my count), because of the unusually spacious lay-out. Each poem or extract begins on the right with the facing left-hand page dedicated to a summary of its source, date, author (where known) and the names of any translators, followed by a brief italicized comment, between a sentence and a paragraph, from the editor. As a result, there’s much white space, and a large number of blank right-hand pages. As anthologies go, having an editorial comment on every single piece is unusual. I had a quick look at eight other anthologies I had to hand for comparison, first published between 1981 and 2021, and all from mainstream presses. None have anything like the level of editorial framing and presentation we find in Spiritual Verse.
I think if we are going to hear from the editor about every single choice, we expect quite a lot from those interventions. To some extent, the decision to offer help is justified, given all the challenges noted above. This anthology assembles poems dating from between the 23rd century BCE to the present day and the great majority are in English translations from other languages. By my reckoning, just 23 poems are in the original English. It is impossible to say how many languages the translations are from because, irritatingly, we are never told the language of the original. Certainly, however, these poems, songs, prayers and extracts arise from a dizzyingly huge variety of literary, cultural and religious contexts.
This is an avowedly personal selection of poems, and the chatty prefatory comments to each piece create a sense of intimacy. A conversational style, especially when introducing strange or unfamiliar material, can be friendly and charming. Sometimes the editor, Kaveh Akbar, pulls this off. The brief preface to a Yoruba text from around 1500, for example, is genuinely informative about the prophetic nature of the extract, and the introduction to the ‘Parable of the Dead Dervishes in the Desert’, by Attar of Nishapur, is helpful and well-judged. But many of the introductory comments are carelessly written. Too often he falls back on generalisation or cliché. There are a lot of “great” and “eternal” poets and poems, several “titans” of their respective traditions, and many “radical” interventions of various kinds. The “legendary” Syrian poet Adonis is “known for pushing buttons”, an irritating introduction to an impressive poem (‘The New Noah’). Some notes feel dashed off, and there are troubling minor errors – writing Mahabarata rather than Mahabharata might look like a small slip, but I’d be shocked if I saw anything in print referring to, say, the Illiad or Paradishe Lost. In two cases, poems (by the Coptic saint Shenoute and Federico García Lorca), which are certainly translations, have no translator given. A careful look at the notes on sources at the back indicates these translations are both, like the Bashō poem quoted above, by Akbar himself (I’m not sure why he has not attributed them in the main text). Some sources have no copyright acknowledgement at all. In fact, many of the permissions and copyright statements have not been correctly handled – they are often inaccurate and inconsistent. These irregularities ought to have been caught by the press, and should be corrected in any second edition.
There are a lot of “great” and “eternal” poets and poems, several “titans” of their respective traditions, and many “radical” interventions of various kinds
Elsewhere, the editor seems to assume a surprising amount of knowledge. Towards the end of the book, the introduction to the Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo’s poem ‘Come Thunder’ tells us: “This powerful, Ecclesiastic poem comes from one of the titans of twentieth-century global modernism, Christopher Okigbo. Though he had major ideological differences with Senghor and Césaire over the concept of Négritude, the three often read and published each other’s work.” “Ecclesiastic” means here, I assume, not “to do with the church” (as it generally would when uncapitalized) but rather “evocative or reminiscent of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes”. But there’s no explanation of that, and no extract from Ecclesiastes in the anthology (there are two bits from the Old Testament – Psalm 23 and part of the Song of Songs). Similarly, although there’s a definition some 40 pages earlier of the term Négritude and the role of Senghor and Césaire in the movement, there’s no cross-reference to help us, and it’s odd to assume that a reader of an anthology of this kind is working sequentially straight through the book. Each entry should really stand on its own.
If a book keeps telling us that we’re about to read a great poem by a “titan” of the art, it sets expectations high. But many of the pieces introduced as examples of “great” or “visionary” verse, seem to me to be nothing of the kind once translated into lineated prose with the most neutral sort of diction:
The great sea
frees me, moves me,
as a strong river carries a weed.
Earth and her strong winds
move me, take me away,
and my soul is swept up in joy.
This poem by Uvanuk is translated by Jane Hirshfield (as are eight others in the anthology). I don’t know – because the book doesn’t tell me – in what language of northern Canada the poet Uvavnuk composed. But this seems to me the kind of translation which might be genuinely moving if I were reading it as a parallel text, a kind of crib, alongside the original in a language I knew a little: enough to appreciate the sound and mastery of form, to see how the translation corresponds to the original, and catch a sense of its grandeur. But as a stand-alone text this style of translation really falls down – even more so when we are primed, both by the title of the anthology and by the relentless puffery of the introductions, for something particularly inspiring. “Great” and “strong” are such tired words in English, and being “swept up in joy” is close to outright cliché. The original poem might have used more unusual words; or it might, like much lyric verse, have used ordinary words in an unusually precise and musical way. But we don’t sense either from a translation like this.
“Great” and “strong” are such tired words in English, and being “swept up in joy” is close to outright cliché
Occasionally the editor comments specifically on a translation. We are told that Ursula K. Le Guin’s translation from Lao Tzu “preserves the original’s crystalline clarity – we meet the language in motion, flowing, elemental, like laughter passing between friends, or water moving over land”. This breathless description sets high expectations which are not met. Here are the first eight lines (nearly half the poem):
is like water.
It doesn’t compete.
It goes right
to the low loathsome places,
and so finds the way.
The translation is certainly clear, but it doesn’t flow particularly well and it’s not at all conversational, which the phrase “like laughter passing between friends” might reasonably be taken to imply. Stylistically, I’d call this a version of the aphoristic plain style, though without the sort of metrical effects usually used to make such verse memorable. It may capture accurately something of the tone and style of the original, but as English verse I feel it’s neither striking nor memorable.
The unfortunate result of his selection is to reinforce the colonial bias that he denounces and has attempted to reverse
Kaveh Akbar writes eloquently in the introduction about his working definition of sacred poetry: “earnest, musical language meant to thin the partition between a person and a divine”. He suggests his anthology sets out to change our ideas about what falls within the scope of “spiritual poetry”:
To flatten the project of ‘spiritual poetry’ to a bunch of white Romantic and Metaphysical poets is to erase the Bhagavad Gita, to wash away Li Po and Rabi’a and Mahadevikyakka and Teresa of Ávila and Bashō and Nâzim Hikmet. It’s a colonization […] To the extent that there is any grand unified curatorial theory governing the content of this book, it exists in opposition to the colonial impulse.
But too many of these translations seem to me to be bland: clear, perhaps, but far from musical. Few of them work convincingly as English poetry. So the music of the minority of pieces written originally in English, plus those translations which are real poems in their own right – such as Hopkins’ translation of Aquinas, Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Baranczak’s translation of Wisława Szymborska’s ‘Astonishment’, and Marilyn Hacker’s version of an extract from Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s ‘She says’ – stand out strongly and seize our attention. Readers are drawn to the usual suspects – Shakespeare, Milton, Herbert, Blake, Keats and Hopkins, leavened by a few more recent and perhaps less familiar pieces. The unfortunate result of Akbar’s selection is to reinforce the colonial bias that he denounces and has attempted to reverse. There are some good poems in this book, and many more which are fascinating and even inspiring for other reasons. But the good poems (as poems, as we meet them, in English) are too few, and the ambitious range of the selection has been too poorly contextualised or curated to be of much use for new readers.
The editor’s interest and judgement seems much surer and better informed in the last 100 or so pages, covering poetry from the mid-20th century onwards. Though concerns about the focus of the anthology remain, there are several excellent recent poems by African and North American poets here, and the quality of translation is also better in this section. A volume comprising Akbar’s choice of poems from around the world written, perhaps, since 1945, and untethered from a specifically “spiritual” description might have made for a more successful anthology.
Victoria Moul is a poet, translator and scholar living in Paris. Recent publications include A Literary History of Latin and English Poetry (Cambridge University Press, 2022) and (with John Talbot) C. H. Sisson Reconsidered (Palgrave Macmillan, 2023). Recent poems, reviews and verse translations have appeared in the TLS, The Dark Horse, Amethyst Review, Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal, Bad Lilies, Modern Poetry in Translation, Ancient Exchanges and the anthology Outer Space (CUP, 2022). She writes about poetry and translation at Horace & friends.