Results of the Whitbread Book Award in the year 1999.
Composed toward the end of the first millennium, Beowulf is the classic Northern epic of a hero’s triumphs as a young warrior and his fated death as a defender of his people. The poem is about encountering the monstrous, defeating it, and then having to live on, physically and psychically exposed in the exhausted aftermath. It is not hard to draw parallels in this story to the historical curve of consciousness in the twentieth century, but the poem also transcends such considerations, telling us psychological and spiritual truths that are permanent and liberating. In his new translation, Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney has produced a work that is both true, line by line, to the original poem and a fundamental expression of his own creative gift.
In the years before his death at age sixty-eight in 1998, Hughes translated several classical works with great energy and ingenuity. His Tales from Ovid was called “one of the great works of our century” (Michael Hofmann, The Times, London), his Oresteia of Aeschylus is considered the difinitive version, and his Phèdre was acclaimed on stage in New York as well as London. Hughes’s version of Euripides’s Alcestis, the last of his translations, has the great brio of those works, and it is a powerful and moving conclusion to the great final phase of Hughes’s career.
Euripides was, with Aeschylus and Sophocles, one of the greatest of Greek dramatists. Alcestis tells the story of a king’s grief for his wife, Alcestis, who has given her young life so that he may live. As translated by Hughes, the story has a distinctly modern sensibility while retaining the spirit of antiquity. It is a profound meditation on human mortality.
Many of the poems in Hofmann’s impressive new collection return to the subject of his father, the German novelist Gert Hofmann. In 1993 Gert Hofmann died, and the poems written since that time reflect the evolution of a complex relationship: frankness and factuality are tempered by grief, pity, pain, and bemusement.
But whatever the subject matter, whatever the real or imagined impetus or poetic impulse, the lyrics throughout Approximately Nowhere are expertly conveyed in a flowing style and a variety of tones.
In this text Don Paterson has used the work of the late, great Spanish poet Antonio Machado (1875-1939) to create a spiritual portrait which lies somewhere between translation and imitation, showing Machado to have a surprisingly modern philosophical bent.