What is this new European thing with two German writers winning my Book of the Year after the dominance of American writers. But Enzensberger is no sudden surprise. I’ve liked his poetry ever since I read his early book The Sinking of the Titanic. The image of the grand piano falling down the slanting floor of the grand ball room as the great ship lists to its fate, is one that’s so embedded in my psyche that I can’t remember whether he invented it or me but this book is just as good and may bring new images that will last. The subtitle of this new collection is revealing, ’99 meditations’ and these are much more inward looking and private poems than the grand metaphor of hubris. The book is summed up as a celebration of the ‘tenacity of normality in everyday life’.
Ron Pretty is an Australian poet who has been writing poetry for more than forty years and his latest book Postcards from the Centre, is just as good as anything he’s written. These are lovely, thoughtful, crafted poems and, continuing the theme of the cloud, there’s plenty of weather here too. But the greatest compliment I can pay this book is the one where I know a book has touched me: it made me want to write. Finally, I didn’t entirely ignore the American connection this year. Once again in NY I found a book that’s been on my Amazon wish list forever, Raymond Carver’s A New Path to the Waterfall. It was good to revisit one of my favourite American poets again.
What is it about autobiography that’s so hard to get right? And yet is so powerful when it is? Possibly the ego, and what must be an almost overwhelming temptation to paint yourself in a better light than you actually were at the time. And that can be transparent. But good autobiography is compelling and this is the best I’ve read since I read Nabokov’s remarkableSpeak Memory, a few years ago now. This is the story of the emergig artist/writer, of accidental encounters and escapes, living through and participating in World War II on the German side, and emerging as a writer at the end. This generated some controversy in Germany as Grass recounts his involvement in the Hitler Youth, but it’s beautifully told and a compelling narrative too.
I also liked Gary Snyder’s environmental poetry essays, The Practice of the Wild and that particularly Californian brand of West Coast Buddhism that emerges. More in the natural world realm was Leviathan, the remarkable story of man’s encounters with the biggest creature in the sea: the whale, and all the tragedy (literary and otherwise) of those encounters. A nice surprise too was ex Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries, an example of that very modern phenonomenon of a blog becoming a book and chronicling his close encounters with various cities of the world on his folding bicycle. Part travel diary, part musical exploration, it’s very readable. Did the fact that I saw this book first in the Strand Bookshop in NY influence my affection for this book and maybe even influence it’s inclusion here? Perhaps!