Twentieth-Century Polish Poets on Poetry

“Our planetary reality has split in two into the so-called West and the so-called East, and I have drunk from both one and the other poisoned well. I have also become convinced that the puzzle of the thirties still cries out for a solution.”

-Czesław Miłosz

Polish Writers on Writing

I find myself intensely drawn to twentieth-century Polish poets. Having borne waves of tragedy in the last century, from the Holocaust to oppressive Soviet occupation, the country itself seems have been flung into a kind of national existential crisis. And so, its sensitive and intelligent poets grapple deeply and boldly with questions of faith and reason, tragedy and hope, nihilism and meaning. Many of them, like me, are fascinated with the allegorical dimensions of the Book of Job, with Nietzschean philosophy, with reconciling the tragedies of the great World Wars with the sometimes inexplicable beauty of this world.  In short, they face down the deepest questions about what it means to be alive.

Yet I do not think it is only me, or only Polish poets, who must come to terms with these questions. Triggered by the worldwide disillusionment brought about by the global spectacle of the Second World War (brilliantly explained by Miłosz in The Witness of Poetry), it seems that Postmodernism is the first stage of grieving our collective loss of faith in centrality and certainty. I believe we can, and must, move past this stage by confronting the deep questions that surfaced in this time. We must heal the unspeakable wound.

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Adam Zagajewski’s Multifaceted Consciousness

Mysticism for Beginners. One of the great subjects of poetry, and one which I think remains uniquely well-exploited within the medium, is the multifaceted nature of human consciousness. Because poetry is made of language, and language is the vehicle for communicating, not only sensation, but feelings and ideas, good poetry seems to always, in some way, touch upon the protean nature of our awareness — whether directly, or by demonstration. Poems that embrace human complexity with equally attentive language attract me. Consider this wry little poem by Adam Zagajewski (b. 1945), entitled “The Thirties”:

The thirties
I don’t exist yet
Grass grows
A girl eats strawberry ice cream
Someone listens to Schumann
(mad, ruined
I don’t exist yet
How fortunate
I can hear everything

Awareness plays out on many levels here, culminating in a moment of relishing the auditory imagination — after extolling “mad, ruined / Schumann” the speaker goes on to say that because he or she does not exist yet, that speaker can “hear everything.”

And yet, as much as this poem deals directly with layers of awareness, such layers exist to be played upon, in some way, in nearly every poem. They are like rungs or bars in gymnasium equipment, and, in poetry, we leap from level to level because we can. In life we must walk on the ground. But in poetry, we can perform acrobatics of consciousness. Consider another short poem by the same author, entitled “To My Older Brother”:

How calmly we walk
through the days and months,
how softly we sing
our black lullaby,
how easily wolves seize
our brothers,
how gently
death breathes,
how swiftly
ships swim
in our arteries.

Each line is a wonderful, if not terrible, surprise — culminating in the final startling proposition of ships swimming “in our arteries.”

Mysticism for Beginners is a treatise on consciousness, and a workout for heart and mind. Clare Cavanagh has done us English-readers a great service by transposing these poems so artfully from the Polish.

Back in London and the Polish-English Interchange

Had a great trip down to the South coast, the highlight being a sword fight with a four-year-old on the bowling green of Carisbrooke Castle. We crossed the Solent in the kind of gale that threatened the Fastnet Race. Unfortunately, that meant we couldn’t take the hovercraft — but the fast catamaran only pitched and rolled during the slow going in and out of port. Good thing, too — Val and I were stuffed on two enormous portions (“Those are the mediums?!”) of fish & chips as well as tea and Turkish delight.

I have been reading Zbigniew Herbert on the train, trying to get past the translation. Apart from stunning poems like “Five Men” and “The Pebble,” most of the poems I have read so far smack of romantic Slavic intillectualism and an out-of-tune surrealism. I wonder if his work focuses more on language and lyric device to make what seem like generalizations come alive in new (linguistic) ways. In any case, it is a far cry from Adam Zagajewski, whose poems in Mysticism For Beginners are tight and self-contained — a kind of Eastern European Ted Koozer with a deeper connection to history and a more philosophical bent. Still, I’m ploughing through Herbert poems by the hundreds, hoping to get more inside this poet, hoping to read beyond the language barrier and into the mind of the man that has written poems that make my jaw drop open with their fierce, unflinching gaze.

Meanwhile, it is evident that since I was here three years ago, Polish people have immigrated to the UK in great numbers. There are now Polish grocers and restaurants just down the street. On the tube today, young Poles were poring over a glossy Polish-language magazine sporting the latest PC gaming equipment and games. According to Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish that contemporary poets employ is only nominally different from its medieval counterpart — making their poetic tradition vastly more accessible and vibrant than our own. (Imagine if Chaucer and Shakespeare wrote in English-as-we-know-it.)
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