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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Poem in San Pedro River Review

San Pedro River Review, Vol. 1 No. 2I received my contributor’s copy of San Pedro River Review today. This, their second issue, features emerging and established voices from the rural Heartland and the wild Southwest — brimming with Studebakers, bandannas, milk cows, and greasy spoons. Strange company for my tribute poem to the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, wherein I give birth to a twin brother for his “Mr. Cogito” persona in a poem called “Mr. Ergosum Speaks.” Still, this character somehow seems to fit in to such rough-and-ready company, like a sly European gunslinger in a Western saloon.

Sadly, something must have gone awry with my email submission, as not all of the line breaks came out quite right. I didn’t think to ask for a galley. And so, for those of you who might wonder, I include the correctly-formatted text of the poem, below. Despite this minor nuisance (a peril of the electronic age), the issue came out terrific overall. You can pick up all forty six pages of delicious new poems from Antigone Books or Mostly Books in Tucson, Arizona or from Bart’s Books in Ojai, California — or order your copy by mail using the address on their website. It will no doubt turn out to be the best six bucks you’ve spent in awhile.

And now, the poem:

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Zbigniew Herbert’s Poignant Hope

In “Biology Teacher,” Zbigniew Herbert speaks about the unspeakable: the murder of his childhood biology teacher. He is one of a generation of poets attempting to come to terms with survivor guilt after the atrocities committed in their native Poland during its occupation by the Nazis. Herbert addresses a subject of both great generational and personal difficulty with remarkable sensitivity and care. In this poem, just as in another, perhaps more famous poem entitled “Five Men,” Herbert focuses not on the atrocity of killing, but the humanity of those killed.

His poetic tactics follow two lines: detail and syntax. First, the very careful selection of detail draws out an understanding of the victims’ personality and humanity. Second, the syntax allows these unique details to be revealed in interesting ways, building up to poignant observations about the sanctity of life. In “Biology Teacher,” it is Herbert’s boyhood delights at the gross-yet-fascinating subject of biology that tell us so much about the teacher who introduced him to this world. Through careful detail and syntax, we discover what the biology teacher really taught Herbert: a relationship to the natural world involving great care, tenderness, and even respect — punctuated by moments of delight.
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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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