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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Post-Postmodernism and Hope

“Every evening / words / — not stars — light the sky. // No rest in life / like life itself.”

 — Umberto Saba, “Three Cities,” trans. Stephen Sartarelli

“I hear that the axe has flowered, / I hear that the place can’t be named, // I hear that the bread which looks at him / heals the hanged man, / the bread baked for him by his wife, // I hear that they call life / our only refuge.”

 — Paul Celan, “I Hear That The Axe Has Flowered,” trans. Michael Hamburger


I find myself drawn to poets who survived The Second World War. This, in combination with frequently watching the remarkable BBC series Foyle’s War in the evening, as well as, on a more personal note, the recent passing of my wife’s uncle, Sven — a Marine who was at Normandy, and a man of whom I was fond — has got me thinking about the profound and continuing impact of WWII. Even as Czeslaw Milosz says that Communism was the only possible response to the atrocities of the Industrial Revolution, so, too, it occurs to me that Postmodernism may well be a kind of understandable, almost logical response to the atrocities of WWII.

Part of my thinking has been fueled by researching Seamus Heaney, including a number of essays in The Art Of Seamus Heaney wherein various critics attempt to place him, as an accessible, intelligent, lyric poet, within the context of the Twentieth century, and the decline of centrality, gentility, and structure. These abstract thoughts have gained specificity through reading selected works of Paul Celan and Umberto Saba. Both men, in the face of profoundly difficult personal circumstances, heightened their attention to language in their poems. Yet in the case of Celan, the attention presses ever more inward, into a symbolic and even cryptogrammic relationship to German; whereas with Saba, his Italian becomes more specific and spare in a way that promotes universal resonance.
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