Twentieth-Century Polish Poets on Poetry

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“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

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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
Schumann)
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.

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Czeslaw Milosz’s “Preparation”

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There are many taboos in poetry. Some of them cycle in and out of fashion. For example, in the wake of so much confessional poetry of the last few decades, many contemporary poets now spurn an insecure, dramatic speaker in favor of the quiet power that comes from a more detached, objective presentation. In fact, a large part of the modern mindset eschews sentimentality, even subtly detected, as unpoetic.

Reading Czeslaw Milosz’s “Preparation,” I am reminded of Marvin Bell’s credo: “Learn the rules, break the rules, make up new rules, then break those rules.” Consider the poem:

Still one more year of preparation.
Tomorrow at the latest I’ll start working on a great book
In which my century will appear as it really was.
The sun will rise over the righteous and the wicked.
Springs and autumns will unerringly return.
In a wet thicket a thrush will build his nest lined with clay
And foxes will learn their foxy natures.

And that will be the subject, with addenda. Thus: armies
Running across frozen plains, shouting a curse
In a many-voiced chorus; the cannon of a tank
Growing immense at the corner of a street; the ride at dusk
Into a camp with watchtowers and barbed wire.

No, it won’t happen tomorrow. In five or ten years.
I still think too much about the mothers
And ask what is a man born of woman.
He curls himself up and protects his head
While he is kicked by heavy boots; on fire and running,
He burns with a bright flame; a bulldozer sweeps him into a clay pit.
Her child. Embracing a teddy bear. Conceived in ecstasy.

I haven’t learned yet to speak as I should, calmly.

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Zbigniew Herbert’s Poignant Hope

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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

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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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Czeslaw Milosz and the Hope of Poetry

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“I have defined poetry as a ‘passionate pursuit of the Real.'”

-Czeslaw Milosz, The Witness of Poetry

The Witness of PoetryAfter finishing The Witness of Poetry, I found myself mourning the loss of a man I never met and mourning, most importantly, a mind and spirit so capable of characterizing the poetics of the past century — and thereby helping us understand a bit more of ourselves. Milosz seems to have defined the major dialectic forces at work in twentieth century poetry: language versus mimesis, classicism versus realism, science versus imagination, alienation versus “the human family” and West versus East. Owing to Poland’s unique, liminal situation in the interplay of so many of these forces throughout Europe, Milosz speaks with a kind of visceral authority about such broad characteristics of poetry in the past century.

He is not without bias in describing these dynamics. Fortunately for me, his biases run along similar veins to my own, so I frequently felt he was expressing many of my own latent thoughts and beliefs in a much more articulate and compelling way. Regarding science supplanting imagination as an organizing principle for our lives, he points out:

… science not only contributes to the perfecting of ever more lethal means of conducting war. It also penetrates the very fabric of our collective life, causing transformations whose range still eludes our comprehension. The pollution of the mind by certain images, those side effects of science, is analogous to the pollution of the natural surroundings by technology derived from the same science.

and much later, in relating to the horrors of the twentieth century — from the holocaust to the atomic bomb — he points out the stakes in such a dynamic are not merely aesthetic, but that, “It is possible that we are witnessing a kind of race between the lifegiving and the destructive activity of civilization’s bacteria, and that an unknown result awaits in the future. No computer will be able to calculate so many pros and cons — thus a poet with his intuition remains one strong, albeit uncertain, source of knowledge.”
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