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Journal, Day Five

By Steve Young

Owing to time and space limitations, I’ve been able unable to discuss all items in the rich Kraków Poetry Seminars curriculum. There was, for example, a superb lecture by University of Houston Professor David Mikics about Auden’s well-known “September 1, 1939” and the much more lighthearted poem, “Heavy Date,” which he wrote less than a month later. Auden came to disavow the first, with its often-cited imperative “We must love one another or die” more sentimental than true he thought. “Heavy Date,” despite its innocent tone, is more the song of experience, giving a far darker, almost Larkinesque view of love as fickle, selfish, and irrational: “Love like Matter is much / Odder than we thought.”

The ten graduate students from the University of Houston—Craig Beaven, Jericho Brown, Darin Ciccotelli, Farnoosh Fathi, Peter B. Hyland, James May, Paul Otremba, Vanessa Stauffer, Bradford Gray Telford, and Sasha West—all presented provocative papers on such topics as “Poetry and the End of the World” and “Happiness and Reading.” One night they gave a reading of their own work and work by others they admired. The reading took place in one of Kraków’s many underground bars. I kept thinking of crocuses breaking into sunlight.

There was an evening of American music, featuring Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” with Ed Hirsch as the voice of Abraham Lincoln: “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.” Phil Levine found himself in a state of rapture as he listened; whatever he might feel about his country now, Levine felt himself overcome with Lincoln’s vision of America: “That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. That this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Patricia Hampl recounted her class with John Berryman when the great poet asked his students to write their autobiographies. A very young Patricia Hampl confessed to Berryman that she didn’t believe she had anything to write about. He replied, “You have a memory don’t you!” This lead her to an understanding that “memory’s genitive core is incompleteness.” When Phil Levine later introduced her to Miłosz’s work, she saw that memoir isn’t confined to an exploration of the self. The self can be used to illuminate history; it is, in fact, an elemental part of it.

There was Phil Levine’s eloquent statement of egoless camaraderie. The Vietnam War created a community of poets, including James Wright, Galway Kinnell, Robert Bly, and others. Levine felt certain that this group mattered, whether or not Levine himself was significant. He loved his fellow poets then as brothers.

Threading its way through the entire week was the issue of irony. The message, sometimes on the table, sometimes under it, was this: in general, young American poets depend too heavily on irony. They are reluctant to believe anything and hesitant to engage history. As a result, their work is often distant, unaccountable, opaque, and trivial. The argument reached a kind of crescendo on the last day of panels, with Bradford Gray Telford and other students asserting that beliefs and convictions lead to trouble—the war Iraq—or stupidities, such as the stoned, love-in generation of the sixties.

One by one, the faculty responded to these “legitimate dangers.”

Tony Hoagland: “You must love other poetry more than your own.”

Adam Zagajewski: “Poems always have something to say. It is good, not wrong, to have something to say.”

Edward Hirsch: We must defend meaning against meaninglessness. Ezra Pound said it matters that great poems get written; it doesn’t matter a damn who writes them. Every poet must find what he or she can give.

Jorie Graham: The poet must be brave, open to the changes of mind that writing a true poem entails. Irony suggests there is another self, but what self do you have beside the vulnerable one that loves and fears and doubts and seeks survival. This is the origin of poetry. You can’t write, you can’t live, if you think you have to be right.

As we were chatting after the last session, Ed Hirsch told me that our classroom, Number 56, Collegium Novum, Jagiellonian University, was where the Nazis gathered approximately 150 Polish professors before sending them off to prison, labor camps, or worse. Now, decades later, a talented group of young American writers had gathered in the same space and been set free.

Huge thanks and appreciation are due Jennifer Grotz for organizing the Krakow Poetry Seminars.


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, July 28th, 2006 by Steve Young.