Milosz Is Watching You

At the Krakow Poetry Seminar, one thing’s certain: politics cannot be ignored.
At Copernicus’s alma mater in Krakow, U.S. and Polish poets get together to talk poetry and politics under Czeslaw Milosz’s watchful eye. Bradford Gray Telford reports on the new questions facing poets on both continents.

At the 2006 Krakow Poetry Seminar in the heart of southern Poland, poet and Guggenheim Foundation president Edward Hirsch didn’t mince his words. “The time has come for American poets to sharpen their political attentions,” the gray-haired, broad-shouldered MacArthur Fellow proclaimed. The rapt crowd was packed into a conference room at Jagiellonian University, the 642-year-old alma mater of Copernicus. “Through their work,” Hirsch continued, “poets in the States must now start talking about what’s happening to the country—and what their country is making happen throughout the rest of the world.”

Two days later, Pulitzer Prize–winner Jorie Graham expanded on Hirsch’s call to arms. Slated to discuss American responses to Polish poetry, Graham—leonine and regal in her blonde mane and wide-legged black slacks—launched into an impromptu litany detailing America’s domestic lapses and international atrocities of the past six years. Speaking of an idealized (and probably fictional) peacetime between the end of the Cold War and the events of September 11, Graham calmly declared, “America used to be a country that did not practice institutionalized torture. America used to be a country,” she grew quieter, fiercer, “that did not deprive its citizens of due process. America used to be,” Graham raised her voice and bit into her syllables, “a country that no longer maintained internment camps—that did not build and operate secret detention centers . . . that did not instigate mass-scale renditions in foreign countries . . . a country that did not allow its president unchecked imperial power . . . a country whose citizens actually elected its president.”

If the tone was electrifying, serious, and, at times, deeply conflicted, there was good reason. Both the United States and Poland have, in less than a decade, weathered radical changes of both political leaning and cultural import. Poets in both countries are asking questions they’ve never had to ask before. And based on what I heard at the seminar readings, they’re generating some fraught, fascinating answers.

To many European observers, the United States—because of its ongoing wars, and its coarse patriotic doublespeak—has grown, somewhat eerily, to resemble Poland’s late occupier, the former Soviet Union. In the meantime, Poland has moved into the 21st-century with its full participation in a unified Europe, in a single currency, in representative democracy, and even in NATO. It has embarked on a charmingly Slavic version of the American Dream—a Diesel Store on Krakow’s Market Square! urban loft apartment booms! new cars! throngs of young people—thin young people—skinny and tanned Continentals—streaming on well-toned feet through Krakow’s equally thin medieval streets.

As politics and economies shift, so do poetics. In the past decade, American literature has begun to suffer the gradual die-off of the storied Generation of ’26. The loss of whole anthologies of writers born in and around that star-ordained year—including James Merrill, Denise Levertov, Anthony Hecht, Donald Justice, A.R. Ammons, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, and Thom Gunn—has left many American poets wondering what to do and where to go, poetically speaking. Similarly, with the 2004 death of Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz, Poland’s poets are looking for new greats. Chief among Milosz’s many gifts was his Virgilian assuredness—a contribution unique to Milosz the Poet-Philosopher-Dissident-Statesman-in-Exile—that guided innumerable Polish writers and readers through war, occupation, totalitarianism, and post-Communist bewilderment. Add to Milosz’s death the death of Zbigniew Herbert and the seclusion of Wislawa Szymborska, and poets of subsequent generations now question what roles a poet might indeed play in Poland.

Generally, there seem to be two camps. One maintains allegiance to the old order set by Milosz and his followers. This aesthetic dictates the idea that language can contain and convey The Truth. The second bloc unites around the fallibility of text and the impossibility of truth (poetic or otherwise), and the expression of these through language-play. It is a protracted internecine squabble, one reminiscent of the American Theory Wars of the early and mid 1980s. Yet Poland is different. In a country that survived centuries of occupation—Swedish, Russian, Austrian, and German—there is a near-biological necessity for a specifically Polish literature. One gets the sense that many Poles are merely waiting out these debates for that time when both Milosz and his spiritual confrere, Pope John Paul II, will resurrect themselves, dust each other off, and start giving orders.

In the midst of this factionalized poetry culture, the 2006 Krakow Poetry Seminar staked out its difficult terrain. Throughout the week of panels, lectures, dinners, and readings (but, please, no workshops—American craft obsession and its attendant myopia was pushed aside for seven sunny days), Czeslaw Milosz’s absence was utterly palpable. It could not be otherwise. Founded by Krakow poet Adam Zagajewski as a way to bring established and emerging American writers to Poland and to Milosz himself, the 2006 Seminar felt at times like an artistic-intellectual memorial service given to a writer of inexhaustible vision and unbreakable will.

And at both of the seminar’s two big readings, everyone shared the stage with the Great Man himself. Literally. Krakow’s Milosz Institute produced a heroic-scaled photo-portrait of Milosz, taken in 1981, to accompany its bilingual edition of Milosz’s lyrical prose-statement “Notes on Exile.” Eight feet high and four feet across, the photograph shows Milosz standing tall on a lush, green hill that slopes gently down to the banks of a glass-topped Vistula River, the gray-blue of the water echoed in the gray-brown of the poet’s internationally-scaled eyebrows.

Light pooled around the enormous picture at each reading venue, whether at Templ Synagogue—an exquisitely ornate 19th-century house of worship in the heart of Krakow’s old Jewish quarter, The Kazimir—or at the blandly post-Stalin Performing Arts High School Auditorium across the street from Jagiellonian University. In these separate spaces, the two-night reading placed the seminar faculty poets under Milosz’s steely, certain gaze. The faculty included American poets Jorie Graham, Patricia Hampl, Edward Hirsch, Tony Hoagland, and Philip Levine along with Poles Jacek Gutorow, Julia Hartwig, Krystyna Milobedzka, Dariusz Suska, and Adam Zagajewski.

One night, Gutorow, a poet, critic, and Wallace Stevens scholar (who looks—with his sunken eyes and rumpled khakis—every bit the poet), read his poem “The Prelude,” a bittersweet, ironic romance of the poet-as-young-boy, the title riffing on Wordsworth in order to revise the nostalgia-soaked world of childhood. Milosz’s sense of History—of fire raining down to annihilate your city—is markedly absent from Gutorow’s elegy. Instead, you have a boy on a balcony, looking out at windblown trees, attempting to flex his as-yet-immature poetic muscles:

     And the boy’s shyness: he did not mind
sovereign space, the wind maneuvering in tree-tops
like a relatively poor metaphor, or maybe the metaphor
was accurate but life didn’t live up to it?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The future carried postponed words
and scattered them here and there.
And the boy was just walking and catching,
and nothing else mattered.
Gutorow’s is a remarkably optimistic poem in which History is completely banished. The past exists here for a purely generative, poetic reason. And, in that past, the boy’s present—of “walking and catching” among scattering leaf-words—makes for a sincere and valid poetic project. Born in 1970, Gutorow was barely 10 years old when Solidarity began to make inroads against the Soviet hegemony. Thus Gutorow’s entire historical moment has occurred during the collapse of Warsaw-Pact totalitarianism. He would inherit a world in which a truly “sovereign space,” one free of secret police and dialectical materialism, might actually exist.

Contrast this optimism with Adam Zagajewski. Born in 1945—his hair, beard, and eyebrows a near-perfect white (imagine Tolkien’s Gandalf in a crewcut and shirtsleeves)—Zagajewski read “Long Street,” another poem about a poet’s childhood and its landscape—this time, though, with History in it. The adult poet looks back on a street from his early days and labels it as “thankless . . . trudging . . . street long as patience . . . street long as flight from a fire.” Here are “little dry goods stores / like sentries in Napoleon’s frozen army” where the poet-child “dashed to military drills and lectures.” The scenery, the memory of it, is saturated with signs of occupation and disaster. The adult looks back to the child’s future and sees rubble, ash, a menacing glow of “fire.”

Polish poet and translator Julia Hartwig deepened this conflicted premise when she read her piece, “Victoria”:
Why didn’t I dance on the Champs-Elysées
when the crowd cheered the end of the war?
Why didn’t I throw myself into the arms of the sailor
who walked down the gangway with a duffel on his arm
running toward me through the excited crowd
as raging sounds of be-bop
the Marseillaise and God Save the Queen
blurted from all the loudspeakers?
Hartwig, born in 1921, has a stern gaze, though she was surprisingly chic in a blue pantsuit and a gold-brown braided up-do. She witnessed the Allies’ 1945 victory not in Paris or London but in a city that would soon become part of a different world:
     fated to be on the main street of Lublin
watching regiments with red stars enter the city
crying with joy I would no longer hear the hated Raus! and Halt!
but torn by sadness that this was the price for the lost dream
The sorrow of ruin and occupation, the small-time joys eked out of such a grim circumstance—these are only some of the psychic conditions Americans consider when they listen to Polish poetry. But times are changing. The line arcing out of Hartwig, Zagajewski, and Gutorow demonstrates that, these days, History is no longer fire raining out of the sky but perhaps, instead, a young boy looking out to the dazzle of windblown treetops—or even the scene I observed of two Ronald McDonalds handing out balloons and burger coupons to gleeful Polish children (and adults).

If, for Poles, the recent past seems better than the distant past, it is just the opposite for Americans, who sense that things were much better Then than in this mostly dreadful Now. Before considering America’s present troubles from the vantage of “Krakow” at “6 AM,” Edward Hirsch read a suite of lilting nostalgia poems with titles like “Cotton Candy” and “My Father’s Track and Field Medal, 1932.” And Patricia Hampl—with her porcelain skin and hair streaked Sontagian gray—upped the ante in a fascinating memoir-excerpt titled “Smoke,” about her experiences wandering the streets of Prague as a young American writer in the mid-1970s.

Jorie Graham and Tony Hoagland consistently and ferociously offered work obsessed with post-9/11 America. Graham read her long, wildly enjambed “Passenger,” a panicked, tragic, proto-elegy set in that most urban of places: a cab. It is a piece about the impossibility of speech. Graham toiled through her broken lines—at times as if hunting for Reason, at times as if gasping for air. She says to the cabdriver:

          Also you are scared
[therefore the flags on your windows][one in the car itself].
Scared they will say you did IT. Or could have. I
am also scared. Am I driving now? It is not clear here.
There were supposed to be instructions. Stage directions.
Or signs form the deities, but they have moved on. There
must be an other place I think sometimes. For them to have
moved on to. The Apocalypse? That is a common
destination spot for the many human minds now.
Graham’s voice perfectly captured the urgency expressed in her fragmented, fraying lines. Is language now even possible? the poem asked and asked again, employing a prosody both elegant and devastated. And Adam Zagajewski honored Graham’s piece with a similar, distraught dignity as he navigated the clipped and flinty Polish translation.

One key element of Tony Hoagland’s work remains mostly untranslatable for Polish audiences: his sense of humor. Poles—who once waited in Soviet-era bread lines reciting Mickiewicz and Milosz and who looked to poetry as the only source of Truth (portable, easy to memorize) in a world where the Soviet Empire controlled every medium and mode of artistic production—do not feel at liberty to laugh at poems. As any comedy writer knows, a laugh indicates a direct hit on what Russian filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov famously called “the true-Truth.” So the few laughs Hoagland’s translated work elicited from the Polish-speaking audiences satisfied me that, as Deutsche Bank and Diet Coke encroach on their sensibilities, necessary American defense mechanisms are encroaching, too.

Not that there’s anything particularly funny about History and Self suffering annihilation under the lash of American late Capitalism. That’s why Hoagland, physically and psychically stranded in a Red State shopping mall, keeps chuckling throughout his poem “Hard Rain.” Hoagland loves his contraries:
After I heard “It's a Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”
played softly by an accordion quartet
through the ceiling speakers at the Springdale Shopping Mall,
I understood there’s nothing
we can’t pluck the stinger from,

nothing we can’t turn into a soft drink flavor or a T-shirt.
Even serenity can become something horrible
if you make a commercial about it
using smiling, white-haired people

quoting Thoreau to sell retirement homes
in the Everglades . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Dear Abby:
My father is a businessman who travels.
Each time he returns from one of his trips,
his shoes and trousers
are covered with blood—

but he never forgets to bring me a nice present;
Should I say something?
Signed, America.
When the bespectacled, lean, and always-grinning-as-if-in-front-of-a-firing-squad Hoagland expertly pitched the “Dear Abby . . . Signed, America” stanzas, laughter erupted from each American in the evenly mixed audience. When the Polish translation was read, I heard two snickers, maybe a sole guffaw. It may take the Poles another generation to fully embrace Hoagland’s American response to the true, American Truth. They’ll need it.
Originally Published: July 26th, 2006

Bradford Gray Telford was educated at Princeton and Columbia and has published work in many journals including Agni, Lyric, Diner, Eclipse, the Yale Review, Pleiades, Bloom, and Hayden’s Ferry Review. He is the recipient of the Erhardt-Cullen and Inprint-Fondren Fellowships at the University of Houston, where he is a doctoral candidate...

  1. February 3, 2007
     fady Joudah

    Nice essay Brad; thanks for writing it. Language, however, has either been always impossible, or always possible. 9/11 is not new to language. And the world has been full of horror. One need not have wakened to it just now only because one is American. As if "political" poetry in America is only attached to "foreign policy disasters," at least since WWII. The political is personal, and that "personal" has been mostly shunned or ignored in American poetry for so long (in almost a morally puritanical fixation), I wonder how sophomoric the awakening will be. I have hope, however. It's the only sand left to us.

  2. March 4, 2015

    I like this

  3. March 10, 2016
     Mozibur Ullah

    Fascinating. Good to hear that
    American poetry is breaking
    through the self-confessional to
    the political self.