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Journal, Day One

By Clare Cavanagh

The Uses and Abuses of Poetry for Life

“What would American poets and critics do without the Central Europeans and the Russians to browbeat themselves with?” Maureen McLane exclaims in a recent issue of the Chicago Tribune book review (December 11, 2005). “Milosz, Wislawa Szymborska, Adam Zagajewski, Zbigniew Herbert, Joseph Brodsky—here we have world-historical seriousness! Weight! Importance! Even their playfulness is weighty, metaphysical, unlike barbaric American noodlings!” For some time now, Anglo-American writers have tended to see Eastern Europe, with its 20th-century sufferings, as a perverse promised land for modern poetry, with Poland in particular serving as a shorthand for “The Oppressed Country Where Poetry Still Matters.” I will not attempt to speak for all the poets McLane has assembled here. Szymborska for one, though, would be shocked to find herself ranked among the metaphysically serious and universally significant world powers of modern poetry.

She celebrates the “joy of writing” in one famous lyric. She is, if anything, even more persuasive on the highly underrated joy of not writing she extols in “In Praise of My Sister.” “When my sister asks me over for lunch,” she explains,

I know she doesn’t want to read me her poems.
Her soups are delicious without ulterior motives.
Her coffee doesn’t spill on manuscripts.

She is preoccupied here, as throughout her work, with the relationship between poetry and the daily life that surrounds it, feeds it, and at times altogether ignores it.

Szymborska has nothing but sympathy for the labors of would-be writers generally: “I myself started out with rotten poetry and stories,” she confesses in the introduction to the prose pieces assembled in The Literary Mailbox, or How to Start Writing (and When to Stop) (Krakow, 2000; the collection, incidentally, has yet to be translated). The texts that make up her typically idiosyncratic “How to (and How Not to)” guide are culled from the advice she gave (anonymously) for many years in a column by that name in the well-known journal Literary Life. She deals less gently, though, with those who scorn the sheer drudgery it takes to do anything well, be it soup-making or sonnets. “You write, ‘I know my poems have many faults, but so what, I’m not going to stop and fix them,’” she chides one novice, a certain “Heliodor from Przemysl.”

And why is that, oh Heliodor? Perhaps because you hold poetry so sacred? Or maybe you consider it insignificant? Both ways of treating poetry are mistaken, and what’s worse, they free the novice poet from the necessity of working on his verses. It’s pleasant and rewarding to tell our acquaintances that the bardic spirit seized us on Friday at 2:45 p.m. and began whispering mysterious secrets in our ear with such ardor that we scarcely had time to take them down. But at home, behind closed doors, they assiduously corrected, crossed out and revised those otherwordly utterances. Spirits are fine and dandy, but even poetry has its prosaic side.

She is no easier, for what it’s worth, on would-be translators. “The translator is obliged to be faithful not only to the text,” she scolds “H.O. from Poznan.” “He must also reveal the full beauty of the poetry while retaining its form and preserving as completely as possible the epoch’s spirit and style.” What can I say? We try.

Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, April 17th, 2006 by Clare Cavanagh.