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Journal, Day Four

By Steve Young

One purpose of the Kraków Poetry Seminars is to bridge American and Polish poetry cultures. Towards that end, the two major readings of the week, reviewed on this site by Bradford Gray Telford, featured both American and Polish poets reading their own poems and one another’s in translation. In the classroom, this circuit was made through two panels: American Poets Respond to Polish Poetry with Jorie Graham, Philip Levine, and Edward Hirsch; and Polish Poets respond to American Poetry with Jacek Gutorow, Julia Hartwig, and Artur Szlosarek.

Hirsch first read Miłosz’s “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto” and “Dedication” when he was 23. He admired the poems’ unashamed tenderness and vulnerability. Here was a poet who could connect with the dead and honor them. Milosz’s poetry offered a genuinely human dialogue between the metaphysical and the historical. From Alexander Wat’s autobiography, My Century, Hirsch learned that poetic development meant losing a sense of harmony to “scraps and tatters.” Zbigniew Herbert’s “Mr. Cogito and the Imagination” also endorses an exacting poetry, devoid of literary artifice, and as fragmented as reality:

Mr. Cogito’s imagination
has the motion of a pendulum

it crosses with precision
from suffering to suffering

there is no place in it
for the artificial fires of poetry

he would like ot remain faithful
to uncertain clarity

Translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter

Jorie Graham, who grew up in France until 1969, loved America for its freedom from history. But what she came to value in Polish poetry is the inseparability of the metaphysical and historical. It makes the personal collective: a “we” not an “I”. In America the enemy is abstract, whereas in Poland, it is specific, well-known, and visible. Miłosz and other Poles can confront the bleakest truth, but praise anyway. American poets, on the other hand, must explain their claim to history.

When he was young, the politically-conscious poetry of Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, and Sigfried Sassoon intimidated Phil Levine. A love of Garcia Lorca drew him to Spain and an engagement with political poetry. Antonio Machado was a great influence, but so too was Herbert’s “The Rain,” about a soldier who returns from World War I shell shocked. The veteran is increasingly absorbed by military history until language and life desert him.

Before World War II, Poles were well read in Russian and French poets. Interest in American poets didn’t begin until after the War, according Julia Hartwig, an eminent Polish poet and editor of an anthology of American poetry. Emily Dickinson was the first American poet to be read in Poland, in translations by Stanislaw Barańczak, along with Miłosz’s versions of Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, and Vachel Lindsay. T.S. Eliot had a huge influence among Polish poets, owing perhaps to the French strains in his poetry, though he was not the dominant force he was in the English-speaking world. Jacek Gutorow turned to Wallace Stevens, whom he has translated, when he could find no English poets of interest after the Romantics. Although Miłosz didn’t always approve of Stevens—particularly his fascination with scientific method—the two poets are linked by their metaphysics and their ultimate faith in the imagination.

The Beats, and particularly the New York School poets had a tremendous impact on Polish poetry, which coincided with Polish independence in 1989. Emancipation, Adam Zagajewski suggested, demanded a radical transformation in language and poetry. The truth could now be personal, free of larger social concerns and the collective experience. The message of O’Hara and Ashbery is that poems are just poems. Aesthetics and ethics are separate. Against Miłosz and Herbert, the poet could now respond to solemnity with irony or absurdist humor.

Clare Cavanagh pointed out that Robert Frost doesn’t figure prominently on the Polish landscape, although Barańczak translated him and Miłosz knew of him through Brodsky. It may be that Mandelstam overshadowed Frost.

The other major Americans missing from the canon in Poland are Lowell, Sexton, Plath, and the Confessionals. They are available in Polish, but they’ve had nothing close to the tectonic impact that they continue to have in the States. This is especially surprising in the case of Lowell, whose early poetry is deeply historical and religious, and who for a time was the standard-bearer of political protest in the U.S.

Visitors to Kraków should not miss Massolit Books, a huge English-language bookstore. It’s evidence that the bridge between Polish and American poetry is already quite wide and well trafficked.

Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, July 27th, 2006 by Steve Young.