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Journal, Day Three

By Steve Young

“Poets with History and Poets without History”

In his poem “To Whistler, American,” Ezra Pound referred to his fellow countrymen as a “mass of dolts.” He was expressing an insecurity about American poetry that continues to this day: the new world simply lacks the history, the centuries of cultural achievement, to nurture (and appreciate) the best poets. Thus Pound, Eliot, Frost, James, Gertrude Stein and her “Lost Generation,” among countless others all fled abroad where they could develop as artists. Today, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a young poet in possession of talent and ambition must be in want of a trip to Europe.

Certainly the Kraków Poetry Seminars both understand and answer this want. What country, after all, can claim more history than Poland, especially in the 20th century, when it played primary host to two world wars. For decades after, it was ruled by an unwelcome Soviet Union, and it was here, in the early ‘80s, that the Solidarity movement arose and made the end of Communist rule imaginable.

Does great history (or great suffering) produce great poetry, just as adversity builds character? Does political engagement elevate the art in the culture? These questions hover about the discourse at the Kraków Poetry Seminars. It’s easy to see why. Political consciousness informs even the most lyrical Polish poetry. Polish poets are honored at home and abroad. Czesław Miłosz won the Nobel Prize in 1980; Wisława Szymborska, another Kraków resident, received it in 1996. At the very center of town stands an imposing statue of Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), the great patriotic poet of Poland. Both Miłosz and Adam Zagajewski chose to live in Kraków when they returned from exile. And beyond the precincts of Kraków, the list of great Polish poets of the 20th century—all of them influenced by events—grows long: Julia Hartwig, Anna Swir, Zbigniew Herbert, Tadeusz Rózewicz, Alexander Wat, to name only a few.

The title of the first faculty panel comes from Marina Tsvetaeva’s essay about two types of poets: those who continually interact with the ever-changing external world and those whose work moves inward, independent of time and event. Edward Hirsch asserted that, after Eliot and Pound and the European Modernists, American poetry has little sense of history. Polish poetry, on the other hand, cannot avoid history. The New Criticism essentially banned historical context from poetry, taking the poem as a self-contained thing, while Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and other New York School writers invented poetry of the continuous present. (Two of the younger Polish poets on the faculty, Jacek Gutorow and Dariusz Suska noted that O’Hara and Ashbery were important influences in their generation.) American Romantics, such as Stevens and Crane, are largely without history; when it is invoked in their work, it is subservient to lyric impulse.

Both American and Polish poets must relate to history, Hirsch argued, but in a balanced way. Poetry that ignores history becomes inconsequential, whereas poetry preoccupied with history degenerates into journalism. Hirsch concluded with Miłosz’s observation that imagination gives us the power to be in history, but also apart from it.

Clare Cavanagh framed her remarks under the rubric of poetry and witness. Americans like to see Poles as essential, serious poets, who have been given enormities to witness. This inclination raises the question of whether poets are born with their voices or develop them. Miłosz believed that Americans lacked the burdens of history and the strengths they engender. Hence, American poetry is largely lyrical and essentially ahistorical. Professor Cavanagh noted another effect of history: its tendency to distort; Tsvetaeva, for example, has become a poet-martyr. History might be imposed whether the poet summons it or not.

Tony Hoagland agreed that there is much in American culture that deemphasizes history. Emerson, he argued, believed that Americans didn’t need history; their responsibility is to forge an original relationship with the universe. American poetry is based on individuality (hysterical individuality, in Hoagland’s term), the personal, and empathy. Unlike Polish poets, whom history has forced into responsibility, American poets might become historically aware because they’ve grown bored with their own individuality. Or so fascinated with it that they pay attention to the larger forces shaping it. Hoagland’s interests are increasingly sociological, that is, more and more historical.

Phil Levine commented that American poets are ignored, and therefore have greater freedom in what they choose to write.

Jorie Graham found the characterization of Americans without history misleading. There is, after all, a rich tradition of political poetry in the United States. Think of Kinnell, Lowell, Bly, and Ginsberg writing about the Vietnam War, she said.

Later, Graham commented that poetic genius is such a rare and unpredictable thing that seems to occur utterly independent of historical circumstances.

To end, a few lines from Tony Hoagland:

standing on my kitchen table
whose cut stem draws the water upwards
so the plant is flushed with the conviction
that the water has been sent
to find and raise it up
from somewhere so deep inside the earth
not even flowers can remember.
—“Requests for Toy Piano”

Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, July 26th, 2006 by Steve Young.