Last week, a plane carrying the Polish president, his wife and many of the country’s top military and political leaders crashed, killing all aboard. They were traveling to Russia to commemorate the Katyn massacre, in which 22,000 Poles were killed by the Soviets in April of 1940. Poland is pinched in between two major forces, Germanic and Russian. With no natural barriers as deterences, historical catastrophes have been routine. Poles understand only too well that geography is destiny, and that history is a mass murderer, ready to pounce. And yet, poetry. Wislawa Szymborska:

This terrifying world is not devoid of charms,
of the mornings
that make waking up worthwhile.
The grass is green
on Maciejowice's fields,
and studded with dew,
as is usually the case with grass.

Perhaps all fields are battlefields,
all grounds are battlegrounds,
those we remember
and those that are forgotten:
the birch, cedar, and fir forests, the white snows,
the yellow sands, gray gravel, the iridescent swamps,
the canyons of black defeat,
where, in times of crisis,
you can cower under a bush.

What moral flows from this? Probably none.
Only the blood flows, drying quickly,
and, as always, a few rivers, a few clouds.

[from “Reality Demands,” translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh]

An awareness of historical terrors does not negate poetry but deepens it. Addressing this same tension, Zbigniew Herbert:

Five Men

They take them out in the morning to the stone courtyard
and put them against the wall

five men
two of them very young
the others middle-aged

nothing more
can be said about them

when the platoon
level their guns
everything suddenly appears
in the garish light
of obviousness

the yellow wall
the cold blue
the black wire on the wall
instead of a horizon

that is the moment
when the five senses rebel
they would gladly escape
like rats from a sinking ship

before the bullet reaches its destination
the eye will perceive the flight of the projectile
the ear record a steely rustle
the nostrils will be filled with biting smoke
a petal of blood will brush the palate
the touch will shrink and then slacken

now they lie on the ground
covered up to their eyes with shadow
the platoon walks away
their buttons straps
and steel helmets
are more alive
than those lying beside the wall

I did not learn this today
I knew it before yesterday

so why have I been writing
unimportant poems on flowers

what did the five talk of
the night before the execution

of prophetic dreams
of an escapade in a brothel
of automobile parts
of a sea voyage
of how when he had spades
he ought not to have opened
of how vodka is best
after wine you get a headache
of girls
of fruit
of life

thus one can use in poetry
names of Greek shepherds
one can attempt to catch the color of morning sky
write of love
and also
once again
in dead earnest
offer to the betrayed world
a rose

[translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott]

Seldomly do we see this kind of gravity in American poetry. Clear, direct and free of personal references, it's also aimed at the widest public, at the nation. Americans, those few tolerating poetry, tend to cringe at poets assuming such a grand posture. Our first, Walt Whitman, remains our best. Ginsberg was but a shadow, at times parody. Half prophet, half clown, he was in any case our last public bard.

Originally Published: April 15th, 2010

Linh Dinh was born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1963, came to the U.S. in 1975, and has also lived in Italy and England. He is the author of two collections of stories, Fake House (Seven Stories Press 2000) and Blood and Soap (Seven Stories Press 2004), and the novel Love...