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My Sovereignty





Polish Poetry in the West, or the Canon that Fired Late  

2011-02-27 16:54:59|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Adam Czerniawski   

Polish Poetry in the West, or the Canon that Fired Late  


     Harold Bloom, bless him, vigorously and magisterially defends a Western canon of literature against what he calls “the academic rabble that seeks to connect the study of literature with the quest for social change”. This rabble, this “network of resentment”, as he also designates them in haughty Nietzschean terms, is mainly active in the United States, but also, as we know, has strong support in this country; until recently this resentful rabble was rampant not in the land of the free, but in the Soviet Union and its satellites. 

     In The Western Canon Bloom divides western literature into four epochs: The Theocratic - which broadly covers Greek and Roman literature; the Aristocratic - which broadly covers the Renaissance; the Democratic, which covers the 18th and 19th centuries, and fourthly, our own, which he calls the Chaotic Age. In this canon the Italians, Spaniards and the British make an early appearance, the Germans don’t emerge till the end of the 18th century with Goethe, Schiller, Lessing, H?lderlin and Kleist; the Russians make their debut in the Democratic Age with Pushkin, Lermontov and Blok. What about the Poles? They only just make it into our Chaotic Age with three prose-writers, Schulz, Gombrowicz and Lem, and three poets Milosz, Herbert and Zagajewski. 

     Does this mean that there is no Polish literature to speak of before our century? Or does it even mean that there wasn’t any? After all, Poland disappeared from the maps of Europe in late eighteenth century, and the Germanic and Russian occupying powers were to various degrees restricting the development of Polish culture. As to what the situation was in earlier centuries, that seems the great unknown: were the Poles even literate in those days? And yet in the current syllabus published by London University we read: 

Those interested in the common heritage of Europe will find Polish literature rewarding, for it shows links with medieval Germany, Renaissance Italy, France from the 17th century onwards, and with the  England of Pope, Sterne and Byron. [...] Polish literature is the most widely translated of all East European literatures except Russian. 

     Of course, from the mere fact that Polish literature begins to take shape in the Middle Ages it doesn’t inevitably follow that any of it is fit for inclusion in a European canon. It may all have been derivative and second-rate. But if in Bloom’s Aristocratic Age there is room even for Campion and Wyatt, alongside Petrarch, Tasso and Camoens, why is there no room for Kochanowski, Sep-Szarzynski and Andrzej Morsztyn? And if Bloom can pack practically the whole of English nineteenth-century poetry into his canon, why are Mickiewicz, Slowacki and Norwid omitted? 

     The reason is not hard to find. Bloom has to rely on translations and the six Poles that he does include have all been extensively translated and have had a broadly favourable critical reception. What does surprise, given the restricted way Bloom was able to build up his canon, is the omission of Tadeusz Rózewicz, the translations of whose poetry have been hailed by John Osborne, the English scholar and critic and editor of the literary journal Bête Noire, as comparable in importance to Chapman’s translations of Homer. 

     On the other hand Rózewicz features prominently in Al Alvarez’s Faber Book of Modern European Poetry. Alvarez’s anthology may in fact be seen as a smaller-scale alternative to Bloom’s canon, a scale nevertheless that is the immediate topic of my essay. In it the Poles lead with the largest representation of six names (including Herbert, Milosz and Zagajewski whom Bloom also selects), whereas the Germans are represented by only Paul Celan and Hans Magnus Enzensberger, the Austrians have to be content with Erich Fried and Ingeborg Bachmann, while the French can only manage Francis Ponge and Philippe Jaccottet. Needless to say, here too the availability or non-availability of good translations must have played a significant role. 

     By granting prominence to Polish poets in his mini-canonical anthology, published in 1992, Alvarez has rounded off his championing of Polish modern poetry which he initiated in his role as editor of the Penguin Modern Poetry series a quarter of a century earlier with the publication of Zbigniew Herbert’s Selected Poems, translated by Milosz and Peter Dale Scott. Alvarez prepared the ground for the reception of modern East European poetry in general, and Herbert’s in particular, in his book Under Pressure published in 1965 and based on his meetings in Eastern Europe with artists and intellectuals. Alvarez found Warsaw one of the liveliest capitals of Europe and judged Herbert to be one of the most talented European poets - East or West. In his introduction to Herbert’s Selected Poems Alvarez attempts to justify his large claim. Firstly, Herbert’s poetry is political but not political in the conventional sense: he does not purvey, in suitably touched-up forms, the predigested truths supplied by any party. He is political by virtue of being permanently and warily in opposition. [...] Herbert’s opposition is a party of one; he refuses to relinquish his own truth... 

     How is that stand translated into good poetry? According to Alvarez, through Herbert’s pervasive employment of irony, which however has nothing to do with the dandified [...] distaste - by Eliot out of Laforgue - which was fashionable among the post-Symbolist poets of the 1920s and the American academics of the 1940s. For that irony was, in essence, a slightly less than noble art of self-defence. [...] In contrast, Herbert’s irony is neither elegant nor embattled. 

     Alvarez quotes Herbert’s prose-poem ‘From Mythology’: 

First there was a god of night and tempest, a black idol without eyes, before whom they leaped, naked and smeared with blood. Later on, in the times of the republic, there were many gods with wives, children, creaking beds, and harmlessly exploding thunder-bolts. At the end only superstitious neurotics carried in their pockets little statues of salt, representing the god of irony. There was no greater god at that time. 

Then came the barbarians. They too valued highly the little god of irony. They would crush it under their heel and add it to their dishes. 

The other crucial element that Alvarez singles out in Herbert’s poetry is a classical temper “in the tensely intellectual control which edges it continually towards some Platonic point of rest, some poise of art and understanding”. Alvarez concludes: “This tension between the ideal and the real is the backbone on which all his work depends. It is what allows him to be at once classical and insistently political”. It is of course not at all surprising that a poet trying to retain his intellectual and artistic independence in a politically oppressive system should choose the distancing of an ironic perspective and classical detachment. 

     When in his introduction to the recent Faber anthology Alvarez gets the chance to re-examine his commitment to Herbert’s poetry, he strikes a cautionary note:  

I am told that, for his fellow-countrymen, part of Zbigniew Herbert’s originality and influence resides in the way he has transformed the language and technique of Polish poetry. None of that survives translation - or is even translatable. But that does not make his poems any less extraordinary when you read them in English. They have a strength and range and independence and restraint - to use an unfashionable word, a nobility - that to my mind makes them, even in translation, better than most poems written in English in the last quarter of a century. 

If these are the only “shortcomings” of the Herbert translations, the English reader is far from being deprived. I think I can vouch with some authority that many of these translations are on the whole adequate. The remaining two points in Alvarez’s Faber introduction are of greater interest: his claim that whatever the originals, of which he is ignorant, are like, the translations represent a new voice within poetry available in English; and moreover English-language poets should regard this voice as a model. Even before he published his thoughts on Herbert in the mid-sixties, Alvarez had already used a similar approach in criticising English poets - but on that occasion by an unfavourable comparison with two leading American poets, John Berryman and Robert Lowell. At least two English-language poets, Seamus Heaney and Tom Paulin, have taken up Alvarez’s Polish challenge - and these examples are significant because both poets have roots in Northern Ireland and therefore have, somewhat extravagantly, seen the Belfast predicament as analogous to the Polish predicament under communism. 

     In 1977 the Open University included a course on modern European poetry in its humanities programme. In the accompanying booklet prepared by Edwin Morgan, the Scottish poet and translator, three poets were selected for special attention: the Czech Miroslav Holub, the Serb Vasko Popa, and Zbigniew Herbert. Morgan asserts that this poetry has a lot to teach British readers and that it has already influenced British poets. He quotes Herbert’s ‘The Knocker’ as an example of poetry that is semantically and morally crystal-clear: 

I thump on the board

and it prompts me

with the moralist’s dry poem

yes - yes

no - no 

He also quotes Herbert’s ‘Tamarisk’ in which the poet says: 

I was talking of battles

dungeons and ships

heroes being slain

and heroes slaying


I was talking of the sea tempest

the crumbling of walls

wheat burning


and I forgot about the tamarisk 

Morgan contrasts this with Rilke’s ‘Ninth Elegy’ in which the specificity of objects is also brought to our attention:

              Are we, perhaps, here just for saying: House,

Bridge, Fountain, Gate, Jug, Fruit-tree, Window [...]? 

According to Morgan, Rilke’s fascination with objects leads him towards symbolism and aestheticism, whereas Herbert’s attitude is anti-aesthetic, focused on the ordinary irreducible ontological facts.

 But undoubtedly the Herbert poem which has found most favour with British readers is ‘Fortinbras’s elegy on Hamlet’ in which Fortinbras’s own brisk pragmatism is contrasted with Hamlet’s ineffectual idealism. It is a poem which naturally appeals to ineffectually idealistic poets everywhere, but Morgan prefers to see it primarily as a contribution to the corpus of interpretations of the Shakespeare play which traditionally have - unlike Herbert’s - neglected the public, political aspect of the conflict in preference to seeing it as the hero’s personal tragedy. Tom Paulin has similarly remarked on the way in which the poem has affected our reading of Hamlet. 

     Donald Davie is another eminent British poet and critic who acknowledged Herbert’s presence in this country’s cultural life. For many years Davie took a close interest in Polish poetry and he produced an elegant poetic distillation of the great Polish epic poem Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz. In his essay on Herbert Davie says that the Fortinbras elegy “reminds us of great political poems like Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916’ - “the poem” - he adds - “that more than any other won him English admirers”.  

  Morgan stressed the absence in Herbert of the aestheticism which he noted in Rilke. Many years ago in a conversation with me Tadeusz Rózewicz described his poetic beginnings in German-occupied Warsaw: 

Throw everything away. If you can’t create a poetry which will be a new form of human existence, the whole effort is not worth a candle. You will find yourself turning over existing poetics, becoming a rebel in verse, your attention will be concentrated upon poetic language. In other words, you will become a littérateur. But here you are living through a time which has no parallel in history, and this calls for an utterly new poetry. I don’t mean a poetry of new sounds, new idioms, poems let us say in the form of blank verse, a poetry of smells, plastic poetry or poems in colour. No, it has to be a poetry of words that I actually knew [...]. So this second head kept saying, `Don’t play at literature, nothing will come of it’. But at the same time there was, say, a copy of Rilke lying on the table. German is the only foreign language I know. [...] So there was this continuous dialogue between those two heads. And not just heads: two hearts. On the one hand the history of art, on the other, everything’s shit. 

     If presences in anthologies are an indication of a poet’s importance, and possibly of candidature for Harold Bloom’s Western canon, then Rózewicz’s substantial presence in Alvarez’s compilation, in Daniel Weissbort’s The Poetry of Survival - in which, as in Alvarez’s book, the Poles are most numerously represented - in Milosz’s Poetry of Post-War Poland, Desmond Graham’s Poetry of The Second World War and in my anthology The Burning Forest, adds up to an important contribution to that end. And yet despite John Osborne’s heroic declaration that English translations of Rózewicz’s poetry might have an impact equivalent to Chapman’s Homer, they have so far made a markedly weaker impression here than Herbert’s. I quoted Alvarez’s assertion that it was Herbert who had reconstructed Polish poetic language, and Seamus Heaney talks of Herbert’s “anti-poetry”. But it was in fact Rózewicz who, struggling with the aestheticism of Rilke and others, had forged a linguistic tool of utter bareness in which he could write immediately after the war: 

I am twenty-four

led to slaughter

I survived. 




Behind clean glass

the stiff hair lies

of those suffocated in gas chambers


and a faded plait

a pigtail with a ribbon

pulled at school

by naughty boys


     It is this radically reformed poetic language that Herbert was to adapt to his own ends a few years later. These ends were overtly political and moral: the linguistic austerity testified to his moral probity, while the distancing achieved through the use of irony and classical allusion enabled his readers to read the poems as parables with a contemporary political sting. During the cold war this kind of poetry readily appealed to an English readership that was politically libertarian, and was by its own education and reading attuned to a poetry of classical reserve, strengthened by doses of irony. 

     The question which now absorbs me is how, in the new political climate when there is no call in Poland for poets to prove themselves morally and politically in the eyes of their readers at home and abroad, Herbert’s poetry will fare in this new age. It was the contention of none other than Donald Davie, when reviewing Weissbort’s anthology, that East European poetry had been received indulgently in the West because ethics was given precedence over aesthetics. Bloom echoes Davie in remarking that “The silliest way to defend the Western Canon is to insist that it incarnates all the seven deadly moral virtues that make up our supposed range of normative values and democratic principles” and he concludes that “The West’s greatest writers are subversive of all values, both ours and their own”. Such writers are often initially designated as “nihilist” by puzzled and scandalised critics. And this is the description that has quite frequently been applied to Rózewicz, though never to Herbert. At the beginning of his career Rózewicz wrote: 

The following are empty synonyms:

man and beast

love and hate

friend and foe

darkness and light.


The way of killing men and beasts is the same

I’ve seen it 


Yet this seemingly nihilistic poem concludes:


I seek a teacher and a master

may he restore my sight hearing and speech

may he again name objects and ideas

may he separate darkness from light.


     Throughout his long writing career this poet who had been strenuously echoing Adorno’s contention that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz has been writing prolifically, even occasionally composing “unwritten” poems: 

I tried to remember

that ideal




it was neither a love-poem

nor an elegy

it neither mourned

nor praised

it neither described

nor judged

that poem

which eludes me in daylight

has hidden itself in itself



it fills the emptiness

of a disintegrating world

with unknown speech


As for his recent “written” poems, the following minimalist text, painfully and powerfully bleak, effectively records the terrors of mortality: 

my time is up

time presses

what’s one to take

to the further shore




so that’s




yes sonny


that’s all


and nothing more


nothing more


so that’s all of life


yes that’s all


     As far back as 1969 Michael Hamburger in his study The Truth of Poetry characterised Rózewicz’s poetry as follows:


[...] the severe literalness of this new anti-poetry does make it truly international in so far as its matter and assumptions are shared. Both personal idiosyncrasy and the national idiosyncrasies of language are subordinated to a bareness of utterance always close to the silence from which its minimal stock of words has been ‘salvaged’. Such anti-poems, therefore, can be translated with relatively little loss. Yet their effect depends on each reader’s ability to accept their precondition, a precondition that can be summed up in

T.W. Adorno’s statement that after Auschwitz poems can no longer be written. The work of Rózewicz and many other European poets of his generation is the answer of those who agree with that statement, who have made themselves at home in the silence which it prescribes. Their anti-poetry does not contradict it. 

     I have concentrated on the impact of two Polish poets. If I were discussing the impact on America as well as England and Ireland, I could have added Milosz, though it could be argued that in having a poem - and a comparatively long one at that - plastered all over the London Underground Milosz has achieved a kind of recognition that has so far eluded Herbert. Here is the poem: 

 And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,

That appeared once, still wet

As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,

And, touched, coddled, began to live

In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,

Tribes on the march, planets in motion.

‘We are’, they said, even as their pages

Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame

Licked away their letters. So much more durable

Than we are, whose frail warmth

Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.

I imagine the earth when I am no more:

Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,

Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.

Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,

Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights. 

The poetry of Wislawa Szymborska, translated more recently, is also likely to have an increasing presence if, that is, the presence of Polish poetry will be sustained (I wrote this before Szymborska won the Nobel Prize). The interest, we have to remember, started with the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert at the height of the cold war. It seems clear to me that the greater attention paid to Herbert than to Rózewicz has much to do with his justified reputation as a dissident hero, while Rózewicz is missing out on the reputation he deserves because, in accordance with Bloom’s Nietzschean criteria, he uncomfortably questions all values. But both poets are stamped with the terrible experiences of their time: Rózewicz mainly by Nazi occupation of Poland, Herbert by communist domination.  

     There is yet another important consequence of the horrifying turbulence of the mid-century. It threw into exile hundreds of thousands of Poles. Among them were many poets. In the immediate decades after the war they produced a lion’s share of the Polish translations from English and American poets, thus bringing about a radical shift in Polish cultural orientation which for many preceding decades had rather sought ties with French poetry. A number of these exiles became champions and translators of Polish poetry, chiefly into English. This phenomenon is noteworthy for two reasons: (1) translators normally translate out of their mother tongue - whereas here the process is reversed; (2) regrettably, no such group of translators was available to the exiled Polish poets in the previous century. Regrettably, since it is in the nineteenth century that Polish poetry boasts some of its greatest achievements in the works of Mickiewicz, Slowacki and Norwid. Their inaccessibility is the reason why they do not appear in Harold Bloom’s European Canon - Davie’s Mickiewicz distillation and a handful of my Norwid translations notwithstanding. Full English versions of Mickiewicz’s two most important works, Pan Tadeusz and Dziady, do exist, so by “inaccessibility” I mean rather a reference to obscure publications that Bloom presumably failed to reach. However, now that Pan Tadeusz has been used as an important source by Simon Schama in his popular Landscape and Memory, the chances are that by this indirect route a Polish master will attain a measure of recognition. 

     On the other hand, there was Mickiewicz translating Goethe and Byron, there was Slowacki learning his dramatic craft from Shakespeare and there was Norwid proclaiming Byron a modern reincarnation of Socrates, a great man making the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of liberty. And now we have Seamus Heaney in his essay on Herbert’s poetry declaring that in the exactions of its logic, the temperance of its tone, and the extremity and equanimity of its recognitions, it does resemble what a twentieth-century poetic version of the examined life might be. 

It was of course Socrates who declared that the unexamined life is not worth living. In our Western canon the Greek philosopher is the exemplar of indomitable intellectual and moral courage. Norwid, another exemplar of moral and intellectual courage, lived and died in obscurity and poverty in Paris. He longed for the kind of heroic presence that during his life and posthumously Byron enjoyed in continental Europe. In placing the Socratic mantle on Herbert, Heaney expresses a longing for a situation in which, as Mickiewicz would have it, the poet’s role is that of guardian of the nation’s conscience. This romantic perception of the poet’s role survived in Poland until recent times and found its embodiment in Herbert. In Ireland that perception was embodied in Yeats and died with him in 1939, just as the tragic events, which were to mould the consciousness of Rózewicz and Herbert, were about to unroll. For Heaney, Herbert represents an age when poets were giants. There is a note of nostalgia in his voice. 

     I suspect that a strong element of nostalgia also motivated Alvarez, Davie, Osborne and many others who recently helped the Polish canon to fire belatedly in the West. 


page(s) 86-99


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