Warsaw poet Julia Hartwig: “You never know when you need to pull out your pen and stop being silent.”

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“If humanistic values ​​cease to be important to us, the future of the world is fragile.” Photo: Mariusz Kubik/Wikipedia

Czesław Miłosz called her “the grande dame of Polish poetry.” Celebrated journalist Ryszard Kapusciński called her “one of the foremost poets of the twentieth century.” Yet Julia Hartwig (1921-2017) is too little known in the United States, where she spent some years. (I’ve written about her before, here and here and here and more.)

It’s three years since she died. New York librarian and salonnière extraordinaire Izabela Barry remembers her by publishing a 2006 interview she did with the poet, which was published in Polish here. A few excerpts in English below:

Is it easier for a poet to translate other poets?

I am deeply convinced that poetry should not be translated by anyone except poets. This is a task for poets because only a poet can penetrate into the structure of a poem, enter its atmosphere, read the second intentions of the poem. The poet has richer access to the poem. I believe that the most successful translations are made by poets. Therefore, I boldly started translating poems, because I believed that I have a greater right to do so, and at the same time I stick to the principle of translating only poets that I like or love.  I’ve managed to continue this way until today, with the possible exception of when we were preparing an anthology of American poetry with my husband, Artur Międzyrzecki. That book was the result of several years of work and is almost entirely translated by us. In that case, it was necessary to translate many poets.

I have the impression that in your poetry you distance yourself from the political situation, you do not touch current events. It seems that since martial law, you have abandoned this sphere in favor of writing about events not directly related to our political lives.

Her 2008 book in English.

Not necessarily. Recently, a few of my poems have appeared in which I “deal with” great poets who turned out to be anti-Semites. Besides, I had some issues with that and called Miłosz, who said: “We need to expand the space of poetry.” These poems are included in my last volume of poetry, which is about great American and English poets who are not very famous in this respect. It amazes me, because I have always thought that great minds should be great in every way. Of course, I am very interested in the situation in Poland, I never run away from it. I maniacally read daily newspapers and know perfectly well what I don’t like, and mostly I don’t like what is happening at the moment. Poetry, on the other hand, is never a direct response to topicality. If I take part in the internal discourse that bothers the nation, I am looking for something that is really deep and important. And I hope that what is happening in Poland at the moment is temporary. But, of course, I can be wrong. You never know when you need to pull out your pen and stop being silent.

In your memoirs, you write a lot about Zbigniew Herbert, about your friendship with him. You probably noticed that there are many larger and small political groups in Poland that try to appropriate Herbert and make his work a banner for their own activities, which Herbert – it seems to me – would not necessarily have supported or accepted.

He was our great friend. We knew him back when he was a very charming young man. He was a frequent guest in our home. When we were in America, the Herberts had just come back and they lived in our house. There was even a very funny situation when television reporters came to interview Herbert, and he was talking with them in our apartment, sitting at our table, and our friends were surprised to recognize this interior. So you can see that our relationship was really close.

As for his views, there has been a great deal of misunderstanding, because Herbert was surrounded by people who should not have had access to him in difficult times. This happened when he was weak and sick, at a time when he tried to cut himself off from his former friends, declaring that they had political views that were too leftist. It was very sad for all of us. We never anticipated such a situation. In this, Herbert’s wife, Katarzyna Herbert, who brought a lot of order to these matters, was of great help. She gave an extensive interview to Jacek Żakowski in Gazeta Wyborcza and assessed the condition of Herbert and the people around him very fairly. She was very upset that his friends had been hurt by being in such a painful situation.

With Szymborska in 2011, Kraków

In an essay about Herbert, I wrote that the most terrible thing is that the “directives” in his poetry began to sicken me. It’s terrible to say that, because “The Message of Mr. Cogito” is a very beautiful poem, but I can’t really read it anymore, mainly because it is used so much by the right, and in the most extreme, very unpleasant way. I do not think that Herbert would be pleased that the contents of his poems were placed under every banner. This is the danger that awaits the poet: trivialization. This poem is difficult to listen to, because everyone recites it and everyone refers to it. Poetry is lost and the poet himself is lost. After all, poetry is an absolute reflection of personality, and certain interpretations work to its detriment.

There are many moments in your American poems that touch me personally as an immigrant. Yet you have never had the status of a full immigrant, someone who does not intend to return to his or her homeland.

Four years of absence from the country is a particular experience, naturally limited in some ways, and incomparable compared with the feeling of a man who does not intend or cannot return home. We left because of a difficult situation, but when our friends pressed us to come back, we did immediately and were very happy to do so. Our best work was created after we returned from America, because it took on new horizons, it became more rounded. America entered our consciousness, but also Poland through it.

My own 2011 interview with her in “World Literature Today”

I regret that my volume American Poems (2002) is relatively unknown. I don’t know why this is, because my other books have been much discussed, and this one has been left a bit aside. Perhaps I’m wrong, because during one of my last meetings at the PEN Club I read a few poems from it and the listeners bought out the stock immediately. American Poems amused them, because there is a lot of humor, light, greenery, the city, and at the same time a some healthy nostalgia. It describes people, Americans, who interested me immensely. This collection expresses all my affection for America.

A volume of your poems translated into English is being prepared here in America…

Yes, Bogdana and John Carpenter, who are translators, have already sent me the texts of a new book that will appear here, I hope. I have looked through the whole thing and I think that they are very good translations. Of course, the poet will always find something small, and the Carpenters were grateful to me for my comments. I believe that this is a great opportunity if the poet has the opportunity to check the language of the translation. Miłosz always co-translated his poetry, he had a very good eye and hearing, he always claimed that he was happy to be able to participate in the translation process. Virtually all of his poems published in English are translated under his supervision. Sometimes you can destroy a poem in translation and we won’t even know it.

And can poetry – I ask naively – save the world?

This is not a naive question. Miłosz talked about it in [his 1945 volume] Ocalenie. I, too, have tried to ask myself what poetry is worth if it cannot save anything. But … we don’t know whether or not it can. Joseph Brodsky believed that it could. He was so convinced that I could only admire his faith. After all, he saw, perhaps even more deeply than others, what was happening and what the modern world is like. He was not a naive man, he closely watched the present day, yet he believed that poetry had a great task ahead of it. He even said such things that if a nation does not read poetry, it is in danger of totalitarianism. These are very harsh words, and vague of course, but you’d have to dig into what it really means. And it means that if humanistic values ​​cease to be important to us, the future of the world is fragile.

Read the whole thing in Polish here.


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