Posts Tagged ‘Clare Cavanagh’

Adam Zagajewski and “the battle to imbue life with maximal meaning”

Tuesday, February 20th, 2018
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A distinctive, insistent, civilized stance.

Adam Zagajewski is an absolutely foundational figure for many of us – not only because of his own poems and essays, but for his quietly insistent, civilized stance towards a world that teeters on the edge of chaos – we’ve written about him here and here and here and here. I once asked him, in an email interview a dozen years ago, what do we do in a world that seems to be averting its face from the non-consumerist values of reading, literature, poetry, philosophy? His reply: “We’ll be living in small ghettos, far from where celebrities dwell, and yet in every generation there will be a new delivery of minds that will love long and slow thoughts and books and poetry and music, so that these rather pleasant ghettos will never perish — and one day may even stir more excitement than we’re used to now.” It’s starting to sound like a good idea. Yet he remains in Kraków, and I stay put in Palo Alto.

So it was a privilege to review Slight Exaggeration, his book-length essay on… oh, just about everything. It’s up today at The Weekly Standard (and on the home page, too, no less). Read the whole thing here.

Meanwhile, an excerpt:

Gone, but still with us…

Zagajewski’s conversational style is distinctive, and the cadence is recognizable in his poems and essays. (Translator Clare Cavanagh conveys it well.) I was introduced to it a decade ago, an afternoon conversation that stretched into early evening, as we walked along the Planty, the public park that encircles Kraków. His words are tentative, unassertive, provisional, yet self-assured. The slight tonal “uptalk” lift at the end of his sentences as he turns a problem round, exploring its different angles, cannot ruffle his considerable authority. Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Wisława Szymborska are dead: Zagajewski has survived the generation of greats, and matched it with a greatness of his own, a postwar brand of metaphysical heft and gravity that shoulders the singular legacy of Polish literature into the 21st century.

The recurring Romanian…

Slight Exaggeration patiently picks up where the poet left off a dozen years ago with A Defense of Ardor, extending his line of thought on painters, poems, composers, and history. Initially, the observations seem disconnected and a little unpruned, until certain names begin recurring (French-Romanian writer E. M. Cioran, for example, or composer Gustav Mahler, poet Rainer Maria Rilke, novelist Robert Musil)—and each time he repeats, the impression on the reader is richer. Clearly, he is weaving on a very large loom, and the shuttle that disappears out of sight swings back to pull the threads tighter. The disparate reflections weave into a long thought, the result of years, decades, a lifetime. And occasionally his trademark associative musings open into seminal mini-essays.

The battle for clear vision…

Zagajewski wonders why the wartime letters of the lawyer Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, who resisted Hitler’s abuses nonviolently, move him so much with their impeccable moral brilliance; those of a favorite poet, the wily and self-protecting Gottfried Benn, so little. He also admires artist and writer Józef Czapskis integrity, too: “Czapski sometimes speaks of himself—but always in terms of the ceaseless battle he wages for clear vision, for full use of his gifts, the battle to imbue his life with maximal meaning.” And Simone Weil? “Weil tortured Czapski, and she still tortures us.” What does it mean that we celebrate the birthday of Mozart and the “liberation” of Auschwitz on the same day? (He hesitates to use the word “liberation,” which implies a certain energy and esprit, for the Allied soldiers’ entry into hell.)

Time teaches tolerance for what cannot be changed. And in the course of his telling, time overlaps and leaves traces on the present. For example, he observes that the Gestapo occupied his Kraków apartment during the occupation: “A Gestapo officer no doubt occupied the room in which I now write.”

Read the whole thing here.

“You whom I could not save”: Remembering Krzysztof Baczyński, who died this day, 1944

Tuesday, August 4th, 2015
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baczynski

“Asthmatic, of frail health…a disciplined soldier…sheer effort of will.”

My friend Kasia Wozniak reminded me that today is the day Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński was killed as a platoon commander, on the fourth day of the Warsaw Uprising, August 4, 1944. He was 23.

It was what he himself imagined, apparently: a shower of bullets, grenades, hitting the dirt, and “one charge only, straight up to heaven.” Let us hope so.

His beloved wife Basia was wounded and died a month later, not knowing of her husband’s death. The ancient city was entirely leveled – the vengeful Germans brought in architects to more effectively make sure the city was demolished block by block. “In January 1947 Baczynski’s body was dug out of the ruins of the City Hall and Krzysztof and Basia were finally laid to rest together in one grave at the Insurgents’ cemetery at Powazki,” according to this page commemorating him.

He was an only child, the son of a father who was a literary critic and a mother, Stefania Zielenczyk, the sister of the well-known philosopher, Adam Zielenczyk. He grew up in one of those rare periods of Polish history, a free and independent Poland. His early enthusiasm for Marxism-Trotskyism evolved into a romantic nationalistic Messianism. “Asthmatic, of frail health, he became a disciplined soldier of the Home Army by sheer effort of will,” Czesław Miłosz wrote.

Little from this prolific writer exists in English – no book, certainly, but there are a few poems here. He was considered a very fine poet, “whose rich imagery served more and more overtly, as he developed, to point up his central theme of self-immolation for the sake of an ideal Poland.” That’s from Miłosz again. “Those critics were right who maintained that he strangely resembled Juliusz Słowacki in his concept of redemptive martyrdom.” Miłosz had little sympathy for this Polish nationalism and idealism, yet he mourned its many victims in the doomed attempt to protect Warsaw from the Nazis. And he memorialized them.

While search for something online to say about him, I ran across my own article about the Miłosz and Robert Hass collaboration, here, in which I quote from the then (in 2001) newly translated edition of Treatise on Poetry:

Krzysztof Kamil Baczyñski

Idealists died first.

No ancient Greek hero entered into combat
So deprived of hope, in their heads the image
Of a white skull kicked by feet in passing . . .

Trzebinski, the new Polish Nietzsche,
Had his mouth plastered shut before he died.
He took with him the view of a wall, low clouds
His black eyes had just a moment to absorb.
Baczynski’s head fell against his rifle.
The uprising scared up flocks of pigeons.
Gajcy, Stroinski were raised to the sky,
A red sky, on the shield of an explosion.

On this day I also think of the Nobel poet’s famous “Dedication.” Miłosz scholar and translator Clare Cavanagh impressed upon me that this poem, often read didactically, with a rhetorical flourish, in fact has a singular “you.” It was directed at a single listener, which very much changes the way one read it. Was it Baczyński? I wonder.

You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.

What strengthened me, for you was lethal.
You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,
Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty;
Blind force with accomplished shape.

Read the whole poem here. And do check out the excellent commemorative page here.

TLS: Czeslaw Milosz around the world

Thursday, November 24th, 2011
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Rock star treatment

What a nice way to celebrate Thanksgiving!  My article in the Times Literary Supplement is online today, and not behind a paywall.  It begins:

In May this year, the streets of old Cracow were dominated by two names, two events. Czeslaw Milosz’s centenary jostled with Pope John Paul II’s beatification in windows, on banners and billboards, on bookstore shelves, in fliers and leaflets – the pope, perhaps, having the edge over the Nobel laureate, except on the kiosks where Milosz Festival posters prevailed. “It seems to me every poet after death goes through a Purgatory”, Milosz told me over a decade ago. “So he must go through that moment of revision after death.” The “revision”, at this point, is a triumph of twenty-first-century branding and marketing, featuring commemorative books, pens, postcards, blank books, and T-shirts; Milosz’s scrawled signature appears on napkins and even on the wrappers of tiny biscotti.

The Works

Few poets have been feted with such rock star exuberance. The “Milosz Pavilion” on Szczepanski Square hosted literary luminaries such as Adam Zagajewski, Bei Dao, Tomas Venclova, Adonis, and Natalya Gorbanevskaya. (Even the reclusive Wislawa Szymborska made a rare public appearance with her colleague Julia Hartwig at the medieval St Catherine’s Church.) Meanwhile, the Jagiellonian University’s Collegium Novum sponsored a week-long scholarly conference with seventy participants from around the world, including the eminent critics Helen Vendler and Clare Cavanagh, and some leading Polish scholars. The Jagiellonian Library, farther from the centre of town, exhibited manuscripts, photographs and first editions. The events were attended by thousands. All this year, books have poured from Polish publishers. Most notably, Milosz’s own publisher, Znak, issued two hefty volumes: Andrzej Franaszek’s 1,000-page biography – a bestseller – and a new 1,500-page Collected Poems. A few of the literati complained to me that Milosz was not receiving his due among the younger generation – an honoured marble bust to be dusted off seasonally, but not read or remembered – but I saw plenty of evidence to the contrary.

The rest is here.

From Kraków: Zagajewski and other poets don yarmulkes for Temple Synagogue reading

Sunday, May 15th, 2011
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Zagajewski seated at far left, Lyszeha third from left, Venclova in red, and Chukhontsev second from right. (Photo: My Droid)

An impressive reading tonight in Kraków’s Temple Synagogue – at least, the parts I understood. I count it as one of the highpoints of the Czesław Miłosz Centenary Festival, a celebration not short of highpoints.

The idea behind tonight’s reading was “The Grand Duchy of Poetry,” including major poets from Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine, and Belarusia, represented respectively by Adam Zagajewski, Tomas Venclova, Oleg Chukhontsev, Oleh Lysheha, Andrej Chadnowicz.

The setting was the city’s neo-Romanesque temple from 1862, with its richly decorated interior and ornate, gilded ‘Moorish’ woodwork, the style hammered out some time between Art Nouveau and Art Deco, during the revival of folk art themes, I suppose.

The men were suitably donning yarmulkes, except for Tomas Venclova, who wore a sort of newsboy cap.

Alas, the English translations of the poems read tended to disappear quickly from the festival table, and I was left to make do with what was left. No simultaneous translations tonight.

The Belarus poet Chadnowicz was youngest, in his 40s, and had a theatrical, energetic performance – tapping the microphone like a drum, at one point. The word “Belarusia” kept surfacing in his poems. I can only guess what he was saying – no handout. No handout for Ukrainian Lysheha, either.

I’d never heard of 73-year-old Oleg Chukhontsev, and I don’t know if his work exists in English, but it should.  The handouts showed a single translation by the eminent Russian scholar and translator G.S. Smith – if it’s any indication, this is an undiscovered nugget of gold.

Adam is clearly a poet at the top of his form, with many years ahead of him.  His poem, “Impossible,” translated by Clare Cavanagh, wasn’t my favorite (I preferred “Improvisation”), but it its closing was a great personal signature as the mind-boggling Milosz Festival winds to a close:

Sometimes I envy the dead poets,
they no longer have “bad days,” they don’t know
“ennui,” they’ve parted ways with “vacancy,”
“rhetoric,” rain, low pressure zones,
they’ve stopped following the “astute reviews,”
yet still keep speaking to us.
Their doubts vanished with them,
their rapture lives.

I’ve only recently discovered Tomas Venclova’s quietly luminous poems – like Adam, Venclova’s name appears annually in the Nobel shortlist. But it’s surprising how little has been written or said about the brilliant fruits from his steady labor, even though he’s hardly invisible – he’s on the faculty at Yale. Take this, the last two verses for his poem for Susan Sontag, “Landscape, Summer 2001”:

A loudspeaker by the open window
broadcasts the roar of the archangel’s trumpet,
and God, upon waking, reduces
the square to a pinch of love and ashes.

The sun comes up above the ruined city.
Light gropes for the desk and quickly finds it,
and empty time is severed by a sentence
which contradicts the night that has just ended.

Please, Nobel Committee, Tomas Venclova in 2011. It’s time.

From Kraków – a great queen, a green queen, and 2 heavy books

Thursday, May 12th, 2011
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The hotseat

The big day:  I spoke at the Collegium Novum of Jagiellonian University yesterday at the Czesław Miłosz Centenary Festival.

If you have to say anything at all, this is about the most intimidating setting that can be imagined to say it in.  Queen (and Saint) Jadwiga looked down on me from above, Pope John Paul II (an alum) gazed at me compassionately from a large portrait to my right, and farther down the hall, a young Copernicus (another alum) gazed up in astonishment at the night sky in a huge painting.  And then there was Humble Moi, in the prorector’s chair.

Nothing to do except take a deep breath, stand up, and imagine that everyone’s head is a cabbage.  Just me and Copernicus.

It’s humbling in other ways.  You roll your eyes at how boring some of the talks were – and then you get the opportunity to bore people yourself.  At least I kept mine beneath the requested 20 minutes.

Queen Jadwiga...not amused

It was nevertheless an honor to speak here.  A picture of the intimidating prorector’s chair I occupied is at right – the very first Book Haven photo from my brand new Droid.

Two years ago I fell in love with the university, one of the oldest in Europe, and Kraków as well, after a moonlight introduction to the city after a glass of wine with Adam Zagajewski. The city is charming at night, alive with lights and people and cafes against the dark backdrop of the trees in the Planty.  That impromptu tour, which included the famous, shadowlit arches of the Collegium Maius, helped me persevere in what sometimes seemed like a daunting,  Rupelstiltskin-type research task during my Milena Jesenská Fellowship with the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen.

I told many stories from the podium at Jagiellonian, but one of my favorites is another kind of Rumpelstiltskin-type odyssey explained by Clare Cavanagh, Miłosz’s American biographer, as she describes her relationship with the curmudgeonly Miłosz:

Green Queen

“Sometimes the doubts ran deeper—his life, his poetry, his soul. And sometimes the doubts were about me: ‘You will produce not my life, but only some facsimile,’ he said with a scowl in the summer of 2003. He spent several weeks that summer putting me through the biographer’s equivalent of boot camp. … every day he gave the same response: ‘Takie oszywiste pytania,’ ‘(Such obvious questions).’ Then he’d would invite me for another session the next day, when yet another set of questions would be dismissed and after an excruciating hour or two, I’d would be sent home to think up some ‘questions no one’s asked me yet.’ …

Finally, after a sleepless night spent reading and rereading the then-untranslated Second Space, I went in and asked about the poems, and about religion. Those were the questions he wanted. And that was what I’d wanted to talk about, too, but I’d thought biographers were supposed to do something different. We talked about ‘Father Seweryn’ and ‘The Treatise on Theology’—I said I’d been surprised by the Virgin at the end, and he laughed and said, ‘I was, too.’

Clare, of course, is here in Kraków, too.  And still wearing her green jacket, her green glasses, and (I’ve learned in Kraków) she has a green backpack to match.  Daughter of Eire.

***

Today I got more swag.  After a seminar on translation with Agnieszka Kosińska, another of my contributors (the session was in Polish, but I went just for Agnieszka), we made a trek to the Book Institute off Kraków’s main square. The Book Institute is a wonderful organization in Kraków – funded by the Ministry of Culture, I think – that promotes Polish literature.

The books they gave me will tip the scales at the next airport.  Andrzej Franaszek‘s new 1,000-page biography of Miłosz, and a 1,400-page collected poems – both published by Znak. Clare told me that about a third of Miłosz’s poems have not been translated yet, to my best recollection of the size of the English-language Collected, that sounds about right.

During a visit with octogenarian poet and author Marek Skwarnicki (another contributor) way on the outskirts of Kraków this afternoon, he said the biography is a bit of a wonder in Kraków.  Andrew has spent 10 years working on the book, and is now only about 40.  Such a thick book from such a young man is not commonplace in Poland, Marek said.

Now.  All I have to be able to do is get on the airplane with all this.

Oh, oh, oh … I haven’t told you about the Miłosz pavilion yet.  And the reading with Adonis and Ryszard Krynicki and Ed Hirsch and Jane Hirshfield tonight. There’s more to come.

In the aftermath of the Google books decision: disappointment … and persistence

Thursday, April 21st, 2011
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No prophet

U.S. Circuit Judge Denny Chin‘s rejection of a deal between Google and book publishers happened while I was in New York City.  You can read about it here.  The federal judge in Manhattan said the deal, which would allow the search engine company share digitized copies,  “goes too far” and would give Google “a significant advantage over competitors, rewarding it for engaging in wholesale copying of copyrighted works without permission.”

It took a few weeks, but Andrew Herkovic at the Stanford University Libraries has issued his characteristically graceful comment on the Google brouhaha in his newsletter:

BooksIn the wake of last month’s judicial rejection of the proposed settlement of litigation between Google Books and various publishers and authors, there are only two firm facts that can be confidently stated about what’s next: first, nobody, with the possible exception of the litigants, knows anything; and second, the litigants aren’t talking. Thus we have the conditions for rampant public speculation, and many have risen to this temptation. I shall not.

Instead, I remind readers that the scanning of millions of books by the Google Books project has never abated, either at Stanford or among the many other participating libraries. Every weekday, a truckload of books goes to Google and a like number come back from them, in a smoothly choreographed process that assures both safekeeping and tracking of the books. The total to date is in the vicinity of two million volumes, and we anticipate continuing this process for years to come. We do not know how or even if any given book will be used by Google, but we are certain of the utility to Stanford in having our holdings preserved and being made searchable through digitization. We are hopeful of additional beneficial outcomes for Stanford.

The key word in Stanford’s public reaction to the demise of the proposed settlement was “disappointment.” That, almost five years after the class-action suits were initiated against the project, there is no resolution whatever is certainly disappointing; any decision might seem preferable to none. That a startling vision of public access to a vast amount of text as articulated in the proposed settlement has been occluded is another disappointment. That the “orphan works” and other copyright issues remain in limbo is a lesser disappointment, if only because efforts are underway to address them by legislative rather than judicial means. However, the key word I wish you to take away is “persistence.” We persist in scanning books through Google (as well as in our own labs). We persist in developing techniques to help scholars use digitized texts. We may be confident that the litigants will persist in seeking some eventual resolution to the court case. We persist in hoping that the discordance between copyright law and the realities of the digital age will be harmonized, at least with regard to printed literatures, before the century is much further along. We persist in fulfilling a vision and mission that depend on both digital and artefactual means of providing and preserving information.

Looking forward, but unprophetically,

Andrew Herkovic

Clare in NYC

A couple of postscripts:  Speaking of New York, I’ve added a photograph of Clare Cavanagh at last month’s Czesław Miłosz centennary event at the 92nd Street Y – thanks to David A. Goldfarb and his camera.

And, after reading my piece on Kay Ryan‘s Pulitzer, Dave Lull kindly sent me yesterday a Wall Street Journal “Speakeasy” Q&A with Kay Ryan, in which she says:

I never, ever worry about poetry or its survival because it’s the very nature of a poem to be that language that does survive. Poems are even better than tweets – they don’t require any electronic equipment. They can lodge right in your brain. They are by nature short. You don’t even have to remember all of them — you can remember just a phrase. That can be something you can turn to in any emergency, good or bad. You’ll pluck out a little group of words, just maybe a phrase, and that’s exactly what poetry is for. It’s for the things that really last. Because it lasts.