It’s been awhile since we heard from our friend Patrick Kurp, who runs the excellent blog, Anecdotal Evidence. It’s been awhile since we’ve heard from pretty much from anyone, hunkered down over a book manuscript as we are. However, he sent me this recent photo to add to our gallery of best book cats. This one is his own feline, Hurricane, who is keeping on top of Polish literature, as you can see below. I recognize two of my own books on the shelf: An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz and Czesław Miłosz: Conversations. It’s nice to be nestled in-between two beloved poets: the Polish Nobel laureate himself, and Adam Zagajewski, via his prose, In Defense of Ardor: Essays and his memoir, Another Beauty. Why such an ominous name for this handsome tabby? Patrick explains that his son Michael, then about four, named him in December 2005, when the furball showed up at the door just a few months after Katrina and Rita. Welcome to our pages, Hurricane! (Photo: Sylvia Wood)
Postscript: Patrick posted about his “Pole Cat” today here. He pointed out that Zbigniew Herbert (who shares the bookshelf) would have approved. Don’t we know it. We visited the poet’s cat a few years back in Warsaw. That’s Herbert’s big cat Szu-szu at right, and Mouszka at left, a later addition to the family by Madame Herbert. Stroking Herbert’s cat made a wonderful frisson of connection with the poet through time.
Many visitors who see the Polish War Cemetery in Monte Cassino don’t know why over a thousand Polish soldiers are buried there, how they came to be at this place about 80 miles southeast of Rome, and what they fought for when they were there. Indeed, one of the most important battles of one of the fiercest campaigns of World War II is often overlooked by tourists and pilgrims, who often pass en route to the nearby 6th century Benedictine monastery. As the years go by, the memory of the Monte Cassino battle fades away, even among the people who live nearby.
So what does that have to do with the photo above? You may recall the photo above from my post about my visit to Kultura, in Maisons-Laffitte outside Paris. Kultura was in many ways the cultural center of Poland during the Cold War years – it ran a publishing house, a literary journal, and even provided shelter to émigré writers and artists, including Polish poet and diplomat Czesław Miłosz after his defection (read about that here).
And now many more people will be seeing the photo in Italy. Six weeks ago I received an email from Piotr Markowicz at the Polish Embassy in Rome: “Since this year marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Monte Cassino, Polish veterans’ associations and the Embassy of Poland in Rome are preparing a permanent exhibition in newly built museum memorial situated within the premises of the Polish War Cemetery at Monte Cassino, Italy. The exhibition will be permanent and free of charge for public.” He asked if the Kultura photo could be included in the exhibition for this week’s opening of the museum memorial. We’re honored, of course.
The beautiful new building (you can see it in the video below) was designed by Pietro Rogacień – the son of a Polish soldier of the 2nd Polish Corps who fought at Monte Cassino. The rotunda-shaped building is made in local stone and situated next to the entrance of the cemetery. Such a location fits well with the surroundings and the architecture of the cemetery. It will host a permanent exhibition illustrating the history of the 2nd Polish Corps: the deportation of thousands of Poles to Siberia, the formation of General Władysław Anders’ army and its odyssey through the Middle East to Italy. And my photo.
“If we all had a right not to be offended by anything that offended us, no one could say anything,” said Salman Rushdie at the P.E.N. World Voices Festival in New York City, in an onstage conversation with Timothy Garton Ash. The man who has lived under a fatwa since Valentine’s Day, 1989 hasn’t given an inch: “I would not allow one of my books to be published with passages missing,” he said.
Zygmunt Malinowski recorded the event yesterday afternoon with scribbled notes and photos – alas, that appears to be the only recording of the event. However, Garton Ash’s “Basic Principles of Free Speech” are here. The Guardian columnist discussed how our idea of privacy has changed because of the internet and “that’s the side effect that we created ourselves.” Rushdie was amused at the modern “obsession with selfies.”
For its 10th anniversary, the P.E.N. Festival celebrates those who have dared to stand “on the edge,” risking their careers, and sometimes their lives, to speak out for their art and beliefs – the website is here.
Since we couldn’t attend in person, we’ll settle for Zygmunt’s account: “As I approached the stately Public Theatre downtown on Lafayette Street, I was pleasantly surprised to see a large colorful billboard advertising P.E.N. World Voices Festival. The photo on the placard, taken by the innovative photographer Sylvia Plachy, who lives near my neighborhood, is unusual. It depicts a mountain climber’s feet dangling over a precipice. It reminded me when, a few years ago, I was in an open-door vintage helicopter with my feet over the floor edge, photographing Colca Canyon in Peru, considered deepest canyon in the world. ‘On the Edge’ was the subtitle of the placard and it seemed such an appropriate image for this afternoon’s event. Weren’t writers such as Salman Rushdie, Vaclav Havel, Czeslaw Milosz or Joseph Brodsky pushing the boundaries of literature, courageously ‘offering a vantage point from which to develop a deeper understanding of the intellectual landscape around the world’?”
Tadeusz Różewicz died today at 92 years old. It hasn’t made the Western press yet. He was one of Poland’s greatest poets, of the generation after Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert. Miłosz described him as “the most talented among those who began to publish immediately after 1945.”
“By contrasting the scenes of war that he had witnessed with the entire heritage of European culture, he arrived at a negation of literature because it seemed to be no more than a lie covering up the horror of man’s brutality to his fellow man,” Miłosz wrote. Różewicz served in the Poland’s Home Army, loyal to the government-in-exile in London. His older brother Janusz, also a poet, was shot by the Gestapo. I learned this today. Back in 2008, much less was known about this poet.
I tried to arrange a meeting with him during my first trip to Poland that year, but his home was in a remote rural area nearest to Wrocław, and I was far away in Kraków. The attempted meeting was arranged through Maria Debicz. As I recall, he didn’t speak English well, or perhaps at all … that added an extra layer of difficulty to any potential tête-à-tête. I seem to remember that an illness put the meeting out of the picture altogether. Of course I regret now what wasn’t possible then. It will have to be another time. Au revoir, though there wasn’t a “voir” in the first place.
I posted a few Polish articles on my Facebook page, then scoured to find the small, award-winning Archipelago Books volume of his poems, translated by Bill Johnston. I failed, but I found on a dusty shelf on top of a wardrobe, Polish Writers on Writing, edited by Adam Zagajewski, who encouraged the meeting. His nervous, sometimes comically irritable essay is called “Preparation for a Poetry Reading.” It’s a reading the maestro didn’t want to give. One paragraph:
“Poetry has to consummate a given place and time. If it does, it is perfect. How easy it was to create poetry and describe poetry, while it existed. Poets still use this kind of phrase: ‘As long as poetry hasn’t died in me, I can’t be unhappy.’ As if they didn’t understand that there is no ‘poetry.’ They are like children. Worse: They are merely childish. Poetry! If they’re not comparing a fist to an eye, they don’t feel like poets. What empty gibberish: ‘As long as poetry hasn’t died in me, I can’t be unhappy.’ What confidence in oneself and in ‘poetry.’ What if ‘poetry’ died in you a long time ago and you feel happy? Is poetry in you as a kind of foreign body? Poetry? The happy knew where poetry began and ended. Critics could pinpoint the place in a poem where there was poetry. They feel unhappy if they’re not describing poetry. Until you feel unhappy, ‘poetry’ won’t be born in you! That’s better. But there are even poorer poets. They say: ‘Poetry is like a bell’ or ‘Poetry is a moonlit night.’ They make comparisons. They clutch comparisons as a drowning clutches driftwood. They already know what poetry is. So they can create poetry, have poetry in them. They can feel happy. But there is no poetry. They sense this, but they don’t want to touch on the truth. They’re afraid. The old and the young.”
Then a friend, Erdağ Göknar, posted this poem on Facebook, “on the way consciousness gropes to order the world after catastrophe.” Can’t do better than this, at least not today. The fifth stanza alone is worth the price of admission:
In the Middle of Life
this is a table I was saying
this is a table
on the table are lying bread a knife
the knife serves to cut the bread
people nourish themselves with bread
one should love man
I was learning by night and day
what one should love
I answered man
this is a window I was saying
this is a window
beyond the window is a garden
in the garden I see an apple tree
the apple tree blossoms
the blossoms fall off
the fruits take form
they ripen my father is picking up an apple
that man who is picking up an apple
is my father
I was sitting on the threshold of the house
that old woman who
is pulling a goat on a rope
is more necessary
and more precious
than the seven wonders of the world
whoever thinks and feels
that she is not necessary
he is guilty of genocide
this is a man
this is a tree this is bread
people nourish themselves in order to live
I was repeating to myself
human life is important
human life has great importance
the value of life
surpasses the value of all the objects
which man has made
man is a great treasure
I was repeating stubbornly
this water I was saying
I was stroking the waves with my hand
and conversing with the river
water I said
this is I
the man talked to the water
talked to the moon
to the flowers to the rain
he talked to the earth
to the birds
to the sky
the sky was silent
the earth was silent
if he heard a voice
from the earth from the water from the sky
it was the voice of another man
. – translated by Czesław Miłosz
Cutting-edge Polish intellectual Sławomir Sierakowski breezed through town last week. I’d been alerted to the visit by Shana Penn of the Taube Foundation. In a busy schedule, I made the time, and I’m glad I did. The 34-year-old wunderkind is founding director of a publishing house and magazine, Krytyka Polityczna, the focus of a left-wing movement, and of a think tank, Warsaw’s Institute for Advanced Study. The author is also a Harvard fellow this year. His project at hand (and the reason for Shana’s note): he is writing a book about the political, social, religious outlook of Czesław Miłosz.
Because of an earlier appointment, I arrived after his noon talk, “Time for Neo-Dissidents,” was well under way. Against my better judgment (knowing they’d be piecemeal and wouldn’t nearly capture his quick, wide-ranging intelligence), I began scribbling notes.
He urged us to reconsider whether democracy equals party politics. Political parties? ”It’s a social construct,” he said, an outgrowth of the late 19th century, and somewhat irrelevant in his native land, since “there’s no social consensus about anything in Poland.” I, for one, would celebrate a dissolution of political party power in the U.S., which has increasingly turned to brainless slogans and character assassination to pull down the worthy and the worthless on all points of the political spectrum. I’d like to see an outbreak of goodness instead.
Sławomir said that to get anything done in Poland, one must bypass political parties and “negotiate between a coalition of NGOs and certain ministries and departments. You cannot do too much with parties; it’s not the decisive access. … if you want to change something in politics, don’t go to Parliament.” The task facing the nation of 40 million is “how to create trust, how to create social glue.” We discussed that and Miłosz at a small lunch afterwards.
His most passionate comments were reserved that evening for “Beyond the Dialogue: Jews, Poles, and What is Left?” and a screening of Yael Bartana‘s film, Mary Koszmary (Nightmares), in which he is the sole actor.
The 11-minute film is done in Leni Riefenstahl mode, the style of the propaganda movies that are a familiar staple to Eastern Europeans over the age of thirty, but it has a different message. ”Propaganda movies are always about community, togetherness,” he said, and so is this one. But he’s speaking instead about the millions of missing Jews in Poland, the “other” that gave depth, meaning, and (that buzzword of the age) diversity to the social tapestry in Poland.
“It’s easy to be ironic,” he said. “But you cannot change anything with irony…All of us are liberal ironists.” He opted for pathos instead, and “saying something bluntly.”
“Any dissent today is easily corrupted by mass culture – it becomes another commodity on offer.” Hence the easy option of irony. “To say something serious today is to be for something,” he insisted.
So look what arrived in the post today! Three thick books of Czesław Miłosz: Rozmowy zagraniczne, 1979-2003. I’ll bet it means nothing to you.
Turn to p. 435. That’s right. That’s me. “Świętość istnienia.” My Q&A with Czesław Miłosz, “A Sacred Vision,” which ran in the Georgia Review in 2003, is finally in Polish. Wydawnictwo Literackie in Kraków, the co-publisher of the Nobel poet’s work in Poland, has just released another volume within its Collected Works of Miłosz series. This time it’s a volume of interviews published outside Poland – that may sound like a narrow niche, but recall that Miłosz wasn’t getting a lot of press in Poland between 1951, when he defected, and the 1980s. For that matter, he didn’t get many interviews in the West before the Nobel in 1980. Clearly, he made up for lost time: the full edition of Miłosz’s conversations that Wydawnictwo Literackie is planning will run to several volumes. The endeavor is a prestigious one, my contact at Wydawnictwo Literackie said, but at the same time a non-profit effort. Go to the publisher’s website here; the list is pretty impressive.
I was pleased that the volume picked up thirteen interviews from my own Czesław Miłosz: Conversations. Some of those, such as James Marcus‘s excellent interview for Amazon, might have disappeared in the whirlpool of time without republication – it’s no longer online, and hasn’t been, to my knowledge, for years. I’m not sure Carl Proffer‘s 1983 interview, from the pre-internet days, is that easy to find, either. The Polish publisher expressed gratitude for my humble book, which helped them greatly in culling for the best interviews. Delighted to have been of service.
“Świętość istnienia” is the very last interview in the volume. The first shall be last, or the last shall be first…something like that. I was the last person to interview Miłosz on Grizzly Peak before he returned to Poland in 2000. Maybe it’s simply that the last will be last. In any case, you can still get my volume, in the English tongue, here.
Daniel Weissbort is dead. I heard this yesterday from Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books in the U.K., but hadn’t been able to confirm it till I found it posted here, on the website of the influential journal he founded with Ted Hughes in 1965, Modern Poetry in Translation. He continued to edit the magazine until 2003.
Perhaps the major obituaries are yet to come out, but it’s surprising how little a splash major figures in translation make in today’s world, although Weissbort was also a poet of note. I never met him face-to-face, but I know him from once remove; his wife, the Russian scholar Valentina Polukhina, is a colleague, friend and regular correspondent. He would have been 78 this year, and I know he has been ill for some years.
According to the website (which has a page for tributes here):
He was associated with MPT for nearly forty years, and he saw it through its birth as a “scrappy-looking thing – just to keep their spirits up…” (from a letter by Ted Hughes to Daniel Weissbort in 1965) to becoming a periodical of international importance and renown, which published some of the best international poets in the best translations. He was also a translator of poetry and a poet in his own right, and he made it his cause to get Russian poetry better known and better read in the English-speaking world, editing and translating Russian poetry tirelessly, and hosting and leading translation workshops. His most recent translations of the Russian poet Inna Lisnianskaya Far from Sodom were published to great acclaim by Arc Publications in 2005.
“Poetry happens everywhere,” writes Daniel Weissbort in the introduction to Mother Tongues, “but sometimes, often, it happens in languages that do not attract attention. We are the poorer for not experiencing it, at least to the extent it can be experienced in translation.”
Although he wasn’t conscious of it at the time, translation had been a part of this poet, editor and translator’s life from the outset. “My parents were Polish Jews who came to London from Belgium in the early 1930s,” Weissbort explains. “They spoke French at home because that was the language they met in, but I was so determined to be English that I’d always answer them in English.” …
It was Hughes’s idea to get as many literal translations of work as possible. “We didn’t want carefully worked, minute things that took forever to produce,” explains Weissbort. “It sounds a bit insensitive now, but we wanted quantity even if it was in quite rough-and-ready translation.” He says that at the moment one of the big debates in translation is between so called foreignisation and domestication. “Domestication looks like something that was first written in English,” explains Weissbort. “Post-colonial theory is very much in favour of foreignisation, seeing domestication as an imperialistic strategy that is opposed to allowing the foreignness to come into the language. I suppose we were foreignisers before it was invented.”‘
I reviewed the latter volume, From Russian with Love, in a Kenyon Review article called “Uncle Grisha Was Right” – it’s here. Being a Brodsky translator was a crushing, ego-deflating experience for many, and Weissbort was one of the earliest translators, before he could have taken courage from the tales of other casualties. Weissbort agonizes over the experience, analyzing and doubting himself – something the Russian Nobel laureate never did. As I wrote: “He [Brodsky] came from a culture that had bypassed Freud and his heirs, where an enemy was an enemy and not just a projection of an inner landscape. He was not, to put it mildly, a man crippled with a sense of his own contradictions. Hence, his attacks could be unambiguous and fierce. As sycophants multiplied exponentially, it became hard, some of his friends say, to tell him the truth—for example, the truth about his abilities to write English verse and translate into it.”
Yet in the end, Weissbort seemed to be unexpectedly buoyed by the experience, and came to a startling conclusion that says as much about the master translator as it does about the poet:
“At a commencement address years later, he [Brodsky] spoke of ‘those who will try to make life miserable for you,’ and added: ‘Above all, try to avoid telling stories about the unjust treatment you received at their hands; avoid it no matter how receptive your audience may be. Tales of this sort extend the existence of your antagonists. . . .’
That’s the legacy of the man. But the poetry? Weissbort seesaws and perseverates for pages and pages, and there is much repetition and confusing back-and-forth in time … Yet despite the waffling and self-deprecation, he makes a central, remarkable contention: Weissbort argues that Brodsky ‘was trying to Russianize English, not respecting the genius of the English language, … he wanted the transfer between the languages to take place without drastic changes, this being achievable only if English itself was changed.’
In short, Weissbort invites us to listen to Brodsky’s poetry on its own terms. As he tells a workshop: ‘It’s like a new kind of music. You may not like it, may find it absurd, outrageous even, but admit, if only for the sake of argument, that this may be due to its unfamiliarity. Give it a chance, listen!’”
I met Tomas Venclova in his role as a poet, and it is primarily as a poet he is known. However, he has a lesser-known role as a champion of Lithuanian culture, literature, and above all language. His work in that arena is as impressive as his poetry – and he had a chance to show it at the European Union yesterday and today, in Brussels and Luxembourg, where he was speaking. I asked him if I could share some of his remarks, which he had sent to me. “Mais oui!” he replied.
I’ve blogged so much about Vilnius and Lithuania – try here and here and here and here and here. But it’s a wonderful country and during my most recent visit, traveling from Warsaw to Vilnius, I gained a deeper appreciation of its wildness and mystery, of its old superstitions and myths, and the enchantment of its jewel-box capital, aptly symbolized, on its coat of arms, by Saint Christopher wading through the mud of history.
The Lithuanian language has has kept many archaic features of ancient languages such as Sanskrit or Ancient Greek, and is spoken by about 3.2 million people. Yet, as Tomas pointed out, it’s in better shape today than Gaelic – “now, it is not just the official state language, but also the language of schools, universities, press and other media, as well as of very good theaters. Even before World War I, Lithuanian literature in Vilnius had built quite a reputation, though during the two interwar decades, when the city was annexed to Poland, it was often dismissed as inferior.”
Marvelous Vilnius, a Jerusalem claimed by two nations, the Lithuanians and the Poles, is “the perfect and sacred city which had been lost in the whirlwinds of history,” he said. The city, which at times almost a religious space, “is often said to be mysterious and magic, eccentric and peculiar, the inspiration of myths and poetry. A particularly strong connection between the city and its surroundings is also very characteristic to it, allowing poets to see Vilnius as a pastoral place with ‘wild’ but idyllic nature intruding into the city center and adorning its baroque décor. … The text of Vilnius is composed of smaller texts, written in different languages, sometimes rich in code-switching, as for instance the seventeenth-century dramas, where Lithuanian and Belarussian cues are interwoven with Polish ones.
“But there is more than just linguistics involved here. Most varied cultural discourses overlay one another, letting competing myths sprout from the primeval mythological trunk. The national identity of many residents of Vilnius is similarly complicated: the same person can simultaneously belong to several cultures, which is why she or he sometimes stands aloof from the rest of society, suffering from an inner conflict.”
Two of the Polish language’s greatest poets were born and reared in Lithuania: Czesław Miłosz in the 20th century and Adam Mickiewicz in the 19th – and Miłosz was a close friend of the Lithuanian-language poet. Venclova’s talk wasn’t short on his friend:
“Czesław Miłosz, the greatest Vilnius poet of the twentieth century, also started his career in the interwar period … The life of Vilnius-Wilno (at that time, annexed to Poland) did not change much from Mickiewicz’s to Miłosz’s times; the city and its suburbs were populated by the same provincial Polish gentry, known as szlachta, the memories of the free masons’ lodges were still alive, and the great University, closed by Tsarist Russia in 1832, was reopened in 1918. Thus, the budding poet could readily feel he was entering a larger tradition. But for Miłosz, Vilnius was not a sanctuary to visit on a pilgrimage; nor was it a place asking for a particular literary genre to record its magnificence, namely, the poetic Baedeker, much exploited by the lesser poets of the time. Miłosz was not a regional but a European poet, as was Mickiewicz. According to him, the Mickiewicz tradition marked a revolt, a disagreement with reality as well as the prospect of exile. But for him, too, Vilnius-Wilno was a sacred city. Finding himself in exile in 1950s, he denied feeling nostalgic: he wanted to start anew and to build his poetic tower without looking back. Yet his texts soon acquired a double perspective: he would depict the city of his youth through the prism of his new French and American experiences, reviving the details of the past life with heartfelt love and skill, and contrapuntally comparing Vilnius to his new surroundings. He recreated the city spaces in the Proustian manner: his city is idealized because of his physical and temporal distance, but the picture is realistic enough and devoid of unnecessary sentimentality. In the cycle Miasto bez imienia (City without a Name) published in 1969, as well as in other poems, Milosz was approaching what he himself called apocatastasis, the revival of purified, primordial reality. He was greatly, probably mainly, interested in the language of that reality. In this, an obvious example and archetype for Milosz was Mickiewicz, but also the Lithuanian Konstantinas Sirvydas, the author of the seventeenth-century dictionary, to whom Miłosz devoted his beautiful poem ‘Philology.’
”The peak of this poetry is manifest in the poems written after the restoration of Lithuania’s independence, when Miłosz could return to it. Nostalgia acquires a new shape: 52 years later, Vilnius looks like a city of the dead and Lithuania is some ‘other space’ described in metaphysical categories. At the same time, nothing has disappeared from the landscape of Vilnius: Miłosz sees the same ‘forests of brown gold’ in October, when the weather, again, is like wine, and the familiar hills and twisted baroque gables whisper that everything passes but are also witnesses to the permanence of the world, resurrected in human memory.
“Miłosz and his companions were interested in the history and culture of the ethnic communities which had their own right to the city, namely, the Lithuanians, the Belarusians and the Jews. Together with a friend, he translated the works of the Lithuanian poet Kazys Boruta and wrote reviews of twentieth-century Lithuanian literature, his lifelong interest. In some ways he considered himself a Lithuanian who wrote in Polish; I remember how happy he was when Lithuanian translations of his poems were published before the Polish originals.”
“Miłosz possessed some knowledge of Lithuanian, just as Yeats possessed some knowledge of Gaelic,” he said – but that’s a bit of an overstatement. Miłosz was born among Lithuania’s Polish-speaking gentry, and didn’t bother to learn the language, even though he had a ethnically Lithuanian grandmother. Robert Hass said he began learning the language instead when Miłosz was in his 80s. Why bother so late? “Because I think it might be the language of heaven,” he confessed to Hass.
Despite attempts to make Vilnius a truly national city, Tomas said, “the Lithuanian capital has remained what it had always been―complex and multidimensional, a continent in miniature. But this is a fragile condition, and we are responsible for it.”
“The creation of our continent and our civilization has always been a duty, an uncertainty, and a risk. I don’t know of any place in Europe that better lives up to this risk than Vilnius―a perpetual peripheral area and borderland, an eccentric, capricious, erratic city with a unique past that violates all the rules of logic and probability.”
I’ll be speaking at a private book club event next week. On what? The role of the reader. So many write and write and write about the process of writing, the burdens of the writer, the writer’s obligations to society, and so on and so on and so on. Who thinks about the reader? I do, sometimes. And I’m not alone. Here’s what Seamus Heaney, who died a last week (see posts here and here) had to say on the subject … well, he starts out on the right horse, but quickly falls off.
From Stepping Stones, a 500-page Q&A with Dennis O’Driscoll:
How do you respond to Joseph Brodsky‘s contention that ‘a reader who has a great experience of poetry is less likely to fall prey to demagoguery on the part of the politician’? There is also Yves Bonnefoy‘s somewhat similar view that ‘poetry is a cure for ideology’.
Joseph was right to contend that a person sensitized to language by poetry is less likely to sway in the mass-media breeze; and I agree with Bonnefoy if he means that successful poetry will launch itself beyond the pull of the contingent and get into its own self-sustaining linguistic and imaginative orbit. Take a poem like ‘Leda and the Swan’. It begins with what Bonnefoy might call ideology: Yeats starts thinking of the Russian Revolution, which represents the rule of the many, the arrival of power from below, from down to up, and that he opposes the rule of the few, the rule from above, from up to down, so the violent descent of Zeus upon Leda comes to mind as analogous to all this – but then, as Yeats himself has told us, bird and girl took over his imagining, and the poem, powerful and problematical as it is, took off. Thinking about rhymes becomes as important as thinking about revolution.
But poems can be political insofar as they discover the paradigmatic. Think of Cavafy. Cavafy’s cameos of the ambitions and victories and defeats among various tyrannies and dynasties and satrapies during the Hellenistic age have a wonderful, clarified political wisdom, but they’re free – or, if you prefer, cured – of ideology. It’s hard to talk about this without citing examples, probably because examples tell us that the only real answers to the general problem are specific poems in specific situations. Whitman‘s hospital poems during the American civil war. Poems by Auden and MacNeice in the 1930s – ‘Look, Stranger’, ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’. Derek Mahon‘s ‘Lives’.
How should we regard a question like Czeslaw Milosz‘s ‘What is poetry that does not save/Nations or people?’
It’s a cry wrung from him in extremis, de profundis, the cry of the responsible human. But it’s one he answers in different ways in his work – in the witness of poems like ‘Campo dei Fiori’ and ‘Song on Porcelain’, and in the obstinate espousal of beauty and order – the calligraphy, as he once called it – of poems like ‘The World’, or ‘Encounter’, or ‘Gift’. These latter ones, incidentally, could have as their motto Brodsky’s equally challenging declaration that ‘if art teaches anything, it’s that the human condition is private’.
Where do you stand between those two positions?
Betwixt and between them – which is, in effect, where Czeslaw Milosz and Joseph Brodsky also stood. Joseph was out to save people when he suggested during his time as Poet Laureate of the United States that poetry should, like the Gideon Bible, be available in hotel rooms and should be distributed like handouts at supermarket checkouts. And Czeslaw writes about loving herring and strawberry jam as well as beauty and truth.