Posts Tagged ‘Valentina Polukhina’

Czesław Miłosz and the “soft pollution” of the mind

Saturday, March 5th, 2016
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A thousand pages of Milosz.

When I drove to the Stanford post office and collected the heavy parcel with thick brown-paper packaging, I knew by its heft what it was, even before I saw the Polish stamps.

Miłosz i Miłosz was published two years ago by Kraków’s Księgarnia Akademicka, but I didn’t quite believe it until I finally had it in my hands. The volume, nearly a thousand pages edited by Aleksandr Fiut, Artur Grabowski, and Łukasz Tischner, includes the talks given on the centenary for the Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz in 2011. (I wrote about the occasion here and here and here.)

And there, on page 109, is my own “Miłosz in Purgatory” – or “Miłosz w czyśćcu.” An excerpt (in English):

At Queens College in New York City, someone in the audience asked [poet Robert] Hass what it was like spending decades translating Miłosz. He responded in a heartbeat: “Like being alive twice.”

Clearly, Hass is more attuned to the Pacific mystic who was struggling to come to terms with the fierce surf, the sea-worn cliffs, and a fate that would have been unimaginable to the younger self who wrote “Dedication” in Warsaw. As Miłosz wrote in “Magic Mountain,” a poem that has inevitable resonances for Californians:

So I won’t have power, won’t save the world?
Fame will pass me by, no tiara, no crown?
Did I then train myself, myself the Unique,
To compose stanzas for gulls and sea haze,
To listen to the foghorns blaring down below?
Until it passed. What passed? Life.

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Jagiellonian University: an intimidating venue.

Miłosz survived into the age of globalization—an era that has seen the collapse of time and space. Or, as Russian scholar Valentina Polukhina describes it, “a period in which our long history has been put into single storage.” As a cause and effect of that storage, “Today’s world is not monolithic: discrete events, fragmented thinking and perceptions, ideas of good and evil are so confused that the only proper response is apocalypse.”

The more commonplace response is instead an enormous loss of inwardness. Miłosz also was alarmed by it. During the Berkeley centenary event last March, a woman mentioned a talk Miłosz gave to a graduating class in New Mexico in 1989. I located a copy. While his comments might not be surprising today, it’s important to remember they were made more than two decades ago, and prefigure Michel Serres’s very recent writings about “soft pollution”:

“Pollution of the environment is today at the center of universal attention. There is, though, another kind of pollution which does not seem to be anybody’s concern … I speak of the pollution of the mind by the image of the world imposed upon citizens by advertisements, television, cinema, newspapers, radio and imposed in such a manner that their victims do not realize to what extent they are conditioned. As today there are no clear criteria for forbidding anything, the freedom of the market is the supreme law.”

A happenstance Californian.

A champion for “second space.”

We forbid nothing. We have an endless array of choices at all points of life but very few criteria on which to base those choices. Hence, we are unable to make our choices “meaningful,” and this breeds the nihilism that afflicts us. Believing in “progress,” we are unable to get our utopias up and running. We sense a diminution of our cosmos. Miłosz replied by crying out for “Second Space.” Yet today many seem tone deaf to the rhythms of his life, and can only transpose his nuances into the key of doubt – even more frequently, we project our current moral chaos onto Miłosz, and so misunderstand him.

Have we become allergic to the medicine he offers? It’s an antidote more needed in America, where he spent four decades of his life, than perhaps anywhere else – and it is from that perspective that I speak, a perspective that is both foreign and familiar to those in Poland.

Order your own here, if you’re a Polish speaker. Worth your złoty.

R.I.P. Daniel Weissbort, champion of translation everywhere

Tuesday, November 19th, 2013
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Reading at the Ars Interpres Poetry Festival, 2006

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.

mpt3Nicholas Wroe, whose 2001 Guardian interview with Czesław Miłosz was included my volume Czesław Miłosz: Conversations, interviewed Weissbort in the same year.  It was posted on a few Facebook pages:

“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.”‘

Weissbort3Weissbort is also due to publish his own, 11th collection of poems, Letters to Ted, written after Hughes’s death, as well as a memoir of Nobel prizewinner Joseph Brodsky.  (Read the rest here.)

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:

Weissbort__From_Russian“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!’”

Update on 12/3:  Guardian obituary by Sasha Dugdale is here.

 

Au revoir, Seamus Heaney! My two letters from the Nobel laureate

Friday, August 30th, 2013
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Generous, humble, and glowing from the inside

“You of all people!”  That’s how my first letter from Seamus Heaney began.  It’s not hard to keep track; there were only two.  This first one was in a large envelope,  addressed in his loose, open handwriting in December 2007.  His Strand Street address was in one corner, and some attractive, carefully chosen stamps with foxgloves, dandelions, and black bog rush.  You see how carefully I still treasure this missive?  I had written half a year before to ask that he contribute his memories to An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz, and hadn’t received an answer.  When I heard today that he’d died, at 74, I went and pulled the letter out of a storage chest.

“You of all people! I’m very sorry to have overlooked your letter of last July: your book of Conversations with Czeslaw is one of the most helpful and constantly readable, and I’ve admired several reviews,” he wrote. He wanted to contribute, but warned that his memoir would be brief, and asked if I thought this would look “niggardly.” He kindly enclosed another piece on Joseph Brodsky, which he’d written for our mutual friend Valentina Polukhina. He neglected to remind me that he was still recovering from his 2006 stroke when I first wrote him, and had cancelled work for a year afterward.

heaney2Well, this was the man.  He was being humble to me.  It’s a powerful lesson in noblesse oblige, whether in poetry or some other field.  But one has to admit in the literary arena, it’s somewhat rare.  As an editor or journalist, one is more likely to be treated like an annoying tick than a respected colleague.  I pinned the letter to my wall for several years, to look at it in the bad times.

So I even treasured the second letter from Dublin, nine months later, signed simply “Seamus” with handwritten insertions (this one with a stamp featuring sea asters).  He wouldn’t be able to contribute after all.  He was about to set out on a road show with Dennis O’Driscoll (who died before him, I wrote about Seamus’s generous tribute hailing him as “my hero” here) – they’d just published a book-length Q&A called Stepping Stones – plus a TV documentary for his 70th birthday.  Given his schedule, and he was “naturally very sorry not to have been able to deliver a piece that would do credit to Czeslaw and indeed to myself before now.”  Henceforth we communicated back-and-forth through a flurry of emails via the mysterious cyberspace intermediary “Susie,” since she had an email address and he didn’t – he admitted “I’m still at the scriptorium stage of development.” We wound up reprinting his earlier memoir, “In Gratitude for All the Gifts” for the book, written when his fellow Nobelist had died in 2004. And no, it wasn’t “niggardly” at all.  It was, like him, generous and humble and glowing from the inside, like a peat fire in a cold Irish winter.

Postscript from Jane Hirshfield, as always eloquent:

Jane joins the world in mourning the loss of Seamus Heaney, one of its greatest, most eloquent, and most generous poets. She writes: “In his presence and in his words, you felt always the embrace of being. His words brought the burnish of original seeing. You were made, quite simply, more alive by his aliveness, in life and on the page – as in the opening poem from his 2010 collection, Human Chain:

Had I Not Been Awake

Had I not been awake I would have missed it,
A wind that rose and whirled until the roof
Pattered with quick leaves off the sycamore

And got me up, the whole of me a-patter,
Alive and ticking like an electric fence:
Had I not been awake I would have missed it

It came and went too unexpectedly
And almost it seemed dangerously,
Hurtling like an animal at the house,

A courier blast that there and then
Lapsed ordinary. But not ever
Afterwards. And not now.

Jane&seamus

Two poets, held in memory…

Rescued from behind a paywall: “No Other Place, No Other Time”

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011
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"Hurry sickness."

My Kenyon Review piece, “No Other Place, No Other Time” in the spring issue of the Kenyon Review, was selected as  feature-of-the-day in Poetry Daily — it’s here.  And now you can read it for free.

In it, I review two books: Irena Grudzińska Gross’s Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky: Fellowship of Poets (Yale University Press) and Brodsky Through the Eyes of His Contemporaries, vol. 2, edited by Valentina Polukhina (Academic Studies Press).  I wrote about the piece a few weeks ago here.

“No Other Place, No Other Time” — I discuss Miłosz, Brodsky in the Kenyon Review

Sunday, March 13th, 2011
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In the spring issue of the illustrious Kenyon Review, I review two books: Irena Grudzińska Gross‘s Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky: Fellowship of Poets (Yale University Press) and Brodsky Through the Eyes of His Contemporaries, vol. 2, edited by Valentina Polukhina (Academic Studies Press).

That’s the good news.  The bad is that you are only allowed to read the first page online.  It’s here.

So here’s a little more from the piece, for free:  Joseph Brodsky‘s reading style has been much remarked upon, and I open my article with Brodsky’s first engagement outside Russia, at London’s 1972 Poetry International Festival, in the first few dizzying weeks of his exile: “the poet poured out his poems in the hypnotic incantation that was to become his trademark: an archaic sound — a lament from a lost civilization, an ancient prayer, or simply a metronomic wail.”

Daniel Weissbort remembers Brodsky reading this way:

“ . . . his hands straining the pockets of his jacket, his jaw jutting, as though his attention had just been caught by something and he were staring at it, scrutinizing it, while continuing to mouth the poem, almost absent-mindedly, that is, while the poem continues to be mouthed by him. His voice rises symphonically: ‘syn ili Bog’ [‘son or God’], already on the turn towards an abrupt descent; and then the pause and a resonant drop, a full octave: ‘Ya tvoi’ [‘I am thine’]. As the poet, with an almost embarrassed or reluctant nod, and a quick, pained smile, departs his poem”.

I continue:

Gross recounts that Brodsky was asked about his declamatory bent during his triumphant tour of Poland, and landed this punch: “Today’s poet is afraid of the sardonic laughter of his reader, and because of it he tries to soften his poems . . . This is a mistake. The poet should charge his public like a tank, so that the reader has no escape. Poetry is an act of metaphysical and linguistic attack, not of a retreat. If a poet wants to be modest and nonaggressive, he should stop writing.”

Not Miłosz’s style, to put it mildly, and so he gently chastised the younger poet. Miłosz also lamented Brodsky’s poetry in English: “The resistance against writing poetry in other languages should be considered a virtue. . . . We are born in a concrete point of the Earth and we have to remain faithful to this point, restrained in our following of foreign fashions.”

This was more than a case of brass meeting polish. Miłosz saw history as a horror he wished to escape, but in a larger sense, he was also at home in the wider story of centuries. He was a son of the Polish-speaking landed gentry in Lithuania and had a law degree from Stefan Batory University. The urbane elder poet had the educational context lacking in Brodsky, the defiant autodidact who dropped out of school as a teenager. When cornered on an error or a prejudice, Brodsky covered himself by firing off a belligerent blast; Miłosz could put his views into a historical framework, whether by referring to pronouncements of the medieval popes or the legal system of the Res publica. History, language, tradition connected with Catholicism because, writes Gross, “Without God there is no history.” But where Miłosz turned to tradition and his Catholicism, Brodsky was in a tailspin and could not find peace.

From Irena’s book, I recount this devastating story:

Few have written about solitude and time with Brodsky’s urgency, before he was finally felled, at fifty-five, by the heart ailments that had dogged him for decades. “Miłosz was very busy, yet he sounded like a person who was not pressed for time. Brodsky ran against time,” writes Gross. “In that fight he was not supported by religion or by history — national or private.” Time was truly his enemy.

Gross recounts this riveting anecdote: “In 1994, when he was forced to visit a cardiologist during his stay in Sweden, he told him that he felt like a wounded animal who simply tried to survive. He expected to die at any time; when leaving his hotel room, he would put his papers in order. ‘Hurry sickness’ was the diagnosis of the psychologist who interviewed him on that occasion”.

The Kenyon Review can be ordered online here.


Remembering Bella Akhmadulina: “purity, conscience, and independence”

Sunday, December 19th, 2010
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I ran across Robin Varghese‘s recent post on 3 Quarks Daily noting that, he, too, had somehow missed the obituaries for the 73-year-old Russian poet Bella Akhmadulina, who died on November 29 of a heart attack.  I spent a little time this afternoon catching up: William Grimes‘s New York Times obituary for the “bold voice in Russian poetry” is here.

Akhmadulina came to fame in the post-Stalin years, the years of the Thaw.  She never emigrated, and never was exiled.  The Telegraph reported:

“Yet in her own quiet way Bella Akhmadulina was as much of a dissident as better known Soviet writers. Her work as a translator – she translated into Russian poetry from France, Italy, Chechnya, Poland, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia and many other countries – led to her expulsion from the Soviet Writers’ Union in the Brezhnev era, and she openly supported persecuted writers like Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn and political dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov.”

In 1979, she fell out of favour by contributing a surreal short story, ‘Many dogs and one dog,’ to the Samizdat publication Metropol, and was subsequently condemned for the “eroticism” of her verse and banned from publication.”

Said the poet:  “How did I manage?  Well, I think a person has some sort of guiding light.  Without doubt, something or someone looks after us from on high.” sThat quotation is from Valentina Polukhina‘s exhaustive and enlightening series of interviews, Brodsky Through the Eyes of His Contemporaries, volume 1.

I didn’t know her poetry — or at least I didn’t know it much.  I remember her instead as the the bright, original, and unambiguous voice in Polukhina’s 1987 interview:  “The presence of any great poet in the world creates a marked effect on human existence.”

An excerpt:

“But in exceptional cases, as with Bunin, with Nabokov, we are talking about people who have taken with them something that became … as if they created the Russian language inside themselves.  He doesn’t need to hear Russian spoken around him; he himself becomes a force that is ripe.  He himself is both garden and gardener. …

I said this at some time to Nabokov.  He asked me, ‘Do you like my language?’ and I answered, ‘Your Russian, it’s the best,’ and he said, ‘But it seems to me that it is like frozen strawberries.’  And whatever fate does … Well, with such people what is fate?”

In a literary world notorious for backbiting and artistic rivalries, she said this of Joseph Brodsky:

“My particular relationship to Brodsky can be described quite simply: uncritical, one of adoration.  I myself have stated somewhere in connection with Akhmatova:  ‘Of all calamities, adoration is the worse.’  An admirer can never expect his adoration to be returned.  And I am sure, that Joseph … I never think about myself when I think about him.  And even when they said to me, ‘you know, what Brodsky thinks of you!’ (Thumb downward.)  As he pleases.  But it is my business to talk about him with thumbs up.”

Polukhina, however, contradicted her:  “He said that Bella is one of the few Russian poets living in Russia who by some miracle has succeeded in preserving her purity, conscience and independence.”

Akhmadulina’s finest online send-off may be the memoir from Gregory Freidin on Arcadehere.  He gives us the context for Akhmadulina’s rise to prominence:

“Because of the richness of inflection and infinite melodic variability of the language, Russian poetry is blessed with extraordinary expressive force and a mighty mnemonic potential. This comes in handy if you happen to live under a repressive ideocracy like the Soviet Union, since verses can be easily memorized and leave little material evidence. Indeed, there was no better time to realize Russian poetry’s mnemonic and ethereal  potential than in the post-Stalin Soviet Union where the absence of independent publishing coexisted with burgeoning youth culture and a minimal – and for that reason infinitely titillating – lifting of the skirt of Soviet censorship. For us, who belonged the post-WWII generation, shaped by the de-Stalinization campaign and cold war, known euphemistically as ‘peaceful coexistence,’ this toying with the ideological hemline excited our imagination and set our minds on fire! Grim and sclerotic as the Soviet empire was in its decline, it became a Garden of Eden for poetry – and a purgatory, not to say a minor inferno, for the poets themselves. Some, like Brodsky, were exiled or jailed, others went through torments of hell in trying to combine the imperative of remaining true to their calling with the relentless and crushing pressure to conform. That was the cup that Akhmadulina, twenty and otherworldly beautiful in 1956, drank to the dregs.”

I won’t spoil Freidin’s post for you; it deserves a full reading here.  And for a taste of Akhmadulina’s distinctive voice, girlish and throaty, click below: