Posts Tagged ‘Bogdana Carpenter’

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

Saturday, August 1st, 2020
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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.

Notting Hill Editions: Irish saints, Dutch executioners, and “a crumb of helpless goodness”

Sunday, November 11th, 2012
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Alas, the books pile up faster than I have time to read them – or, in some cases, even look at them.

Some months ago, I received an unbidden package from the U.K., and I’ve only just now broken the cellophane on the two books that were enclosed.  Notting Hill Editions is “devoted to the best in essayistic nonfiction writing.” It’s an excellent series, sized for the “Tube-bound intellectual,” according to the very thorough website, which includes  Harry Mount‘s weekly journal.  Beyond their portability, the superb cloth-covered books in a rich spectrum of colors are classy and very affordable at £ 10.00 each.

The two that arrived in my mailbox are the orange-bound edition of Zbigniew Herbert‘s classic Still Life with a Bridle (translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter) and Hubert Butler‘s The Eggman and the Fairies, Irish Essays (edited by John Banville), in a suitably Irish green.

In gratitude for the gift, I can do no better than site a few passages from both.  I have not chosen these passages entirely at random; they are neither the most representative nor the most elegant passages of the books, but instead I was drawn by two eloquent passages about mysterious nature of mercy and charity.

Butler’s discussion of “the movement for the rehabilitation of Celtic saints, which had begun in chivalry, [and] had ended in sterility.” The author, who died at 90 in 1991, writes in “Saints, Scholars and Civil Servants”:

Ailbe in infancy: he worked his way up to lions

But why should it be undermining to our morals or bruising to our national pride if one were to argue that the Irish saints were many of them the tribal gods of a gentle and intelligent people, whose racial origins retreat so far into history that to use the national terms for them, Celt, Iberian, Gaulish, would not be easy? I was brought up in the diocese of St. Canice, but the less I believed in him, the more I was fascinated by him. He covered five Irish counties and as many Scottish and Welsh ones with his churches and miracles.  He left his crozier in Iona, the little toe of his right foot in northern Italy, and, standing on one leg, was fed by seagulls in the Gower Peninsula. He is a link between the medieval world and one that is immemorially old. Those who treat him as a monastic fiction are as wrong as Cardinal Moran, who saw him in his own image as a busy Irish prelate with widespread diocesan responsibilities.  The lives of the Irish saints reflect an ingenious innocence, a primaeval charity, that links them with Greek legend and the beginnings of poetry. For example, when St. Ailbe, travelling in Italy, resurrected two  horses and their groom, who had been killed by lions, he took pity on the hungry, disappointed carnivores and arranged for a suitable meal (an aptum prandium) to come down Heaven for them on a cloud.

Of course we’ve always loved Herbert – Seamus Heaney says, “He shoulders the whole sky and scope of human dignity and responsibility.” Herbert’s essay, “The Mercy of the Executioner,” describes the execution of the statesman Johan Van Oldenbarnevelt, who had “defended his honor rather than his life” at trial:

Defended his honor more than his life

When they brought in the condemned man, the crowd fell silent. Van Oldenbarnevelt was hurrying toward death: ‘What you must do, do it fast,’ he urged the executors of the verdict.

The something happened that went far beyond the ritual of execution, beyond the procedure of any known execution. The executioner led the condemned man to a spot where the sunlight was falling and said, ‘Here, Your Honour, you will have sun on your face.’ …

Van Oldenbarnevelt’s executioner broke the rules of the game, left his role, and, what is more, violated the principles of professional ethics. Why did he do it? Certainly it was an impulse of the heart. But didn’t the condemned man, who was stripped of all earthly glory, perceive derision in it? After all, it is indifferent to those who are leaving for ever whether they die in the sun, in shadow, or the darkness of night. The executioner, artisan of death, became an ambiguous figure filled with potential meaning when to the condemned man – in his last moment – he threw a crumb of helpless goodness.

Banville on Butler below:

Happy 90th birthday, Julia Hartwig! Poland’s late-blooming poet is still in glorious flower.

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011
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The birthday girl in Warsaw (Photo: C.L. Haven)

I wrote about the Polish poet Julia Hartwig some months ago on the Book Haven here – but now there is an special occasion for celebration.  The poet turns 90 on August 14th.

It’s rare that a poet’s supreme moment of recognition should occur so late in life – rarer still that the poet’s productivity is unimpeded by age.  However, the Grande Dame of Polish poetry is clearly an extraordinary woman.

I made sure to celebrate my own way, with an article in the July/August issue of World Literature Today.  It’s not online, alas, but here are a few excerpts to familiarize the West with a poet who received as much applause as Nobel winner Wisława Szymborska when they shared the stage last May in Kraków’s medieval St. Catherine’s Church.

“My way of poetry is a long way,” Julia Hartwig told me on a hot August night in her Warsaw apartment.

Her comment is at once enigmatic and precise. Precise because the poet, who turns ninety this year, has been writing for eight decades, since she was ten. She has been publishing collections of her poems since the 1956 thaw over half a century ago. Yet her long career is still in glorious late flower.

Enigmatic, too: her range of vision roams through centuries, continuing a conversation with her recently dead colleagues, literary forebears, and friends throughout time. All great poetry does that, really—but in Hartwig’s case the search is direct and unambiguous. Titles of poems in her newest collection in English, It Will Return, reference Arthur Rimbaud, John Keats, and Joseph Brodsky as well as Vincent Van Gogh, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Henri Rousseau.

Her life was largely a quiet and orderly one, after the national upheaval of war, when she worked as a runner for the Home Army, and studied in Warsaw’s underground university (the Gestapo’s attentions forced her into hiding for a time).  After the war, she went to Paris on a scholarship and never lost her love for France.  She wrote about Guillaume Apollinaire and Gérard de Nerval and translated Rimbaud:

“What is striking about French literature is the range of scale: the Hugo-style genius of the French spirit and the Rabelaisian bawdiness, de Musset’s charm and Apollinaire’s thrilling melody, Lautréamont’s madness, the inexhaustible passion of Rimbaud’s poetry, the latent sensitivity of Reverdy’s cubism, the inventiveness of the lyrical paradox in Jacob’s work,” she wrote. “Old and new, separate and shared, like the root, stem, leaf, and flower in one plant.”

In 1954 she married the eminent poet, writer, and translator Artur Miedzyrzecki (1922–96), who had served the Polish Army in Italy. She published her first book during communism’s brief 1956 thaw, when she was in her mid-thirties.

“I waited for good poems, it’s true,” she said. “But still the attention was . . . it was remarked.”

I find the frequent comparisons to Szymborska to be a bit offensive, as if there were only one slot were available to a female poet per generation.  I aired my grievances … well, a little, anyway:

May in Kraków – must they be compared?

She is often compared to Wisława Szymborska. One wonders if the association would come less easily if Szymborska were not a woman of the same generation. But it’s not entirely the comparison of poetess with poetess—both have a light, deft touch and a taste for whimsy.

But Hartwig’s terroir extends into a different psychological landscape. She has called her way “reality mysticism,” extending her acceptance of the world to all its horrors, then moving beyond to transcendence. Of the world, she wisely told her translator Bogdana Carpenter, “One cannot set oneself apart from it and be alone like an underground man or a misanthrope.”

But it’s more than that. Reality mysticism doesn’t abstract or withdraw from the present, or use it for a jumping-off point for dreamy speculations, but holds us steadily there, using it to increase our attention, our presence, and our appreciation.

For example, “Return to My Childhood Home” begins with wonder and loss, moving to consolation and light:

Amid a dark silence of pines—the shouts of young birches calling each other.
Everything is as it was. Nothing is as it was. …

To understand nothing. Each time in a different way, from the first cry to the last breath.
Yet happy moments come to me from the past, like bridesmaids carrying oil lamps.

Many more happy moments  in your beloved Warsaw, Julia  – a thousand lamps to greet you on your way!

The worst dinner party ever: Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert, and the lady who watched the fight

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011
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Poet

Poland’s biggest postwar literary fight  erupted not in Warsaw or Kraków, but in an otherwise quiet Berkeley home one evening in the summer of 1968, after some serious drinking

During the Columbia University launch for An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz on Monday night, noted translator and scholar Bogdana Carpenter departed from the planned script to break her silence on the event – for the second time ever.

She ought to know.  She was not only there, she and her husband and fellow translator John Carpenter hosted the dinner, which included poets Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert. She said distorted versions of the event that have left the Polish intelligentsia bickering ever since.

vs. poet

“It started out happy and gay,” she recalled of the evening — a pleasant, spicy meal with plenty of wine. After dinner, Herbert’s tone became “harsher and harsher,” Bogdana recalled.  “When he was drunk he tended to be aggressive – and this time it was too late.” Herbert’s thoughts turned to the German occupation of Poland during World War II.

“He viciously attacked Miłosz – he reproached him for his lack of participation in the Polish resistance,” said Bogdana.  The evening was so acrimonious that Janina Miłosz forbade Herbert ever to enter the Miłosz abode again.

However, “it’s become known in a distorted version,” Bogdana said of the story.  Typically, it is claimed that Miłosz provoked the incident by suggesting that Poland be added to the Soviet Empire as the 17th republic. Bogdana said this comment never happened. The provocation was invented by Herbert twenty years after the event, she said.

Correcting the record

For Miłosz, questions of patriotism were always sensitive – both because of his position with the Communist government as a cultural attaché, and then again because of his 1951 defection in Paris, which meant he was barred from Poland until the 1980s.

The basis of the dispute, said Bogdana, was the two poets’ notion of homeland, and what it required from them.

Herbert believed one should be willing to “sacrifice one’s own happiness and life,” she said.  While some have attributed Herbert’s position to the “Polish Romantic paradigm,” Carpenter said its roots are “further back – in the Hellenistic tradition.”

“Miłosz differed diametrically.”  For Miłosz, loyalty had its limits – “when the price was other people,” she said, he could be “scathingly critical.” His position was that “loyalty is not enough – one seeks logical justification” for self-immolation. Miłosz’s defined his “homeland” as the Polish language.  “Miłosz’s chosen weapon was the word, not the sword,” said Bogdana. “Language defined him.”

Bogdana Carpenter pointed out that “Herbert was not in Warsaw in 1939, 1942, or 1944.”  Milosz witnessed the destruction of Warsaw firsthand. Patriotism was not the question.  She pointed out that during Nazi occupation, Miłosz compiled an anthology of anti-Nazi poetry – An Invincible Song (1942) – “for which he easily could have lost his life.”

Columbia University honors Czesław Miłosz — and launches An Invisible Rope

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011
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Last night Columbia University honored Czesław Miłosz — and launched An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz — with a panel discussion.  Left to right:  poet Anna Frajlich; scholar and translator Bogdana Carpenter; James Marcus, deputy editor of Harper’s Magazine; Alan Timberlake, chair of Slavic Languages at Columbia; humble moi; and scholar Elisabeth Kridl Valkenier.  The photo is courtesy Zygmunt Malinowski, whose photograph of Miłosz graces the cover of An Invisible Rope.

The evening held some surprises — I’ll write more in a few hours.  After nine days in chilly, rainy, New York, I’ve just arrived back in beautiful California, where the temperature is warm, the sun is out, and the flowers are everywhere.  Hard to believe Miłosz sometimes considered it the landscape of the damned — or, as Clare Cavanagh said, “the landscape of the damned — with good weather.”

Meet you in Manhattan!

Sunday, March 20th, 2011
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I’m off!  Or at least I will be in a few hours.

I’m on my way to a week of gigs honoring the Czesław Miłosz centenary in New York City — with a side order for Zbigniew Herbert.  I posted about them a while back here.

Come up and say hello if you see me — otherwise, prepare for a few logistical delays, but I expect to be posting about Clare Cavanagh, Robert Hass, Edward Hirsch, Adam Zagajewski, Anna Frajlich, Bogdana Carpenter, James Marcus, and many others in the coming days.

See you there!

Join me in NYC for the Czesław Miłosz Centenary!

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011
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There’s a swirl of events March 21-28 honoring the Czesław Miłosz centenary in New York City (and one event for Zbigniew Herbert).  Join me in celebrating, if you’re in town!  It’s certainly a rare event for me — at least a decade since I’ve been in New York at all, sedentary little West Coaster that I am.

I will be speaking at Columbia University (see poster at right) on the 28th and at the Brooklyn Central Library on the 27th.

Ann Kjellberg at Little Star has blogged about some of the other events here.

They include:

March 21 — 8 p.m., Kaufman Concert Hall, 92 Street Y: “A Celebration of Czesław Miłosz with Robert Hass, Adam Zagajewski and Clare Cavanagh

March 22 — 7 p.m., Music Building, Queens College: “A Centennial Celebration of the Work of Czesław Miłosz” — Clare Cavanagh, Robert Hass, Edward Hirsch, Adam Zagajewski

March 24 — 7 p.m., Poets House: “A Poet’s Prose: The Poetic Vision of Zbigniew Herbert,” Edward Hirsch, Charles Simic, Alissa Valles, Adam Zagajewski

March 27 — 1.30 p.m., Brooklyn Central Library, “An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz,” Cynthia Haven, Adam Zagajewski, Anna Frajlich, Elizabeth Valkenier and Zygmunt Malinowski

March 28 — 7 p.m., The Lindsay Rogers Room, Columbia University, “An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz,” Cynthia Haven, Anna Frajlich, Elizabeth Valkenier, Bogdana Carpenter, James Marcus, and Alan Timberlake