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Polish Poetry Now

By David Varno

Last week, the Polish Cultural Institute presented a two-part symposium at Poets House that sought to address questions on the nature and identity of Polish poets working today. The program began Tuesday with a panel discussion, and culminated with readings by each of the four participating poets on Wednesday: Tomasz Rozycki, Bożena Keff, Tadeusz Dąbrowski, and Marzanna Kielar. for which we are hoping to soon present a podcast.

Translators Bill Johnston and Benjamin Paloff moderated Tuesday’s panel, and Paloff started things off with questions such as, What does the younger generation of Polish poets have to say? Why do they write? What inspires them? He then noted the broad, inclusive, and amicable community of Polish translators in the U.S.—rare, he claimed, for the translation world. He argued that Polish readers have greater access to a diversity of voices than readers in the U.S., that because of the narrow scope of what is published here, we Americans have a homogenized sense of what a young poet is. Much can be learned from what is happening in Poland, was the implication.

Johnston, who has translated Witold Gombrowicz and Magdalena Tulli, as well as Tadeusz Rozewicz’s New Poems, led us through the recent history of Polish poetry, back to the 1980s when the role of poets as moral authorities was important. Especially with Miłosz, who won the Nobel prize as a member of the Solidarity Movement, and then Szymborska in the 90s. Since then, Johnston reported, younger Poles have questioned whether poets want this role. Many new things are happening in Poland, but most American readers are still only familiar with the Nobel winners.

Perhaps to demonstrate the one-way movement of culture from the United States compared with the practice of countries such as Poland, Paloff asked the four poets which American poets penetrated their consciousness early in their work. But the response opened up an unexpected rift among the panelists. Marzanna Kielar, whose collection Salt Monody, translated by Elzbieta Wojcik-Leese, was published by Zephyr Press in 2006, cited Charles Reznikof, Ginsberg, Cummings, Plath, and Jane Hirshfield for lyric sensibility. Bożena Keff, whose recent book-length poem On Mother and the Fatherland, also mentioned Plath and Ginsberg, but noted that her original influences were Rilke and Lorca.

Tadeusz Dąbrowski, speaking in Polish with Paloff as interpreter, stirred the room by claiming that beat poetry ruined the past twenty-five years of Polish poets, leading to an indulgence of “unrequited love, drugs, alcohol, and other misfortunes.” And Tomasz Rozycki claimed that American poetry was last to inspire him after Russian, German, French, and Italian (though he cited Berryman as one of his favorites, and suggested that to not understand what is lost in translation can be an advantage in Berryman’s case). Later, an audience member would ask whether the poets present had any influence on one another, or if they were in dialogue. Keff answered, “we are like islands.”

The poets’ varied positions seemed to prove Paloff’s claim about diversity in Poland. Johnston went so far as to ask what the poets thought was Polish, if anything, about their contemporaries or themselves. They appeared to wish not to answer. Eventually Keff suggested that the richness of Poland’s verse history may be due in part to the limitations of Polish prose, that poetry can get closer to reality. Dąbrowski stated that Polish poetry tends to be shaped by the country’s provincial status and location as an in-between, between what American’s think of as the Old World and the new international world. He claimed that something has been lost with the shift from Polish poets defined by the experience of leaving the province, because now a young Polish poet can become connected to the international world by migrating to an industrial city like Gdansk. Poets lack a mission; poems are about themselves, not greater issues; they feed a cycle of deconstruction. Anxieties, perhaps, that Dąbrowski faces in his own work.

Rozycki put the historical shift in a more hopeful light, noting that Miłosz spoke of the outside world coming to the province, to occupy it, and that Poland has always been suppressed by history—they could never write what they wanted to. He suggested that the current generation of poets may be the first to escape this fate.

Paloff brought the conversation to the topic of translation with an open question to both the poets and the audience on the degree of importance American readers place in knowing a poem is by a Polish poet. He cited Goethe’s view on the need to rid literature of the nationally specific, while noting that Miron Białoszewski’sThough A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising is considered the “holy grail” among Polish translators for the language’s seemingly unreplicable nuances and structure. Still, he claimed, a translator’s mission is to work with the author to create a new text. Johnston described the privilege of working closely on the translation of a text he greatly admires as “like a date with a really good-looking person.”

We hope to see more of a market for contemporary Polish poetry soon, and applaud the efforts of Zephyr Press, Archipelago, and others. And though the national origin of a book shouldn’t skew or generalize the way we read it, it is helpful when looking at the varied activity of new Polish poets in relation to the literature they have inherited as well as their historical context, to see the departures they have taken and the factors that may have informed their work.

Published Nov 10, 2009   Copyright 2009 David Varno

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