The Rhyme Between “Voice” and “Fate”: Contemporary Polish Poetry
Carnivorous Boy, Carnivorous Bird: Poetry from Poland. Selected by Marcin Baran. Edited by Anna Skucinska and Elzbieta Wojcik-Leese. Zephyr Press, 2002. Paper, 444 pp., $19.95.
Polish poetry has been revered among many American readers for the past few decades and with good reason. Poland has produced, quite simply, some of the best poets of the twentieth century, perhaps from the rich if painful combination of an impressive Romantic literary tradition with the terrible pressure cooker of modern Polish history, replete with war, holocaust, political oppression, and upheaval. Wislawa Szymborska, Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Adam Zagajewski, and Tadeusz Rozewicz, sometimes called the “big five” in modern Polish poetry, are increasingly well-translated and well-represented in English. Indeed, both Milosz and Zagajewski, who have lived and taught in the United States, have at times been understood as essential American poets as well as Polish ones. And over time each of these poets has come to serve as role model for American poets seeking to preserve and carry on the functions of a poet in the modern world.
In this context, Carnivorous Boy, Carnivorous Bird is a welcome addition to English bookshelves because it undertakes a much-needed and essential task of introducing a new generation of Polish poets, those born between the years 1958 and 1969. Although these poets grew up with the poetic elders listed above, little could prepare them for the political and cultural changes of the past decade or so that transformed Eastern Europe, and their own coming of age as poets is both fascinating and difficult to categorize. The notion behind this anthology lies exactly here: that political, social, and cultural changes have finally allowed Polish poets to cast off these burdens “typically delegated to politicians, soldiers, priests, or journalists” and to focus instead on individual expression and varied aesthetic movements. Not surprisingly, then, many Polish poets of this new generation have turned to American poetic traditions, most notably toward New York School poets such as Ashbery, O’Hara, and Schuyler. And this utterly singular literary history is partly why American poets and readers could benefit from considering these poets in addition to their now-revered poetic elders—for both contemporary Polish and American poets share some similar parentage, despite real and ongoing cultural, political, and economic differences. In fact the anthology’s title derives from a poem by Grzegorz Wroblewski that praises the commonality to be found in two seemingly alien life forms:
Today I saw a boy
feeding a pigeon
a red frankfurter.
They ate together.
What a splendid sight!
[tr. Agnieszka Pokojska]
There’s much to praise in this anthology: its size, breadth, and bilingual presentation is impressive. It includes twenty-four poets, making it the most comprehensive of any of the anthologies of new Polish poetry currently available, and it includes key figures from wildly differing aesthetics, from Marzanna Kielar, whose essentially sensual lyric centers on subjects from the natural world; to Marcin Swietlicki, poet and rock singer whose poems take on a questioning, sometimes rebellious and snappy tone; to Andrzej Sosnowski, a decidedly intellectual poet and translator of Ashbery into Polish. That this group of poets is unwieldy and difficult to categorize is a sign, of course, of the flourishing of poetry; however, Marcin Baran, a prominent young poet himself and the editor responsible for the anthology’s selections, overcompensates in his introduction by inventing numerous and somewhat arbitrary categories in which to classify these poets, such as “verbal test pilots,” “gnomic essentialists,” and “anarchists of pain.” While the desire to make sense of this new generation is understandable, it’s too early in some respects to make such categories, and ultimately, it may be a disservice to poets and readers. For something there is that doesn’t like to be categorized in poetry—and the best poets always seem to resist these sorts of labels, anyhow.
Baran claims in his introduction that this anthology is “normal and ordinary,” a curious assertion, given that most editors seek to include their list of the best or most important poets as well as the poems that most strongly represent these poets. And indeed, while the variety and breadth of poetic voices is impressive, often the poems chosen to represent certain poets seem mediocre. Take for example this Adam Wiedemann poem, reprinted below in its entirety:
Contenders for the title:
Mike Tyson and Evander
[tr. Agnieszka Pokojska]
Perhaps one pitfall in Baran’s selections is the appearance that certain poems were chosen for their allusions to and commentary upon American culture. Poems such as the one above or Swietlicki’s “McDonald’s,” for example, are strangely disappointing. More engrossing are the poems that subtly consider the changes in the landscape of Polish poetry and culture and in the handful of deft lyrics which illustrate idiosyncrasies of voice in a way that appeals equally to Polish or American readers, such as Baran’s own “Mantras, Hours”:
When you don’t want cigarette
smoke to mix with the air of your flat
at night—go out for a cigarette in the staircase
of an old tenement. Turn on the light. The homeless
haven’t sought shelter from cold here.
Inhale, the automatic light
will go off in a minute. Stay
in darkness, deny brightness
its five minutes. The livid shine of night
enters through the high window. The shadow
of the barred elevator shaft encloses you
as if in a cell. No voices bury
the silence. Before the glow reaches the filter—
you are alone. Strive for perfection.
[tr. Dariusz Trzesniowski]
Interestingly the major preoccupation that emerges from this anthology is the question of what poetry is and should be—its subjects, functions, and forms—now that it has been freed from earlier limiting if productive constraints. Take for example the ending of Darek Foks’s “My Joy and My Bane”:
by the great interest met, in Poland,
by the great interest
met, in the United States and Canada,
by the haiku
(World Literature, 1991, no. 1, impression: 15,000 copies)
[tr. Jamie Harmon Ferguson]
The questioning behind this admittedly gimmicky poem nonetheless seems part and parcel of the contemporary Polish poet’s concern for how, as Kuba Koziol states in another poem, “the influence of American literature, with its characteristic attachment to concrete imagery, vitalism, and anti-intellectualism, is conspicuous” (“In This Poetry…”). Koziol’s poem, written as a kind of treatise of twenty-six assertions, states most succinctly the urgent doubting surfacing in many contemporary Polish poets:
In this poetry, the question of language keeps stubbornly
returning—it is clear that the poet does not trust it, that the
poet fears its lack of correspondence to the real world, and,
moreover (and perhaps above all), that the poet is aware
that words, often the most important ones, are caked with
a thick residue of totalitarianism, making true discourse
impossible; so that actually it would be worth following the
suggestion of Victor Klemperer, author of Lingua Tertii
Imperium, and just as the Jews do with their dirty dishes,
bury many of these words and leave them for years under-
[tr. W. Martin]
Other articulate questions and responses to the purposes and obligations of poetry include Artur Szlosarek’s “Je Ne Sais Quoi” which rejects the reduction or enervation of poetry as autobiography and posits instead the need to speak from one’s self or mind:
should one speak
about one’s self? if so, today,
just now, on my way from a drugstore,
I noticed the nonchalant
deliberation with which an elderly man, propped up
against a wall torn apart
with light, was holding in his right hand
it’s unessential that, while writing this,
I’m listening to crime and the city solution
(adversary—live, no. 9),
that I’ve bought bread, and I’m smoking
a gitanes cigarette,
that spring’s coming, that I have a runny nose
and I’m testily impulsive,
that I work at a theater—
I think everyone is
obliged to speak exclusively
one’s mind, only
[tr. Anna Skucinska]
Likewise, Andrzej Sosnowski considers the (still limited, it turns out) possibilities of the twenty-first-century poet-speaker and the reliability of the language he or she uses. Here’s the opening to his poem “What Is Poetry”:
It’s certainly no survival strategy
or a way of life. Ridiculous to insist
on enchanted lakes, forests, hollow caves
where a voice echoes and may never die.
Sibyl’s grottoes? Leaves
are important, and the rhyme between “voice”
and “fate.” Voices fly out to the world,
where leaves go fate determines.
[tr. Charles Boyle and Wieslaw Powaga]
The editors and main translators, Anna Skucinska and Elzbieta Wojcik-Leese, undertake a marvelous job both of translating themselves and of compiling the translations of others, as well as presenting these poems with helpful biographies and endnotes. And yet some translations emerge stronger than others, which is perhaps unavoidable but nonetheless unfortunate for young poets whose voices most American readers are hearing for the first time. However, after reading Carnivorous Boy, Carnivorous Bird, one senses something like a poetic landscape emerging and that a path is being paved for American readers to consider further this new generation of Polish poets. One hopes the foundational work of this anthology will incite gifted readers and translators to bring the best of this generation more fully into English.