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Review: Six Polish Poets, ed. Jacek Dehnel

Kathryn Murphy, Translation and Literature 19 (2010)

Six Lithuanian Poets and Six Polish Poets are the fourth and fifth books in a series called 'New Voices from Europe and beyond', following volumes devoted to Basque, Slovenian, and Czech poetry. Some funding comes from the EU's 'Literature Across Frontiers' project; the series is designed to supply the oxygen of translation and readership to the languages and poets featured, and to open windows onto poetic scenes and developments across the new Europe. Despite the 'beyond' of the title, then, the series focuses so far on European poetry, and largely on countries of the former eastern bloc which entered the EU in 2004. These volumes attempt to address a paradox in their recent international reception. Until 1989, interest in the literatures of communist Central and Eastern Europe was sustained in the West, and publication and translation relatively frequent. The subsequent opening of their literary scenes to the market, and the relative ease of travel and communication, has paradoxically deprived them of attention; now that their writers are no longer required to testify to the triumph of the human spirit in adversity, interest in translating and propagating their literature has waned. This series admirably attempts to attract new interest, and to recontextualize these literatures in a united Europe.

The editor of Six Polish Poets can rely with more confidence on his readers' prior knowledge of Polish poetry. Most readers will know, or know of, the writers whom Jacek Dehnel's introduction calls the grand old poets - Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Wislawa Szymborska, Tadeusz Rozewicz - two of whom have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The purpose and value of writing poetry is taken for granted in this volume. If there is detectable anxiety here, it is in
attempting to define these six poets presented against previous poetic generations.

Dehnel traces a genealogy from those grand old poets into the 'New Wave' who began publishing in 1968, using linguistic experiment to subvert and counter the slackness and predictability of official debate. After 1989, a new generation, associated with the journal brulion, continued such regeneration by importing Western, especially American, influences. Dehnel reads their consequent experimentalism not only as avid curiosity about what had previously been denied, but also as a reaction against the high-flown diction of Milosz and Herbert, and their 'classical trend'.

It is the resurgence of such formalism which is the mark of Dehnel's new generation. Neoclassicism is an inverted kind of rebellion, stressing long-term continuity with an interrupted tradition rather than rupture and novelty. The formalism of Six Polish Poets is however in tension with innovation or experiment in other areas. The return to form does not mean a return to the diction of the grand old era, nor to traditional subjects. There are poems here on Google, computer strategy games, Italian men on scooters, and football. A common feature throughout is the combination of formal ingenuity with naivety, child-like diction or observation, and fairy-tale or nursery-rhyme elements, particularly in the poems by Agnieszka Kuciak, Tomasz Rozycki, and Dariusz Suska.

Jacek Dehnel and Anna Piwkowska, meanwhile, couple formal constraints with contingent, spontaneous subjects. The selection from Piwkowska runs from short enigmatic lyrics to longer, anecdotal poems which imaginatively explore ordinary situations: a plane journey, a train stopped at a station. She shares with Dehnel a tendency to place and date her poems, rendering them specific and occasional. Dehnel's poems use fixed stanzaic structures to anchor such apparent contingency. Many are descriptions of photographs (or on one occasion A fourteen-second video clip found via Google), and even in those poems which are not there is a black Leica standing by (A Razor-Sharp Glance). Distant Cities slows time, so that The hand hovers at the bell, never to ring. His poetry aspires to the condition of photography, offering the reader the single plain [sic] of the slice (A Razor-Sharp Glance).

The alternative form to which Maciej Wozniak's poems aspire is music. Repetition becomes motif, and rhythm and vowel pattern more significant than referentiality. Several poems take their rise from recordings of Renaissance and Baroque pieces, concerned with paradoxes of the passage of time and its stilling in art. Of all the poets gathered here, Wozniak is the most obviously traditional in diction and imagery.

The tension between formalism and freedom plays out differently in the poems by Dariusz Suska. Though largely sonnets, or written in rhyming stanzas, the strictures of rhyme and rhythm pull against deviations of thought within the verbal structures, abrupt beginnings and endings, hectic syntax, and shifts of tone. The poems are delivered in a naive narrative voice cut across by more knowing parentheses, which draw out allegorical suggestions and intimations of mortality. He is concerned with the preservation of detritus of various kinds, especially the 'junk' that must be cleared from the houses of dead relatives, and the fragile lives of insects: poetry as an ark for ephemera.

Agnieszka Kuciak finds scope for her imagination in Nineveh, Byzantium, and in witty poems about romantic relationships and intense allegorical sequences of rhyming couplets. She obliquely addresses questions of inheritance and tradition in poems which present fraught parent-child relationships, religious imagery, and reminders of darker periods of Poland's past in the urban landscape. These themes are most strongly apparent in the volume, however, in Rozycki's poems. Rozycki has received most acclaim among the poets here. Dehnel dates general recognition of the new formalist trend in Polish poetry to his Koscielski Prize in 2004, and his formal intricacies, in sonnets and broken sonnets, are striking. Most of his poems here, like Suska's, play with ideas of initiation, loss of innocence, and the ironies of experience of childhood recalled in adulthood.

Kuciak's poem Metre suggests that reactive formalism carries its dangers: one runs from freedom's frying pan and into rhyme's / fire. Choosing to organize an anthology of translations around formalism is brave, and the potential pitfalls are in evidence here. Attempts to replicate rhyme scheme sometimes wrench diction: thus the refrain Nie wiem in Wozniak's near-villanelle Hunger, which means 'I don't know', is rendered 'I cannot specify' by Elzbieta Wojcik-Leese. Nor are the translations always idiomatic. But this estrangement of English is not fatal: it reminds the reader of the presence of the original behind the poem, and gives even the reader with no Polish the excuse to study the facing-page originals for formal patterning.