Tuesday, December 14, 2010

`But the Shore Is a Long Way Off'

In her celebration of Polish Christmas carols, Cynthia Haven cites a passage by Czeslaw Milosz from A Year of the Hunter (1994):

“Without a doubt, Polish carols possess a particular charm, freshness, sincerity, good humor, that simply cannot be found in such proportions in any other Christmas songs, and perhaps one ought to look at them for the essence of Polish poetry.”

The claim exceeds my ability to evaluate it but the qualities Milosz enumerates – “charm, freshness, sincerity, good humor” – seem characteristic, to varying degrees, of the Polish poets whose work I know best in English translation – Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Aleksander Wat, Wisława Szymborska, Adam Zagajewski and Tadeusz Rozewicz. All are predisposed to irony, bluffness, reverence, whimsy and wit, and constitute one of the great artistic flowerings of the last wretched century.

I’ve just found an online homage to Herbert edited by John Zbigniew Guzlowski, including translations of the poet’s work and testimonials by twelve Polish and Polish-American poets. Among the latter is a poem by Guzlowski, “Polish Poets,” which concludes:

“These poets know
Poetry’s only a bit of wood

“But the shore
Is a long way off”

Cynthia emphasizes the pan-Slavic nature of the concert she attended last week in Berkeley, which brings to mind a recent email from a reader on the other coast, in New York City. She mentions my recent post on the birthday of Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov, and describes another concert:

“…on Saturday night we went to what has become an annual holiday event for us, a concert by the Russian Chamber Chorus of NY, in a nearby church. Not holiday music -- sometimes a little as an encore, none this year -- but splendid Russian choral music.

“You had a translation of Lermontov's "The Pine Tree" on 10/15…but the Chorus sang it on Saturday. Here is their translation -- more detailed -- freer:

“`In the wild north country
a solitary pine tree stands
upon a barren peak,
and it dreams, as it waves to and fro,
clothed with powdery snow
as with a robe.
And in its dreams it imagines
that somewhere in a faraway desert,
in that land where the sun makes its rising,
alone and in sadness, upon a burning crag
a beautiful palm tree grows.’”

Herbert might be answering Lermontov’s poem with his own “An Answer”:

“this will be night after hard reality
a conspiracy of the imagination
it has a taste of bread and lightness of vodka
but the choice to remain here
is confirmed by every dream about palm trees”


Buce said...

Patrick, I'll go second to no one in my esteem for Wat and Hebert, but "charm, freshness, sincerity, good humor"--whatever they may have to do with Polish Christmas carols, these qualities just don't seem (to me) to capture the flavor of these two extraordinary men. Decency and civility for sure, and a kind of bleak realism and a not-so-subtle insistence on sojering on in the worst of times. But "charm," etc., connote (not so?) a relaxed ease which just isn't on the agenda here. Are you sure you are not confusing them with Sydney Smith?

John Guzlowski said...

Thanks for posting this piece on Polish poets, and thanks for referring to my poem.

Cynthia Haven said...

Well, Buce, Zbigniew Herbert was manic-depressive. That made him full of charm some of the time, at least.

I interviewed Madame Herbert for many hours in Warsaw in 2008 -- she testified to his overwhelming charm and cheerfulness, as well as his deep despair.