Of the countries of the European Union, Poland boasts a comparatively high number of living or late poets who are known to the general public of American readers. This familiarity has often had to do more with circumstances of geopolitics than of poetics. Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Tadeusz Różewicz, Wisława Szymborska, and Adam Zagajewski all established their fame internationally during the Cold War, particularly in its last decade, and were received widely as “witnesses” of History, representatives of the tragic sense of life. Their reception was couched in terms of a compensatory function, of providing poetry with a connection to “reality” (imagined as synonymous with catastrophe) that those in the West, spared the traumas of totalitarianism, supposedly had no understanding of.
These poets sometimes wrote from experiences and sometimes with a gravity that were impressive to their colleagues in western countries and rightly so. But the discourse surrounding their reception was often focused less on their work than on the “aura of nightmare [added] to the vagueness that has always characterized the presence of Central and Eastern European countries in the Western imagination,” as Miłosz described it in 1988. All too often the poetry itself was overshadowed by the expectations-of being profound, of vindicating poetry-that it was supposed to fulfill. The positive flip side of this situation, of course, was that these poets did in fact find followings in the West. But other Polish poets who were less legible in terms of this basic pattern rarely found readers in the West before 1989, and younger ones have scarcely done so since.
Despite the fact that the Cold War has been over for sixteen years, the duct of reception it created for Polish poets appears to be firmly in place, at least in the United States. Although there have been several anthologies of new and younger Polish poets, almost all of those poets who have published single books in English since 1990 already had at least one published before then. Not much has changed in how the older, familiar Polish poets get read either, or better put: in how they get marketed and sold. It is always great to have more work by Szymborska available in English, but her newest book, Monologue of a Dog. New Poems, furnished as it is with a foreword by former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, is a case in point for this situation.
Collins, who is America's best-selling poet at the moment, is obviously good for selling far more copies of this book than Szymborska, with her hard-to-pronounce last name, could ever hope to on her own. But his presentation of the poet in his foreword unfortunately sensationalizes her work in populist-political terms, parroting the received Cold War discourse about Polish poetry while giving it a new, post-9/11 spin. Collins argues that one “unforeseeable” consequence of 9/11 was that it brought Szymborska's work to “a wider audience of stunned Americans, now hungry for poems that were responsive to the horror story of history.” He goes on to claim, waxing even more jingoistic, that this “turn[ing] to 'foreign' poetry for solace in those nervous days of psychic recuperation was a sign that America-its virginity suddenly lost-lacked a tradition of poetry that adequately addressed such realities as the horrors of war, the shock of military attack, and the atrocities of dictatorial regimes.”
Without thinking, Collins implicitly affirms here that poetry can adequately address atrocity and catastrophe. Can it? He affirms that poetry can respond to something he calls the “horror story of history.” But this potentiality has been questioned so often and so deeply by the very poets whose presence he invokes, by Szymborska herself, that for him to ignore that uncertainty bespeaks a reluctance to engage them on their own terms.
The twenty-six poems here speak to a variety of subjects from the position of a lyric “I” that is either overt or embedded, parabolic or personal, and in terms of the dialectical thinking and exploration of consciousness characteristic of all of Szymborska's work. What is new in these poems, which date from the last fifteen years, is something that the Polish poet and critic Piotr Sommer discusses in a 1996 essay on the poem “Chmury” (“Clouds”). Sommer sees in that poem a breakdown of Szymborska's parabolic mode and the development in Polish of a “new language for feeling death and for talking about the death of someone close.” This personal, rougher, elegiac language can be found throughout the book-certainly in poems like “A Memory” and “Negative,” which are directed to a departed addressee, but also in reflective poems like “List” (“I've made a list of questions / to which I no longer expect answers”), “Puddles,” and “First Love”. Idioms characteristic of Szymborska's earlier work are present here, too, such as that of the semititular “Monologue of a Dog Ensnared in History,” which ranks with Zbigniew Herbert's “Return of the Proconsul” as a classic example of the Polish parable poem. Likewise, the exquisite “First Love” travels from the deconstruction of a commonplace into a meditation on the poet's own mortality. In “Receiver,” however, these parabolic and Pascalian modes of intellection yield to a pared-down language that through repetition and accumulation of simple lines voices the poet's anxiety: “I dream the certainty / that someone dead is calling.”
Elegiac, personal, and often profound, these twenty-six poems problematize the subject's human position confronted with loss. Their relationship to tragedy is circumspect, never spectacular; it is ironic, anxious, sad, never horrified or fearful. Although most of them have been published before, seven of them in Poems. New and Collected (1998), it is useful to have them together in one volume as a selection of Szymborska's late work. Their sequencing is intelligent and makes following the transitions from poem to poem worthwhile. And the fresh and often inventive translation by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barañczak once again makes Szymborska's wit and philosophical playfulness available to American readers. All in all, this would be a lovely book. Billy Collins's foreword, however, with its Cold War platitudes and post-9/11 sensationalism, does a disservice to Szymborska, for whose poetry the “patient word-work of distinguishing genuine from sham, false tone from true” has been integral.
W. Martin is a translator from Polish and German and a doctoral student at the University of Chicago.