Polish poetry is one of the marvels of twentieth-century literature. As usually happens with work written in one of the less well known languages, its many riches were nearly unknown until fairly recently. Many minor French and Spanish poets were translated before Czesl/aw Milosz and Wisl/awa Szymborska became widely read in this country. Long before these two received Nobel Prizes for Literature in 1980 and 1996 respectively, however, there was an anthology, Postwar Polish Poetry, edited by Milosz in 1965. The book introduced a number of other fine poets, among them Aleksander Wat, Tadeusz Rozewicz, Tymoteusz Karpowicz, Jerzy Harasymowicz, and finally Zbigniew Herbert, who ranks among the greatest poets of the last century. Polish poetry has one rare virtue: it is very readable in a time when modernist experiments made a lot of poetry written elsewhere difficult, if not outright hermetic. Here’s a little prose poem by Herbert to show what I mean:
THE END OF A DYNASTY
The whole royal family was living in one room at that time. Outside the windows was a wall, and under the wall, a dump. There, rats used to bite cats to death. This was not seen. The windows had been painted over with lime.
When the executioners came, they found an everyday scene.
His Majesty was improving the regulations of the Holy Trinity regiment, the occultist Philippe was trying to soothe the Queen’s nerves by suggestion, the Crown Prince, rolled into a ball, was sleeping in an armchair, and the Grand (and skinny) Duchesses were singing pious songs and mending linen.
As for the valet, he stood against a partition and tried to imitate the tapestry.
The accessibility of the poems may have something to do with the country’s tragic history. Between 1939 and 1945, both Germany and Russia occupied Poland at different times, its borders were redrawn, and its civilian population was gassed and massacred in large numbers. Afterward, there were more than four decades of communism with their own terrors. Most likely, the pressure of that stark reality made the language games beloved by the avant-garde sound too much like escapism. “There is no bottom to evil,” Aleksander Wat says in a poem. The knowledge of the cruelties human beings are capable of inflicting on other human beings is always in the background in these poems, not in theory but as a real possibility. The poets in Milosz’s anthology could have been as easily killed as their neighbors were. “Here are people who refused to cheat, who eagerly sought out the truth and shrank from neither poetry nor terror, the two poles of our globe,” writes Adam Zagajewski in his memoir, Another Beauty. The surprise is not that these Polish poets know all about murder of the innocent but that their vision is often comic. They are funny, skeptical, and sly, as any citizen of a totalitarian country or a prisoner is likely to be.
Zagajewski was born in 1945 and thus missed …