Sunday, 13 March 2016

Wojciech Bonowicz, Polish Poetry and the Secret Agent

Wojciech Bonowicz, 2013. Used under Creative Commons license

A little while ago I came across sixteen extraordinary short poems by the Polish poet Wojciech Bonowicz, on the Jacket2 website. You can read them here:

I met Wojciech Bonowicz a few years ago at a launch event for a new issue of Modern Poetry In Translation which had a focus on Polish poetry. After the event I was talking to Sasha Dugdale (MPT's editor), Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese (translator of contemporary Polish poetry) and Bonowicz. I was having a slightly embarrassing self-disclosure moment and decided to share my personal difficulty with Central and Eastern European poetry. The conversation went something like this:

Me: I love Polish poetry, I really love it, and poetry from other parts of Central and Eastern Europe too. But sometimes I feel like I can never truly understand it, you know? Even as compared to poetry from other parts of the world, Polish poetry seems particularly "coded" to me and it almost seems as though because I'm not from that background, I didn't grow up with those particular references and that historical frame of reference, it's just not possible to understand that code, besides the extra layer of difficulties imposed by not speaking the language and therefore only being able to access it in translation. Can I ever really understand it??? 

Poets and translators: (looking faintly amused) Oh, well, you know, you're here, and you appreciate the poetry. So basically, you're doing fine.

Me: Oh. Well, okay then.

When I told this story to some friends later, rather as a bit of a laugh against myself, one of them suggested that this was a slightly evasive answer. It might have been, but I think it's more likely that they didn't want to discourage me. When a new face shows up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at a poetry-in-translation event and confesses that poetry from a certain part of the world poses a particular challenge for her, you probably don't want to say "yes, you're right - you are never going to understand poetry from this cultural milieu." I have actually found that the organisations, journals and individuals who work with poetry translation are a particularly welcoming bunch. Poetry is already a niche area in the English-speaking world, and translated poetry is a niche within a niche. If you just show up and act polite and interested, they will embrace you. 

What is interesting, though, is that late last year I read this post on the blog of Hungarian-British poet George Szirtes, on the poetry of Eastern Europe:

It was based on a lecture he had given on Eastern European poetry, rather more on great figures of the 20th century such as Zbigniew Herbert, Vasko Popa and Miroslav Holub than on contemporary poets. The poets and poems mentioned are obviously very much worth checking out, but there are also some really interesting comments, especially in light of my own conclusions about poetry from this part of the world. I found this particularly interesting: 

'As to differences, the nations of Eastern Europe did not suffer from post-colonial guilt though they had (and have) yet to deal with war guilt. The first years after the war the pressure of officially approved socialist realism - often traditional in form - meant that 'unofficial' art and poetry was best expressed through modernism: no formal prosody, no rhyme, disposable punctuation or capitalism, no ornate metaphors, no declamatory first-person singular. The freedoms offered by surrealism also offered complex ways of addressing politics. This encouraged a belief in codes, in secret complicities, in a common energy.' (George Szirtes)

I should mention at this point that as far as I can tell - and not surprisingly - contemporary Polish poets are generally quite careful to point out that as great as these figures are, poetry has moved on from Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Wisława Szymborska, Adam Zagajewski and the other poets who usually come to mind when Polish poetry is mentioned. As far as I can tell, reading only in translation, there is also an astonishing variety of poetic voices from Poland. It's a little too easy even for those with a keen interest in international poetry to make sweeping statements about 'Polish poetry' or 'Arabic poetry' or whatever it might be. 

The sixteen poems which I linked to by Wojciech Bonowicz, above, were actually published as part of a feature on the poet Tadeusz Różewicz and his legacy. They are small, intimate poems without pretentiousness, with a keen awareness of life's spiritual dimension, and with a sense of universality rather than the often limited perspective of the English lyric poem's 'I'. I hope that description isn't too facile, because it has something to do with why my brain lights up so much when I read much international poetry in translation. I can feel it happening. It seems somehow to encompass more than what I so often find in English-language poetry - and that's even with the codes and the surrealism. In an editorial for that issue of MPT, Wojciech Bonowicz wrote the following, which I love: 

'The presented four poets have one more feature in common: they favour conciseness, the construction of elliptical poems similar to maths equations with multiple unknown quantities. In recent Polish poetry being elliptical means being credible. Being elliptical counteracts the dominant culture of the obvious; it subverts well-rounded sentences falsifying reality by alleviating its conflicts and pushing beyond its circumference that which is dark and mysterious. The poet - from this vantage point - is one who opposes the fossilization of language, one who attends to its fissures. In this way the poet remains a secret agent of elusive sense.' (Wojciech Bonowicz)

Here are two more very interesting articles about modern Polish poetry in translation:


  1. Thanks for this, Clarissa. Bonowicz is joining us again on 30 April at Cambridge for the MPT study day. He is a great poet. I remember you asking about Polish poetry after the event at Europe House, and probably the most likely reason for my evasiveness is the exhaustion of an introvert who has just chaired an event... But I do think there are lots of codes operating in Soviet-period poetry. An attempt to outwit the censor, the habit of avoiding the awkward questions, the need to throw light on what was happening in an oblique fashion. I am no expert in Polish poetry, but I do know Russian poetry a bit, and there were high expectations of the informed reader in Soviet Russia. Reading is a sort of education in itself. I can't describe this, except as a tightly woven cultural mesh from which the poems are made. It doesn't mean you can't read them from outside this 'mesh', as they are often beautiful and image-laden poems which reward in many different ways, but it may be comparable to looking at an icon without specialist knowledge of the symbolism of icons: the experience is still rewarding and meaningful, but you are not reading the picture in the way the artist intended for his or her close readers.

    1. Hi Sasha, thanks for stopping in! I completely hear you on the introvert/chairing things front, by the way... And your description of the "cultural mesh" is very helpful. I think this will apply to a certain extent to reading literature from any culture that is foreign to us, but in the case of work such as Soviet-era or even post-Soviet literature there are likely to be aspects that are particularly elusive.

  2. Thanks for this and the links, Clarissa!

  3. Clarissa, good to see the Polish poems have been bothering you long enough to inspire this post – thank you. You may want to check the essay I wrote for MPT after the launch you describe – like you, we were wondering how to best describe the perceived difference (what you call ‘coding’)
    I must say I’m rather puzzled by MacArthur’s text you link to. While she has good points about the Polish language and the necessity to move beyond the recognizable names in Polish poetry (by the way, Miłosz doesn’t mean ‘love’; ‘miłość’ does), her recommendation about translating only into ‘one’s mother tongue’ sounds very prescriptive, especially nowadays when the norm of the so-called ‘native speaker’ is contested even in language acquisition studies. (As a bilingual speaker who has English as a home language and who writes with/in languages, I see translating as translanguaging.) MacArthur may not enjoy someone’s versions – indeed, translation is about rewriting – but as a reviewer she should have mentioned that the anthology I co-edited features 17 translators presenting 24 poets.(Her bibliography omits one important editor, Marcin Baran, the poet who prepared our selection, the way Bonowicz selected poets for the MPT issue.) Like Pióro and his co-authors, the three of us wanted not only to show ‘less recognizable’ names, but also to move away from the presentation pattern established by Miłosz or Barańczak and Cavanagh: one translator/tandem renders most of the poets/poems. I’m happy to say that our anthology is read: only the other week I was contacted by a young American poet who found for himself Marcin Świetlicki (another poet featured in the Polish MPT) thanks to this book. MacArthur’s text is 6 years old, so I’ll finish by adding that her call for translating Krystyna Miłobędzka is answered: my selection Nothing More, published by Arc, has been shortlisted for the 2015 Popescu European Poetry Translation Prize.

    1. Hi Ela, thank you so much for stopping by. I should have included your essay in my original post - I definitely read it before and may have had it in the back of my mind. I think it summarized some of the differences very well. English poetry does indeed have an extreme aversion to abstraction (I've heard it given almost as a "law" that you shouldn't use abstractions in poems) but to me the specificity and the quest for perfect/accurate/clever imagery can at times be curiously empty. The "sketch" nature that you described in Polish poetry probably helps to achieve a more universal effect. The fact that birds were used as an analogy made me chuckle. I love animals but I'm not a huge fan of birds, and it occasionally seems that every second English poem I read is about birds. Being chided over the differences between birds of prey, or stooping and hovering, would just make me roll my eyes...

      Thank you also for the comments on the MacArthur article. I thought that could be potentially controversial. I think she made some good points but like you I prefer a more open/inclusive agenda for translation (in general).