Friday, 9 January 2009


I want, in as much as I have a brain left, to start thinking about the lectures I am due to give in Newcastle, not in any structured way, but in the form of speculations that may not appear to add up to a single articulate whole. Not yet anyay. Small jigsaw pieces that may eventually add up to a picture.

These are just preliminary fragments. Semi-articulacies

My broad project is to understand whether political circumstances in Eastern Europe in 1989 have produced a new poetry. Why would they? How would they? The political dissident poet György Petri, wrote some time in the nineties: 'My favourite toy as been taken away.' Then he died. Why is it that a number of the major post-war Hungarian poets died soon after 1989? Did they lose not only a subject but a role? An audience? When people don't have shoes, said István Vas, they need poems. Once they have them they don't need them so much. Did that audience not need the poets?

This is only the more overt aspect of the project. Much has been written on political poetry under Soviet Communism, on reading between the lines during censorship, on the complicity of writer and reader beyond the official line in closed societies. Can you describe this, a woman asks Akhmatova as they queue at the Lubyanka prison. Yes, she says.

Heroic dissidence is a fascinating category, one partly glamourised in the West. I wrote about this for the Herbert conference in Krakow. It is a glamour we think we lack, whose absence we sometimes lament. Are we nostalgic for it? Do we lionise those we can project as heroic dissidents? Do we want dark times so we can write more luminous poems? Live more luminous lives?

Because this isn't exclusively a matter of poetry of course. Poetry is never an exclusive matter in any case. It is tied to the world or it's nowhere. 'Most people are not interested in most poetry,' Adrian Mitchell famously said, 'because most poetry is not interested in most people.' Well, yes, maybe, but what kind of prescription is that? How does a poem go about being interested in "most people"? Mitchell also wrote a poem about somebody being beaten up by the police or the secret services while a poet watches then "pisses off to write a poem about ants." But isn't that a case of the poet pissing off to write a superior poem about other poets pissing off. We armchair warriors. Armchair pacifists too.

Fragments, as you see. The beginnings of fragments. Here's another clip of Vidor's The Crowd.

Alas, and alas.


Jonathan Wonham said...

I love this film. It is beautifully observed.

Michael Farry said...

Nice review of your translation of Esthers' Inheritance by Sándor Márai in today's Irish Times. congratulations.

George S said...

Thank you, Michael. I haven't seen it yet.

David Lumsden said...

I'm still to get any coherent thoughts together about poetry in post-communism Eastern Europe ... Adam Zagajewski is an interesting case - admittedly émigré for a key period (both for him and his country) so there may be that element of frozen-in-time that goes with that - I've heard that some of the Chinese celebrations we have in Australia seem a century-or-more old to recent immigrants ... dating back to the Gold Rush wave of arrivals - but setting that aside - Zagajewski might be seen as working in the line of Zbigniew Herbert, I hear echoes ... even down at the level of the connotations of a single word - and reading "Polish poetry" as a continuum is appealling .. no sudden discontinuities to coincide with political upheavals ... and there's something of that inertia in the society as well of course - I'm thinking for instance of when one has to deal with government bureaucracy - the processes, rules, and attitudes do not shift so quickly, although with people circulating freely in the expanded Europe I suppose the pace of change will continue to accelerate.

George S said...

Thank you, David. I too have thought about Adam Zagajewski. We were at a conference together in the summer and found ourselves thinking down similar lines. I wrote about that at the time. It's in the archives but it's a big download.

Gwil W said...

If you define "Eastern Europe" as the land formerly behind the Iron Curtain then Lithuania is a veritable gold mine for poetry. An excellent collection is Raw Amber, published in 2002 by Poetry Salzburg. It features poetry by Kazys Bradunas (born 1917), Alfonsas Nyka-Niliunas (1919), Jonas Mekas (1922), Birute Pukeleviciute (1923), Vytautus Bloze (1930), Marcelijus Martiniaitis (1936), Tomas Venclova (1937), Judita Vaiciunaite (1937), Sigitas Geda (1943), One Baliukone (1948), Nijole Miliauskaite (1950), Donaldos Kajokas (1953), Eugenijus Alisanka (1960) and Sigitas Parulskis (1965). Here's a poem by the last named:
'The Name'
and when my last day comes
lay me down on a stretcher on wheels
and when you see two men in white at my head
spin me around so that they face my feet
if that doesn't help
burn down my home
pour the ashes into the river
catch a blind perch
torture him till he tells his name
till he tells how many children he has
what he had wanted to do in life
whom he had wanted to outwit
and after he had lost his sight
what he had talked about
drunk at the pub
and who he mugged in the dead of night
under the bridge
who he scared to death
what signs he saw in the skies
then hid from the blind
if the perch reveals my name
chop off the legs of the bed
that will make it so much easier
to carry me through the door

Gwil W said...

Another good selection from Poetry Salzburg is Dreams of Fires 100 Polish Poems 1970-1989, which is the period leading up to the period you are interested in. I like this from Adam Ziemianin. It's the 99th poem of the 100,-
'Prayer for My Age'
You who taught the funny jackdaws to fly
You who are both of this world
and not of it
You who fill the apartments
with spring light
You who gave us
the hard commandments
Deliver today
from hatred
My heart my eyes
my thoughts

The other poets are Jan Krzysztof Adamkiewicz, Josef Baran, Urszula Malgorzata Benka, Katrazyna Borun, Kazimirez Brakoniecki, Anna Czekanowicz, Stanislaw Esden-Tempski, Anna Janko, Zdzislaw Jaskula, Zbiginiew Joachimiak, Aleksander Jurewicz, Andrzej Kaliszewski, Krystyna Lars, krzystof Lisowski, Anotoni Pawlak, Jan Sochon, Piotr Sommer, Andrzej Szuba, Wladyslaw Zawistowski, Adam Ziemianin.
Perhaps many of these and the Lithuanian poets (above) are still writing. Maybe they even have their own blogs? A lot to go at in those two countries anyway, even if Hungary is a bit of a poetic wilderness at the moment. Or maybe it isn't. Maybe they're not all vandalising Parliament, the Chain Bridge and Slovakian border towns. Maybe there are some Magyar voices singing in the wilderness.

George S said...

Thanks for the comments. Picking this up in an internet cafe in London so can't respond, but thank you.