Saturday, 5 December 2015

The Poetry of Eastern Europe:
A talk at The Athenaeum Club, 2 December 2015

This is the list of poems read and talked about.  The talk was about 45 minutes long plus about 20 minutes of questions.

1. Zbigniew Herbert: The Rain
2. Tadeusz Rozewicz: Pigtail
3. János Pilinszky: Fable
4. Zbigniew Herbert: The End of a Dynasty
5. Gyula Illyés: One Sentence on Tyranny (excerpt)
6. Vasko Popa: The Nail
7. Vasko Popa: He
8. Vasko Popa: The Hunter
9. István Vas: The Translator’s Vote of Thanks (excerpt)
10. Daniela Crasnaru: Orphic
11. Zbigniew Herbert: Pebble
12. Ágnes Nemes Nagy: Winter Trees
13. Vasko Popa: The Rose Thieves
14. Vladimir Holan: Glimpsed
15. Miroslav Holub: Wings
16. Miroslav Holub: A Boy’s Head
17. Miroslav Holub: The Door
18. György Petri: Gratitude
19. Ottó Orbán: A Roman Considers the Christians

It was, of course, a very small selection from the material available, but even so it was a squeeze for the time available. As it turned out, since most of the poems were short, it was just right, given the introduction to each poem.

The introduction to the poems was intended to provide a frame or map for seeing them together.  It presented them, as and when translated, in terms of 'cold war poetry', the poetry of a bipolar world that has since passed and might not make much sense to those born after the period ended. That period might be defined as 1945 or a few years before, up to 1989. In terms of theme there were four main phases: the war / the Holocaust, the era of Stalinism, the post Stalin period (including 1968), and around and beyond 1989. Most of the poets were born in the 1920s, a few earlier, two or three later. 

The poems were all in translation of course and a good many were taken from volumes of the Penguin Modern European Poets series. The interest in the unofficial poetics of Eastern Europe was partly political, partly a matter of assumed public interest, partly literary fascination. The early work of Danny Weissbort and Ted Hughes was vital in begetting the Penguin series. Hughes's introduction to the Vasko Popa volume of 1969  makes strong reference to humanism, politics, precision, the sense of direct witness and to the west's own sense of "civilised liberal confusion". He compares 'their' world - the world of Popa, Holub and Herbert - with the world of Beckett and, for him, "theirs seems braver, more human, and so more real". As to Popa "No poetry could carry less luggage than his". There was, I think, (and I have argued this in print before) a sense of moral envy. Iron curtain poets carried moral authority because their pressures were direct.  Their work therefore had greater tension, greater urgency.
There were certain shared characteristics of the period that were not specifically the product of the cold war as such. There was still a belief in modernity, indeed in Modernism as a redemptive idea. Associated with it was a shared, left-leaning intellectual humanism. It was a world in which (unlike today) theology had no place. It was a world in which you could appeal to European values as embodied, say, in the School of Paris, in Sartre, Camus, Beauvoir and the rest. It was a world that had first hand communal experience of extreme violence in the name of totalitarian ideological systems.  

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 capitalisation, 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. Under repressive conditions certain fields remained open for play. These include the grotesque, the folk tale, the erotic, the fantastical, the indirect elegy.

The first four poems were primarily about the war, the next four about conditions under arbitrary and savage totalitarianism, the next four about ways of surviving under those conditions, and the rest about hope, erotics,and scepticism. The Crasnaru was out of chronology but circumstances in Ceausescu's Romania were not dissimilar to those under early Stalinism.

I think this made a decent, not unrealistic package for a one-off talk to a privileged, highly intelligent but non-specialist audience most of whom would not have heard of most of the poets - or may not have read much poetry at all.


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@parridhlantern said...

Would have loved to have been at this talk as it sounds wonderful

Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear George

I too would love to have attended as I read Russian at university and have always had a strong interest in East European poetry. My sister had a great time in Budapest, by the way. May I take this opportunity to wish you and your family a very merry Christmas.

Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish