Polish Writers on Writing, edited by Adam Zagajewski (Trinity Univ Press)

“ 'What is not said, tends to nonexistence.' It’s astonishing to think about the multitude of events in the twentieth century and about the people taking part in them, and to realize that every one of those situations deserved an epic, a tragedy, or a lyric poem. But nothing – they sank, leaving only a faint trace. One can say that even the most powerful, full-blooded, active personality is hardly a shadow compared to a few well-chosen words, even if they describe no more than the rising moon." So wrote Czeslaw Milosz in his essay "Power of Speech" in Road-Side Dog. And then, in A Year of the Hunter: "A question: How to preserve the most memory possible with the lowest possible dose of indoctrination?" And also there, a definition of poetry: "A search for how man should behave in an untenable position."

polish.jpgMany of the writers in this excellent selection, writes Adam Zagajewski, "faced a choice not very different from the one their nineteenth-century predecessors were confronted with: namely, should the new catastrophe be understood and dealt with as a national disaster, or should it be approached as a global event provoking an answer couched in universal terms?" He then goes further: "So here's the innocent paradox of this generation. These brilliant writers understood that in bad times they should keep their inner freedom, their individual voices, and their passion for infinity and not bend under the nationalistic yoke. Yet the weight of the Polish nineteenth-century model was such that they needed a constant consultation, a constant conversation to withstand that pressure." Both at the heart of the empire and the among the conquered territories, the position of the writer is identical. The relevance of Polish writers --Wat, Herling, Szymborska, Baranczak, Gombrowicz, Schulz, Witkiewicz -- to American writers is manifest. As an admirer of Zagajewski's poetry and prose, I read this book as well to see his designations as the seminal statements of his literary compatriots.

Milosz is represented here by his poem "Ars Poetica?" and three essays. In "The Sand in the Hourglass," he writes, "Social reality is distinguished by the fact that it is opaque, treacherous, that with its myriad guises it deludes everyone who is entangled in it." We begin by thinking of the Polish writers as making stark choices between solitude and garrulousness, a matter of timing, of hiding and exposure. But going further, we find writers who illuminate the complexities and ambiguities of our feelings of modernity, writers who have absorbed philosophy and culture in a broad, worldly fashion. Zagajewski himself, in his essay "Beginning to Remember" in Ardor, described this temperament and perspective: "A strong poetic talent produces two contradictory phenomena. It suggests, on the one hand, intense participation in the life of your age, plunging into it up to your neck, an obsessive experiencing of actuality. It leads, on the other hand, to a certain kind of alienation, distance, absence. It is ceaseless interplay of proximity and distance."

To read these essays is to enter into the specific pressure of reality that impinged on these writers -- and to track their various responses. In "Reality" (1974) Milosz says, "Having lived for a long time in France and in America, I have been astounded by my observation that the tough and predatory reality that surrounds me does not exist in the literature of these countries." Meaning there was no great American Dostoevsky in 1860, no concept of a predatory world to animate past American epochs. But we're catching up! Suddenly it becomes clear that Milosz attempted something very large and generous -- to address an entire world without separating himself from what the human is actually like. How odd, even with our wide-angle view of a globalized world, so many American writers, attempting statement beyond the personal and the quietly observed, quack at the regime, play to the pre-packaged politics of the audience at the poetry reading, and sing the flat song of grievance and victimization. No struggle, no rough edges -- just the unexamined pretensions of presumed higher consciousness -- political, racial, sexual, cultural.

Jozef Czapski somewhat contradicts Milosz, in "On Intervals in Work," when he writes, "In France probably fewer talents perish, while with us they almost as a rule go to waste, because ... there is in France a continuously enriched and deepened tradition of 'secret knowledge' ... a connection between a vision and the realization of that vision." Czapski, Zagajewski has written elsewhere, "was constantly testing to see if his experiences were real, if those great moments of illumination weren’t simply a diversionary ploy undertaken by his glands and hormones." This seems more in keeping with the rich vein of Polish creative scepticism. But Witold Gombrowicz voices a complementary, complex reaction to Milosz: "I find the same thing in him that I find in myself: antipathy and condescension in relation to them [Western writers], mixed with bitter powerlessness."

The Poles have thought long and hard about humanity from the perspective of "untenable positions." From this issues the special nervous tension and haunted wisdom of their remarks. As part of the creative vetting process, the writer questions his own motivations and the role of art, as Tadeusz Rozewicz does here in "Preparation for a Poetry Reading" (1959): "Poetry has to consummate a given place and time. If it does, it is perfect. How easy it was to create poetry and describe poetry, while it existed. Poets still use this kind of phrase: 'As long as poetry hasn't died in me, I can't be unhappy.' As if they didn't understand there is no 'poetry.' There are like children ... what confidence in oneself and in 'poetry.' " Zagajewski has included "The Art of Empathy: A Conversation with Zbigniew Herbert" in which Herbert also gropes for the essence of poetic voice: "I also try to make it clear that the author doesn't appear in his own person. He creates a certain poetic persona, which -- sadly -- is better than he is. Because I think man isn't who he really is -- who knows who he is? -- but who he would like to be."

Ed Hirsch has launched this book as part of "The Writers World" series, a timely new venture. Also just published are Mexican Writers on Writing edited by Margaret Peden, and Irish Writers on Writing edited by Eavan Boland. There are eight more volumes in the works (Chilean, Hebrew, Arab, Italian, Spanish, Romanian, Ninteenth-Century, Peruvian). [$24.95 trade paper, $60 hardcover.]