Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Whoever, in this century, forms letters
In ordered lines on a sheet of paper
Hears knockings, the voices of poor spirits
Imprisoned in a table, a wall, a vase
Of flowers. They seem to want to remind us
Whose hands brought all these objects into being.
Hours of labor, boredom, hopelessness
Live inside things and will not disappear.
The one who holds the pen, to whom this world
Of things is given, feels uneasy, is afraid.
He tries to achieve a childish innocence,
But the magic had fled from magic spells.

That's why it was that the new generation
Liked these poets only moderately,
Paid them tribute, but with a certain anger.
It wanted to stutter programmatically,
For a stutterer at least expressed a sense.

--from Czeslaw Milosz, "The Capital: Warsaw, 1918-1939,"
in A Treatise on Poetry


The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote his book-length poem, A Treatise on Poetry, in 1955 and 1956. The section I have quoted is from part 2, which, in the words of Robert Hass, "describes Warsaw and makes an assessment--almost poet by poet--of the state of Polish poetry in the first three or four decades of the century, particularly of its failure to account for the reality that overwhelmed that city."

Imagine an American poet undertaking such a task! I fear the result would be either cruel or banal. And how would one choose the poets?

Hass, a well-known poet in his own right, translated the Treatise into English in tandem with Milosz himself. Their version was published in 2001, nearly fifty years after the original Polish version first appeared. I wonder what it was like for Milosz to translate this work of his youth into a language that is so sonically different from Polish. According to Hass, "the [original] poem is written in a rather strict meter. The English equivalent would probably be a plain, regular, and forceful blank verse. It also breaks from time to time into more lyric forms. . . . To give some sense of the surprise of these forms, it would have been desirable to find English equivalents. But because their tone is often complex and because they have philosophical bearing in the poem, it also seemed desirable to hew fairly closely to the literal meaning, at least in this first English translation."

I wish I could find a recording of Milosz reading this or any other poem in Polish. But I've heard enough Polish on the soundtracks of KieĊ›lowski films to imagine the way in which the soft-crisp collations of consonants might wrap themselves around the vowels, the way in which two- and three-syllable words--stressed as loud-soft and soft-loud-soft--would dominate the cadence of the lines.

1 comment:

David said...

Great excerpt, Dawn. Thank you. As for Potter en francais: quelle bonne idee!