Polish Poetry in a Time of American Resistance

May 22, 2017 | 1 book mentioned 6 min read


The pageant of digits comprising the number pi
doesn’t stop at the page’s edge.
It goes on across the table, through the air,
over a wall, a leaf, a bird’s nest, clouds, straight into the sky,
through all the bottomless, bloated heavens.
Oh how brief – a mouse tail, a pigtail – is the tail of a comet!
How feeble the star’s ray, bent by bumping up against space!
                                              —Wisława Szymborska, “Pi”

The poet Jane Hirshfield stands on the stairs that lead down to the Dupont Underground arts space in Washington D.C. It is 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 20. Dismayed by the actions and proposals of the Trump administration, Hirshfield has traveled to D.C. to read at a series of events related to the March for Science. She is part of a delegation from Kent State University’s Wick Poetry Center who together have organized a group they call Poets for Science. In an hour and a half, Hirshfield will read her poem “On the Fifth Day.” (“The facts were told not to speak / and were taken away.”) She will use her time on stage to talk more broadly about the importance of empirical exploration to both science and poetry. But until that happens, she needs to find someone who would bring the banners up to New York for another science and poetry event on Monday.

Hirshfield and David Hassler, director of the Wick Poetry Center, had spent the past two months designing 21 seven-foot banners that featured poems related to science, empiricism, and discovery. The poems they had carefully chosen were penned by living American poets, such as W.S. Merwin, Camille Dungy, Vijay Seshadri, Tracy K. Smith, Arthur Sze, Pattiann Rogers, Linda Pastan, Gary Snyder. The only notable exception to this criteria was the inclusion of two poems by the late Wisława Szymborska, a Polish poet.

Hirshfield, Hassler, and three others from the Wick Center arrived early to set up the enormous free-standing banners at the Dupont Underground. Seeing the final product “thrilled” them after having worked so hard on creating them, Hirshfield says.

“I wanted to support scientists by letting them see how their work appears in the daily, inhabited understanding of our lives that is found in poems,” Hirshfield writes in an email about a month after that Thursday evening in D.C.

Standing there on those stairs down to the decommissioned trolley station and one-time fallout shelter, Hirshfield comes upon Alexandra Chang, a curator and director of the global arts program at New York University’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute. She asks Chang if she knows anyone who could take some banners up to New York, and Chang immediately sends an email to see if the posters could go up on the buses returning to NYU’s Greenwich Village campus on Saturday. Contact information is exchanged — Hassler emails another woman affiliated with NYU — and the banner problem is settled. Maria Popova of Brain Pickings and Jennifer Benka of the Academy of American Poets will be able to reuse about half of the banners, including one featuring Szymborska’s “Pi,” at their “Universe in Verse” event in Brooklyn the following Monday.

After President Donald Trump was elected on November 8, many sought out poetry. Poets.org, the website of the Academy of American Poets, saw a surge of visitors in the day after the election. Almost 150,000 users visited the AAP’s website. “People just were looking for words to help them make sense,” says Jennifer Benka, director of the Academy, of November 9.

Many Americans, in times of political crisis, turn to the work of Polish poets like Czeslaw Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska, as Jane Hirshfield and David Hassler did for the March for Science events. But there is a beautiful paradox at the heart of most Americans’ use of the work of Miłosz, Szymborska, and others: these Polish poets’ verse is highly politicized but for the most part, vehemently apolitical — sometimes because it was a matter of survival.

coverMiłosz and Szymborska wrote much of their work during the post-World War II era, when Poland was the Polish People’s Republic, a Soviet satellite state with strict censorship laws. In his The History of Polish Literature, Miłosz says that poets writing in the first decades of Communist rule were keen on experimentation. As he puts it, poetry of this era had had its “laboratory privileges” restored — no longer did writing poetry seem like a frivolous act, like it did in the face of the fighting and suffering of the second World War. Along with formal experimentation, irony and a stoic attitude toward existence characterized much of the verse of that time, according to Miłosz.

In the days following Trump’s victory, a number of people circulated Adam Zagajewski’s September 11 poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” on Facebook. The Poetry Society of New York was one of the several people and organizations who posted the poem. “Nothing on the scale of 9/11 had happened, of course, but I wanted to acknowledge the very real threat the Trump administration posed (poses) to so many people,” writes Michelle Houslanger, social media coordinator for the Poetry Society of New York.

Slightly more political than Szymborska and Miłosz, Zagajewski came to prominence in the 1970s when the political situation in Poland had become more tense, as Poles began to tire of Soviet rule. Poets like Zagajewski and Stanisław Barańczak bristled at the censorship imposed by the Communist regime and decried its propaganda and official-speak in their poems, according to Miłosz’s History.

Zagajewski’s poem goes: “Remember June’s long days,” “and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine. / The nettles that methodically overgrow / the abandoned homesteads of exiles. / You must praise the mutilated world.” The poem has hints of the political — “exiles,” for example — but most of the poem is a reflection on life’s good stuff. Wild strawberries. Rosé wine. And later: “Remember the moments when we were together / in a white room and the curtain fluttered. / Return in thought to the concert where music flared.”

Miron Białoszewski —- who wrote during the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s -— is another example of a Polish poet who was ambivalent about more political writing, says Professor Bill Johnston, a translator of Polish literature. “He was a gay writer and was not just not allowed to be a gay writer, but gay at all. The apoliticism of his poetry was his protest,” Johnston notes.

The decades between World War II and the fall of the Communist regime in 1990 were not an ideal time for free expression and the concretization of unhindered consciousness into verse. But then again, Poland has a long history of difficult political circumstances. “Poles have been for better and worse, and often for worse, the specialists in suffering,” says Professor Clare A. Cavanagh, who has translated both Szymborska and Zagajewski.

Polish poets who wrote during the Polish People’s Republic stress their individuality. “The things I love about the best Polish poets is their wonderful senses of humor, quirky individual styles, and idiosyncratic passions,” says Cavanagh. Stanislaw Barańczak, Cavanagh points out, loved basketball and wrote a poem about the Celtics.

“One of the oddities and interesting things or eccentricities about Polish poetry is that they’re thoroughly engaged but they don’t only want to be defined their opposition to political parties,” says Edward Hirsch, a poet and the director of the Guggenheim Foundation who has been a longtime advocate of Polish poetry. “They don’t think that poetry’s only role is in resistance and opposition. They don’t want totally apolitical poetry, or an ahistorical poetry, but they don’t want poetry to be entirely defined by politics.”

Poems like Szymborska’s “Pi,” are almost apolitical, if you believe in scientific empiricism and have any faith in the human race’s capacity for reason. “[Szymborska’s] great fidelity to the actual’s naming, leavened with imagination, suddenly feels indispensable as reminder and corrective to our current political condition,” Jane Hirshfield writes of “Pi,” which was used at three science-related protest events in within one week in April. “We need now, more than ever, bedrock to stand on. We need practical truths, observed descriptions, emotion’s difficult, subtle namings. We need imagination’s freedoms. And there is Szymborska, providing them all, in a poem that is in no way overtly ‘political.’”

It is almost 1 p.m. on Saturday, April 20. The March for Science rally has ended and the marching portion of the day’s events will start in about an hour. David Hassler and others from the Wick Center begin the process of taking down the Poets for Science tent. They were supposed to be gone by noon, but “people actually did not want to leave the tent,” Hassler says.

That morning Hassler and his colleagues had arrived early to set up the 21 seven-foot banners at the Poets for Science tent on D.C.’s Mall. They had placed the banners on both the outside and inside of the tent. They readied 150 smaller poem-posters, which were 18 inches by 24 inches, to be distributed to any March for Science participant who might want to carry one.

At 9 a.m. the tent opened to the public. According to Jane Hirshfield, the Poets for Science tent was the “first thing” seen by marchers who entered the rally through the security checkpoint at Constitution Ave and 17 Street NW. The small poem-posters were gone, all distributed, soon after 9 a.m. “Seeing the tent covered on the outside with its poem-banners, many came over to see what it was, and begin to read, take photos, and some would enter the little tent to continue reading the poems on the inside and perhaps write their own,” Hirshfield recalls.

But now it is nearly 1 p.m., time to begin to break things down. Hassler and others collapse the banners into their tubes. They carry 12 of them, including Szymborska’s “Pi,”  to the rented SUV the Wick Center staff has brought from Ohio. They drive to NYU’s DC campus on L Street between 13th and 14th in NW. They had been told by the NYU organizer to leave the banners in a meeting room, so that the university’s March for Science contingent would see them when it returned later that afternoon. “It was an exhilarating whirlwind,” Hassler says.

Later that day the banners would be carried onto the buses returning to Greenwich Village. They would be reused at the “Universe in Verse” event in Brooklyn. The banners, including the one featuring Szymborska’s “Pi,” would be used again.

is a NY-based writer whose work has been published by the websites of The Millions, Literary Hub, T Magazine, and The Rumpus. She is a fledgling full-stack web developer. You can find her on Twitter at @twmerrigan.