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Antologia poezji polskiej na obczyźnie 1939-1999

Reviewer: Dariusz Skórczewski

(An anthology of Polish poetry in diaspora, 1939-1999) Selected, edited, and with a Preface by Bogdan Czaykowski. Includes short bios of cited authors. Warsaw: Spółdzielnia Wydawnicza Czytelnik and Polski Fundusz Wydawniczy w Kanadzie, 2002. 631 pages. ISBN 83-07-02846-9. Hardcover. In Polish.

It has become customary that poets, critics, and even philosophers compose anthologies of poems of their choice. Leszek Kołakowski’s anthology 128 Very Nice Poems Created by 68 Poets and Poetesses of Poland, accompanied by an influential marketing campaign, became very popular in Poland in 2003. Yet a year earlier another anthology, of much greater importance for those interested in Polish poetry but regretfully much less promoted, was released and made available to the Polish-speaking audiences in Poland and overseas. This is the first anthology of its type in Poland; its goals are ambitious and go far beyond the framework of popular collections. The book was compiled by Bogdan Czaykowski, an accomplished poet and critic, as well as professor emeritus of Slavic literatures at the University of British Columbia. The editor’s persona is by no means irrelevant to the concept and composition of the volume, as this review will further show.

Czaykowski’s anthology cannot be viewed as a political gesture, in the sense in which the word political was used with regard to literature under communism: at present, one no longer risks his/her personal freedom publishing ťmigrť poems in Poland or in any other country of the former Soviet bloc. Nor do those poems stir up political debate, as was often the case only fifteen years ago. Why, then, separate émigré Polish poets from those who write inside the country? Despite the fact that since the 1980‘s émigré poetry had became part of the canon of Polish postwar literature since the 1980s (in 1980, Czesław Miłosz won the Nobel Prize for literature, and in 1989 the Round Table talks ended communism in Poland), the perspective from which it has usually been presented was “country-oriented.” The frame of reference was always the poetry produced “inside Poland.” In Czaykowski’s opinion, this frame of reference created certain patterns of misperception amd misrepresentation. Czaykowski prefers the notion that Polish postwar poetry is essentially one, and consequently the attempts at dividing it into “poetry written in Poland” and “poetry written in exile” echo the Communist practice. He also does not believe that these two branches of Polish poetry are so different that drawing any parallels between them is pointless and misleading. His anthology is dedicated to proving the validity of his view.

The book contains some four hundred and sixty poems written by sixty-eight Polish poets in diaspora. The editor deserves high praise simply for acquainting his audience with these poems, some of which were rarely, if ever, published in Poland and had never before appeared in a comprehensive collection. The anthology is a groundbreaking work aimed at synthesizing the sixty-year period of Polish poetry outside of Poland. With a volume of these dimensions, the question arises regarding the criteria of selection. I estimate that tens of thousands of Polish poems have been written by poets in exile. What made Czaykowski draw the boundaries of his anthology?

Czaykowski spells out his criteria in the Preface. To begin with, he took into consideration time and space, as well as length of individual poems. The poems included in the anthology had been written outside Poland during and after the Nazi and Soviet invasions of 1939, and the subsequent respective occupation and colonization of Poland’s territory. Their authors were poets who were not necessarily émigrés sensu stricto, but lived outside the country for a substantial amount of time. The amount of space dedicated to such poets usually does not exceed two pages. Of much greater importance for the contents of the volume, however, are the other criteria which determine why certain poems are represented while others are excluded. They have to do with Czaykowski’s conceptualization of the history of Polish poetry in diaspora.

The anthology is divided into three major parts; this division is essential for the image of the poetry that emerges from the volume. The poems comprised in Part One share a peculiar characteristic: they can be read as artistic yet simultaneously historical documents of the time of the Second World War, German occupation, and the postwar period, and they all testify to the collective experience of Poles in that period. The arrangement of the poems, however, indicates that Czaykowski is not trying to promote pathos. While not disregarding the martyrological and nostalgical motifs in the output of Kazimierz Wierzyński, Julian Tuwim, Stanisław Baliński, Antoni Słonimski, and Jan Lechoń (all of whom, along with many others, are represented in the first section of Part One), in the third section the editor moves on to give voice to poets who wrote after 1945. The development thereby captures points to some key changes of emotions, themes, and values which transpired in the Polish poetry in diaspora between 1939 and 1999. One of these transformations, of which Czaykowski himself was a witness and participant, was the refusal to give in to nostalgia, the poets’ redefinition of their attitude toward the country of origin, and reconsideration of their allegiance due to their cross-border and cross-language experience. This fascinating phenomenon occurred in the case of the poets of the Kontynenty group of which Czaykowski himself was a member. This links Polish poetry to the broad universal experience of modern nations in diaspora, where one’s own identity is usually redefined.

Interestingly, Czaykowski does not neglect the output of the poets who declared their willingness to collaborate with the Soviet invader. The second section of Part One is devoted solely to “Polish poets of the Soviet Union” (polscy poeci sowieccy), as they labeled themselves. According to Czaykowski, Adam Ważyk, Jerzy Putrament, Lucjan Szenwald, Władysław Broniewski et consortes deserve attention despite their servility or even treason, as their production constitutes a distinct category which can be viewed as symmetrically parallel, and at the same time opposite, to that which has usually been considered the mainstream of Polish émigré poetry; i.e., the poetry of the national cause. By juxtaposing these two ideologically antipodal models of poetry in diaspora, the poems by patriots and poems by the “captive minds,” the editor achieves two goals: he discloses the “schism” (as he calls it) of Polish poetry, and he calls on his contemporary fellow poets to remain watchful of ideological servitude. This call certainly should not remain unnoticed, given the fact that all too often, in Poland and elsewhere, poets and writers involve themselves in politically correct activities which are not necessarily honorable.

Part Two is very different in that it offers Czaykowski’s own formulation of the canon of the Polish poetry in diaspora. The poems comprised in this part were written by authors born before 1920, including Czesław Miłosz, Aleksander Wat, Wacław Iwaniuk, and Jerzy Pietrkiewicz. Due to its character, this part certainly raises questions concerning the reasons behind some of the editor’s choices. For instance, why has Miłosz’s “Bypassing Rue Descartes” been left out? This is an outstanding poem which encapsulates the experience of solidarity of the colonized and “uncultured” peoples vis-a-vis the indifference of those deemed “civilized.”

According to the editor’s design, the last part of the anthology gives voice to several generations of poets who were born between 1920 and 1966. Besides those grouped around Kontynenty, the poets who left or were forced to leave Soviet-occupied Poland, or those of current dual status such as Adam Zagajewski, are represented in order of birth, as carefully observed here as in other parts of the volume. Next to Stanisław Barańczak, Andrzej Busza, Bogdan Czaykowski, Adam Czerniawski, Janusz A. Ihnatowicz, and Zagajewski-all of them widely recognized-are the poets who do not usually appear in anthologies, such as Bogumił Andrzejewski, Grażyna Zambrzycka, and Edward Zyman. Their introduction to Polish audiences is certainly a positive feature of this collection.

This encounter with Bogdan Czaykowski’s admirable anthology prompts the following reflections. First, that if culture is memory”even collective memory”poetry, given the intensity of its language, is an extract of culture and thus deserves particular attention. The notion of poetry as a vehicle for translating experience into language or embedding experience into text is acutely true in the case of this volume. The experience of twentieth-century history-in-the-making by an individual from a Central European country such as Poland has been perfectly described by Polish émigré essayist Jerzy Stempowski. He wrote of “unleashed History” (“Historia spuszczona z łańcucha”). This experience is ubiquitous in the anthology, especially in but not limited to Part One, both in collective and personal dimensions.

The second thought is that a flawless anthology is unattainable. While the editor cannot be refused the right to submit poems of his own choice, the reader is certainly free to question the final result thereby achieved. How adequate is the general image of Polish poetry in diaspora as depicted by Czaykowski?

By virtue of the methodical design and sophisticated structure of his anthology, Czaykowski has actually submitted a book which diverges markedly from the format of a plain anthology. It must be read as his own synthesis of the history of Polish poetry in diaspora in the last six decades. As is usually the case with syntheses of national or comparative literatures, it imposes the author’s own constructions onto the poetry that has been included. While this image is true in general, and faithful in terms of directions of poetic developments, it may at times seem incomplete, with some accents misplaced. For instance, one regrets that Stefan Borsukiewicz’s highly original poetry is represented by a single poem, that Zofia Ilińska’s poetry is not even included, and that Zagajewski’s mesmerizing lines in “To Go To Lviv”-a powerful poetic testimony to the traumatic experience of displacement from the the eastern borderlands of Poland-are omitted. Despite these deficiencies, Bogdan Czaykowski’s editorial work indisputably deserves much acclaim as an authentic and detailed attempt at composing the overall image of Polish poetry in diaspora. It will serve for a long time as a basic reference book to the students of Polish and Slavic literatures, and it will maintain its cognitive value even after other anticipated anthologies are published. One may only regret that these poems have not been made available to English-speaking readers, even at the expense of losing some of their qualities in translation. A bilingual anthology would have provided a powerful testimony of the Polish encounter with two totalitarianisms of the twentieth century, and it would have demonstrated how individual human experience acquires general and timeless features in the universal idiom of poetry.

At the same time, a very different anthology of poetry by a person as knowledgeable in poetry as Czaykowski could be conceived, and it might merit the necessary editorial labor in the future. That anthology in spe should set as its goal the rendering of the Polish encounter with the Other, e.g. with the West, be it Western Europe or America, or with the exotic, such as Africa in Bogumił Andrzejewski’s oeuvre. In his Preface Czaykowski rightly remarks that the poems in the anthology were written by poets dispersed in many countries of almost all the continents. In what way(s) did these poets’ encounter with other peoples, cultures, and places modify their artistic imagination and sensibility? That anthology-to-be could also include poems by poets outside diaspora who simply crossed borders while traveling. There are many poetic testimonies to this type of encounter, from Miłosz to Zagajewski and Julia Hartwig to the poets of the “bruLion” generation (Marcin Świetlicki, Jacek Podsiadło, Dariusz Sośnicki), to mention a few. What is the balance of the native and foreign elements in such an encounter? How does the new transnational awareness come about? It is clearly a great theme in Polish poetry, one definitely worth presentation and critical exploration. ∆

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