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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, April 30, 2006

From time to time someone remarks that American poets don't write political poems. That is a strange thing to say even once. Leave aside the thousands of polemical verses on Web sites. Did Allen Ginsberg never exist? Did Robert Lowell never write "Waking Early Sunday Morning" with its lines about "top-heavy Goliath" and "our children when they fall/in small war on the heels of small/war"? Does the work of C.K. Williams not count? Carolyn Forché? Maybe the myth of apolitical American writing is part of the Cold War heritage: Our idea of political poetry is based on the long, documented history of censorship and punitive government control in countries once called "satellite states," such as Poland and Romania. Lives like those of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, who died in a Stalinist labor camp, or the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who lived much of his life in exile, became something like fables. Some thinkers wondered if repression might be good for poetry -- an idea that Milosz dismissed as "envying a hunchback his hump."

Here is a poem from Tess Gallagher's rich, striking, new collection Dear Ghosts,. The comma in her title emphasizes how elegiac the book is, addressed to ghosts of various kinds and degrees of intimacy. The figure of the Eastern European writer resisting and surviving under the old communist empire is a kind of ghost: still haunting and urgent or emblematic for the West. Like traditional ghost stories, maybe this persistent specter of Soviet oppression expresses semi-conscious fears about our own proclivities. Gallagher understands the relationship between Eastern European poetry and American poetry, and she fits her poem into that history. The half-legendary life of poetry in the Soviet years gives Gallagher a way to convey her political meaning in her poem "Weather Report":

The Romanian poets

under Ceausescu, Liliana

said, would codify opposition

to the despots in this manner: because

there was no gas and they were cold, everyone

was cold, all they had to do was write

how cold it is . . . so cold . . . and their

readers knew exactly what was meant.

No one had to go to jail

for that.

Liliana, in the dead of night

writing her poems

with gloves on.

I think I'll take off my gloves.

It's freezing in here.

There's a glacier pressing on my heart.

The Polish poet Adam Zagajewski thinks about such material from an opposite direction, from the viewpoint of the mythologized -- how it feels to be part of a nation that others perceive as more like a unicorn than an actual country.

Poems on Poland

I read poems on Poland written

by foreign poets. Germans and Russians

have not only guns, but also

ink, pens, some heart, and a lot

of imagination. Poland in their poems

reminds me of an audacious unicorn

which feeds on the wool of tapestries, it is

beautiful, weak, and imprudent. I don't know

what the mechanism of illusion is based on,

but even I, a sober reader,

am enraptured by that fairy-tale defenseless land

on which feed black eagles, hungry

emperors, the Third Reich, and the Third Rome.

These two poets succeed in helping us think about the intersections and divergences of politics and poetry, one time or place and another: Gallagher, ardent about a chill sensation, also recognizes that she does not write under Ceausescu; Zagajewski, coolly ironic about a rapturous account of Poland as a fairy-tale, a defenseless creature, also recognizes the truth in the fable: His country is no unicorn, but neither is it a "Third Rome."

(Tess Gallagher's "Weather Report" is from her book "Dear Ghosts,." Graywolf. Copyright © 2006 by Tess Gallagher. Adam Zagajewski's "Poems on Poland" is from his book "Without End: New and Selected Poems." Farrar Straus Giroux. © 2002 by Adam Zagajewski.)

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