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
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.)