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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This item is taken from PN Review 87, Volume 19 Number 1, September - October 1992.

Editorial
I INVITED Daniel Weissbort to write for this issue a response to the P·N·R 85 editorial and also, indirectly, to some of the charges against his anthology The Poetry of Survival which Donald Davie expressed originally in the London Review of Books and which were teased out in long correspondence in the pages of that journal.

Weissbort's essay, 'The Poetry of Survival: Beyond Guilt', elucidates the editorial rationale of his usefully controversial anthology, and also the dynamic of his taste and judgement in choosing among poems and poets of eastern Europe. He makes a case for a kind of poetry, a kind of taste and judgement, for which I have had sympathy in the past, yet which I now find difficult to endorse because its generosity in one direction involves misvaluation in another, and because it seems to me that his argument has more to do with political and historical attitudes than with poetry. I suggest that readers turn to his essay before reading the comments that follow.

At the heart of Weissbort's argument are the rival claims of the aesthetic of Czeslaw Milosz on the one hand and Tadeusz Rozewicz on the other. It would be hard to find two poets more rigorous in their different kinds. Weissbort elaborates his view that Milosz is reluctant 'to accept a position that historical and personal circumstances have thrust upon him'; Rozewicz, we infer, accepts without reluctance.

Milosz has repudiated the label of 'poet of witness': 'The voice of the poet should be purer and more distinct than the noise (or confused music) of History.' This arouses in Weissbort 'certain apprehensions about his poetry and other writings, as they relate to the mid-century traumas of war and revolution'. Milosz regrets his attempts in writing to resolve the painful contradictions he lived through in the Second World War in Poland. Why? asks Weissbort, who has just quoted Adorno! Perhaps because Milosz has come reluctantly to agree with Adorno, as - reluctantly, and who would not have been reluctant? - he accepted his terrible subject matter in the early poems. It is the same reluctance which marks the poetry of Radnoti and Mandelstam, who - in terms of formal choice and poetic texture - at times resist historical circumstance.

Will Weissbort's distinction between poets who see from above and poets who see from among work when applied to Milosz's poetry - not only the poetry of the war, but the body of work produced since those traumas, and in response to other traumas? And it has not been all trauma. A writer whose life has been disrupted by history - by histories - as Milosz's has is not caught in a time-warp, however traumatic his formative years. The pressure of history on any writer - even on Primo Levi or Paul Celan - is not a single, determining, conditioning and directive pressure. Writers who write as though it were repeat themselves, digging a very narrow furrow.

For Weissbort to adduce Lawrence in aid of his argument is ingenious, but how a poet writing in or of the dust and smoke of war-torn Warsaw can 'inhale the future' or 'exhale the past', how the image of 'living plasm' that 'vibrates unspeakably' can be applied in anything but gruesome irony to the experience of Polish writers of this period, is hard to see. Lawrence provides implausible authority for the discrimination at the heart of Weissbort's argument, between the 'static perfection', the 'finality which we find satisfying because we are so frightened' (in Milosz), and that other thing, open, 'of the immediate present', free from formal rigours, semantic burdens. 'Presentness: Clarity. Clarity: Presentness,' declares Weissbort.

The 'presentness' of which he speaks is close to testimony, and falls short of Alvarez's catch-word 'witness' and further short of the poem by Milosz from the anthology which Weissbort takes as his text: 'A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto', dated 'Warsaw, 1943'.

'Presentness', judging in particular from the Rozewicz verses he quotes, is characterized by moral assertion, without ambivalence certainly, but also - in translation - without resonance beyond the hammer-blow of gesture: 'anyone who thinks or feels/she is not needed/is a mass murderer'. The 'pressure of history' here apparently emancipates the poet from the pressure of his own literary tradition. It is a release from the deeper dynamic of the poet's language: not unmetred but free verse, not creating shapes and forms that contain and clarify disharmony and complexity (the ambivalences Weissbort sniffs at), but making unarguable statements. Such 'clarity' can be read as simplification, and in the context of a subject-matter so urgent and real as this, simplification is a form of sentimentalism that is hard to accept.

In considering the texture of Rozewicz's poems, their translatability, it is worth remembering that many poets writing in eastern Europe over the last five decades could not be published or read at home. Some may have chosen to write a language in a sense designed for translation. Such a strategy is understandable, but it has an impact on the quality - the durability - of the poetry written.

The poems by Zbigniew Herbert that Weissbort comments on here are not the masterly, ironizing poems that Milosz celebrates (though Weissbort quotes Milosz's endorsement), but the linguistically thinner (it seems to me), less attenuated and more prosaic, more translatable poems of harrowing anecdote. In the spectrum of Herbert's poetry Weissbort prefers work that shades towards Rozewicz's rather than Milosz's. Like Milosz, Herbert has changed: he has not clung to an experience; the passage of time, the altering course of history, the accidents of his own travel and reading, have given him space to come to terms with survival and its aftermaths, with rebirth, with the language as it changes and the ways in which its past has been transformed.

Is Milosz's poetry indeed 'more subjective' than Herbert's? Does Milosz foreground himself as Weissbort says? I think this is a misreading: the pressures of history have made a stable lyric voice almost unattainable for Milosz. As Donald Davie indicated in his monograph, Milosz's authentic response to history is audible in the disruption of the lyric voice, the plethora of perspectives, in the poems. Rozewicz with his moral certainties is 'subjective'. If Milosz is in the foreground of his poems, it is as a self so divided and multi-vocal as to make the word 'self almost meaningless.

But Danny Weissbort's argument is moral. The charge is that Milosz 'has deliberately removed himself from the emotional frontline and has tried to effect a healing through the power of mind, rather than simply enduring, with no guarantee of an ultimate cure'. I stumble at the phrase 'simply enduring', but let that pass. Milosz purposes no 'ultimate cure'. That he should seek to heal, rather than dwell dazed among the buffetings of history, is surely - in moral terms - no bad thing. In poetic terms, the attempt to 'effect healing' involves the past of his own literature, language and culture, and in the poem Weissbort adduces, one of the bleakest aspects of that culture, its anti-Semitism.

There is a hunger for redemption in Milosz, who has Christian antecedents. For a Christian, redemption can be anticipated: indeed, it has happened once and for all. The gulf between Czeslaw Milosz and Gershon Scholem is wide. The gulf between the poor Christian in Milosz's poem and the guardian mole whom Weissbort translates into a 'Yeshiva bokher' and 'Talmudic scholar' is wide. The healing Milosz seeks to effect is between Christian and Jew. It is this healing that Weissbort resists, catechizing the 'poor Christian' of the title and wondering if Milosz has stereotyped the Jew.

It is possible not to agree. It is even possible to agree and yet to insist that the stereotype is generous and necessary in this poem. It can be read as a painful effort of atonement, helpless in one sense because history has happened, graced in another because, through the attempt at healing, history may possibly not repeat itself. The gap between the 'poor Christian' and the mole has been dug not only by the Holocaust but by far older prejudices and terrors as well. These, too, Milosz's poem acknowledges, with humility. Is it possible that Weissbort is stereotyping the non-Jewish writer attempting to come to terms with a reality of great spiritual urgency which, after all, belongs to him as well? Weissbort's argument seems to be that Christians (or non-Jews) cannot have responsible access to the great tragedy of the century: even in attempted atonement they 'assume rather than earn the right'. What is this right? Is it not rather a responsibility? If it is a 'right', how might it be 'earned'? Surely, by a poet, in the achievement of a poem which justifies the harsh task, a task Milosz achieves, even in this translation, not by presumptuous identification with another culture, but by humble acknowledgement of its otherness, its humane value, its right.

Weissbort is reluctant to accept the intensity - even the reality - of Milosz's need to atone: 'I find myself asking: But what could you have wanted, poor Christian? Whether you are personally responsible or not … did you expect to find words to heal these wounds?' It's the word 'expect' that is worrying, as though Weissbort will not understand Milosz's need in relation to the theme. 'But, after all, you are not a Jew,' he says. No, Milosz is not a Jew. That is the point of this Polish poem. It is given greater, not less force by this fact and by the historical context Weissbort provides in order to throw doubt, it seems to me, on the validity of the attempt and the sincerity of the poet. Why, he asks, is the speaker of the poem 'afraid' of the mole? The fear can be metaphysical and self-referential, fear of divine justice; fear at the power of the mole's frail survival; fear of being judged in this world by the mole. It would be useful to have the Polish original, to give greater definition to the fear; as to the word 'poor' in the title, Weissbort takes it to mean 'pitiable' but it may mean 'economically deprived', making the speaker a humble Pole rather than merely a contrite one. We are back to the problem of translation, and the challenge of a difficult text.

Weissbort declares: 'the voice inside me spontaneously answers the question, "What will I tell him?": Tell him nothing! And if this does not mean to keep silent, there is a telling that is also like a keeping silent'. Here his argument seems most woefully inadequate, trammelled as it is in a glancing, ambiguous acceptance of Adorno, of Primo Levi, declaring as it does a decorum which forbids the attempted healing Milosz, hungry for redemption as Herbert and Rozewicz (in Weissbort's account) are not, seeks.

If there is a gulf between the poor Christian in Milosz's poem and the guardian mole, emblematic of a wider gulf, then poets might be expected to attempt to bridge it, in both directions, in the language of poetry and in prose. A degree of generosity is required. It's not a question of forgiveness but of respect between cultures, an acknowledgement of the 'guardian mole' and all he represents by the 'poor Christian' and all he represents, and - crucially - vice versa.

This item is taken from PN Review 87, Volume 19 Number 1, September - October 1992.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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