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Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics

Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West

Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics
    Book Description:

    Lyric Poetry and Modern Politicsexplores the intersection of poetry, national life, and national identity in Poland and Russia, from 1917 to the present. As a corrective to recent trends in criticism, acclaimed translator and critic Clare Cavanagh demonstrates how the practice of the personal lyric in totalitarian states such as Russia and Poland did not represent an escapist tendency; rather it reverberated as a bold political statement and at times a dangerous act.Cavanagh also provides a comparative study of modern poetry from the perspective of the eastern and western sides of the Iron Curtain. Among the poets discussed are Blok, Mayakovsky, Akhmatova, Yeats, Whitman, Frost, Szymborska, Zagajewski, and Milosz; close readings of individual poems are included, some translated for the first time. Cavanagh examines these poets and their work as a challenge to Western postmodernist theories, thus offering new perspectives on twentieth-century lyric poetry.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15656-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: Acknowledged Legislation
    (pp. 1-44)

    “What would American poets and critics do without the Central Europeans and the Russians to browbeat themselves with?” Maureen McLane asks in a recent review in theChicago Tribune. “Miłosz, Wisława Szymborska, Adam Zagajewski, Zbigniew Herbert, Joseph Brodsky—here we have world-historical seriousness! Weight! Importance! Even their playfulness is weighty, metaphysical, unlike barbaric American noodlings!” McLane takes aim at a critical commonplace now well entrenched among anglophone poets and critics. In anthologies, essays, and poems alike, the great Eastern Europeans of the century just past—Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Brodsky, Miłosz, Herbert, Szymborska, et al.—play the acknowledged, if unofficial, legislators to...

  5. 1 Courting Disaster: Blok and Yeats
    (pp. 45-82)

    In 1981, the Irish dramatist Thomas Kilroy chose to set a production of Chekhov’sSeagullnot in fin de siècle England, as British theatrical tradition would have it, but “on an Anglo-Irish estate in the West of Ireland” in the late nineteenth century. The Slavist need only substitute “Blok” or “Blokian” for Kilroy’s “Chekhov” and “Chekhovian” in the following passages to see the affinities linking the Russia of Aleksandr Blok (1880–1921) with the Ireland of his near-contemporary, William Butler Yeats (1865–1939). “Like Chekhov’s gentry,” Kilroy observes, “the Anglo-Irish landowning class no longer exists, having been swept away in...

  6. 2 Whitman, Mayakovsky, and the Body Politic
    (pp. 83-108)

    In 1913, the French Futurist Guillaume Apollinaire marked his entrance on the literary scene by figuratively killing off an overwhelming poetic parent. In the fantastical funeral Apollinaire invents for Walt Whitman, he celebrates his great precursor’s flesh even as he lays it to rest: “Everyone that Whitman had known was there . . . the stagedrivers of Broadway, negroes, his old mistresses and his comerados [sic]. . . . Pederasts came in great numbers. . . . It is believed that several of Whitman’s children were there, with their mothers, white or black. . . . At sundown, a huge...

  7. 3 The Death of the Book à la russe: The Acmeists under Stalin
    (pp. 109-119)

    InOf Grammatology(1967), Jacques Derrida apocalyptically proclaims what he calls “the death of the book,” the death, that is, of the self-contained, organically unified, self-explanatory text. The postmodern age, he continues, has replaced the now defunct book with the notions of “writing” (écriture) and of a “text” that undermines or explodes any metaphorical bindings that might attempt to confine it within the safely “logocentric” limits of a single, self-sufficient volume. “The destruction of the book, as it is now underway in all domains” is a “necessary violence,” Derrida claims. The rhetorical violence with which he marks the unnatural death...

  8. 4 Akhmatova and the Forms of Responsibility: The Poem without a Hero
    (pp. 120-148)

    In 1884, a middle-aged widow began work on a house in California’s Santa Clara Valley, near San Francisco; the construction ended only with her death several decades later, in 1922. The builder’s name was Sarah Winchester. Her deceased husband, William Winchester, had inherited a vast fortune from his father, who had manufactured the first successful repeating rifle, a weapon whose lethal efficiency had influenced the outcome of the Civil War. The couple’s only child had died in infancy, and William himself fell victim to tuberculosis in 1881, leaving Sarah the sole heir to the family’s ill-gotten—as she thought—wealth....

  9. 5 Avant-garde Again, or the Posthumous Polish Adventures of Vladimir Mayakovsky
    (pp. 149-172)

    In 1948, the young Wisława Szymborska found herself at the center of a controversy on the proper nature of progressive poetry in the fledgling People’s Poland. Like many young intellectuals and writers, she was at the time a true believer in the ideology espoused by the nation’s new rulers. Her poetics had not kept pace with her politics, though, or so some aggrieved readers complained in the columns ofDziennik literacki (Literary Gazette).A group of puzzled students had, at their teacher’s suggestion, written to Szymborska asking her to decipher her poem “Saturday in School,” which had recently appeared in...

  10. 6 Bringing Up the Rear: The Histories of Wisława Szymborska
    (pp. 173-196)

    On a recent train trip from Krakow to Warsaw, I began chatting with the other occupant of my compartment, a retired engineering professor who collected stamps. He asked where I was from and how I happened to know Polish. I told him I was a Slavist who’d been drawn to the language by way of Poland’s great postwar poets, some of whom I happened to translate. The usual response I get when Poles, be they cab drivers or Ph.D.’s, find out that I’m a non-Pole who’s learned Polish well enough to translate their poetry is enthusiasm, to say the least:...

  11. 7 Counterrevolution in Poetic Language: Poland’s Generation of ’68
    (pp. 197-233)

    “The Generation of ’68”: the term will seem self-evident to any aging baby boomer. The student rebellions of 1968 shook college campuses and city streets, after all, from Berkeley to Berlin, from Paris to Prague and Warsaw. Only a few months and some eight hundred miles seem initially to separate the upheavals that convulsed Warsaw in March 1968 from the student strikes that shook Paris in May later the same year. Both rebellions were, as Daniel Cohn-Bendit remarks, “anti-authoritarian revolts” par excellence. In both capitals, students resisted a hated state and its tainted offshoots—the academy, the courts, the press...

  12. 8 The Unacknowledged Legislator’s Dream: Czesław Miłosz and Anglo-American Poetry
    (pp. 234-265)

    InThe Waste Land, T. S. Eliot famously called April “the cruellest month.” It has also been more recently christened—coincidentally, one hopes—as American National Poetry Month. What does this mean in practice? Not much, I’m afraid. Editors push forward the publication dates of whatever poetry volumes they happen to have on hand in hopes of a few extra sales. Bookstores and libraries reserve a display case for Billy Collins, Sylvia Plath, Robert Frost, or Maya Angelou. And one or two prominent poets make appearances on Public Broadcasting or National Public Radio to try and explain what they do...

  13. Afterword: Martyrs, Survivors, and Success Stories, or the Postcommunist Prophet
    (pp. 266-276)

    In the summer of 2002, I conducted a series of interviews with Miłosz in preparation for a biography I was just then beginning. Miłosz’s attitude towards the project was, perhaps inevitably, mixed. He had given me his blessing, but was concerned nonetheless with the shape his life would take in another’s hands. Sometimes this concern was expressed comically. “I have to convince you not to write the biography!” he exclaimed in one phone conversation. “But it’s too late!” I said. “I’ve already spent the advance.” (This was not entirely true, but I was not about to remove that particular line...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 277-316)
  15. Credits
    (pp. 317-318)
  16. Index
    (pp. 319-332)