31 Books in 31 Days: Stephen Burt on Clare Cavanagh’s “Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics”

by Stephen Burt | Feb-08-2011

Each day leading up to the March 10 announcement of the 2010 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights one of the thirty-one finalists (to read other entries in the series, click here). Today, NBCC board member Stephen Burt discusses criticism finalist Clare Cavanagh's Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West (Yale University Press).

Don't let Clare Cavanagh's scholarly gravity scare you: erudite but always clear, aware of detail but never overwhelmed by it, this big book tells a dramatic story about a hundred years of poems in three languages, a story of revolutions, repressions, inventions, and mistakes, not least a big mistake in the way that we Americans have admired Russian and Polish poems. Often we have viewed the poets as martyrs, their writing and nonwriting lives spent resisting regimes, making their hard lives into symbols. Cavanagh thinks we should stop, and look at the poems.

A senior scholar of Slavic languages at Northwestern University, one of our most admired translators from Polish, Cavanagh has also become the authorized biographer of the Polish Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz: she knows of what she speaks, and she speaks of the ways that some poets have understood their own lives during wars, crackdowns, political emergencies, in Russia, Ireland, Poland, and our own United States. These emergencies, as Cavanagh shows, allowed some poets to enlist in Romantic tradition, to fashion myths around their bodies of work. The Russian poet Aleksandr Blok, who began writing under the last of the czars and finished after the revolution, cast himself as a man forever in love: "the outlines of his perpetually thwarted courtship of the Beautiful Lady appear, willy-nilly, in even his most apparently bloodthirsty hymns to the revolutionary brotherhood." Self-consciously loud, exuberant, always modern, Vladimir Mayakowsky became the voice of the new, the giant of the revolution: his suicide therefore posed problems for the Soviets who would make him their posthumous bard.

Respectful of these troubled men, and always helpful as she finds English-language parallels (Whitman and Mayakowsky, Blok and Yeats), Cavanagh then takes more time, and more admiration, for Anna Akhmatova's last work, The Poem without a Hero, a fragmented anti-epic decades in the making. Persecuted by Stalin, Akhmatova wove her tribulations into her poem, which thus became an impressive work but a dangerous example: "How does the poet live with traditions demanding prophetic revelation or glorious self-immolation for the sake of the oppressed nation?" Would it be better, freer, more honest, to say less, to stand aside?

Can lyric poetry as a genre—one that may not tell great stories, that cuts itself off, that admits contradiction, contrast, irony—help us to carve out space for our doubts, apart from the big, destructive stories of modern history, the stories that make, or celebrate martyrs, that ask us to give our whole lives to a cause? Cavanagh surely thinks so; the great poets of postwar Poland, she says, have often thought so too, none more clearly or wryly than Wislawa Szymborska, for whom one chapter of Cavanagh's book might be the very best possible introduction. For Szymborska "the poet abandons the advance guard of Great History's triumphal progress"—the progress of communism (which Szymborska in her youth embraced) but also the progress of anything else, like democracy. Instead, the poet "tends to the world's hidden histories; she becomes the poetic patron saint of 'lost and overlooked things,' the literary caretaker of a cosmic lost and found." It seems a small job but for Szymborska it is the job at the heart of poetic language, "the private impulse that is... poetry's best defense."

Such a defense of poetry as conscious privacy, as a mode of difficult, careful freedom, also animates other thoughtful Poles. Milosz defected from Communist Poland in 1951, settling later in the United States; he became famous for writings about World War Two, and for an early book of prose about Soviet bloc intellectuals, The Captive Mind. For decades American and British readers have celebrated Milosz as a nobly and directly political poet, a dissident tempered by a harsh regime, whose fire and metal ought to put our soft and private poetry to shame. But Milosz himself has taken the opposite view, making clear his debts to American writers and refusing to become a national bard: rather than continue such a grand mission, Milosz's poems remember the "vanished multilingual, multiethnic Lithuania" of his youth, "putting paid to the seductive myth of the poet-martyr."  In her interpretations of these modern and contemporary poets—in the instruction she gives as to postwar Poland's lesser known lights, in the way she follows their own intellectual journeys, and in the sharp correction she gives to US and UK ideas about them—Cavanagh offers her own defense of poetry, in a book that never becomes mere polemic; rather it is a serious and pellucid introduction to some of the great poets of three languages on two continents, and a corrective to how we have thought about them.

Click here to access Clare Cavanagh's Northwestern University home page. To read an excerpt from Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics, click here. The Poetry Foundation's page for Cavanagh as translator can be found here.

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