Secret Agents of Sense

2013 Number 3 - Secret Agents of Sense

At a time when language is viewed with suspicion, these story-tellers believe that the world which we observe and experience can be told.

Freedom of speech, and words – this incredible moment when we realize that ‘now we can’, that the eye of the clerk will no longer examine our texts before publication, that – even more importantly – our inner censor has fallen silent and our choices of subject as well as diction will no longer be read politically. They will be neither ‘an escape’ nor ‘an engagement.’ The moment when literature becomes, briefly, an empty space for everyone, a place which is as yet unmapped and untabulated. For now you can take off your shirt, expose your pale body to the sun, dip it in the dark water at night.

Freedom for Polish poetry at the end of the twentieth century meant also a restored equilibrium, foregrounding what had been hidden so far, appreciating what had gone unnoticed. True, freedom often means noisy demonstrations, the ‘muscle-flexing’ of those who enter literature. The generation which began publishing in the late 1980s and early 1990s had great gifts. Its most remarkable features were plurality, multilingualism, aðnities with varied poetic traditions, native and foreign. It had its own Ginsbergs, Perecs, Celans and Ashberies... While some poets spun yarns of erotic adventures or metaphysical doubts, others questioned poetry’s ability to tell ‘truth’. This noisy group, chattering in their diverse languages, made it clear that, essentially, all twentieth-century Polish poetry was equally varied: the roads taken by Herbert, Miłosz and Szymborska were not the only options. 

The authors presented in this issue of Modern Poetry in Translation come from different generations: some laid the ground for change, others benefited from it. They are united by their adherence to narrative. At a time when language is viewed with suspicion, these story-tellers believe that the world which we observe and experience can be told. Krystyna Miłobędzka, the oldest in this company, treads cautiously, whereas Marcin Świetlicki, a representative of the breakthrough generation, is ostentatiously daring. Called ‘a champion of the world’, Świetlicki insists that words and world lie side by side.

This belief can assume different forms. ‘If poetry were groceries, what goods would your poems be?’ someone asked Krystyna Miłobędzka. ‘My poems are loose goods,’ she replied. ‘Sugar? No. Salt? No. Barley? No. Flour! Flour can be blown away easiest of all.’ Indeed, Miłobędzka’s poems appear volatile: fragmentary jottings, rough draEs. To escape fixed formulas, to shy away from ‘pretty sentences’ in order to describe reality, which is in constant flux – this is one of the tasks of her poetry. Can we catch a living life, in its running, happening, changing? Miłobędzka answers: we need to write down that which occurs ‘just before’, an inkling, first thought, observation, perception, intuition, that which is not yet a text, a record. But that is impossible. What is possible is the ‘spreading apart’, the ‘loosening’ of the language we have so as to relax its rules and reveal its limitations. Miłobędzka tells engrossing stories about motherhood, love, nature (which she carefully observes), but she always writes as if she were restraining herself. 

Which can hardly be said about Marcin Świetlicki. I have never seen him writing, but when he sits over a glass of whisky or vodka and talks, he often gesticulates broadly. Many poets are considered personalities; we are told that they have their own style, tone, ‘easily recognizable diction’. In many cases such compliments are not quite justified, but not with Świetlicki. From the start his poetry has been distinct and recognizable; he has a voice that cannot be mistaken for any other in the chorus of poetic voices. What is more, he has problematized such a distinctiveness and his own presence. He has always argued for Świetlicki: how he speaks, how he feels, what he experiences, what interests him and what not, and – significantly – how he is perceived by others. At the beginning of the 1990s he bravely entered an empty stage and immediately found the spotlight.

Świetlicki’s recognizable world is far from uniform. Besides poetic manifestos, autobiographical texts and songs (he sings in a rock band), there are also enigmatic and hermetic poems. Next to high diction and refined subjects appear poems that are ‘impure’, as if purposefully ‘disfigured’ or barely sketched. (In his reluctance to use finished forms, with their near-perfection, Świetlicki is very close to Miłobędzka.) Allusions, for example, to the Bible or to Romantic poetry are accompanied by quotations from newspapers or street talk. Once, walking through a park, he overheard an elderly woman sitting on a bench and talking to herself: ‘Good Lord, what do You want from me, why do You afflict me?’ After a while the woman spoke in a lower voice: ‘I have nothing to do with you.’ This event found its way into one of Świetlicki’s poems. ‘Things like this keep happening to me,’ he admits in interviews. Świetlicki’s expansiveness, his experiences and his persona add to what is most intriguing about this poet: he remains a subversive, yet consistent, ‘secret agent of sense’ (a description coined by a Polish critic) – someone who does not consider questions about sense and truth unnecessary, even though they may provoke his laughter and mockery.

Justyna Bargielska and Łukasz Jarosz entered literature when the literary stage had almost no space left for new occupants, and the old ones had already been assigned roles, sometimes against their wishes. Nevertheless, Bargielska and Jarosz were not intimidated by the situation; they did not argue with their predecessors, or if they did, their polemics were limited. Instead, they attended to their own world, searching for means that best suited their own sensibilities and imaginations. They were not concerned about being pigeon-holed or blamed for borrowings. 

One thing is certain: they, too, are adherents to narrative – enriched by Miłobędzka’s cautiousness (or even distrust towards language) and encouraged by Świetlicki’s boldness. Bargielska’s stories are probably more difficul to summarize; descriptions of her poems as texts about love, womanhood, family relationships, tensions between personal and collective imaginary worlds are unfair and reductive. Bargielska constructs her own mythology; she presents us with a peculiar ‘wwwwoverworld’, that is, a world already interpreted and deformed, so divergent that it seems to collapse right before our eyes. The drama is usually placed between inverted commas; there are jokes and grimaces. This poetry draws from every source available: from sophisticated literature to internet chat rooms.

Jarosz stands out among his peers because he has his own place. His world is the countryside or, rather, the non-city: everything that exists on the borderlands around huge populous sites. Forests with inaccessible places, a dilapidated house in a village gradually abandoned by its residents, domestic animals that go wild again, people that resemble them, striving to make a living – these are Jarosz’s scenery, protagonists and themes. His world is very realistic, rough, sensual, resisting description. His story is busy, incoherent; everything in it is interconnected. Even the ‘I’ resembles ‘a stirred-up anthill’: an assemblage of mobile points and changing perspectives.
The presented four poets have one more feature in common: they favour conciseness, the construction of elliptical poems similar to maths equations with multiple unknown quantities. In recent Polish poetry being elliptical means being credible. Being elliptical counteracts the dominant culture of the obvious; it subverts well- rounded sentences falsifying reality by alleviating its conflicts and pushing beyond its circumference that which is dark and mysterious. The poet – from this vantage point – is one who opposes the fossilization of language, one who attends to its fissures. In this way the poet remains a secret agent of elusive sense.

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