George Szirtes


Variations on Leopold Staff


I built my house of smoke
And peopled it with fire
Because there must be fire

Within the fire the house
Within the house the smoke
Within the smoke myself


He did not trust in bricks and mortar
But the chimney spouted smoke
Down the chimney pigeons purring
Down the chimney raven’s croak
Illusion, cried the distant engine
Illusion, he exclaimed, and woke.


This too too solid flesh might turn to stone
And on that stone a building might be raised
The rest is smoke and mirrors, smoke and gone.


These are your foundations.
That is where you begin.
Do not look for meanings.
Do not look for endings.
Begin here. Prepare the fire.


On ‘Variations on Leopold Staff’

As a young man beginning to write and read poetry I would look to buy whatever poetry paperbacks I could. Since I didn’t have much money I tended to buy them second hand and, out of a sense of economy, buy them in anthologies. I had no background in poetry in English and had dropped Eng Lit at O level, so it was a fairly random process in which Penguin’s poetry series played a major part.

Among the books I picked up was the 1970 reprint of Post-War Polish Poetry, edited and translated by Czesław Miłosz, first published in 1965. I knew little or nothing of Polish poetry then, and even later – perhaps even now – my knowledge is very limited: Aleksander Wat, Tadeusz Różewicz, Wisława Szymborska, Zbigniew Herbert, possibly Urszula Koziol and Miłosz himself. Since then I have read more and even translated a little with a great deal of help, of Jacek Dehnel, for example, but it is still only a skimming that owes much to Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese.

I am keenly aware of the extent to which Polish poetry, Czech poetry, as well as Hungarian and other East and South European poetries have formed not only me, but others’ fields of sensibility. As a keen European in a political as well as poetic sense the voices in such poetry seem close to my own and even to some of the best English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish poetry, too. It is difficult to think, for example, of Heaney or Derek Mahon or Ted Hughes without their influences and collaborations, often via the pages of Modern Poetry in Translation.

In terms of response I have chosen a very short poem, ‘Foundation’ by Leopold Staff (1878-1957) from Post-War Polish Poetry. It is only six lines long but its imagery of building on sand, among smoking chimneys, suggests to me both a historical and existential condition that is startlingly familiar. Things tumble, nothing is solid, we begin with smoke. The translation is by Czesław Miłosz.