In Seamus Heaney’s essay ‘The Impact of Translation’, included in a book of essays memorably entitled The Government of the Tongue, Heaney considers how poetry in translation affects poets and their understanding of poetry, how translations work on poets by showing them other paths – the roads they might have taken but didn’t.
Heaney is talking specifically about the poets of Eastern Europe and their effect on English-language poetry. The essay begins with a poem by Miłosz, typical, as Heaney writes, of poets ‘whose poetry not only witnesses the poet’s refusal to lose his or her cultural memory but also testifies thereby to the continuing efficacy of poetry itself as a necessary and fundamental human act’. Heaney shared with MPT’s first co-editor Ted Hughes a sense of excitement and wonder at the work of these poets, who wrote in the teeth of oppression, invasion and war and whose poetry, in the post-war landscape of Britain, must have rung out as strange and heroic, strident and uninhibited.
The Eastern European poets Miłosz, Herbert, Holub, Lalic and Popa all featured in the first edition of MPT. In the editorial Hughes and Weissbort wrote that the poetry that came from Eastern Europe was ‘the most insistent. It is this region which has been at the centre of cataclysm’, adding that this poetry is ‘more universal than ours’. Heaney also compares this new strange writing to what he sees as more insular writing by English-language poets, saying they ‘have been encouraged to concede that the locus of greatness is shifting away from their language’.
The poets published in MPT and elsewhere in the 1960s and 1970s spoke loudly, even in translation. They forced poets writing in English to examine what they stood for and what their own language might or might not do, and in both Heaney’s and Hughes’s writing there is a sense that the poetry from the East had the ethical, as well as the aesthetic, advantage: like Rilke’s Apollo Torso it commanded the beholder to change his life. In Heaney ’s case the relationship with Miłosz, Herbert, Mandelstam and Brodsky, described in this issue by Gerard Smyth, was one of the most important creative relationships in twentieth- century poetry, and it was a relationship through translation, as Heaney spoke neither Polish nor Russian.
Much has changed since the beginning of MPT – the Centres of Cataclysm are plentiful and spread around the globe, but poets writing in English have the same need for voices which are, in Heaney ’s words, ‘ credible, desolating and resuscitative ’. We need new springs to drink at, new ways of reading and hearing poetry, and we can only do that if we have a channel of poems in excellent and sensitive translation.
There is also an important job to be done in redressing the balance of work from Eastern Europe: Polish poet Wojciech Bonowicz writes in this MPT of the generation of poets who were published in the early 1990s: ‘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.’
Bonowicz indicates that the status of a few poets has skewed the Eastern European poetic landscape, even from the inside, giving prominence to a handful of writers, much as if they alone spoke out on behalf of the abject and silent majority. The truth is always far more complicated. Every myth has its anti-myth, and even this myth, propitious as it seems, happy as its effects were, needs countering for the sake of the more obstinate truth and those writers whose work would repay our attention.
In ‘Secret Agents of Sense’ we are focussing on more recent Polish poetry: the work of five poets who are distinctive, unsettling and unfamiliar. We do this in the hope that these voices will refresh and quicken the debate about our own poetry, providing what Heaney called ‘shadow-challenges’ to a new generation of poets and readers.