Their Witness

Donald Davie

  • The Poetry of Survival: Post-War Poets of Central and Eastern Europe edited by Daniel Weissbort
    Anvil, 384 pp, £19.95, January 1992, ISBN 0 85646 187 3

What we are given in The Poetry of Survival is, translated by numerous hands, poems by 28 poets: identified as Germans (7), Czechs (2), Yugoslavs (2), Slovene and Austrian and Romanian (1 each), Israelis (surprisingly 3) and Poles (9). This is supplemented by 9 appendices, each an interview with one of the poets represented; and this can be scored as Israeli (1), Czech (1), Yugoslav (1), Hungarian (2), Polish (4). What do we have here: a Polish take-over? Or else, rather more evidently, a map of Central and Eastern Europe that includes Germany and Israel, but not Greece, Bulgaria or Albania; not Russia, the Baltic States, Byelorussia or Ukraine. Events have outstripped the anthologist: otherwise Edvard Kocbek (1904-1981) wouldn’t appear as ‘Slovene’, whereas both Slavko Mihalic (Croat) and Vasko Popa (Serb) are ‘Yugoslav’. This is excusable. And the Greeks, it may be thought, have looked out for themselves; also, less certainly, the Russians. But what have the Bulgars done wrong? And haven’t the Israelis looked after their own interests as efficiently as the Greeks after theirs?

This is no way to start reviewing a book of poetry. But the truth is that this isn’t a book of poetry at all, except incidentally: it is the tombstone, partly aggrieved, partly defiant, on a career-ploy practised, through some years with great success, by British literary careerists from the Sixties on. The ploy was at bottom a familiar one: since the British poetry they inherited in the Sixties required of them a longer apprenticeship than they could contemplate, and since readers wouldn’t appreciate the fruits of that apprenticeship in any case, there was every reason for the careerists (who included A. Alvarez and Ted Hughes, along with Daniel Weissbort) to look for, and claim to find, a short cut. Philip Larkin’s art, not to speak of Basil Bunting’s or Norman MacCaig’s, was too intricate for them to master. There must be a simpler way! And, brilliantly, they found that there was indeed one such simpler model on offer: in translation, poetry from the Soviet Union’s satrapies in Europe. Moreover this didn’t just give them the streamlined and rudimentary poetics they were looking for: it also yielded up to them what looked like the moral high ground. The poetry of Larkin et al was not just too sophisticated for them to master, or for their readers to enjoy: it was also, so they could pretend, unfeeling. It did not measure up to the condition of peoples which had suffered the Nazi and after that the Soviet hegemony. (None of the careerists had been under arms in resisting those tyrannies, whereas several of Larkin’s associates had.) Moreover again, in the nature of the case, the careerists’ programme promised a further benefit: those who enrolled in it would find that their compositions were immediately translatable – into any language at any time, and whatever the competence or incompetence of the translators at hand. For ‘untranslatability’ was just another of the shibboleths of the ancien régime that the careerists were vowed to overthrow.

In the tight world of would-be poets (a world that they meant should grossly expand, as it did), how could the careerists fail, offering so much where Larkin et al offered by contrast so little? And their legacies are what we now have to live with: poetry workshops, poetry competitions, poetry prizes, poetry-writing in the classroom – all on the supposition that writing poems is not a gift, nor a discipline to be strenuously acquired, but a democratic right. Many more youngsters will be misled, beyond those who have been conned already, into thinking that reading Anna Swirszczynska in indifferent translation gives them as firm a sense of poetry as reading Milton in English, After all, Weissbort says of poems by Swirszczynska: ‘There is no stepping aside from them, no getting out of the way – they come at you too fast.’ And is there any sonnet by Milton of which we can say as much (or as little)?

Swirszczynska (1909-84) belongs with seven other honorary graduands of the careerists’ academy, who are acknowledged in a brief opening ceremony, before we proceed to poets born in the Twenties for whom Weissbort particularly solicits our applause. He isn’t sure he was right to make this genuflection to an earlier generation, pleading, ‘but the fair-minded littérateur in me got the better of the purist’ – thus seeming to admit that the purist in him has intentions too pure for fair-mindedness. However that may be, it is one of Weissbort’s senior citizens who has blown the whistle on his enterprise. This is Czeslaw Milosz, who accordingly earns the pained comment: ‘One senses in him a reluctance to accept a position that historical and personal circumstances have thrust upon him.’ Translated, this means: Milosz has refused to stay in the slot that Weissbort and Alvarez had decreed for him. And so he has, bless him.

What Milosz has recognised and said is that the con-job which the careerists have perpetrated on English-speaking readers is as nothing compared to what they have inflicted on the foreign poets whom they affect to serve. The crucial betrayal of them is in the term – the cant-term – ‘witness’. ‘Witness’ was the heading of Alvarez’s review, in the New York Review of Books, of Milosz’s 1988 Collected Poems in English. Alvarez’s review was adulatory; Milosz’s protest, in a letter to the paper, was that adulation on Alvarez’s grounds was something he rejected indignantly: ‘The voice of a poet should be purer and more distinct than the noise (or confused music) of History. You may guess my uneasiness when I saw the long evolution of my poetic craft encapsulated by Mr Alvarez in the word “witness”, which for him is perhaps a praise, but for me is not.’

This is the protest of one who in his time has served a Marxist government, who has always insisted that Marxism is a system of ideas deserving respect; Milosz cannot be pigeonholed as a right-wing deviationist. What he perceived was that adulation can mask condescension, as it does repeatedly in Weissbort and Alvarez. In their mouths, ‘witness’, often stepped up as ‘agonised’, means, in effect, when they address the foreign poets they have anthologised: ‘You know what happened to you, but you don’t understand it. We’ll supply the understanding, if you’ll give us the happening.’ It will be surprising if others of those foreign poets, besides Milosz, haven’t seen through this stratagem. After all, they aren’t fools. Consider only Weissbort’s cool assumption that he knows the position that history has thrust on Milosz, whereas he (Milosz) cannot know it. It is a weakly politicised version of what we have lately heard so often from other quarters: the critic is superior to the poet, because the critic can interpret what the poet (poor inspired zany) can only report.

The politicising could be only skin-deep because, as is blindingly obvious now, the careerists’ ploy depended on a Europe that was divided and would stay divided, across an Iron Curtain or Berlin Wall that prevented the exploited poets from understanding, let alone protesting against, the use that was being made of them in the West. The Cold War was the careerists’ opportunity, and the condition of their persisting in their successful deception. Once it was revealed that East European poets understood what was happening to them and their societies, and could articulate this rather better than their false friends in the West, the careerists’ cover was blown. Weissbort, however, doesn’t understand this. From his present and long-standing redoubt in Iowa City, he plainly believes that something can be saved from the wreckage. Else, how could he reprint his 1986 interview with Yehuda Amichai, in the course of which he artlessly explains how the entire confidence-trick was dreamed up by himself and Ted Hughes?

I was starting a magazine, Modern Poetry in Translation, with Ted. The reason I started it was because Ted ... had come across these examples of their work, and these rough translations – they were really quite good translations, I think – impressed us both a great deal. So, it was really coming across this wealth of poetry, about which we knew nothing before, and particularly in view of the inertness of the English scene at the time, and the American scene too, as it seemed to us, that we felt a need to start a magazine. That was in the early Sixties.

These translated poems that Ted Hughes had come across at poetry festivals in Spoleto and elsewhere – ‘really quite good translations, I think’ (italics mine) – were what put the careerists’ enterprise on the road. And what attracted Hughes and Weissbort was the difference between these documents and ‘the inertness of the English scene at the time’. This alleged ‘inertness’ has never been demonstrated by Weissbort, nor by anyone else who parrots the judgment as if it were self-evident. Philip Larkin has attracted enough devotees over the years for this slap-happy judgment to cut no ice so far as he is concerned; others of us – and my own special interest is too obvious for me to declare it – are bitterly though resignedly resentful. Daniel Weissbort and his associates have queered the pitch not just for Czech and Polish and Hungarian poetry of the last forty years but for English poetry too; and it can hardly be expected that I should be even-handed about this, nor that I should venture judgments of Vasko Popa or Miroslav Holub on the basis of poems selected by, and translations commissioned by, a person so deeply self-deceiving as Weissbort reveals himself to be.

Yehuda Amichai, learning from Weissbort in 1986 about this anthology, decided that it was to be an anthology of ‘the good old days’. ‘Yes,’ responded Weissbort eagerly, ‘a good-old-days anthology!’ Those good old days were the worst and most wretched days for writers under Stalinist tyranny. So much for the always-on-tap indignation that these Western liberals could always muster, and purvey to others, on behalf of their suffering and brave and truthful (though luckily naive) brothers and sisters behind the veil! How valiantly the careerists might have performed, if they had been caught up in the Holocaust or the war! By an accident of birth they weren’t: so we have had to live out with them, vicariously, the experiences they were spared or cheated of. And for a time, what a goldmine that has turned out to be! The lodes are still being mined.