Wednesday, June 26, 2013

What is a poem?

Only in the rarest of contemporary poetry do I hear that question asked implicitly as the poet goes about his or her way of expression. Poems in which that question moves beneath and through the work, as a form of humility, tradition, wonder, and the imperative to make an excellent thing.

What is a poem? These by Adam Zagajewski:

Long Afternoons

Those were the long afternoons when poetry left me.
The river flowed patiently, nudging lazy boats to sea.
Long afternoons, the coast of ivory.
Shadows lounged in the streets, haughty manikins in shopfronts
stared at me with bold and hostile eyes.

Professors left their schools with vacant faces,
as if the Iliad had finally done them in.
Evening papers brought disturbing news,
but nothing happened, no one hurried.
There was no one in the windows, you weren’t there;
even nuns seemed ashamed of their lives.

Those were the long afternoons when poetry vanished
and I was left with the city’s opaque demon,
like a poor traveler stranded outside the Gare du Nord
with his bulging suitcase wrapped in twine
and September’s black rain falling.

Oh, tell me how to cure myself of irony, the gaze
that sees but doesn’t penetrate; tell me how to cure myself
of silence.

translated by Clare Cavanagh

In Strange Towns
for Zbigniew Herbert

In strange towns there is an unknown joy, 
the cold bliss of a new glance.
Yellow-plastered tenements where the sun 
climbs like a nimble spider 
exist, yet not for me. Not for me are the town-hall, 
port, jail, and courthouse built.
The sea flows through the town in a salty 
tide, sinking cellars and verandas.
At a street market, pyramids of apples 
stand for the eternity of one afternoon.
And even suffering isn’t really 
mine; a local idiot mumbles 
in a foreign tongue, and the despair of a lonely 
girl in a café resembles a patch 
of canvas in a poorly lit museum.
Huge flags of trees flutter as in familiar places, 
and pieces of the same lead-weights 
are sewn to the hems of sheets, and to dreams, 
and to imagination, which is homeless and wild.

Translated by Renata Gorczynski and Benjamin Ivry

And for what it's worth, here's something about Zagajeski:

"Dawn Always Tells Us Something": On the Poetry of Adam Zagajewski

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