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Friday, March 25, 2011

Yevtushenko, Paz and Szmborska: 3 International Poets You Should Read

There are some poets in the world who speak to us even when we don't understand their language.

The power of such a voice--even in translation--transcends  boundaries,both time and space. We feel less alone in the world when we encounter them on the page. 

Three such poets who have changed my poetic world are: Yevgeny Yevtushenko (Russia), Octavio Paz (Mexico) and Wislawa Szmborska (Poland).

I first saw Yevtushenko on a public TV  when I was 15-years-old.  It was a Sunday night and I was flipping around the dial looking for something interesting. By chance, I happened to land on a channel which showed a bare stage and a man dressed in a gray turtle neck. The man was prowling the stage and speaking in Russian. I didn't know what the words meant, I only knew that what the man was speaking was poetry and that I was deeply moved. Soon after he finished his piece, some translators spoke the words in English.  I was only 15 but I knew these English words were not--could not-- be as powerful as the Russian words the man just spoke.

I don't remember how I bought Yevtushenko's book. I came from a neighborhood that barely had a library. My town was filled with working class folk, mostly, and building a library was a costly endeavor for them. So, eventually, a library building got built but--well...let's just say there were a lot of bare shelves and not a lot of books when I was growing up.

So it must have been when I went into New York City with my school for various trips that I was able to buy his book. I should say books--because I loved his poetry so much I kept buying books and giving them away.  I still have one copy from those days. It is old and yellow and I still love the poems.  Among my favorites are "The City of Yes and The City of No," "Babii Yar," "Lies" and  "Colours," ("When your face came rising/above my crumpled life,/the only thing I understood at first/was how meager were all my possessions.")

I encountered  Paz and Szmborska much later in life but my reaction was similar to these poets as to when I met Yevtushenko.

When I first read Paz--especially his poem "Between What I see and What I Say"--I, literally, could not breathe. My chest felt as if all the air was being squeezed out of it. ("Between what I see and what I say; between what I say and what I keep silent,/between what I keep silent and what I dream,/between what I dream and what I forget:/ " 'poetry.' ")

Reading Szmborska still makes me want to cry, laugh and dance in crazy high heel shoes.

Take a look at the first few stanza of "A Few Words on the Soul" and see if you don't feel the same way.

We have a soul at times.
No one’s got it non-stop,
for keeps.

Day after day,
year after year
may pass without it.

it will settle for awhile
only in childhood’s fears and raptures.
Sometimes only in astonishment
that we are old.

It rarely lends a hand
in uphill tasks,
like moving furniture,
or lifting luggage,
or going miles in shoes that pinch.

It usually steps out
whenever meat needs chopping
or forms have to be filled.

For every thousand conversations
it participates in one,
if even that,
since it prefers silence.

Just when our body goes from ache to pain,
it slips off-duty.

(translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh


Anonymous said...

Thx for this blog. The wonders of international poets is astounding and heart rending. Paz literally sets my brain whirling/ I listen to Ahkmatova and not understanding a word of Russian, am absorbed into her sonorous words and depths. Can we make English "sound" as vital? Is it the reading? the language? the words themselves? the combination of voice, words, and "behind the words?"
the totality? SL

Lois Roma-Deeley said...

For me, English, most certainly, can and does sound as vital. I don't think it's the reading of the work, though certainly that contributes to the pleasure of listening, that makes the work sound--and feel--vital. I think poetry has it's own pulse--like blood, it courses through us and we recognize it as a life force.