- Knowing One’s Place in Contemporary Irish and Polish Poetry: Zagajewski, Mahon, Heaney, Hartwig by Magdalena Kay
Robert Hass once told an anecdote about walking into St. Mary Magdalen Church in Kensington, California, and seeing Czesław Miłosz in prayer at one side altar, and Seamus Heaney, across the nave, at another. “Well now,” he said, “at that point I figured that this was a parish worth looking into.”
National literary studies tend toward the parochial, with each national, or linguistic, group delving deeply into the traditions it has easy access to, while ignoring those further afield. The discipline of comparative literature has often been guilty of this, with international studies rarely venturing past the stuffy triangle of England, France, and Germany. Yet Hass’s experience can be seen as a parable for the more open fields of literary cross-pollination that have obtained since the end of the Second World War; it is no longer odd to see the editor of the New Yorker organizing a Zbigniew Herbert evening at Columbia (and the event being reported in the New York Times); it is a mere literary footnote, the fact of Seamus Heaney’s translation (with Stanisław Barańczak) of the Laments of Jan Kochanowski; and for Hass himself, along with Robert Pinsky, to be a poetic disciple of Miłosz only shows how truly cosmopolitan the contemporary literary scene has naturally become. It is safe to say, paraphrasing George Steiner, that we no longer run the risk of “living in arrogant parishes, bordered by silence” (George Steiner, introduction to The Penguin Book of Modern Verse Translation [Middlesex: Penguin, 1966], 25).
Of course, translation has played a great role in this opening of the cultural borders, especially in the United States, where the dominant role of the English language as our contemporary Latin can foster a sort of unconscious perhaps, but no less limiting, attitude of self-sufficiency. The best comparative studies of pan-European movements, such as romanticism, will still be from the pens of Albanian or Hungarian scholars. For they will not fail to include in their discussions the familiar Byrons, Lamartines, and Schillers, but—because of their “parochial” situation—they will not overlook Mácha, Mickiewicz, Petőfi, and Štúr, and will bring to our attention the Jeronim de Radas and Zef Jubanis we would otherwise overlook.
This is the great value of books like Magdalena Kay’s Knowing One’s Place in Contemporary Irish and Polish Poetry. On the one hand, the questions that bind this comparative study together—Who am I? What does “ selfhood” mean in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries? What is “otherness” in a world that is increasingly becoming a multiethnic [End Page 190] village?—could have been posed and worked out with profit on the basis of names and traditions more familiar to the Anglo-American audiences likely to take this book in hand. However, passing by the Irish authors, who will be known quantities to the anglophone reader, by introducing the less-known Julia Hartwig and Adam Zagajewski, Kay performs one of the key services of comparative literature as a humanity: while not neglecting the canonical (e.g., the Nobel winner Heaney), she furthers the cultural base of her reader-ship by introducing the less-familiar, but not by that token less important, “exotic” writers from the less-trod paths of eastern Europe.
Of course, in describing Zagajewski and Hartwig as “eastern Europeans” I am begging a question at the very heart of Kay’s study. Zagajewski lived and taught for many years in the United States, and Hartwig, a well-traveled writer, constantly poses questions of identity in her verse: what it is to be oneself, and to what extent where one has been becomes who one is. In reading through Hartwig, for example, one is constantly reminded of the beautiful statement of Georgia O’Keeffe: “It’s not where I’m from that is important, but rather, what I’ve done...