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16 May
2015

Poetry today – a black box or a useful book?

The great celebration of poetry in Krakow has begun – the fourth edition of the Miłosz Festival is off and running. This year, dozens of Polish and foreign creators, along with readers, will focus on The Book of Luminous Things. “During the festival, we will not cense the chapel of Czesław Miłosz. His creativity will be a starting point for our talks and discussions,” said Jerzy Illg from the Festival’s Programme Council.

The originators of the poetry celebration reminded that the inspiration for them were the Meetings of the Poets of the East and the West[Spotkania poetów Wschodu i Zachodu] begun by Czesław Miłosz. “It was here, in Krakow, that everything began,” said the vice-mayor of Krakow, Magdalena Sroka. Zofia Król from the Festival Programme Council noted that what was most important was “not to keep Miłosz where you cannot reach.”
The inaugural lecture was delivered by Ruth Padel, a British poet and the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin, who stressed that concern for the environment is one of the most important poets‘ responsibilities. “I know that Czesław Miłosz wanted to be an ornithologist when he was a boy. As children, we probably read the same books about nature,” she added.

However, nature is only one of the many areas of Ruth Padel’s interests. The author of the volume The Art of Kintsugi is a fan on both opera and rock, and loves ancient Greece as much as modern London, where she teaches poetry at King’s College.

Inspired by the prehistoric drawings in the Pech Merle cave in France, Ruth Padel wondered in her lecture about the connection between form and truth – could horses drawn thousands of years ago really be spotted (the author of The Art of Kintsugi was delighted to discover spotted horses harnessed to Krakow’s horse-drawn carriages). The poet noted that both art and science begin with the observation of nature. She also agreed with Miłosz, who said that the world we know is only the surface of the true and most essential depth. She reminded the audience that Miłosz spoke of himself as a hunter of meaning, and emphasised that poetry should be loyal to reality.

It was this loyalty that was the subject of the discussion of Zofia Król’s guests – California poet and Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Haas, and literary critics Anna Kałuża and Piotr Śliwiński. During the debate Useful Books?, they discussed the role of poetry, although as Haas admitted, Czesław Miłosz, who was his friend, “considered discussions of poetry to be too pretentious, and preferred to read poetry with his students instead.” The American emphasised that Miłosz continued searching for language that could capture the lived experience.

The panellists argued about whether poetry, as Miłosz would wish, should be understandable, and what role the “useful books” should play today. Together, they came up with the modern metaphor of poetry as a black box on a plane, sunk to the bottom of the ocean, and the signal we should search for. Contemporary useful poetry may be socially engaged, fight for ecology, translate the processes taking place in the world around us. It can also, as Czesław Miłosz wanted, “be an antidote for the phase of civilisation we are currently in.”

The critics also outlined the landscape of contemporary Polish poetry, noting that there have been numerous attempts to break up “the monument called Miłosz,” and adding that there are young poets in Poland, who can skilfully read contemporary reality.

Together, the guests of this year’s festival created a new Book of Luminous Things, through an evening reading of poems they would like to present to Polish readers. They took us to a Chinese restaurant in New York, somewhere in the Greek islands, and in the alleys of Ljubljana. During the final of the first day of the festival on the stage of the Krakow Academy of Dramatic Arts, we heard poems in Swedish, Belarusian, Catalan and Polish. The poets let us make ourselves comfortable in their languages, but also made us guests of their imagination.

On Friday, during the second day of the Festival, poetry lovers are in for a special treat – at 11 am, the Wisława Szymborska Foundation will announce the nominations for the Wisława Szymborska Literary Prize. A little earlier, at 10 am, the children will begin their activities by taking a walk around Main Square with Michał Rusinek, the secretary of the Nobelist. The second day of the Miłosz Festival will be a day of meetings with poets – audiences will be able to get to know, among others, Marie Lundquist and Charles Simic. And in the evening at 9 pm, we will honour the memory of the artists who have passed away. Adam Zagajewski will be the host of the blues-themed event. “It will not be another sad and weepy All Souls’ Day,” said the poet. Pianist Joachim Menzel will provide the music during the evening.