Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Viral poems; reading Zagajewski in Poland

I've been teaching at the Pomeranian University in Slupsk in Poland this week, my second week here after a week in March. One of the courses I have been asked to teach is on contemporary literature, so of course I made it into a course on contemporary Anglophone poetry. 

I gave the students a collection of 20 poems published in the last 20 years, from Seamus Heaney's "The Rain Stick" to Danez Smith's "Dinosaurs in the Hood." I chose two of the poems not just because I find them worth pondering but also because they are poems that went viral: Patricia Lockwood's "Rape Joke" and Maggie Smith's "Good Bones".

Today, we talked about "Good Bones" and what features it has that contribute to its having gone viral. It was a combination of its simplicity (a fairly clear message) and its complexity (the message highlights the difficulty of communicating something simply and honestly). In addition, the poem's repetitions and variations amount to looking at its issues from a variety of different angles, which adds to its effectiveness.

We also discussed another poem that has often been shared after traumatic events around the globe, Adam Zagejewski's "Try to Praise the Mutilated World" (trans. Clare Cavanagh). I don't speak Polish, but we looked at the Polish original as well, and I considered how someone who knows only what the title means might be able to piece together something about the poem. 

In particular, I noticed the repetition of a line from the title through the rest of the poem:
Spróbuj opiewać okaleczony świat.
Musisz opiewać okaleczony świat.
Powinieneś opiewać okaleczony świat.
Opiewaj okaleczony świat
It's cheating a bit, of course, since I am familiar with the English translation, but I was struck by how much can be said about the Polish original just by paying attention to these lines. Each of the lines ends with the same three words, and the first line means "try to praise the mutilated world," so though I didn't remember which modals are used in the repetitions of the line, I was able to remember that the poem's variations are on the line are variations in modal verbs, and I concluded that the final repetition must (musisz?) be an indicative "I praise" or an imperative "praise". As with Smith's "Good Bones", Zagajewski's poem works as a theme with variations that provides multiple angles on a simple message. As a result, neither poem can be reduced to its message, and both can appeal to a wide range of readers, which offers a kind of explanation of what it is that makes a poem go viral.

A final note: the students in the course are studying to be translators, and they were all very impressed by Clare Cavanagh's translation.