Polish Poetry rehabilitates in the Pacific Northwest

Author: Eva Orlowska

Three poetry events: a fifth year anniversary of the Salon of Poetry, a lecture  “The Ghost of Shakespeare in Szymborska” and a poetry reading by Dr. Anna Frajlich from Columbia University stirred Seattle audiences to contemplate political and existential questions of past and present.

Foto: Zdzislaw Polubinski
From left: Marzana Bachowska, Krystyna Wrobel, Teresa Davis, Salon of Poetry in Seattle

The dialectic of Apollo and Dionysus was at work on Sunday, Sunday, May 16 when the Salon of Poetry in Seattle delighted guests of the Polish Home from as far as Vancouver, BC with humorous short poems and a potpourri of music. “Don’t Joke with a Woman” whimsical reading was introduced by a University of Washington Fulbright Prof. Przemyslaw Chojnowski with a 600 year-history of Polish epigrams. Epigrams are brief clever verses popularized by the Greeks and Romans two millennia ago.

Next, hosts Leszek Chudzinski and Lena Wrozynski led a playful poetry battle-of-the-sexes and an impromptu epigram contest from the audience. Accomplished local musicians, Aurika Checinska Hays, Marzena Szlaga and Marzanna Bachowska performed “Musical Picnic with Violin, Piano and Songs” and filled Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood with familiar tunes. The program continued late into the evening with Polish food sampling and lively conversation.

Since 2002 when Salon of Poetry – founded by well known actress and humanitarian Anna Dymna – debuted in Krakow at the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre, Ms. Wrozynski dreamed of starting her own tribute of the widely popular performance that has mushroomed all over Poland and the world. In 2005, she succeeded and brought the theatrical mix of local and classical poetry and music to Poles in Seattle. It is now five years strong. The mission of Ms. Wrozynski’s group is summarized by Anna Dymna’s quote on its website (translated by Hanna Gil):

“The Salon of Poetry is a place where the word reclaims its dignity and becomes our friend; it helps us to understand the world, as well as to understand other human beings. It tames our sufferings. Fortunately, there are poets who are able to arrange words in such a manner that they can often present the most important lessons of life in the simplest of ways.”

One poet who arranges words in an illuminating manner is Dr. Anna Frajlich, an émigré poet, scholar and senior lecturer from the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Columbia University. On Friday May 21, Dr. Frajlich delivered a lecture titled: “The Ghost of Shakespeare in Szymborska” at the University of Washington in Seattle.  On Saturday May 22, Dr. Frajlich and her husband Wladyslaw Zajac met with friends of the UW Polish Studies at the lovely home of Ewa and Krzysztof Poraj-Kuczewski for an intimate poetry reading in Polish.

In her lecture on Wislawa Szymborska’s poetry, Dr. Frajlich talked about the impact of Shakespeare’s timeless themes on the writers of the so-called ‘56 Polish generation.  In 1956, a chain of events such as Stalin’s death, Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” at the 20th Congress and protests in Poznan and Hungary all stirred citizens living under a totalitarian regime in Poland to examine their beliefs and everyday conditions. Writers like Szymborska, disillusioned with Social Realism, began employing literary devices of Shakespearean symbolism to challenge the ignorance, apathy and complicity of those swayed by the communism ideology.  In her poem “Rehabilitation” (1957), reassessing the “crimes of the dead”, she voiced regret at her own blindness toward human suffering and social injustice.

Dr. Frajlich believes that the September 1956 production of “Hamlet” in Krakow marked a turning point in Poland’s transformation to freedom. Popular quotes from Shakespeare, like “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” resonated with the public, as did Cyprian Norwid’s heeding 100 years earlier: “What did you do to Athens, Socrates? (1856). In 1964, Jan Kott’s “Shakespeare Our Contempary” became a world-famous bestseller. The literary revolution continued through the unrests in 1968, 1970, 1975 and 1980 until the victory of Solidarity in 1989. Two Polish Nobel laureates Czeslaw Milosz (1980) and Wislawa Szymborska (1996), many think, were distinguished partly for their contribution to a rehabilitation of a generation scarred by idealism.

The speaker from Columbia University is no stranger to forced transformations and difficult adjustments. As a child of Lvov Jewish parents from Poland born as her mother was fleeing Nazis in Kyrgyzstan in 1942, raised in Szczecin, educated in Warsaw and displaced again in 1968 by an anti-Semitic campaign, Dr. Frajlich struggled with constant loss and a search for new identity. On May 21, warmly shaking hands with Capt. Witold Alexander Herbst, a Polish fighter pilot of the legendary Squadron 303 in the the Battle of Britain, she seemed reconnecting with her youthful past.

Foto: Piotr Horoszowski
Dr. Anna Frajlich, Poetry reading in Seattle, May 22, 2010

In her poetry reading, on May 22, weaving vignettes from her personal life with subtle poems from “Between Dawn and the Wind” (2006) and other collections, she shared her saga of coping and gradually adapting to emigration in New York. She ended with what seemed like a response to Hamlet by her 2007 poem “From two roads, must chose one.” The joy and gratitude in her voice beg a question: what helped a “poetess of exile” rehabilitate from history?

Eva Orlowska

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