Poetry Today

By Taylor, John | The Antioch Review, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Poetry Today


Taylor, John, The Antioch Review


If you admire the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) and especially Wislawa Szymborska (b. 1923), seek out Piotr Sommer (b. 1948). Based on Continued, the engaging versions of which have been made by Halina Janod working with co-translators (thirteen in all, including John Ashbery, Douglas Dunn, and D. J. Enright), Sommer deserves a place alongside these philosophically alert Polish poets. Let me add that he joins their company almost offhandedly. He is graced with an original kind of curiosity that scrutinizes at once the fine details of the quotidian and, at a gentle remove, its foibles. He obviously relishes common words and expressions for their own sake, all the while poking fun at poetic gravitas by wondering--in "Little Graves" notably--where he will be buried and commenting that "my thing is talking, / but in fact I like to listen, that is, to ask things"; or, inversely--in "Lighter, Darker"--that

  I ask questions
  when I should finally be giving some answers.
  I don't know who I'm directing them to
  or if I'm directing them to anyone at all.

More specifically and movingly, he avows in "Visibility" that he has not "figured out" who he is "saying" his poem "to, or even who / would care that through the leaves // you can see Halifax / and someone's life." I'll return to what observing Halifax just like this implies.

Such meta-poetic ruminations suggest that Sommer espouses the cynical contemporary view whereby the author is an arbitrary construct and interpersonal communication well nigh impossible. However, his poetics are more complex. A poet's interest can be perked in random fashion; conveying what has been perceived, imagined or intuited can assuredly run up against the ineffable (or indifference); but there is more--as Sommer shows time and again--to this age-old literary dilemma. His poems unfold unexpectedly, always developing redeeming nuances that posit, then overturn, dogmas, including those associated with the aesthetics of post-structuralism and post-modernism; in other words, that open up fresh ways of feeling, and thinking about, life as we experience it.

"Indiscretions" bluntly asks, "Where are we?" The query sums up the impetus of many poems. The poet first declares firmly that humankind is situated "in ironies / that no one will grasp, short-lived / and unmarked, in trivial points / which reduce metaphysics to absurd / detail." Yet in the final quatrain, he qualifies our predicament less trenchantly:

  And one also likes certain words and those--pardon me--
  syntaxes that pretend that something links them together.
  Between these intermeanings the whole man is contained,
  Squeezing in where he sees a little space.

Here, "pretend" sneers at the false pretensions of order and rationality, yet the word is attenuated by mankind's plucky "squeezing in," an image recalling that life is also made up of emotions, biological drives, spontaneous strategies, as well as forms of logic other than syntactic. Like the archetypal non-heroes of Central and Eastern European novels, individuals--poignantly, pathetically--may find temporary housing in an interstice, having simultaneously managed to lug into their burrow those unwieldy questions that Sommer likes to raise. Who but the far-seeing and reminiscing author of A Subsequent World and What We're Remembered By would wait until the twenty-first line of a thirty-two-line poem to wonder: "What would I write poems about? / I'd have to think, / because in fact I'm fed up with them." However, although Sommer's playful, vaguely disturbing, poems sometimes pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, they are hardly word games. They do not particularly solicit intellectual analysis or research (as do, after all, crossword puzzles), but rather something more precious: bemused yet concerned meditation on what it means to be alive and act in the world.

To wit, Sommer may point to an individual's ultimate solitude, but then, in arresting contrast, refocus on the individual among family members or friends, or even in society at large (whereby "we," not he, "live secluded under the smoke of steelworks"). …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Poetry Today
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.