Jacek Gutorow, poet, translator, literary critic, literary researcher, and essayist talks about what he needs literature for, obsessive returns, the pleasures of language, Wyspiański and Kochanowski's topicality, the adventure with Leonard Cohen, and the discovery of St. Thomas Aquinas, as well as about his openness to text and books that lead to other books.
What do you have on your bedside table?
At this very moment? Let's see. The third book of Periphyseon by John Scotus Eriugena with an excellent introduction and translation by Agnieszka Kijewska - an unparalleled spiritual primer. English translations of several treatises by Al-Ghazali. Selected Prose of Franz Kafka, edited for Ossolineum publishing house by Łukasz Musiał. As you know, I am a friend of books and I read a good deal (at least I think so). I have a few book pyramids on my desk, because there are separate readings related to my lectures, and separate books that I use when writing my own sketches.
When you read, do you set yourself specific intellectual tasks, selecting particular readings and ticking off consecutive succeeding titles, or maybe it is books that choose you?
I like to be guided by chance, but many a time have I experienced that there are no accidental readings. In practice, it is one book that leads to another, because I got interested in a minor footnote, a quotation, sometimes a casually thrown digression, which I feel I should follow. This usually leads to very long reading sequences. Let's say that in a text by Arendt I find a reference to St. Augustine of Hippo, so I reach for St.Augustine (always with great pleasure), which leads me to Neoplatonism, from which I move to Arab mystics, then to Cathars and Provencal Kabbalists... and that’s how it goes. It's not my thing to read many books on one subject or books by just one author sequentially. What I like most are changes in language, ways of thinking, formulating thoughts, jumping from (say) contemporary poetry to the Cappadocian Fathers or from Pliny to Stempowski's essays. There is rather no question of some previously prepared reading plan. I'm not talking about readings related to lectures or critical texts I write, because here, a plan is necessary. I have to say, though, that I often change the subject matter of my lectures, and I also write about various issues.
What do you need literature for?
To put it succinctly and without going into details: for expanding myself, my thinking, my sensitivity and imagination. For opening up to other languages. For a better understanding of others, and therefore, indirectly, of myself. Literature is for me a space of different languages, and also an opportunity to question my own language. It is certainly not an opportunity for me to confirm what I feel or know. It is often the case that when I start to identify with a literary text, when I feel that it flatters my expectations, then I lose interest in the continuation. It's not that the work is bad. It simply doesn't open anything in me and is probably addressed to another reader, not me.
Do you think poetry is the best lesson in sensitivity? Why is reading poems so important?
I do not want to generalise. A good poem can be a lesson in sensitivity, but it can also be an opportunity or an excuse to immerse oneself into one's own complexes, expectations, and prejudices. After years of communing with contemporary poetry, I conclude that a large part of it is an expression of psychological and personality self-mindedness, and unfortunately only that. Often, we are dealing with dazzling poetry, but immersed in itself. Of course, literature can be a great tool or a therapeutic exercise, especially for young people. Reading poetry in primary school, secondary school, or university seems to me to be an important and shaping experience. But even this experience has to be reviewed and questioned at a certain age. I believe that much depends on the reader, on their attitude, on their inner spiritual maturity.
In Życie w rozproszonym świetle (“Life in a Diffused Light”), we find an excerpt: “Poetry is not a collection of beautiful sentences or brilliant poems - it is an imperative to go beyond oneself. This, in turn, implies the need to set boundaries and discipline one's own thoughts.” How do you discipline yourself as a critic?
It is very important to set yourself boundaries. But note that these sentences also touch upon going beyond oneself. To me, there is no contradiction in this, which I try to express and show in my texts somehow. In Western culture, the cart is put before the horse. When discipline is in question, it’s in a pejorative sense – vide Foucault's analyses. The essence of discipline is not recognised in this way at all. And the essence is to achieve a state of freedom from oneself - and for others. It's quite obvious to me, there's actually nothing to talk about. And if you ask about my critical activity, I have to repeat that what is most important is read the text carefully, work with the text, openness to the text – while, simultaneously, clearing your mind. I emphasise: clearing your mind, withdrawing, not obscuring or removing. Disciplined reading forces us to broaden our sensitivity, but, in the end, it is not violation at all, but a blessing. After all, it is all about understanding better and more, and maybe also in a different way.
Recently you said surprising words. "After Brzozowski's time, Wyspiański's time has come.” Could you expand on that? By the way, I know that you have just been reading the dramas by the author of Wesele (“The Wedding”).
This is a question for a separate conversation. The sentence you quoted is a hyperbola (in addition, it was mentioned in a private conversation) - I cannot imagine that we could leave Brzozowski, who is one of the greatest treasures of our 20th-century Polish culture. May it be an excuse for me that I have just read then a few sketches published in one of the last issues of "Przegląd Polityczny", devoted among others to Wyspiański. I was struck by the strong wording in these texts: Wyspiański today, Wyspiański redivivus, Wyspiański restart. While I am cautious about such fast, disturbingly catchy slogans at the starting point, after reading the texts published in "Przeglad", I understood something that I had been able to understand earlier on the occasion of individual readings - that Wyspiański's work, especially Wyzwolenie (“Liberation”), the most difficult and incomprehensible of his plays (not entirely satisfactory as a dramatic work), is surprisingly topical, especially in today's Poland. As I say, it would have to be a separate conversation about this, now, I do not feel up to developing this topic as much as it deserves, nor am I a connoisseur of this work.
In one of the interviews, Wiesław Myśliwski recently said that he considered Jan Kochanowski to be the greatest contemporary (!) Polish poet, who "brought Polish language out of darkness". Do you return to the poetry of this author, do you find there material for reflection?
I fully subscribe to Myśliwski's opinion. Kochanowski is indeed the most outstanding contemporary Polish poet. More contemporary than the Romantics, certainly more contemporary than the poets of Young Poland, probably also from many poets of the second half of the 20th century. I experience it every time I read, let's say, Fraszki (“Epigrams”) or Treny (“Laments”). Epigrams are a good example, especially if you read them as a whole, from the first to the last, in the order planned by the poet. What amazes us above all is the variety of views, perspectives, points of view, the variety of voices and registers. Kochanowski freely changes the tone or register, and each time, it is convincing - each epigram is a perfectly developed and filled with itself entirety, nothing can be changed there, everything is in its place, and, at the same time, in the subsequent poems, the perspective is presented differently, even marginally, by means of a single word, but still. I read those "valuables" so many times (this is how Janusz Pelc wrote about epigrams), and I never found any rhetorical padding in them, although one could expect something like that, for this is regular poetry, based on metre and rhymes, also on certain fixed topoi or images. No obvious repetitions. Many epigrams are similar, but there is always a detail that distinguishes one from the other: it does not have to be a linguistic or formal detail, it can be a matter of voice, style, register, playing with convention in one way or another, a hidden reference to Neoplatonic or Aristotelian ideas (these traces are very important to me and, in my opinion, they determine the uniqueness of Kochanowski's poetry). And then this language - invariably accurate, each time hits the mark, and, at the same time, unusual, for multiple readings. It suffices to compare Kochanowski to romantic poets. Someone will protest and evoke, I don’t know, Liryki lozańskie (“Lausanne Lyrics”) by Mickiewicz. All right. The point is, however, that Lyrics are only a few poems (the most outstanding in the Polish language, this is true). But Kochanowski wrote in such a way throughout his whole life. I don't want to make any senseless comparisons here, especially as I love both Mickiewicz and Słowacki. However, since we have recalled the category of modernity, I completely agree with Myśliwski.
For many years, you were on the jury of the Literary Award of the City of Gdynia and it was necessary for you to read a lot of novelties. Keeping your finger on the pulse of current literary events like that can probably be impoverishing in the long run. Do you have any author you would like to remind yourself of, given the huge number of current readings? And do you return to books you have read?
I do, I do... I return to many books and authors obsessively, I circulate through them, I examine them from different angles. Especially that it is never a repetition - when you return to a book years after, you read it differently, in a different light, with different expectations and in a different state of mind. When you read something after thirty years, it is basically a new reading, because you are a different person. These returns are most often spontaneous, although, as I said at the beginning, I do not believe in coincidences, and I usually return to a book driven by some subconscious compulsion, although I notice this after some time.
Are there any authors whom, for various reasons, you will not consciously pick up anymore?
It is hard to say. I know from experience that sometimes we return unexpectedly to authors whom we have either forgotten or put on a high shelf, and who suddenly turn out to be important to us and whom we suddenly have to read again. It is often the case that I put away a title thinking 'no, I will certainly not return to that', and after, let’s say, twenty years, the same text turns out to be of fundamental importance to me. In my opinion, there are no rules here, and I would be afraid to say anything binding.
Have you experienced any painful reading disappointments? Do you have a writer with whom your adventure with literature began?
These are two questions. I don’t know how to answer the first one. Clearly, there are things that I do not like as much, but does it make sense to talk about it? I just put the book away, I don't return to it, I reach for something else. As for the first love... At the age of thirteen or fourteen, I came across by chance an English volume of early poems by Leonard Cohen (before he started singing), poems so simple language-wise that I started to translate them, although my knowledge of the English language was minimal at the time and the results must have been funny; anyway, these texts made a great impression on me, and I still consider them to be perfect poetry. Then there was Leśmian, then for a moment Brodsky (after the Nobel Prize). In prose... let me think... there was Nabokov, of course, there was Salinger as the author of Nine Stories, there was Cortazar. Mainly short forms. Above all, however, from the very beginning, there was a fascination with language: letters, syllables, words, sounds, and colours of individual words, consonance of suddenly connected words, music of a phrase. I remember that language has always been an incredible pleasure for me, and I was and am still looking for this pleasure in literature.
In your opinion, is the meaning of our life fulfilled in reading? Or maybe in writing? Your last volume begins with a succinct poem Rachunek sumienia (“Examination of Conscience”): "I wanted to enclose my life in words. / Today I feel that it is sealed.”
This is a difficult question. Ultimately, the sense of life is not fulfilled, in my opinion, either in writing or in reading. Rather in some basic, all-embracing openness and acceptance... The poetic word has a rather limited scope. Years later, I find that the most important life experiences are connected with going beyond poetry, metaphor, rhetoric - and such intuition probably hides behind the Examination of Conscience (but I never write poems with a thesis, I rather follow their current and therefore, I am a bad interpreter of my poems). Towards what? Let's say that towards absolute simplicity. Towards inner silence, thanks to which everything resounds in a proper, louder, more expressive way. Towards silence, which does not mean muteness - quite the contrary.
You mentioned that you have recently been reading St. Thomas Aquinas. In your opinion, is he an author with whom one can set a spiritual sail?
It’s curious that you have recalled the image of the sail. Such a metaphor appears at the end of a conversation with Stefan Swieżawski, opening his book Święty Tomasz na nowo odczytany (“St.Thomas Revisited”). I remember that I was very impressed by Swieżawski's final words when he talks about a youthful turn towards spiritual life. Can I quote? It goes more or less like this: "At one point, the sail, geared to my pleasures and various desires, spun around and set about some great thing about which I did not know at the time what it was". It was similar with my first readings of Thomas. I am talking about a very recent issue. For many years, I gave these texts a wide berth, probably mainly because of my shunning of Polish neo-Tomism. However, when I delved into The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy by Gilson, and then into the Treatise on Human Nature, it just stopped me in my tracks... you know, I was speechless. And quite literally, I felt that the wind was taking me to the wide, open sea. Anyway, any metaphors fail here. First of all, and contrary to appearances, the philosophy of St. Thomas is the effect of spiritual illumination, not some scholastic deliberations or discussions. Its systemic character is secondary and less important. If you read these texts really intensively, if you enter into the meaning of what Thomas says, if you follow the path he sets out, then the impression is powerful. And that's all I can say, because I'm not a philosopher, and Thomas’ philosophy is not the simplest one.
In your recently published book of translations: Oko wie lepiej. Ashbery, Clover, Cole (“The Eye Knows Better. Ashbery, Clover, Cole”), from the latter poet, we read: “I don't want words to sever me from reality. / I don't want to need them. / I want nothing to reveal feeling but feeling—as in freedom, / or the knowledge of peace in a realm beyond, or the sound of water poured in a bowl.” Would you agree with these words?
They are close to me. I think especially about the ambivalence hidden in them - on the one hand, the desire to avoid words, and on the other - the intuition that it may be impossible. So the dream of innocence, and, at the same time, the awareness that could be expressed by quoting Marcin Baran and one of his best poems: "Remember, you’ve already been innocent.” The excerpt you quoted was often cited by American reviewers. No wonder - it's like Cole's aphorism of life.
And why does the eye know better?
Because it sounds so nice. Strictly speaking, it is about an attentive eye and the ability (or maybe the willingness) to look at the world in a conscious way, as objective as possible, without prejudice. As the philosopher says: "peaceful, persevering, focused, stabilised, humble towards reality seeing ". To me, these are the features of a good poem. If a poet has a keen eye and a good ear, the rest has (I think) a secondary meaning.
I know that Manaraga, Sorokin's new novel, is waiting to be read. It always amazes me when you say that he is one of the funniest writers for you.
It's more or less as if you asked me why I like Rachmaninov's melodies. There is no way to explain it, it often seems incomprehensible to me. Likewise, with a sense of humour. Why do we find something funny? It is not easy to answer this question. Certainly, Sorokin is able to use and process Russian and folk humour in an interesting way, which, by the way, I know quite well. I am close to the tendency to treat literary and social conventions ridiculously. The Blizzard is a real masterpiece to me. Reading Sugar Kremlin - I was in stiches. It's a bit like postmodern Chekhov, right? Besides, the insightfulness in diagnosing what could be called Russianness, especially Russianness in Putin's times, is Chekhov's spirituality. And I am very curious about Manaraga.
You are very active literarily. In recent years, you have announced a collection of essays: Life in a Diffused Light (2016), books of translations: Wygnani z raju. Jones, Hill. Tomlinson (“Exiles from Paradise. Jones, Hill. Tomlinson” ) and The Eye Knows Better. Ashbery, Clover, Cole (2018), a volume of poems Rok bez chmur (“A Year Without Clouds” ), a quasi-journal Monaten (2017). Which of these literary professions is closest to you? Are you more of a poet or a critic, or maybe the other way round?
I think I get this question most often. It is in a different way that you are a poet, a critic, a translator. First of all, I consider myself to be a reader. A reader who reads, asks, listens, tries to understand. All my critical activity results from this one trigger. Translation is the most difficult, but it is extraordinary fun, because the thing is happening within language. When it comes to writing poems, almost everything is done outside my conscious control, even if some poems seem to be very conscious and mastered. Poetic texts are often self-minded and overly personal. One writes something, because they have to get it out of their chest, often something completely, you’d think, detached and seemingly unrelated to their life - and years later, it turns out that it was a camouflaged expression and release of their own complexes and obsessions. My ideal is objective poetry, which allows me to free myself from myself. I managed to write a few such poems.
Is there any author you can't write about, but you would like to?
I don’t know, Dante? I am a great admirer of Divine Comedy, especially Paradiso (which I consider to be the most important and the best part of the poem). Unfortunately, I don't know Italian, and I realise how important the role language plays in this work. I would also like to be able to write about mystics, whom I read all the time, but for the life of me, I cannot.
Do you listen to music while reading or writing?
No, because the music completely carries me away, and even if I wanted to, I couldn’t switch off from it. It could be anything, Mendelsohn's variation, Josquin's short motet, or Monteverdi’s madrigal crystal – anyone who knows me knows that I drop everything and immerse myself in sounds completely. Writing is out of the question then. Incidentally, I also perceive poetry in a musical way. What is important to me is the composition, the structure, the tension between the elements, on the other hand, the sounding of sounds, syllables, words, their inner luminosity. I feel words and phrases like chords, and to me, a good poem means a certain balance of consonance and harmony (or dissonances and disharmony).
In Księga zakładek (“The Book of Bookmarks” ), you wrote eight years ago: "There is no progress in art. There is only the intensity of gaze, and the ability to open up to the world.” Do you support these reflections?
Definitely. You asked about the topicality and modernity of Kochanowski's poetry. This is an example of how a writer who wrote centuries ago becomes a creator of our time. It is easy to notice that poetry, which proclaims itself as progressive - this concerns avant-garde poetry to a large extent - after just a few decades, it appears to be quite old-fashioned; often interesting, but strangely artificial. Is it possible to talk about progress in art? Not so much, because progress means getting entangled in time, while an authentic poem comes to us and is read beyond time.
Are you working on any book now? Can we expect any publication of yours this year?
I’m hoping that I will finally be able to publish a selection of sketches about Anglo-Saxon modernist poets. It is a very important book for me. I know that I am paying off my debt with it. I believe I can say that modernism has shaped my poetic and critical literary sensitivity. I have always been closest to the modernists. I am not thinking about poets solely, because prose writers were and are important to me: later Henry James, Joyce, Beckett. A great tradition, still current, still alive, still thought-provoking. That's what my schedule for this year looks like.
Interviewer: Bartosz Suwiński
Translated by Justyna Lowe