I have never been to Poland, but whenever I think about Poland, two things immediately come to my mind: great sausages and even greater poets.
There are, apparently, four types of Polish sausage: biała kielbasa (white sausage), kiełbasa krakowska (usually served as a cold cut), the thin pork kabanos, and kiełbasa wiejska (farmhouse sausage).
There are also four prominent Polish poets whose works grace my bookshelves: Czesław Miłosz, Wisława Szymborska, Adam Zagajewski, and Zbigniew Herbert. All four of them should be essential reading and they collectively share over 30 literary awards all together, including two Nobel prizes for literature.
Why Poland has been so unlucky in much of its political history from 1945 to 1989, but so very fortunate during the same time period in terms of producing quality sausage and quality poetry is an essay for another day perhaps. For now, let me simply say that just as a good sausage is delicious meat stuffed artfully into a casing, so is a poem delicious words stuffed into a literary form. Mmmmm.
Anyway, I’d like to focus now on just one of the great Polish poets mentioned above, Zbigniew Herbert, since I am currently reading his Collected Prose, 1948-1998. And by the way, if you haven’t read his Collected Poems, you need to, now! His poetry is both richly textured and gorgeously expansive: philosophical, ruminative, tragic and beautiful all at the same time.
But in the book of his Collected Prose, Herbert casually remarks in a conversation with the interviewer: “I think that writers who offer easy entertainment have contempt for their readers.”
Now, Herbert lived through a time of intense political oppression and artistic censorship, and he has a very classical/humanist outlook, so I get why poetry should mostly be a rather “serious” business for him. But I would want to stand up as well for all those writers of so-called “light verse” who yes, also seek to entertain their readers. I myself have been observed by one reviewer to come dangerously close to “riffing just for the sake of riffing” in some of my poems based on epigraphs. And I understand the danger. Light verse always runs the risk of “showing off” by being a mere rhyming performance or descending into vulgarity by courting easy laughs. However, if poetry is meant to be able to embrace any subject and any mood or condition of human experience, then surely it must be able to include humor and even frivolity on occasion.
All I’m saying is one can be a so-called “accessible” poet without having contempt for a reader’s intelligence. For me, accessibility in a poem is really about hospitality. I try to create an atmosphere of welcome so that most readers don’t stop reading before they’ve even started. And perhaps, were he still alive, Herbert would agree with me. Perhaps what he meant by “easy entertainment” is something more specific…a sin of poetic laziness where the promised flavor of the poem falls flat on the palate and ends up as nothing more than empty calories. And I’m sure I’ve written some of those poems too in my lifetime: poems that turn out to be ridiculous little corn dogs instead of a gourmet kiełbasa. But hey…who doesn’t like a good corn dog every now and then?