Page 16, 8th April 2005

8th April 2005
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Page 16, 8th April 2005 — Unleashing a force called man
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Organisations: Polish Church
Locations: Krakow, Warsaw, London

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Unleashing a force called man

For more than a decade Vatican watchers predicted the imminent demise of John Paul II, treating every act as his last and describing each event with the finality of a graveyard orator. When the Pope returned to the Vatican from Poland in August 2002, they said there would be no more surprises. They were wrong.

Journalists and biographers had assumed the poetry of Karol Wojtyla ended with an abrupt full stop in 1978, the year John Paul II was elected pope. But this January, the Vatican announced that the Pontiff had decided to publish a new poem cycle, entitled The Roman Triptych. The announcement took everyone by surprise. Everyone, that is, except Professor Jerzy Peterkiewicz.

Prof Peterkiewicz had translated Wojtyla’s poetry into English in the late Seventies and Eighties and had an intuition that there were more poems to come. In late January, he received a call from the Pope’s personal secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, commissioning him to translate the new cycle. The only condition was that he delivered his translation within a month.

That’s when the problems began. Prof Peterkiewicz, who describes himself as “the last medieval scribe”, did not own a fax or computer, so he could not receive the cycle immediately. With a neighbour’s help, he assembled a makeshift fax and the text was eventually sent from Poland. The pages were not numbered and did not come through in order. So Professor Peterkiewicz had to begin the translation without knowing the sequence of the poems.

Then the 86-year-old professor became unwell. He struggled on with the translation, waking up in the middle of the night to sit at his old typewriter, hammering out the lines.

When he finished the manuscript, he sent it by guaranteed delivery. A few days later, he received a panicked call from the Vatican saying it hadn’t arrived. As the publication date loomed, Prof Peterkiewicz faxed his translation through to the Apostolic Palace. It arrived just in time to be handed out to journalists at the March 6 presentation at the Vatican.

When I meet the professor at his Hampstead home he is still suffering the after-effects of illness. But one wouldn’t guess it from his appearance. He is dressed elegantly in a blue and white striped shirt and a plaid jacket with a glinting red pomegranate brooch, the symbol of Granada and a reminder of his love of southern Spain.

Prof Peterkiewicz was born four years before Karol Wojtyla in 1916. As a young man, he lived in Warsaw, where he was a celebrated poet. He left Poland during the Second World War and settled in London, where he combined his literary interests with a distinguished academic career. His penthouse flat is decorated with the work of fellow Polish émigré artists, and vivid Spanish and Polish folk art. The walls are covered with valuable books, including first editions of the classics of European literature. The professor gives me a cup of tea in a mug that plays “Waltzing Matilda” when lifted and explains that he read his first poem by Karol Wojtyla in the Sixties in an anthology of Polish poetic prayers. He had an immediate sense of recognition. (“I thought: ‘That’s the man.’”) Karol Wojtyla had himself probably already read a poem by Prof Peterkiewicz republished in Tygodnik Powszechny, a Catholic newspaper based in Krakow.

But the professor’s life did not become intimately entwined with the poetry of Karol Wojtyla until 1978. Most of the immediate coverage of John Paul II’s election focused on the ending of the 450-year Italian monopoly on the papacy. But Prof Peterkiewicz knew something even more interesting about the new Pontiff.

“Someone heard a rumour that the Pope was a poet, but nobody could verify it,” he recalls. “The BBC got hold of me because I was professor of Polish literature. I told them that I knew Karol Wojtyla’s poems, and so they sent a taxi for me to come to the studio. I translated about eight or 10 lines from ‘The Quarry’ and I recited it for them. That was a poetic bomb that exploded around the globe.” The revelation seemed to capture the world’s imagination. “That was the most attractive thing for people,” the professor says, “imagining the Pope was a poet.” John Paul was no longer merely a Pope “from a far country”, he was now an artist whose inner life could be read in verse.

The publisher Hutchinson gave Prof Peterkiewicz a month to translate a selection of Karol Wojtyla’s best short poems. He obtained permission from the Vatican and set to work.

“In the middle, as usual, I became ill with the flu. The publisher sent someone every day to collect a poem from me. I amazed myself, because in the end I translated 42 poems.” The collection was surprisingly diverse, with only one or two explicitly devotional poems. The poems described the lives of car factory workers, blind men and lovelorn girls. The professor says he wanted to enlarge the public’s understanding of Karol Wojtyla and to reveal the extraordinary breadth of his interests.

“Someone once asked me who I considered to be the best ‘social’ poet in Polish,” he recounts. “They meant the best communist poet. I answered: Karol Wojtyla.” Prof Peterkiewicz puts on his black-rimmed reading glasses, takes a sip of semisweet Spanish wine, and reads from his favourite poem in the first collection, “The Actor”. The poem was written in 1957, but seems to prophesy Karol Wojtyla’s future role as an actor on the world stage: The professor looks up from the book. “The variety shown in these 42 poems suddenly endeared him to people. There were articles, even in the big papers, like The New York Times, hailing him almost as the voice of the age. I had this inspiration then that I must produce the collected poems.” This was, he says laconically, hard work. With the world’s interest aroused, he felt a heavy burden of responsibility.

“From the beginning I was aware that I had to be very responsible. I was not only translating a literary text, but also a historical document. This responsibility was in me. I had to look at the words very carefully. I had to remember that this was a man of literature and of history.” Whenever he reached a line or phrase he could not translate, he simply stopped and moved on to another poem. “I’d sleep on it and the things were often resolved in one’s dream, or through a new perspective.” He also struggled with what could be called the ethics of translation – the need to remain faithful to the original text. Many of Karol Wojtyla’s poems contained shocking insights and violent images. There was a temptation to soften the words, to pander to the saccharine souvenir plate image of the papacy.

“I would always hesitate to prettify anything,” Prof Peterkiewicz says. “Some people – especially in Italian – prettify things. But that’s not him. He has something rough, something harsh, and I like that.” As he translated the poems, he reflected on John Paul II’s twin vocations – priestly and artistic. As a young man, Karol Wojtyla was convinced he would become a famous actor and writer. But in his early twenties, he felt what he has described as “an interior illumination which brought with it the joy and certainty of a new vocation”. The professor says this process is presented with extraordinary clarity in the long poem cycle from 1944, “Song of the Hidden God”.

“It is incredible,” he says, pointing to the sixth section. “His description of the nearness of God.” He reads: For long Someone was leaning over me – On the line of my eyebrows His shadow had no weight, Like a light filled with green, Like green with no shade, An ineffable green that rests On drops of blood.

That leaning gesture, both cool and hot, Slides into me, yet stays overhead, It passes by, yet turns to faith and fullness.

The poem cycle draws heavily on the imagery of the Spanish Carmelite mystic, St John of the Cross. Karol Wojtyla, who tried several times to enter the Carmel, describes his own spiritual journey in terms of the via negativa, the soul’s journey through darkness into the Divine light.

Prof Peterkiewicz, who is also influenced by Carmelite spirituality, says that translating this poem was close to a religious experience. “When I was translating ‘Song of the Hidden God’, the Carmelite poems, I felt very close to him,” he comments.

The Collected Poems were published in 1982 to nearly universal acclaim. The Catholic Herald said the verses were “astonishing for their luminous imagery, their rhythmic range and, above all, for their penetrating imagination”. Papal biographer Peter Hebblethwaite described them as “the best introduction to the man”.

A few years later, the publishing giant Random House bought out Hutchinson and reprinted the poems, taking them to a vast new audience in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and America. Polish readers, remarkably, had to wait longer to read the Pope’s collected poems; the tension between the Polish Church and the Communist state made it wise to delay their publication.

A quarter of a century after he first published his translations, Prof Peterkiewicz continues to receive letters from readers around the world. He recalls hearing of two English women suffering from cancer who chose to read the poems as a companion before death.

According to the professor, The Roman Triptych “closes the circle” of Karol Wojtyla’s poetic career. It is a long and wide-ranging poem cycle, reflecting on the beginning and the end of Creation, humanity and the pontificate of John Paul II. As the title suggests, the cycle is in three parts. It has a Trinitarian structure, being three poems in one.

Prof Peterkiewicz suggests that we should think of the cycle as a three-panelled painting above an altar. On the left-hand side, there is “The Stream”, a meditation on Creation and nature, inspired, no doubt, by Karol Wojtyla’s many mountain trips. The poem emphasises the need to go “against the current” to find God, the source of life.

The central panel, “Meditations on the Book of Genesis at the Threshold of the Sistine Chapel”, is the largest and most impressive section. Here the Pope reflects on the original nakedness of Adam and Eve, and the final nakedness of mankind at the Last Judgment.

Between the beginning and the end of the world, he sees the Church guiding humanity towards God. He dwells on the image of the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel, who find themselves “between the Beginning and the End”, choosing the successor of Peter beneath Michelangelo’s depiction of the Last Judgement.

The triptych’s right-hand panel is entitled “A Hill in the Land of Moria”. Here the Pope meditates on the life of Abraham, the father of believers, and comments indirectly on his own life journey. Just as Abram became Abraham through the obedience of faith, so Karol Wojtyla became John Paul II, the spiritual father of the world’s one billion Catholics, by obedience to God.

The cycle ends with the expectation of redemption, the hope that after Abraham’s death the saviour will arrive to reconcile humanity to God. The reader is left feeling that the Pope is passing on his own spiritual testament; he is witnessing to the faith that guided his life and that will carry him through death and into eternal life.

The final lines take us back to the beginning of Karol Wojtyla’s poetic career, to the great “Song of the Hidden God”: Love explained all for me, All was resolved by love, So this love I adore Wherever it may be.

I am open space for a placid tide Where no wave roars, clutching at rainbow branches.

Now a soothing wave uncovers light in the deep And breathes light on to unsilvered leaves.

In such silence I hide, A leaf released from the wind, No longer anxious for the days that fall.

They must all fall, I know.

This is an edited version of an article that appeared in The Catholic Herald of March 21, 2003




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