POETRY Poetry International Purcell Room, SBC, London

Click to follow
Old poets never die. They merely get recycled at Poetry International. Take the case of that grand old trooper, Tadeusz Rozewicz, for example, Poland's great anti-poet of the post-war period. First he fought in the Polish Resistance. Then, in 1971, having found quite a few short, pertinent and existentially desolate things to say during those intervening years about the neo-Stalinist regime in Poland, he put in his first major appearance at Poetry International.

Here he was on Thursday on-stage again (together with his friend and translator, the poet Adam Czerniawski), the man who was once voted Poland's most popular poet by those best qualified to judge (the Poles), and who had, on another heady literary occasion, won the State Prize for Literature Class One (which was surely awarded before 1989).

What must it feel like to stand in a warm room in front of an audience of well-fed people and read poems that one has written almost half a century ago with such loveless titles as "I See Madness" and "Posthumous Rehabilitation"? Czerniawski took it hard. Lanky and depressive in general demeanour, he opted for the yoke of balefulness. (That is the translator's prerogative, of course. The translator on these occasions must serve as the poet's conscience, reminding him of his solemn duties to his own past, while the poet himself bounds recklessly - or fumbles somnambulistically, into the future.)

Tadeusz Rozewicz himself, a tiny, rotund man with over-organised grey hair, a jacket whose size seemed almost to overwhelm him, and feet that moved as if flippered, came on to the stage with an air of tentativeness about him, though of a generally benign variety.

Czerniawski, sighing, set the gravest of grave scenes: war experiences, Stalinism, etc, etc. Rozewicz, on the other end of the stage, tinkered with his texts. Czerniawski then read "I See Madness", a touch perfunctorily perhaps - that may happen when a poet wishes that he had written someone else's words himself. Then Rozewicz began, his voice found something quite different in the poem when he delivered it in the language of its composition. There was the sound of his voice for a start - somewhat distant, as though we were hearing rather in the way that one sees the world through a fogged windscreen.

In the moments when he wasn't absorbed in reading from his texts - and Rozewicz, quite playfully and capriciously, read not whole poems in the Polish, but bits and pieces here and there in order not to bore his audience (though no one seemed bored) - he looked quite cheerful. He had other little tricks up his sleeve, too, such as popping across the stage to drop the odd word into the ear of his translator, at which point Czerniawski would stare down at him amusedly from a great height, rest an arm on the old man's shoulder as though he were dubbing him for services to poetry, and presumably advise him not to fret so because there were well-wishers by the score out there.

The only moment of awkwardness in the whole evening occurred during one such consultation. Suddenly, a man in the audience shot a question in Polish. Czerniawski interpreted what the man had said with the distinct touch of a Warsaw winter (circa 1945) in his voice. "I'm being asked by a foreigner to read more slowly," he said.

Did he read a little faster thereafter?