Eastern European Poetry in Translation, and its Impact on Western Writing


From the 1960s onwards, what attracted British, Irish and American poets and readers to twentieth-century Eastern European poetry was the power and uncompromising honesty with which it addressed a history more brutal and conditions more stark than they themselves had known. All but one of the countries whose poets feature on the course had for centuries had been subjected to foreign domination, absorbed into the Tsarist, Prussian, Habsburg and Ottoman Empires; the exception, Russia, fell victim itself to an even crueller tyranny in the wake of the Revolution.

Less than twenty years after achieving autonomy, Czechoslovakia, then soon after Poland, Hungary, and Yugoslavia were occupied by Nazi Germany. Millions of their citizens perished during World War II, before 'liberation' that arrived in the form of the Red Army. For Poles, Czechs and Hungarians, compelled to submit to Soviet-backed communist party rule from 1944–89, literature 'took on a special function: it became the only public means of preserving the country's identity, its national life, culture and integrity' (Alvarez 20). At times directly, more often indirectly, the poets' work confronted the worst excesses of war and occupation, followed by communist rule, with a spirit of resistance and deep sense of compassion. For their readership at home, and later for readers in the west, the work of such poets as Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Pasternak, Milosz, Herbert and Szymborska was regarded as exemplary in its embrace of both a 'local' and a wider world.

Drawing on an anthology the tutor will provide of poems by Russian, Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Yugoslav poets, course participants will engage initially in a close analysis of texts in translation, drawn from a range of cultures in the period from 1918 onwards. Students will examine strategies deployed regularly by Eastern European poets - such as the use of parables, allegory, and classical, literary and historical analogies and allusions - which, though a common feature of their own, earlier literary traditions, regained currency in American, British and Irish verse. 

To enhance understanding of the contexts from which this poetry comes, students will be given links to useful documentary footage and encouraged to watch feature films. 


Programme details

Courses starts: 17 Jan 2022

Week 0:  An Introduction to Teams

Week 1: Introduction:  'Beyond the Gentility Principle', A. Alvarez's introduction to The New Poetry (revised ed. 1965), and the founding of Modern Poetry in Translation.

Week 2:  Russian Poets under Stalinism, including Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak and Irina Ratushinskaya 

Week 3:  Poetry in the wake of World War II, including Tadeusz Różewicz (Poland); Miroslav Holub (Czechoslovakia); Janos Pilinszky (Hungary);  Vasko Popa (Yugoslavia).

Week 4:  Selected poems from Sylvia Plath, poems from Ariel (1965) and Ted Hughes, Crow (1970)

Week 5: Polish Poets I:  Czesław Miłosz, and his international impact. 

Week 6: Polish Poets II:  Zbigniew Herbert, Stanislaw Barańczak

Week 7:  Selected poems by Seamus Heaney from his 1980s 'parable' phase. 

Week 8: Polish Poets: Wisława Szymborska 

Week 9: Eastern European traces in selected mid-late twentieth century Western poems I:

United Kingdom Jo Shapcott, Alice Oswald. America: Robert Hass, Charles Simic. France: Yves Bonnefoy;

Week 10: Eastern European and international traces in selected mid-late twentieth century Western poems II. 

United Kingdom Christopher Reid, George Szirtes. Northern Ireland/ Ireland: Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Sinéad Morrissey, Bernard O’Donoghue.


Students who register for CATS points will receive a Record of CATS points on successful completion of their course assessment.

To earn credit (CATS points) you will need to register and pay an additional £10 fee per course. You can do this by ticking the relevant box at the bottom of the enrolment form or when enrolling online.

Coursework is an integral part of all weekly classes and everyone enrolled will be expected to do coursework in order to benefit fully from the course. Only those who have registered for credit will be awarded CATS points for completing work at the required standard.

Students who do not register for CATS points during the enrolment process can either register for CATS points prior to the start of their course or retrospectively from the January 1st after the current full academic year has been completed. If you are enrolled on the Certificate of Higher Education you need to indicate this on the enrolment form but there is no additional registration fee.


Description Costs
Course Fee £229.00
Take this course for CATS points £10.00


Prof Michael Parker

Michael Parker works for the Department for Continuing Education, and as a freelance writer. The author/ editor of nine books on modern poetry, fiction and drama, his research focuses primarily on Irish, British, European and Postcolonial Literatures and their historical contexts.

Course aims

To introduce students to the richness and diversity of Eastern European poetry, and to demonstrate how it affected important poets working in western-based traditions.

Course Objectives:

1. To analyse and evaluate a range of poems from Eastern Europe, Britain, Ireland and America, focusing on the political and ethical issues they address, and the techniques they employ

2. To develop an understanding of the political, historical and cultural contexts from which these poems have emerged.

3. To consolidate the student’s sense of confidence in their own authority as a reader of texts.

Teaching methods

The WOW course will consist of a weekly, one-hour pre-recorded lecture, to be viewed by students in preparation for the weekly, live online seminar at the time advertised. The live online seminars will take the form of guided discussions based on the course reading. Student participation is expected and welcomed. At times during the live online seminars, students will be divided into smaller groups or pairs to study particular poems or of critical material relating to them, and then will report back to the class as the basis for further group discussion. These activities are intended to foster an active, participatory approach to learning that will allow students to sharpen their critical faculties, test out new ideas, and develop their oral skills.

Shortly after each class, the tutor will forward to students a powerpoint with additional material , incorporating ideas that emerged, and identifying sources for further study.

Prior to submitting the main assessment, students will also have the opportunity to discuss the topics in class, and contact the tutor individually, should they require further guidance.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course students will be expected to:

1. Convey through their oral and written work knowledge and understanding of a range of  texts, demonstrating their ability to analyse their meanings, methods and formal qualities, and evaluate their strengths and possible shortcomings

2. Recognise the significance of the particular cultural, political and historical contexts in which texts have been produced.

3. Understand the value and limitations of certain theoretical approaches to literature. For this course, this will include a grasp of the concept of ideology in relation to politics and gender. 

4. Display evidence of an increased sense of belief in their ability to make informed judgments about literary works. 

Assessment methods

The assessment process will involve two short pieces of written coursework

i) an analysis of a single poem in 400-500 words (following week 3 of the course) 

ii) a fuller discussion of 1,000 words embracing anything between three or five poems by one or several poets (due after week 10)

Students must submit a completed Declaration of Authorship form at the end of term when submitting your final piece of work. CATS points cannot be awarded without the aforementioned form - Declaration of Authorship form


Each course will close for enrolments 7 days prior to the start date to allow us to complete the course set up. We will email you at that time (7 days before the course begins) with further information and joining instructions. As always, students will want to check spam and junk folders during this period to ensure that these emails are received.

To earn credit (CATS points) for your course you will need to register and pay an additional £10 fee per course. You can do this by ticking the relevant box at the bottom of the enrolment form or when enrolling online.

Please use the 'Book' or 'Apply' button on this page. Alternatively, please complete an application form.

Level and demands

As this is an introductory course, aimed at students from a range of backgrounds, the only requirements will a good measure of intellectual curiosity,  a willingness to engage actively with the material, and to be open to the views of others. Some basic familiarity with terms associated with poetry (themes, form, rhythm, imagery, alliteration, allusion, assonance) would be advantageous, though it is anticipated that students unused to analysing poems will quickly acquire skills and gain in confidence. 

Most of the Department's weekly classes have 10 or 20 CATS points assigned to them. 10 CATS points at FHEQ Level 4 usually consist of ten 2-hour sessions. 20 CATS points at FHEQ Level 4 usually consist of twenty 2-hour sessions. It is expected that, for every 2 hours of tuition you are given, you will engage in eight hours of private study.

Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS)