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.