April’s arrival of National Poetry Month got me thinking about the role poetry plays in my upcoming novel, Tasa’s Song, a story about an aspiring Jewish violinist living in eastern Poland during World War II. Woven into the narrative are the melodies of Tchaikovsky, Paganini, Sarasate, Smetana, Mozart, Chopin, Strauss Jr. and others. Music transports Tasa Rosinski, especially at times of upheaval: she plays pieces that remind her of home or fills her mind with melodies that keep her spirit alive. Poetry offers her a similar peacefulness.
At the height of the onslaught by the Germans, Tasa and several members of her family escape to an underground hiding place built by a Catholic Pole, Josef Gnyp, who had worked for the Rosinskis before the war. It is a relatively calm evening in 1943. Tasa and Danik, her older cousin and lover, steal away into a corner to read poetry.
Tasa and Danik walked away from the other four to the basket of books, several tattered and all more than gently used. Tasa assumed they belonged to Jaga, who’d attended university in the ‘20s. Danik began to finger through the pile. “Josef has quite the collection. Pan Tadeusz, by Adam Mickiewicz. I read that in Lwow just before all things Polish were expunged. This epic poem was his masterpiece. It tells the story of two feuding noble families.”
Adam Mickiewicz, considered one of Poland’s greatest poets and the leader of the Polish Romantic movement, was a lifelong advocate of national freedom and unity.
In Pan Tadeusz, he created a “national epic,” by drawing on the traditions of the historical novel, poetic novel, epic poem and descriptive poem, using lyricism, pathos, irony and realism to recreate the world of the Lithuanian gentry on the eve of the Napoleonic armies’ arrival. Born in 1798, three years after the final partition of Poland, Mickiewicz provided hope to Poles under Russian, Prussian and Austrian rule with his ardent patriotism. Given the troubled history of Poland, along with his fascination with mysticism and passion for the positive facets of Polish life, Mickiewicz came to epitomize the national spirit for succeeding generations of Polish writers.
The scene between Tasa and Danik continues as Danik finds a rare collection by Anna Akhmatova, Russia’s leading female literary voice before the time of Stalin. Danik recalls how difficult it was to sneak her poetry into the university once the Soviets controlled the portion of eastern Poland where Tasa and Danik lived and studied. Danik pulls out a thin booklet, its cover torn, and begins paging through it. He stumbles upon one poem, “Everything is Plundered,” which he reads aloud slowly.Akhmatova, National Poetry Month
Tasa placed her hands on the floor behind her, shifting some of her weight onto them. The poem stirred something inside her. Its depiction of misery butting up against the world’s miracles took her breath away. Poetry affected her, in many ways, just like music did. Reading poems to each other reminded her of when she and Danik played music together—those were the times she felt most alive. Tasa put her head against Danik’s shoulder. They sat quietly, conscious of the intermittent voices of her father and Tolek playing cards, of Sascha speaking softly to Jakov.
Anna Akhmatova was born in Odessa in 1889. When her first book, Evening, was published in 1912 she became a cult figure among the intellectual and literary circles in St. Petersburg. Her verse protected the traditions of classical Russian culture from radicalism and experimentation, as well as from the ideological restrictions of socialist realism. During her lifetime, she was frequently confronted with official government opposition to her work but was deeply loved and lauded by the Russian people. Her poetic persona, despite its restraint, embodied the tragic spirit of twentieth-century Russia.
Perhaps Russia’s most famous poet was Alexander Pushkin, a contemporary of Mickiewicz, born in 1799. Tasa and Danik find Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse, as they continue to wade through the basket’s treasures. Pushkin wrote his masterwork over seven years. It was published in 1833. Tasa recalls a run-in she had with an instructor when her private academy became a Soviet state school; how nineteenth-century Russian literature, including that of Pushkin, was sidelined in favor of Stalin’s focus on socialist realism. Tasa teases Danik, saying she always wanted to see him sing Onegin’s part in Tchaikovsky’s opera adaptation.
“After all, it calls for a baritone and his character is a lazy man who likes to go to parties and socialize. You’d be perfect.”
A bit later, Tasa reaches into the basket and finds a booklet filled with Pushkin poems. She turns to her favorite, “Wondrous Moment.” Danik leans against her, resting his chin on her shoulder to view the words.
She read it through silently, feeling its poignancy, so steeped was it in love and dreams and memories.
Danik finally takes the Pushkin booklet from Tasa. As he skims through it, he zeroes in on what he says was his favorite, just for her: “The Night.” He reads:
My voice for you is languid, low and light, Troubling the silence of the dark, late night. A sullen candle at the pillow’s verge Glows; and my verses murmurously merge And gush; the brooks of love flow full of you And in the darkness that your eyes shine through To smile at me, there are the sounds, I hear: I’m yours . . . I’m yours . . . my dear . . . my only dear.
Like the music in Tasa’s Song, I incorporated poetry to parallel the emotion of the narrative and to make a scene come alive. When the escapees lived in a bunker beneath a barn, with war raging above them—when Tasa’s violin had to remain silent—the quiet sharing of poetry became the perfect antidote to their tension and vulnerability.
Amid the noise and competing media of our current era—surrounded as we are by the tension in our political conversations and terror around the world—our annual celebration of National Poetry Month signifies the importance and value of keeping poetry a vital part of our lives.