As "The Place Within", the new edition of the Pope's poems is published, Felix Corley asks the book's translator, Jerzy Peterkiewicz what they reveal about John Paul II.
HIGH LIP IN HIS book-lined flat overlooking London, Jerzy Peterkiewicz quotes thc late poet Stephen Spender about the first edition of the Pope's poems: "They exist on a level of imaginative utterance far above that of dogmatic public statements." This is a sentiment Peterkiewicz enthusiastically endorses.
"People have a very fixed image of the Pope after all
these years," says Peterkiewicz. "The poetry is his personal voice."
He believes they show the Pope's inner person, "the place within", as one of the poems is entitled.
Peterkiewicz considers the most revealing poems are the early ones, written before the Pope was ordained especially the cycle The Song of the Hidden God.
But the simplest is the first in the collection, composed when John Paul was just 19, recalling his feelings at his mother's grave. "It is moving and simple."
How was Peterkiewicz, then a professor of Polish at London University and a poet and novelist in his own right, chosen by the Papal Commission to translate the first edition of his poems back in 1979? He laughs.
"I was interviewed on TV when the Pope was elected in 1978, and I said that he was a poet no-one knew this then. John Paul was very secretive, publishing his poems anonymously. I spoke of his poem The Quarry, and the whole thing exploded round the world."
Peterkiewicz declines with a smile to say how he knew, even before John Paul was elected Pope, that he wrote poetry. "Let's say I knew it," he says mysteriously.
He recalls how, to produce the first collection of the poems, East Vigil, he had to work flat out, despite a bout of fiu. "I had to translate one poem a day," he recalls. On publication in March 1979, it was the first publication of the Pope's poems in book form anywhere in the world, in any language (including Polish).
A further edition was produced in 1982. Since then the response from readers has been remarkable. "People want to read the poems. They want to know more about the person they love. I've had wonderful letters from people, saying how they react to them.
They are not intimidated by what is difficult in them."
Peterkiewicz denies that the poems are especially difficult although he concedes that they have to be absorbed slowly. "You don't expect to understand any poetry the first time."
It is clear that the translator has lavished great care on his work. "When you are translating the poems you have to find the right tone. In this poetry the thinking is recorded as a process. You have to act in a mental sense yourself in order to translate it."
As an aid to understanding the mind of the poet, "as much to get into the mood of the landscape as into the buildings or rooms", Peterkiewicz made his own visit to the places Wojtyla had lived in as he grew up and during his ministry as priest and bishop.
Peterkiewicz arrived in Krakow in 1979, just as the Pope was completing his first dramatic pilgrimage to his homeland as pontiff.
After the Pope had left, he visited the chapel in the Archbishop's Place in Krakow, where the Pope had prayed and meditated. He saw a room out in the Pope's beloved Tatra mountains where he used to come to work, with just a simple bed, table and chair.
Peterkiewicz visited the church at Kalwaria Zehrzydowska, a famous place of pilgrimage."If you stand outside the church there, you understand quite a lot," the translator explains.
The fact that he and the Pope are of almost the same age and from the same Polish peasant stock helps him understand the Pope's poetry.
Peterkiewicz believes it is this very background which gives the Pope his sense of motivation. "Our generation is one that was mutilated. That's why we feel we have a burden that we've been preserved for something. It's a curious feeling."
This was also the first generation born in a free Poland, as Peterldewicz points out. "We were regarded as exceptional. Everyone expected a lot of us."
He is the first to admit, though, that John Paul departed radically from the traditional devotional poetry which might have been expected of him. "They are mystical, but you will find no religiosity. People say religious poetry must be abstract. But the Pope's poems are full of natural images, water, leaves, trees. These are very important to him."
The poems show the future Pope's debt to St John of the Cross, the mystic who suffered so much at the hand of his Order. Peterkiewicz recalls the "wonderful tribute" that the Pope later gave at his grave on his 1982 pilgrimage to Spain.
The last poem in this collection was written not long before the Archbishop of Krakow was elected Pope. "It looks at the martyrdom of the Polish saint Stanislay. The poem examines the Pope's very complex identity, his Polishness."
But Peterkiewicz is not keen to give his interpretation of the poems: "I do not wish to impose my personal judgement. I want the poems to communicate. It would be fatal if there was just one interpretation."
"I am grateful to have had the experience of doing these translations, to know him as a person searching for the words he must have searched for.
"The more you do it, the more you understand the mind behind it."
Does he believe the Pope is still writing poetry?
"We don't know," Peterkiewicz says simply, declining to speculate.