I have always loved poetry and the sound of my own voice, so when I was asked to read a poem as part of a national poetry reading event I didn’t hesitate to agree. It was supposed to happen on my birthday in September, and I was tempted by the thought that there would be a post event drink and that a lot of my friend and acquaintances would be there. I had nothing else planned!
What I hadn’t taken into account, however ,was that this reading would be in Polish, and would be of a romantic ballad written in the 19th century by one of the most well known poets in the country. Adam Mickiewicz. In fact this is the year dedicated to the reading of his ballads and romances and people throughout the whole of the Polish diaspora are holding these events round the world. All The Polish embassies and consulates are involved and so it promised to be quite a prestigious event.
However it didn’t happen, as the queen died the day before and it wasn’t thought fitting to have such an event. I was disappointed, but then I forgot all about it. Then a few days ago it was decided to revive the show and I agreed again. I’d lost my copy of the poem of course, but the organisers – the Polish Library in London – sent me another one.
And then I began to read it. Out loud. To myself. Oh dear. My Polish is good. But, I discovered to my chagrin, not that good. I couldn’t get my tongue round some of the consonants. Świtezianka. That’s just the title SH veet ezh an ka. And that’s not even the hardest word. So I practised. My husband read it to me. Beautifully. He should have been asked to do it.
But he couldn’t even come to watch me in my embarrassment.
Just as well.
I arrived at the venue, having rehearsed for the last time, in Ravenscourt Park, – it was such a lovely day, not many people about, so I could dare to speak out loud in the open air – the birds were most appreciative, I think – and finally I took my place in the hall. The stage was set, refreshments were laid out, and then I began to get really nervous.
I really did not want to make a fool of myself. It’s no good being proud of how well you know a language, even though it is actually my mother tongue. The proof of the pudding is how you perform. And performance is not my thing.
So as the other people turned up, all calm and collected with their scripts in their hands, I began to babble. I blush now to think about it. But I have to say everyone was very kind. The atmosphere was not threatening at all, and when the consul and his wife set the scene , by declaiming their poem together whilst holding their three year old in their arms, tossing him back and forth as they read, I began to relax a little. Perhaps no-one would mind too much if I made a slip.
I was one of the last to go on, so I had time either to enjoy the other readings or to get even more nervous. I chose to enjoy, until I stepped up on the dais. or rather stumbled up. I found out today that the whole event was filmed, so that’s how I know about the stumbling.
Anyway I read. After a few lines, when I could hardly hear myself despite the microphone, I got into the swing of things. I did my best. I breathed a sigh of relief. I hadn’t coughed or sneezed. I hadn’t lost my place! I got off the stage. I don’t think I made a fool of myself. I wasn’t the best – it wasn’t a competition – I wasn’t the worst. Some of the readers were very compelling. Everyone was very lovely.And to my delight everyone who read received a certificate:
and little mementoes from the Polish Library
which celebrates its eightieth anniversary this year. I was privileged to proofread a lovely brochure of its history a few weeks ago, and lucky enough to receive a copy of it as well, yesterday.
All in all it was a delightful afternoon. I caught up with old friends. I met some new people.
And most important of all I heard some lovely romantic poetry. I didn’t recognise any of it except for a poem called Powrót taty – father’s return, which my mother used to recite off by heart to me quite often at bedtime. I think I thought she had made it up herself. But no.
Here is a bit of it:
“Pójdźcie, o dziadki, pójdźcie wszystkie razem
Za miasto, pod słup na wzgórek,
Tam przed cudownym klęknijcie obrazem,
Pobożnie zmówcie paciórek.
Tato nie wraca; ranki i wieczory
We łzach go czekam i trwodze;
Rozlały rzeki, pełne zwierza bory
I pełno zbójców na drodze”.
Słysząc to dziatki biegą wszystkie razem,
Za miasto, pod słup na wzgórek,
Tam przed cudownym klękają obrazem
I zaczynają paciórek.
“Go, O children, go all together
Outside the town, to the pillar on the hill,
There, kneel before the miraculous image,
Piously say a prayer.
Daddy has not returned; mornings and evenings
I wait for him in tears and fear;
The rivers overflowing , the forests full of beasts
And the road is full of robbers.
Hearing this, the children all run together,
Outside the town, to the pillar on a hill,
There they kneel before the miraculous image
And begin to pray.
It goes on for awhile in this vein, but it brought back many happy memories.
So – although as I said, I was well out of my comfort zone, I am really glad I agreed to go.
The journey home was a nightmare I had not bargained for. Another story. another day.