Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Did you know that the late and great Pope John Paul II actually wrote poetry in his 20's? I found a few, and I'm giving my own interpretation of one short piece titled Actor. The Pope, then writing as Karol Wojtyla, was also a stage actor.

Actor by Karol Wojtyla

So many grew round me, through me,
from my self, as it were.
I became a channel, unleashing a force
called man.
Did not the others crowding in, distort
the man that I am?
Being each of them, always imperfect,
myself to myself too near,
he who survives in me, can he ever
look at himself without fear?

The first line has an innate sense of some force that is about to come out roaring. That’s how the r’s in grew, round and through evoke for me. And the full-bodied assonance of the vowels in them gives a solidity to the source of that roar – something big. The repetition of me gives some emphasis to the self of the narrator: is there a multitude of himself inside of the me?

The nasals in the first half of the third line and at the beginning of the second half of it soften the anticipating roar, I feel. The susurration in the second half of the same line gives the impression of some strong wind or breath.

The line breaks at force, but it doesn’t end with it as a final word for the line or as an end-stop. This line is a run-on or enjambment, with just two words called man in the following line. And this two-word line has a very powerful end-stop. Why? Just read the line

I became a channel, unleashing a force

Make yourself pause for just a bit at the end, and then read

called man.

giving equal stress to both words.

Did not the others crowding in, distort

Notice the t and d sounds there? It sounds like a lot of people – multifarious me - are banging or thumping, doesn’t it?

The next line

the man that I am

makes me visualize the speaker trying to calm the crowd: the nasals in the stress words are very strong.

In “Being each of them, always imperfect,” the speaker speaks a little faster. Notice the pairs of non-stresses between each stressed syllable, al in always and per in imperfect. The reading of them speed up a little before the reader reaches the coming stressed syllables. It’s funny here: the rhythm would have been perfect if there was one more stress word oe syllable placed at the end of the line. Is the poet trying to imply something?

More nasal sounds in the next line, but these are rather understated, sounding as if the speaker is lowering his voice and at the same time shushing the excited crowd. The word near is significant here; there is a repeat of the same rhyme in the final word of the entire poem: fear.

myself to myself too near,

In the first half of the poem, the narrator is always referring to himself, with lots of me, myself, I am. Notice the first repetition of his self in me in the 1st line, giving some emphasis to the self of the narrator, and the final one in myself, near the end of the poem. And in between these repetitions is myself split up into my self, in line 2 – a division of the narrator into separate beings? Into a crowd of himself (or selves)? Only in the last two lines does he give over to someone other than himself; the surviving self, the remaining self.

The poem here uses rhymes to link man in 4th line to am in 6th line; force and distort are near rhymes. The word ever in the penultimate line points back the reader to the second line with the rhyming were. Near and fear in the last 3 lines close the poem.

I notice that the construction of the lines are very consistent. The lines 1,3,5 and 7 have a comma in each.

I don't know if the Pope when he wrote Actor actually intended such a reading. Anyway, the translator must have done a good job with it.

(This posting actually first appeared in my personal blog



Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Haha, I wonder whether the late Pope John Paul II would have wanted to dissociate his former young self to his position, role and latter self as Pope later in his life. I suspect he might have...

For me, this poem addresses the problem/anxiety of selfhood and the multiple roles we play, the different faces/masks/selves we might have at different times and places... like the Shakesperean metaphor of life being a stage, and we the actors.

Indeed, who am 'I'? Is there always an 'essential' or core self? The poem's imposing of some degree of structure (through rhymes) suggests a desire for order, to bring about a unity of the self amidst its fragility and fracturing into multiples, some of which one wants to hide or supress for the ugliness/darkness they possess.

Any actors or theatre people care to enlighten on this? I'm curious...

12:34 PM, June 29, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

leon, he didn't write this in english, did he, so i guess the translation is pretty good

i'm sorry but it doesn't connect with me at all ... my eyes skim over it, my heart is unaffected

would this poem have seen light of day if he wasn't who he is or do we retrospectively weave greatness into indifferent verse?

6:34 PM, June 29, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Yeah, you could be right, Sharon. If the poem were sent for publication with another name, it might have been rejected. It doesn't really seem 'fresh'. However, as for me, I guess I am always intrigued by the different conceptions of self. Is there any 'real self' for the matter? Hahaha, my virtual self and my other selves.

6:04 PM, June 30, 2006  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

DI - I shouldn't imagine the late Pope would have been ashamed of his past. Being an actor is no shame at all.

Sharon, of cos he didn't write it in English. And yes, the translation is pretty good; excellent even. I really admire how he - translator - managed to work in the "me" and "my self"'s to convey the many "selves" an actor could take on, without just telling it but showing it, with the right techniques. DI,That's the different "selves".

Both of you are right about if this were by anybody by the Pope, nobody would have been bothered. But look at Pinter. His detractors say his poems are childish. but still he won some awards, even a Nobel.

Aw, Sharon, you are unaffected. That's alright. Different people see things in different ways.

It's not a great piece - no one is claiming it so. but indifferent? To me, the poem conveys a sensitivity of a young man, which would put him in good stead as a great Catholic leader. And I actually said at the close of my posting if the Pope actually intended such a reading that I perceived. My analysis is based chiefly on his translator's work and skill.

Btw, I hope I did right by him with my analysis. FYI, I actually uploaded the posting before my car accident that day. Touch wood, if it was a bad accident, I wonder how the Pope would have judged me? Would I have gotten a few good points, and St Peter would open the pearly Gate a little wider, for me to slip in?

6:49 PM, June 30, 2006  
Anonymous Whitearrow said...

Hmmmm, first reading did almost nothing for me, in the sense that I didn't really get a particularly unique and original poet's voice.

Having said that,the idea behind the poem is as always interesting, namely the nature of identity, and the arguable fracturing of personality (and therefore identity?) that an actor does knowingly, affecting the person he/she really is or started out as at the beginning.

Also interesting is the idea of an actor, having gone through different facets of 'man' in his potrayal of different roles, and by doing so now being nearer to himself (much in the way a writer would, I guess, creating many different personalities and identities and being able to perceive in some basic way what they're made up of, and hence what his/her own identity could be 'made up of'), perhaps wondering if there is need to fear as being so 'near' to himself he can perhaps see his worst bits as well, the evil which balances out the good, the yin to the yang, etc and therefore the 'sinful' man, in the sense of having a separation from good in him as well as good (or its elements) itself.

Can't say it's a great poem as poems go, but certainly reflected that the Pope was attuned to the human diagram in the 'fracturing' way above (amongst many other ways, of course).

8:54 PM, June 30, 2006  
Anonymous Whitearrow said...

P.s. there is definitely something unique about each of us as separate entities. Have always thought of that being our different souls in action, tempered or otherwise inspired by circumstances and/or other souls. So yeah, Dreamer Idiot, I do believe there is a 'real self' as you put it. Not a selfish kind of self but the soulful kind, with separate and yet a collective consciousness and conscience (whether listened to or not)...


8:59 PM, June 30, 2006  
Blogger madcap machinist said...

Here is the text of the poem in the original Polish, if anyone is interested:


Tylu ludzi wyrastało koło mnie i przeze mnie,
i ze mnie poniekąd. Stałem się jakby łożyskiem, którym przetacza się żywioł
- na imię mu człowiek.
Ale skoro ja także jestem człowiekiem,
Czyż natłok tych innych ludzi mnie samego jakoś nie wykrzywił?
Jeśli każdym z nich byłem niedoskonale, wciąż
bardzo zostając sobą –
Czyż ten, który ze mnie ocalał, może patrzeć na siebie bez trwogi?

I found a slightly different, perhaps more literal (I'm guessing ... I don't know any Polish) translation of this poem. I feel that this translation gives a very different sense of the poem:

Actor (trans. Barbara Damska)

So many people grew around me and through me, and in a way from me
I have become a kind of channel surging with the element
- named Man
Since, I too am a man,
Didn’t all those crowding in, distort me in one way or another?
If I were each of them; always imperfect, too much remaining as myself –
Can he, who survives in me, ever be able to look at
himself without fear?

Personally, I like Leon's version better because of the remarkable poetry of its translation -- I became a channel, unleashing a force called man. ... what an intriguing line! -- but this version actually made me think that Karol Wojtyla had something else in mind when he composed the poem.

We can find a different meaning in the word 'actor': a participant in a process — in this case, the narrator seems to be saying that he is an agent of change (growth being a positive change) for those around him and, crucially hinging on the line 'Since I too am a man' (missing from Leon's version, interestingly -- that single line potentially changes the meaning of the poem, don't you agree?), he realizes that his own growth is in turn influenced by the agency of others.

True to being the actor that he is, Karol Wojtyla then has his narrator try to imagine himself as another person ('If I were each of them') but then realises that his imagination is limited to his own experience ('too much remaining as myself'). He asks himself, "Through the eyes of another, could I look at myself without fear?"

The last line is intriguing because one wonders why he would feel anxious about his self...

At this point, I have two thoughts:

1. In Leon's version, from which I agree with most of the comments above... perhaps he fears that he is losing his sense of identity

2. In the different version I am discussing, maybe he fears what kind of change that he might bring to others?

It's an interesting poem although I think that Karol Wojtyla (and later as Pope John Paul II) wrote some better ones. Definitely the translation deserves a lot of credit -- I agree with you, Leon, the translator did an excellent job of creating the sense of multiple selves in the poem.

Thanks for sharing this one!

4:52 AM, July 01, 2006  
Blogger madcap machinist said...


on the Polish version... I don't know how one might read it, but isn't it odd that it doesn't seem to have any of the rhymes or structure of the translated version?

4:56 AM, July 01, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Machinist, you never fail to amaze me. Thx for sharing the other translation. I too like Leon's one better.

Your reading of 'actor' and 'man' is really interesting, I hadn't thought of it that way. :)

1:27 PM, July 01, 2006  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

M mach: At least both the translators got the gist of the first few lines spot one, especially as the first 2 lines in Polish have a couple of 'mnie' (or 'me' in English). So it looks as if the translators hadn't taken too much poetic license. So this makes either translation as close as possible to the original.

8:43 AM, July 03, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

St Peter would open the pearly Gate a little wider, for me to slip in?

of course, lah!

machinist - amazing bit of trawling, and i thinkl leon's version is a great tribute to the act of translation

9:58 AM, July 03, 2006  
Blogger madcap machinist said...

Maybe that's why I've never been very comfortable with translated material; prose not so but poetry...

5:41 PM, July 03, 2006  

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