Growing up to Różewicz

It’s not easy to comment in any sort of statement that smacks of literature, in writing, on the person, the writing, and the legacy of Tadeusz Różewicz, as I once shared a nonliterary space with him. These are memories beyond assigned reading from school. They come from living in the town of Gliwice, where he spent many years, and they come from working with him in my role as an editor of his final volumes at the Wrocław publisher Biuro Literackie. This work was like growing up to his poetry, at first received coldly as assigned reading at school, with him now extending a hand, in a tirelessly curious exploration of novel linguistic terrain. We were not given enough time for a personal meeting, though.

Różewicz for me — an important poet who is not a favorite poet. His difficulty abides, despite the multiple formulas with which he has been explicated and explained. He is emotionally moving at some moments, impenetrable at others. There is horror mingled with humor in his poems, darkness with light, intimacy with expansiveness. As a reader, I am frequently helpless, but it’s part of my growing up to these poems. Perhaps there will not be enough time to complete this process, but I am willing to take the risk.

Translated by Kacper Bartczak

Singular Różewicz

When he was still alive, on his ninetieth birthday, I got to thinking: what is the actual status of his writing? Does it really constitute a primary reference point for poets writing today? There used to be a cliché making the rounds in our literary culture, which had it that Różewicz lived to see the greatest number of epigones. Well, maybe. Except that his writing is so very singular that it is entirely nonproductive of followers. In this, it is analogous to the writing of Witold Wirpsza, Miron Białoszewski, or Rafał Wojaczek. It is a universe inhabited by the author’s demons, filled with an almost exhausting consistency of doubt, and ultimately of pain, to which only he has full access. There is also a very intense, private aspect to it, and here lies the greatest paradox of his reception in its current state. The time has become ripe for laughable, nearly academic-programmatic casuistry: if it’s about the war, it must be Różewicz; if it’s Auschwitz, it must be Różewicz; if it’s the culture of exhaustion and waning of grand narratives — Różewicz again. Even beyond those tags: if it’s the general absurdity of existence — it’s definitely Różewicz. In a sense, it’s all true; and yet, can we imagine an anchorite burdened with the duty of bearing witness to all those cataclysms? Różewicz himself was able to beautifully dodge the multiple duties of the Polish poet. His colorless death, a quiet almost unnoticed departure, all pomp, pageantry, and public antics excluded, a death issuing from the pure expiration of being — this death is a great challenge to the Polish poet. It denies him the privilege of the stuffy catechetic classroom, where the nation chants its feverish canonizing incantations. It puts him thereby in a purely novel situation of “the one and only,” in the desert of sense, of nonsense and the silence of the defeated, who are listened to by no one and nothing.

Translated by Kacper Bartczak

Matching Różewicz

In one of his famous poems Tadeusz Różewicz writes about his “homework” — it is the “creation of poetry after Auschwitz.” The poem dates from the 1970s and it is deeply ironic, very much like most of Różewicz’s greatest poems. And just like many other of his monumental statements, the “creation of poetry after Auschwitz” keeps coming up in simpleminded interpretations as a handy emblem of all of Rożewicz’s oeuvre. Apparently, that’s the way it’s going to be. But Różewicz’s true greatness is far from handy — it is ambiguous, aporetic, full of doubt, even doubtful.

Tadeusz Różewicz left a universal and unmistakably contemporary body of work. In it, he reports on the crisis of the Western world (an endless crisis, it seems), and he keeps examining the poem as a means of expression, a communication tool, a work of art, a task and challenge. Adhering to the dysfunctional character of our civilization, Różewicz reached further and deeper, beyond the divisions established by the Cold War’s Iron Curtain separating West from East. In his care for poetry’s status — its potentials and limitations — Różewicz achieved so much — or only so much? — that, when writing poems after Różewicz, one has no other option but to go on and try to match his work. And, I dare say, this may apply not only to Polish poets.

Translated by Kacper Bartczak

Różewicz and purity

Tadeusz Różewicz is the master of purifying poetry. When I read him, I wonder, why is it I like all this filth that sticks to me. Purity, though it seems simpler, in fact incapacitates; it’s hard to shape something with it. Różewicz shapes his sculptures with filth, then washes and smoothens until they look cast in bronze. Conversely Miłosz turns every purity into the purest shit. Must you always combine Miłosz with Różewicz? Yes.

Tadeusz Różewicz is the master. I read, I wonder, it sticks. Always? 

Różewicz is. I read for filth.

Translated by Marit MacArthur

Grzegorz Wróblewski and Różewicz

In the interview published last year in this magazine, Polish poet, writer, and dramatist Grzegorz Wróblewski refers to Różewicz as a “great poet” and “genuine innovator.” It would be accurate to say that much of his own poetry, which he has been writing since the early 1980s, builds on Różewicz’s example. In many of his poems Wróblewski adopts an austere and straightforward style. He shuns literary ornamentation and traditional forms (even though, unlike his predecessor, he usually follows the rules of punctuation and capitalization.) In terms of philosophical outlook, he gravitates toward existentialism that verges on nihilism. He writes about alienation, anxiety, failure of communication, loss of identity. Although he lacks Różewicz’s firsthand experience of war, he often records the violence and cruelty of the modern world. In this respect, we can consider him a reluctantly moral poet.

Take, for example, the early poem “Decline,” which mixes religious orthodoxy, political ideology, and apocalyptic motif in the form of public communiqué. Or two Copenhagen tableaux from the 1990s, “The Reading Room in Christianshavn” and “A Conspiracy,” which draw an uncomfortably thin line between normal and abnormal human behavior. A later poem “Ostrich Farm” echoes Różewicz’s 1947 classic “The Survivor”; eschewing autobiography, it laments the wholesale devaluation of life at the animal level. “Light in the Cathedral,” written in 2009, shows Wróblewski at his most personal. Yet even here the tone is restrained, to underscore the theme of isolation and misunderstanding.

Wróblewski pays direct homage to Różewicz in one of the prose poems included in Kopenhaga (Zephyr Press, 2013):

There is something strange and indecent about people who suddenly dispose of their libraries. Recently, the well-off R. appeared at my door with a carton of books; he is moving and there is no space for them in his new apartment (which is probably larger than the previous one). This is how Formy [(1958)] by Tadeusz Różewicz […] ended up in Christianshavn. Last sentence of the volume: Through all this din we walk toward silence, toward explanation.

Remarkable in itself, the line from Różewicz can also serve a useful motto by which to read much of Wróblewski’s own work. Echoing the tumult of contemporary civilization, as well as his personal turmoil, it searches for final stillness and clarity.