What I must have read as the essential feature of his poetry was its relentless focus on evacuating the world sensorium, which turned the poem into a condensed meditation on the poverty of the human — a condition whose unmistakable topic is the nothingness of life. This was its signatory presence that I track down at each reading, which I search for in each phrase, its basic narrative, in the taste of the poem’s flesh.
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.
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.
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 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?