I proselytize for Tadeusz Różewicz (1921–2014) and his poetic legacy as a new convert, not with unique insight into his importance or his poetics. That I leave to the eleven Polish poets sampled here (and several translators), who can testify better than I can. I am motivated by a conviction that Różewicz, and the poetry that follows the paths he marked out, should be far better known among American poets — and that as long as we are ignorant of him, we lose something needful for our contemporary poetry. To get acquainted with Różewicz, rush out and buy Sobbing Superpower: Selected Poems (W.W. Norton, 2011), translated by Joanna Trzeciak. To begin to grasp his legacy for Polish poetry — for the world — read on.
I knew Różewicz’s name first as a mysterious force that was mentioned often among poets in Poland in 2008 (when I worked on collaborative translation there as a Fulbright research scholar, with Jerzy Jarniewicz as my excellent guide). It operated throughout the contentious, various, vital world of contemporary poetry in Poland. And when his name went unmentioned, it felt like an unspoken presence, an authority taken for granted. The idea of tracing his influence — especially for a foreigner — is unusually difficult, even preposterous. His work has affected the poetic tradition in Poland at its core. In a class in 2011 at Warren Wilson College’s MFA program, Jennifer Grotz explained Różewicz’s desire to kill poetry — his mistrust of the figurative and of the felicities of rhyme, rhythm, and pleasing sounds. She suggested that his motto might be (contra Pound’s “Make it new”): “Make it hurt.”
His poems offer merciless scrutiny in a way that might be essential to great poetry now — toward the poet himself, toward the world, toward language first and foremost — not towards conventional grammar and syntax per se, but in the Nietzschean sense that Kacper Bartczak identifies. In his poem “To the Dead,” from Anxiety (1947), he writes of his everyday life as a survivor of WWII with a keen sense of the banality of his activities, their relative value, and his obvious grief, with cold acuity and without a single note of false piety:
My concerns belong to the living.
I am tired
I am bored I write poems
I think about death
I buy pretzels and fuzzy
peaches that look like baby mice
I read Marx
I don’t understand Bergson
I go out dancing with a redhead
A waiter carries foamy beer around
… I live
and nothing is as alien to me
as you my dead Friend.
What Różewicz seems to disbelieve is the capacity of language to say anything that does not have as its root motive human self-aggrandizement or delusion. Yet he also comes across as pragmatic, taking up the imperfect tool of language again and again to say what must be said without mercy.
What is clear is that Różewicz — more than the triad of older Polish poets who are more familiar to American readers, Miłosz, Szymborska, and Herbert — is a primary forebear of the most compelling contemporary Polish poets.
Note: The number of poems translated per poet in no way reflects their relative importance among contemporary Polish poets. We wish we could have included more.
Acknowledgments: Much thanks to all of the poets and translators for their thoughtful work for this feature. Special thanks to Wiesława Różewicz for allowing Jacket2 to use a photograph of her husband without charge, and to Elzbieta Ostromęcka, the director of Special Collections at Ossolineum in Wrocław.
In “Book Reviews: A Tortured History,” published in The Atlantic in April 2012, Sarah Fay outlines a modern history of book review culture in which the primary question, as it tends to be today, is whether overly glowing book reviews or completely damning ones are ever productive ways to become aware of or understand literature. For instance, she writes, “In 1846, [Edgar Allan] Poe wrote that book reviews (and the publishing industry) were a sham and riddled with nepotism.” Further along in her survey she explains how Zadie Smith railed against “mean” reviews and insisted that they always be positive and “useful.” The thesis of Fay’s essay is that book reviews have consistently been under fire for having ulterior political or personal motives and for being ultimately suspect in their greater purpose. She then criticizes those who have criticized reviewers for forgetting the human element of review. A deviation from the traditional review seeks to amplify, exploit, or diminish this problem, not accept it.
Many literary magazines have dedicated space to alternative modes of approach, response, and discussion to poetry, including Lemon Hound, Volta,and Horse Less Press. The purpose of this portfolio is to continue the project of exploring and expanding the notion of the review into wider and weirder territory. What constitutes “review” in light of its semantic, social, political, and literary purposes? These creative and experimental responses intend to provide an unexpected view that then manifests as a surprisingly useful way to understand someone’s poetry beyond a simple and extended analysis of its form, themes, and ways of conforming to the expectations of readers. The purpose of such a review is not necessarily to comment on the poetry, or to provide a reflection that deepens an understanding according to prescribed standards. Rather, an experimental review provides an entirely new text that shows how a reader has moved forward with their own thinking and relationship to language and poetry as a result of experiencing the work.
The poet and literary critic Hillary Gravendyk organized a roundtable on the “Poet-Scholar” for the 2013 MLA Convention in Boston, with participants Juliana Spahr, Jennifer Scappettone, Julie Carr, Heather Dubrow, Margaret Ronda, and Barrett Watten. She asked each speaker to speak to what she called the “permissions and limits” of the interface between poetic practice and scholarship, and to consider the various sites — the Internet, the academy, the performance/reading space — where such creative-critical combinations are occurring. The talks, printed here, offer wide-ranging meditations on her prompts.
Here is Hillary’s introduction from the event:
Welcome to our roundtable on the Poet-Scholar. This session was largely conceived of as a forum for poet-scholars to get together and share ideas, goals, and challenges of working “across the divide” between poetry and scholarship. I’ve asked each participant to speak for five minutes about their position as a poet-scholar in some form or another, and then we will open the roundtable up to a more loose discussion in which participants can respond to the presentations and ask questions.
The poet-scholar is an increasingly common figure in academic life, one that suggests the official convergence of creative and scholarly output. Yet a look at the job market or at tenure and promotion standards reveals that a strong division between critical and poetic work seems to persist in our institutions. It is my hope that this roundtable will provide a forum for articulating the shared methodologies and theoretical pursuits of both kinds of labor.
Many poets (and other artists) are producing research now, bringing a different set of skills to the production of scholarship. This session hopes to open a discussion in which we can talk about the ways creative practice alters our approaches to literature and cultural studies and, in turn, how scholarship affects poetic practice. This discussion becomes even more urgent in the context of an increasingly preprofessionalized academic sphere in which “useless” discourse like poetry has become threatened or, at least, suspect. The participants on this panel take this discourse seriously from a practical and theoretical perspective, and I’m anxious to hear what they have to say about the peculiar role of the poet-critic in the academy and the world.
Hillary was herself a poet and scholar of tremendous talent, passionately dedicated to exploring connections between the critical and the creative in her own poetry as well as her research. An assistant professor at Pomona College, Hillary worked on twentieth-century American poetry and disability studies and was the award-winning author of the book of poems Harm (Omnidawn, 2011) and the chapbook The Naturalist (Achiote Press, 2008). She describes the generative interchange between poetry and criticism in her manifesto for the 2012 Convergence on Poetics conference, which we print here with grateful thanks to Hillary’s husband, Benjamin Burrill: “There is no concluding paragraph, no concluding poem, only / a cloud in the room where the two make weather.” Hillary died after a long illness in May 2014.
There are various online tributes to Hillary, honoring her work as a poet and a scholar, as well as a Squaw Valley Community of Writers scholarship and an Inlandia Institute book prize in her name. This gathering of the talks from the roundtable she organized is a further tribute to Hillary’s energy, intellect, and generosity as a poet-scholar. The talks aim to follow her injunction: “Let’s remove the hyphen between poet-scholar, let’s be poelars and scholets, poetics emerges from the poem, poems emerge from scholarship.”
In memoriam: Hillary Gravendyk, 1979–2014