On Różewicz and contemporary Polish poetry

The way the poetry of Tadeusz Różewicz (1921–2014) is used by the school system in Poland shows how we disfigure some poets to make them palatable. The educational package has it that his was an attempt to rebuild the basic powers of language after the catastrophe of human slaughter in this part of the world during WWII. What high school students cannot be told, and what a handful of them will discover years later, is that this is a peculiar “rebuilding.” Words come back, are displayed on the page, but the naming is rather odd: it is a relocation within the very apparatus of speech. 

Polish postwar poetry delivered disdainful moral opposition to Nazi and Soviet Communist totalitarianisms. In Miłosz and Herbert, the opposition took the form of denying the poetic. Miłosz denied poetry in an attempt to bring speech back to its premodern directness, a mode that partakes of the Biblical language of prophesy. Herbert quenched the poetic in the name of moral austerity, which lent weight to his uncompromising condemnation of all forms of oppression: by politics or by evolution. So Miłosz and Herbert pretend they cede poetry and claim to reach further down to levels allegedly more legitimate in their non-narcissistic self-denials. And yet, the Biblically hierophant and the morally austere are also forms of the aesthetic.

Herbert’s and Miłosz’s moral lesson through poetry needs to be brought to a test, Nietzschean in essence, found in a creed by Wallace Stevens. Stevens rejects the solace resulting from denials of poetry when he reaches, late in his career, the insight of “the plain sense of things.” To see that “the absence of the imagination had / Itself to be imagined” is to annul all writing of poetry by claiming not to write poetry. What Stevens challenges human speakers to admit is that the moment they open their mouths to utter any sort of report about reality — “poetic” or “ordinary” — they put in motion an inescapable figurative apparatus that belies the idea of a “reality” accessible without this apparatus. Stevens’s lesson — in response to the Eastern European poets of history — is that one can’t speak, let alone write poems, without taking up one’s share of every-speaker’s position: one that is inescapably limited and inescapably “aesthetic.” No historical circumstance changes this law. So Stevens’s reinstallment of the poetic stands as a challenge to Miłosz and Herbert.

If there is any Polish poet who puts pressure back on Stevens’s claim, it is Różewicz. Among all our poets, he comes closest to overpowering Stevens’s test by questioning its premises. By measures that have not been sufficiently diagnosed by criticism, Różewicz’s verse manages to seriously and dangerously question the indelibility of the figurative that Stevens saw as inherent to the speech function. Różewicz’s poems are clumsy, ill-formed. They are a language beneath the rudiment of the most ordinary language. They are clownish without clownish spite or clownish melancholy. Utterly nonconstructive of stance-like speech acts, they do not claim, do not theorize. They renounce all action of taking shape. They do not “deconstruct,” since that assumes an action. They smack of tired, retarded talk, faulty construal, or miscarried poem, but they don’t mourn the miscarriage. The only catch is your own sick, misshapen urge to read the next ill-begotten poem.

It is only by my own construal that I surmise that they modify the moral lesson. We saw a world-devastating catastrophe in this land at a specific moment of history? But what about the catastrophe of the present everydayness? The monstrosities of history? But what about the monstrosity of the human now? The butcheries? What of the phenomena in you and me that at this very moment make us accomplices to all such butcheries: the grotesquery of the human.

Stevens’s formula applies to speech functions that are fueled by desire: the desire to open one’s mouth at all and thus act. It is civilization generative: we build, it says, even as we dismantle, because to dismantle is to take a stance, to perform an act. Różewicz’s nonformula remains outside this Stevensian purview. It is beyond speech action and it can hardly be read at all. The only other thing is your own urge to move on to the next “poem.” What do you learn from this.

Since the mid-1980s, Polish poetry has been undergoing an intense revision of themes and forms. This transformation, which continues until the present day, has unfolded in two major aspects of the poetic utterance: the themes and personal stances projected by poetry and the poetic forms. The emergence of the “Brulion” group in the 1980s in Kraków has had a lasting impact on the themes and existential stances of the Polish poets. From guardians of the national ethos, they have become existential rebels who question ideological pieties, going beyond the criticism of the final phases of communism in Poland. Poets like Świetlicki, Podsiadło, Baran brought the Polish poem to be more attentive to the gritty existential layer of the ordinary detail, slightly outside the traditional themes of the political opposition. They reformulated the political opposition so that it could be directed against the clichés of the new realities after the political and economic transformations the nation was subject to in the 1990s. The hectic pace of the transformation, its vastly simplified crude ideological packaging, became an object of scrutiny by these poets as they grappled with the excesses of Polish Catholicism and its pell-mell alliances with the liberal market ideology. Here, the work of poets like Adam Wiedemann and Marcin Sendecki should be especially noted. 

The other aspect of the poetic transformation in Polish poetry of recent decades has been formally related to the rejuvenation of the linguistic awareness of the Polish poem. Here, due to the groundbreaking translation work of the editors of the magazine Literatura na Świecie, most notably its editor in chief Piotr Sommer, Polish poetry entered an immensely fruitful and long-lasting formal dialogue with the postmodern, or late modernist, American poetic styles, mainly the styles of the New York poets.

Bohdan Zadura, a major poet who was artistically formed in the early 1970s, was able to reconfigure his early days’ classicism, in which he was seen as a continuator of Zbigniew Herbert, through a poetic dialogue with the styles typical of John Ashbery’s volumes of the ’70s and ’80s. Zadura never gave up the deeply critical and personally ironic styles with which his poems differ decisively from Ashbery’s more indeterminate styles, but he intensified the linguistic playfulness of his usual realistic critique of Polish realities. Another poet, Andrzej Sosnowski, one of the editors of Literatura na Świecie, pushed the Polish poem onto a path in which it started drawing on the sources more common to international modernism, a movement which might be said to find its continuations in the twenty-first century. Sosnowski is the poet whose feels of Roussel, the legacy of the Oulipo mixed with his apparent dabbling with postmodern theory, and the Polish Romantic tradition have made him into our most influential writer of the formal poetic expansion in the twenty-first century. On the whole, Zadura and Sosnowski represent a huge increase in the formal, artistic, and linguistic awareness of the poetic form, and in this they have been accompanied by Jerzy Jarniewicz, whose careful use of irony and masterful handling of the cultural reference allowed him to develop a distinctive style in which intense language playfulness becomes a tool of stringent cultural criticism.

Historically, the shaping impulse of Literatura na Świecie occurred slightly before the emergence of the “Brulion” group, and some Brulion styles were related by critics to the introduction of Frank O’Hara into Polish by Sommer’s translations. It is important, however, to understand that the combined influences of Literatura na Świecie and Brulion continued to exert their shaping impact long beyond the 1980s, into the ’90s and 2000s, inspiring and poetically forming a vast group of younger poets. Among them, perhaps the most noteworthy names are Darek Foks, Tadeusz Pióro, Krzysztof Siwczyk, Marta Podgórnik, Maciej Melecki, Mariusz Grzebalski, Dariusz Sośnicki, Julia Fiedorczuk, Justyna Bargielska, Przemysław Owczarek, and Kacper Bartczak. These names do not exhaust the scene. Talented younger poets keep appearing in the most active Polish poetic centers of Wrocław, Kraków, Poznań, Lublin, Gdańsk, Łódź, and Warszawa. Most recently, the younger poets have used the thematic-formal transformation I have tried to outline to modulate their poems toward a more politically active critique of the social costs of the system transformation, costs that have become an inescapable topic in the days of the crisis.

It is, however, unclear to what extent the main actors of the changes sketched above have drawn on Różewicz. The changes in question are characterized by an opposition to the former dominance of the Polish tradition of moral ethos and high stylistic grounds, variously occupied by Zbigniew Herbert, Czesław Miłosz, Wisława Szymborska, or Adam Zagajewski. The new Polish poetry has done a lot to find its distance from those poets, seeking its own, more aesthetically poised independence from the national and the ethical layers of poetry. However, this map of generational tensions changes again when we test the relation of the new poets to Różewicz: the younger poets do not grapple with giants of moral stature, but witness a powerful clash of poetry against what Nietzsche called “normal nihilism” — that is, the paradox of any creation in the absence of all “total interpretations.”

Two main channels of poetic transmission between Różewicz and the younger poets come to mind. The first has been outlined by Jacek Gutorow, an influential critic and subtle poet, who in his study entitled Urwany Slad (which could be roughly translated as “a broken trail”) puts Różewicz in the company of Andrzej Sosnowski, among others, discussing them as poets who take up the challenge of enhanced awareness of language. With this move, Gutorow makes Różewicz into an unexpected predecessor of Sosnowski’s overwhelming linguistic experiment. The second channel of communication might be found with the Nietzschean trope of “normal nihilism” that I mention above. On this ground, Różewicz precedes many younger Polish poets who are attracted or related to Różewicz in more subtle ways that go beyond imitation or formal and conceptual influence. Certainly, the austere confrontation of the poetic form with the barrenness, or disposability, of human life conceived of as brittle fact deprived of all metaphysical justification — the confrontation which Różewicz’s forms unearth for Polish poetry with unprecedented poignancy — might be just what seeped into and helped to form the original styles of such poets as Siwczyk, Melecki, Marta Podgórnik, or Darek Foks.