Reticence: On Różewicz

For someone who has worked with, and in, words, Różewicz has always approached language with an uncompromising suspicion. I cannot think of another poet who distrusts words more consistently. After the war, when words seemed compromised, Różewicz made a utopian attempt to rebuild trust in words by returning to simplest phrases and basic truths. “This is a man / this is a tree this is bread” — he would reteach himself, or name things again, as a new Adam, in his early poem with the Dantean title “In the Middle of Life.” Różewicz knew that with no transcendent sanction that would guarantee anything for us, we are left alone in this attempt: “the sky is silent,” so “if you hear a voice / this is a voice of another man.”

Words are mercenaries and turncoats, drifting entities ready to be used and abused, which we are only too ready to take as standing for permanent and thus unquestionable meanings — this is possibly Różewicz’s most important lesson for me. From this he drew conclusions which questioned the sense of poetry and proclaimed the priority of ethics over aesthetics. “Above all I am not concerned with Poetry” — to quote Wilfred Owen, a poet miles apart from Różewicz, but strangely close in his conclusions — “All a poet can do today is warn.” This distrust of words manifested itself in Różewicz’s reticence in isolated lines enveloped by long disturbing silences, but also, on the other hand, in his paradoxical talkativeness, with lines spilling from page to page in an endless uncensored chatting flow. What at first was a response to a deeply felt sense of the post-Holocaust crisis was later followed by the poet’s awareness of another danger: of the world going to the dogs, immersing itself in the banalities of mass culture. Różewicz’s poetry was in fact an act of dismantling poetry which has lost its raison d’être in the modern world. “It’s more difficult to spend a day well than to write a book,” I heard Różewicz at what was possibly his last public appearance, quoting Adam Mickiewicz, another giant of Polish poetry.