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.