In the Middle of Life: On Tadeusz Rózewicz

In the Middle of Life: On Tadeusz Rózewicz

In the Middle of Life: On Tadeusz Rózewicz

A Polish poet’s searing and confused lyricism.


Thirty years ago, in the first substantial assessment of postwar Polish poetry written by an American scholar, Madeline Levine identified Tadeusz Rózewicz as Poland’s “most famous writer outside his native country.” Today, except among the most devoted readers of poetry, Rózewicz is virtually unknown, even though readers may likely recognize, if only by name, all the Polish poets he influenced, including the Nobel laureates Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska, as well as Zbigniew Herbert and Adam Zagajewski. “We all owe something” to him, Szymborska admitted in a 1996 interview, “though not all of us are able to admit it.” Sobbing Superpower, the long-awaited follow-up to “The Survivor” and Other Poems, published in 1977 and translated by Magnus Krynski and Robert Maguire, aims to counteract the neglect of this intriguing and singular poet.

Rózewicz (pronounced Ru-ZHAY-vitch) was born in 1921 in the town of Radomsko. A middle child, he collaborated on arts projects with both his brothers. Early in life he wrote poems and edited a school newspaper with his older brother, Janusz. (In the 1960s and ’70s he would write scripts for his younger brother, Stanislaw, a filmmaker.) Rózewicz spent the beginning of World War II in Radomsko, then under German occupation, where he was a laborer and, starting in 1943, a member of the underground Home Army. His first book of poems, Forest Echoes, was published in 1944 under the pseudonym Satyr and included poems written with Janusz, who was killed by the Gestapo that year. Like the poems in Cathay that Ezra Pound sent to his friend the sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska, who was stationed in the trenches during World War I, the poems and prose pieces of Forest Echoes were intended for Rózewicz’s fellow underground soldiers.

After World War II, Rózewicz studied art history at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, where he began to write and publish the naked, honest and startling poems that brought him international renown. These poems, collected in Anxiety (1947) and The Red Glove (1948), sound something like these lines from “Lament”:

I am twenty
I am a murderer
I am a tool
as blind as a sword
in the hands of an executioner
I’ve murdered a man
and with red fingers
I stroked the white breasts of women

Rózewicz’s poetry is one of violent reaction, to World War II and the subsequent sense of helplessness that gripped young poets when they began to write poetry in the wake of such atrocity. In this regard, again, although his work concerns an earlier generation and world war, it’s useful to think of Rózewicz’s poetic predicament in terms of our Modernists. If Ezra Pound reinvented twentieth-century poetry with his Imagist mantra to “Make it new,” Rózewicz wrote his early poems under a maxim that could be called “Make it grieve.”

I would like to be a rat
I used to tell her

I would like not to be
I would like to sleep
and wake up after the war
she would say with her eyes closed

forget about us
don’t ask us about our youth
leave us alone

In one sense, these poems are striking for the almost incomprehensible extremity of their utterances, but what is equally chilling about Rózewicz’s best work is how fully it embodies that particular anxiety and familiar sense of diminishment we still associate with being “modern.” In literary circles, this feeling is one of “belatedness,” one of enervated originality. Belatedness arises from the feeling of not being born first or even before but inescapably after some event or writer. (Any poet will tell you that writing after Shakespeare or Dickinson is different from writing before or even at the same time as either one. Whether this is verifiable is beside the point, because belatedness is the feeling of being deprived of some initial innocence or potency.) Rózewicz’s sense of belatedness is particularly acute, for it is inextricable from historical circumstances—Poland’s tumult before, during and after World War II—that compounded latent literary anxieties. Another poem, “Fear,” quoted here in its entirety, epitomizes the particular sense of diminishment almost any young poet might feel.

Your fear is grand
mine is a little bureaucrat
with a briefcase
with a file folder

with a survey
when was I born
what’s my livelihood
what have I not done
in what do I lack faith

what am I doing here
when will I stop pretending
where am I going

Rózewicz’s searing and confused lyrics continued to evolve toward a more radical impulse that one critic called “antipoetry.” Initially it took the form of a postwar compulsion to rename the world—not out of celebration or mourning but to recalibrate language to the objective world, a kind of poetry “reboot.” Whereas Rózewicz was surely inspired by the late nineteenth-century Polish poet Cyprian Norwid’s charge of “granting objects proper names,” American readers can understand his antipoetry in terms of William Carlos Williams’s notion “No ideas but in things.” Williams cast aside lofty romantic rhetoric and created a prosody alive to the idioms and rhythms of American speech. Similarly, Rózewicz and his generation wanted to expurgate ornament from literary language in favor of essentials, to reveal beauty’s empty rhetoric. According to Rózewicz, only “poorer poets…make comparisons. They clutch comparisons as a drowning [man] clutches driftwood.” With antipoetry, Rózewicz strove for something austere. His most famous poem, “In the Middle of Life,” from An Open Poem (1956), is the best example. It begins:

After the end of the world
after my death
I found myself in the middle of life
creating myself
building a life
people animals landscapes

this is a table I kept saying
this is a table
on the table are bread knife
the knife is used for cutting bread
people feed on bread

man should be loved
I learned by night by day
what should one love
I answered man

Antipoetry claims no interest in beauty or the imagination. Using the cinema as an example of how art distorts and diverts our attention from the actual world, Rózewicz describes an audience “with mouths wide open/faces turned/toward a white sheet/emitting/a phosphorescent glow” while, in the light of day, “a real tear” remains “small and colorless,”

a real woman
walking past a wall
looks ugly
her nose is redv her eyelashes colorless
stuck together
a stocking on her left leg
twisted around

Despite these radical efforts to disinfect poetry, as it were, to recalibrate language to the objective world, Rózewicz remained disenchanted. In addition to stripping poetry of musical and figurative language, he began to look for other ways to pare down the poem and the poet’s lyrical authority, even claiming at one point that all poetry should be “published anonymously,” like graffiti on the bathroom wall. He was determined to make less and less of an already diminished thing.

* * *

In 1966 Rózewicz declared the entire enterprise of poetry “dead” and his own literary endeavors as a cause of its demise. “In order to be resurrected,” he stridently claimed, “poetry had to die. And I was there as both author and witness to its death.” And yet a poetry that grew from a political and moral injunction born of the horror of world war slowly morphed into the cultivated neglect and perverse desire of letting poetry die on the page. Here are some stanzas from “A Poem” (1983):

I wanted to describe
the falling of leaves
in Park Południowy

five white swans
standing on the water’s foggy

I wanted to paint
black chrysanthemums
oxidized by frost…

upon returning home
my hand began to writev a poem
deaf and mute
wanted to come into being
to see the light of day
but I don’t want to write it
I can hear it as it slowly
ceases to breathe

The pastoral images evoked at the beginning of the poem, especially of those swans walking on the water’s frozen surface, are lovely; in the end, however, what interests the poet most is the dejected expression of his willful apathy.

It is in this way that Rózewicz finally did succeed in killing poetry, not in the early “antipoetic” attempts that contemporary readers continue to find stirring and instructive. But he has been unable or unwilling to resurrect it. His oeuvre serves as the poetic equivalent to Adorno’s oft-summoned if misquoted assertion that “To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” To put it another way, Rózewicz’s poetry fulfills Adorno’s assertion so that readers and writers might consider it concretely. This is no small achievement.

In truth, Sobbing Superpower reveals the astonishing unevenness of the poet’s work. And while almost every poet’s work is uneven to some extent, like unhappy families, each is so in a different way. Often we as readers tell a story to explain the unevenness: her early work was weak because it was too conventional, but after the breakthrough poems of her third book, her poetic voice was galvanized; his early poems showed virtuosic craft and imagination, but after he achieved such consistent success, the work began to repeat itself predictably rather than to evolve. The unevenness of Rózewicz’s poetry feels impossible to recover fully by narrative, however, dependent though it may be on a specific historical time and circumstance. It is more of a restless vacillation between earnest outrage and ironic bitterness. At their worst, his poems are content to be crude and banal, dry husks of the imagination. But at his best, Rózewicz makes the poem a site of profound human mourning, its mood reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s dictum “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” Essentially, Rózewicz’s poems enact one choice the survivor of historical atrocity might consider: that of utter despair, the kind that comes in the wake of the initial state of shock, horror, grief and anger at the modern condition. Which we as readers and poets alike may entertain and consider up close, sometimes for quite a while. And then, necessarily, reject.

Like most poets’, Rozewicz’s thinking has rational limits and is intriguing in its almost endless self-contradiction. Although he wore the hair shirt of antipoetry with relish, he couldn’t resist the refinement of the figurative. In a momentary but memorable forgetting of his credo, he meditates:

fallen angels
look like
moons wedged beneath
the green fingernails of the dead

like falling planes
like flies on the lungs of fallen soldiers
like streaks of autumn rain

Even in an antipoetic success like “In the Middle of Life,” Rózewicz can’t resist an allusive chime with the opening of Dante’s Inferno. But perhaps such welcome inconsistencies should be expected from a poet whose critique of figurative language hangs on the simile of a drowning man clutching driftwood.

At best a halfhearted suicide attempt, Rózewicz’s repetitive stabs at antipoetry inspired an entire generation of imitators, and then another generation who, in their reactions to and rejections of his method, produced some of the best poetry ever written. If Rózewicz wasn’t able to resurrect poetry himself, his work certainly set the stage for subsequent writers, and for better or worse, those are the names we recognize today when we think of Polish poetry. Even Rózewicz recognizes this; in a later poem he celebrates that there are still poets:

I suppose
that they themselves do not realize
what an unusual unexpected beautiful
startling funny monstrous
phenomenon they are
I thought
there would never again be
any young poets
and of course I was wrong
after all there are still stars tigers
nightingales cutlets women wardrobes tables cannons
novels abbots generals sonnets crawfish
politicians temples priests though there is no god
how good it is that there are young poets

* * *
Joanna Trzeciak proves to be an excellent and resourceful translator but is curiously a less careful editor and curator of the poems she has selected. She makes the mistake of privileging the newer—and substantially weaker—poetry, including uninspired revisions of earlier canonical work. This might be more easily forgiven if we had some reliable and complete editions of the central early books in English already in print, but we don’t. The lines from “Lament” quoted earlier, for example, are buried in the endnotes as the originally published version of the poem. Trzeciak’s version of the poem “updates” the standard version by excising the crucial lines “and with red fingers/I stroked the white breasts of women.” Although she doesn’t explain the reason for this decision, one may assume that she is choosing to follow Rózewicz’s preferences—a noble but ultimately disastrous decision. Trzeciak’s editorial choices are doubly unfortunate. Besides omitting many essential early poems from the collection, she stuffs it with many of the less-successful and -influential late poems. In the case of a poet whose work was duly and amply translated and readily available, this might be excusable; in Rózewicz’s case, it undermines the volume’s best poems. What is one to think of the poet who ends the eight-page rambling section “Gold,” of his poetic sequence named “recycling,” with an irritatingly coy postscript?

what a long poem! it drags on
and on doesn’t its author get bored
can’t it all fit into
a Japanese haiku? No it can’t.

Despite these deficiencies, Sobbing Superpower develops and extends an ongoing conversation about the relevance and resonance of poetry in the contemporary world. Surely the friendship and cross-pollination between Polish and American poetry is one of the fascinating literary stories of our time. It is hard to think of another example of two “poetries” speaking so usefully and intimately to each other in the current era, each preoccupied with poetry’s role and capabilities. (If American poetry can claim affinities to Polish, there is an equally mercurial narrative of contemporary Polish poets—Andrzej Sosnowski and Piotr Sommer are two quick examples—drawing surprising inspiration from John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler, among others.)

Czeslaw Milosz once confided his bewildered reaction to the American attraction to contemporary Polish poetry—American poets would envy the hunchback his hump. And poet-critic Maureen McLane infamously quipped, “What would American poets and critics do without the Central Europeans and the Russians to browbeat themselves with?” Yet it’s erroneous and shortsighted to conclude that we have fetishized Polish poets like Milosz and Herbert for addressing weighty subjects like the Holocaust and the bloody self-delusions of Marxism. To think that Americans don’t have political pressures of their own to respond to poetically, should they wish or feel called to, is absurd. Just as misguided is any dismissal of the precious privilege we have of employing poetry to seek, find and hold on to beauty, and to articulate, both seriously and playfully, even now, what it might mean to be human. Tadeusz Rózewicz’s poetry serves, in this regard, as an object lesson.

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