Two Polish poets

Ravi Vyas

Two Polish poets

What is the shortest distance between two points in a corrupt world?

The crooked line.

Attributed to Bertolt Brecht

IF poetry is "born out of quarrels with ourselves", does history influence poetic sensibility? Links between the "word" and historical experiences can be of various kinds, and there is no simple relationship of cause and effect. But if there is a relationship, it explains why Poles have a tradition of double-talk, double-think. Long periods of oppression and suppression from the first Partition in 1772 to the short-lived Polish republic after 1918, the horrors of the German invasion of 1939 and the Second World War, and the communist takeover that followed shaped its central concerns. Double "vision" then was an inheritance from a long history of invasion, division and political rape by hordes, of greater or less barbarity, sweeping in from the east and the west.

But specifically it was an inheritance from a time when straight talk was impossible: the century and a half or more of the Partition when the country was carved up between Russia, Prussia and Austria. Then the nation's unity and identity were preserved only by the use of the Polish language — and the Church, but that's a different matter. So to write became, willy-nilly, a political act, a gesture of independence. Authors stood in for politicians; instead of factions, there were poems and novels.

The result was a national genius for ambiguity. Everything was written in what can be called "Aesopian language" which made it impossible even to publish "Ba, Ba, black sheep", without someone interpreting it as a dig at the Polish economy, a veiled or barbed comment on production and distribution. In the Polish arts — this goes across the board from cinema, theatre, literature — every statement was loaded, every image more than it meant. Authors and artists may have meant what they said; they didn't always say what they meant.

Czeslaw Milosz, the Nobel laureate, explained what the censor's blackout, "when the right hand took away what the left hand gave", meant for Polish writing: "The anger went underground and emerged only in disguise, transformed into irony, sarcasm or an icy calm, from which it was hard to deduce the fury that lay concealed behind it."

Two Polish poets

Two poets, the Nobel laureate, Wislawa Szymborska and Tadeusz R�zewicz (also a playwright) became masters of the two-tone style. Both lived through the darkest nights of recent Polish history: the first under the Germans, when 20 per cent of the total population was killed; the second under the Stalinists, when intellectual life in the country was bureaucratised, censored and policed to a standstill. Both seem to write in the place of the generations of poets who made their debut during the war and did not survive. Given the constraints of the time, both worked out a possible stance to "fit" the situation (all the poems were written in the pre-glasnost period), a way of coping and coming to terms. Naturally, their politics were revisionist and their attitudes existential; and both worked behind a smoke screen of scholarship.

To begin with Szymborska. In her Nobel lecture (1996), "The Poet and the World", she said, "quite besides the blessings of this inner impulse," what inspired her was a continuous "I don't know." What emerged was a pervasive sense of uncertainty, a view of the human condition that was tragicomic as in The Century's Decline (1976):

Our twentieth century was going to improve on the others.

It will never prove it now,

now that its years are numbered,

its gait is shaky,

its breath is short.

Too many things have happened

that weren't supposed to happen,

and what was supposed to come about

has not.

Happiness and spring, among other things,

Were supposed to be getting closer.

Fear was expected to leave the mountains and the valleys.

Truth was supposed to hit home

before a lie.

A couple of problems weren't going

to come up any more:

hunger, for example,

and war, and so forth.

There was going to be respect

For helpless people's helplessness,

trust, that kind of stuff.

Anyone who planned to enjoy the world

is now faced

with a hopeless task.

Stupidity isn't funny

Wisdom isn't gay.


isn't that young girl any more

et cetera, alas.

God was finally going to believe

in a man both good and strong,

but good and strong

are still two different men.

"How should we live?" someone asked me in a letter.

I had meant to ask him

the same question.

Again, as ever,

as may be seen above,

The most pressing questions

are na�ve ones.

Before glasnost, sometime in the mid-1970s, it was clear that all "command economies" were in serious trouble, and "politics was in command" everywhere, as in "Children of our Age":

We are children of our age,

it's a political age.

All day long, all through the night.

all affairs — yours, ours, theirs —

are political affairs.

Whether you like it or not,

your genes have a political past,

your skin, a political cast,

your eyes, a political slant...

Apolitical poems are also political,

and above us shines a moon

no longer purely lunar.

To be or not to be, that is the question.

And though it troubles the digestion

it's a question, as always, of politics.

To acquire a political meaning

you don't even have to be human.

Raw material would do,

or protein feed, or crude oil,

or a conference table whose shape

was quarrelled over for months:

Should we arbitrate life and death

at a round table or square one?

Meanwhile, people perished,

animals died,

houses burned,

and the fields ran wild

just as in time immemorial

and less political.

There is a persistent sense of uncertainty in the poems as "Autonomy" begins:

When in danger the sea-cucumber

divides itself in two.

Or "Love at First Sight":

They're both convinced

that a sudden passion joined them.

Such certainty is beautiful,

but uncertainty is more beautiful still...

They'd be amazed to hear

that Chance had been toying with them

now for years...

Every beginning

is only a sequel, after all,

and the book of events

is always open halfway through.

Szymborska is a poet of a period of great doubts and uncertainties and she found her salvation through poetry. In "In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself", she tells you how to make your way through the maze:

The buzzard never says it is to blame.

The panther wouldn't know what scruples mean.

When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.

If snakes had clean hands, they'd claim their hands

Were clean...

On this third planet of the sun

among the signs of bestiality

a clear conscience is Number One.

"The revenge of a mortal hand", runs through her poems, including fun at her own expense as in "In Praise of My Sister":

My sister does not write poems,

and it is unlikely she'll suddenly

start writing poems.

R�zewicz's verse is unremittingly political. In the circumstances of the appalling Nazi occupation of Poland, and a peculiarly savage apprenticeship in the underground resistance, it could not be otherwise. "The historical experience I carried away from the War, from the occupation, from immediate contact with Hitlerism and Fascism, pushed me towards materialism, realism, socialism, rather than towards metaphysics." Milosz, who has emerged as a kind of father figure of post-war Polish poetry, put it in perspective when he said that "art is not an equal partner with historical events. Famine and death are more powerfully expressive than the most inspired poetic stanza or the most beautifully painted picture." And so R�zewicz said in 1948, that he "felt inhabited by two people. The one harboured admiration and respect for `fine' arts... the other harboured suspicion towards all the arts."

But R�zewicz is no philistine: "I turned to banal truths, to ordinary meaning, to common sense." So, he says in "My Poetry":

explains nothing

clarifies nothing

makes no sacrifices

does not embrace everything

does not redeem any hopes

does not create new rules of the game

takes no part in play

has a defined place which it has to fulfil

if it's not a fancy language

if it speaks without originality

if it holds no surprises

evidently this is how things ought to be

obedient to its own possibilities

and limitations

it loses even against itself

it does not usurp the space of another poetic

nor can it be replaced by any other

open to all

devoid of mystery

it has many tasks

to which it will never do justice

This is the aesthetic that permeates the whole of R�zewicz's poetry: tell it just as it is, the plain unvarnished truth. There is a lot more in both poets and your time will be well spent in reading them, especially if you like language in its purest form: spare, frugal, hard-boiled that only the best poets can ever do at all.

Poems, New and Collected, 1957-1997, Wislawa Szymborska, translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, Faber, Special Indian Price, �10.99.

Faces of Anxiety, Tadeusz R�zewicz, Poetry Europe Series, translated by Adam Czerniawski, Rapp and Whiting, 1969 edition.

Recommended for you