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Dark Refusals: The Poetry of Tadeusz Rozewicz

ISSUE:  Spring 2010

Tadeusz Różewicz is a poet of dark refusals, hard negations. He is a naked or impure poet (“I crystallize impure poetry,” he writes), an anti-poet relentlessly, even ruthlessly determined to tell the truth, however painful it may be. He scorns the idea of the poet as prophet and speaks from the margins—a stubborn outsider. “A poet is one who believes / and one who cannot,” he declares. He dwells in uncertainties and doubts, in the insecure, gray areas of life—skepticism is his native mindset—and strips poetry down to its bare essentials: words alone on a page. He is bracingly clear and shuns the floridities—the grand consolations—of the traditional lyric. His characteristic free-verse style is a non-style, a zero-sum game. “I have no time for aesthetic values,” he says. Rather, he treats modern poetry as “a battle for breath” and writes with an anxious, prolific, offhanded urgency. He is wary and intense, a bemused seer of nothingness. I consider him the Samuel Beckett of modern Polish poetry.

Różewicz belongs to a brilliant generation of Polish poets—the half-generation after Czeslaw Milosz—initiated in the apocalyptic fires of history. He is a crucial part of the firmament—the “Generation of Columbuses”—that includes such other great modern poets as Zbigniew Herbert and Wislawa Szymborska. He grew up during one of the few periods of independence in Polish history, but came of age during the terrible years of World War II. Poland lost six million people during the war, nearly one-fifth of its population, and all young writers felt the crushing burden of speaking for those who did not survive the German occupation. “I’m twenty-four / Led to slaughter / I survived,” Różewicz wrote in “Survivor” (published in Anxiety in 1947). It was no boast. For him, poetry—or at least one kind of poetry—was murdered during the war. The Holocaust loomed over everything.

The war was such a traumatic event that for a new generation of Polish poets it called all moral and aesthetic values into question. Those who survived could never believe in the future again. Nor could they revert to traditional forms of poetry. They rejected the aesthetics of elaborate, ornamental, or sonorous language. No more intricate meters and rhymes, no more fancy metaphors. It was as if poetry had to be reinvented from the ground up. Różewicz fostered this distrust of rhetoric, of false words and sentiments. He was among the first to catch the mood in a stripped-down poetry of drastic simplicity. Here is the beginning of “In the Middle of Life,” which reads like a new kind of primer:

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 and day
what should one love
I answered man

Różewicz’s brutal simplicity enacts his suspicion of all general ideas and philosophies. He distrusts overarching concepts (“Concepts are only words”). He had a moment of embracing Communism, but soon gave it up, and over the years he has shown himself to be temperamentally allergic to political creeds or ideologies, public speech, sobbing superpowers from the East or West. He is alert to official lies and recognizes that evil comes “from a human being / always a human being / and only a human being.” His clear-eyed view of humanity is one of the constants of his work. “It would be best to go insane / you’re right Tadeusz,” he writes to his friend Tadeusz Konwicki, “but our generation never quite goes insane / to the very end/ it keeps its eyes open.”

Joanna Trzeciak’s translations here capture Różewicz’s cunning style of negation, his stark diction and sudden turns, his talkativeness, his well-timed silences, his artful artlessness. For more than sixty years, Tadeusz Różewicz has remained utterly true to his values and commitments, to his dark view that “nothing begets nothing.” He is spare and uncompromising, a magician without robes. “My poetry,” he writes, “justifies nothing / explains nothing / renounces nothing / encompasses no whole / fulfills no whole.” And yet: “it obeys its own imperative / its own capabilities / and limitations / its loses against itself.” In the end, Różewicz’s unlikely creativity—the life force itself—has always won out. He inveighs against singing, but sings nonetheless. He can’t go on, he will go on. “A poet is one who exits / and one who cannot,” he concludes. He has given us an unwavering and undefended poetry, a self-contradictory poetry that attacks mankind but defends individual men. So, too, over the decades, the poet of negativity has been slowly, cautiously, and firmly building “a bridge / linking the past / to the future.” He has created the poetry of qualified humanism. He rescues consciousness from oblivion. As he writes in “so what it’s a dream”:

I write on water

from a few sentences
from a few verses
I build an ark

to save something
from the flood
which catches us by surprise

Poems by Tadeusz Różewicz:


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