Tadeusz Różewicz was born in 1921 in Rodomsko, in central Poland, the birthplace in 1867 of the novelist Władysław Stanisław Reymont, the nation’s second Nobel Laureate for Literature. Reymont was proudly provincial, a grade-school dropout and autodidact whose best-known novel is titled The Peasants. In 1999, Różewicz was awarded the Władysław Reymont Prize for his contributions to Polish literature, a fitting alignment. For all his vaunted avant-gardisme, his rejection of poetic form and championing of “anti-poetry,” Różewicz is at heart a provincial, something of a small-town crank, contrary, self-educated, non-aligned, skeptical of most ideologies and fashions, and he has erected a long and much-honored literary career on this anti-literary scaffolding. In 1959, Różewicz wrote an “essay,” more rant than manifesto, titled “Preparation for a Poetry Reading”:
I don’t care about aesthetic values. That’s what our classicist is all about, our stylist, the distinguished translator, that one there who hasn’t spoken a true word for fifteen years. His whole style is made out of plaster! The sage. I have to stop writing. This chattering. I’m beginning to rave.
Różewicz has never taken his own advice. A poet renowned for dismissing the possibility of writing poetry, he has remained immensely prolific, like the village scold who won’t be silenced. Since publishing his Collected Works in Poland in 2005-2006, Różewicz has brought out at least four more collections of poems, and now we have Sobbing Superpower, the most comprehensive selection of his work yet translated into English. The renderings by Joanna Trzeciak, who has also translated the poems of Wisława Szymborska, are clean and uncluttered, and presumably their starkness and transparency reflect Różewicz’s.
Różewicz is a poet of shards. Not that his poems are broken. Rather, they were never whole, and he leaves them fragmented and incomplete, like words on a rotting papyrus scroll. Across more than six decades he has consistently written poems about the inadequacy of language, its treachery and the naivetè of those who put their faith in it. In “Survivor,” from his 1947 collection, Anxiety, Różewicz writes lines that might stand as his poetic and philosophical credo, a form of stylized nihilism:
Man is killed just like an animal
truckloads of chopped-up people
who will never be saved.
Concepts are only words:
virtue and vice
truth and lie
beauty and ugliness
courage and cowardice.
Much has been made of the impact of World War II on Różewicz and his work. He was eighteen when the Nazis invaded Poland. Like Zbigniew Herbert, a poet with whom he otherwise has little in common, he served in the Polish resistance. His brother, Janusz, also a poet, was executed by the Gestapo in 1944—one of six million Poles, almost one-fifth of the nation, who died between 1939 and 1945. Różewicz seems to accept Adorno’s chestnut about no poetry after Auschwitz, but with a twist. The poet goes on working, fashioning his poems, but they are no longer poems as we once knew them. Most of Różewicz’s are indistinguishable from prose except for lineation. Metaphors are rare, and simplicity and sincerity have replaced complexity and linguistic polish as the chief poetic virtues. Adam Zagajewski says of his countryman’s work:
Beauty and formal (rhetorical) sophistication ceased to exist; they were among the casualties of World War II. Sometimes the result of this self-imposed strangulation are stunningly beautiful (because of their simplicity), sometimes a bit tedious (also because of their simplicity).
In his melding of simplicity and sincerity, Różewicz sometimes recalls the Beats and their cousin Charles Bukowski, minus the countercultural trappings. Their poems are literally self-centered, with little or no attempt to create a persona apart from the poet’s own. This is done in the name of authenticity, a principled rejection of poetic artifice, the craft of poetry. Occasionally, Różewicz’s strategy results in a qualified success, as in “Fear,” from the 1961 collection Conversation with the Prince:
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
what am I doing here
when will I stop pretending
where am I going
This works as satire of Gomulka-era Poland and the other Communist bloc regimes. It extends a literary tradition that includes Gogol, Kafka, and Stanisław Lem, and it works because it is concise, pointed and witty—rare qualities in Różewicz’s work. His chronic logorrhea is reflected not only in the unstopped profusion of his books—poems, plays, tirades—but in the garrulousness of individual poems. He doesn’t know when to stop, and fame and longevity (he will turn ninety on October 9 of this year) seem to have exacerbated the condition.
Even before I knew the source of the volume’s title—Sobbing Superpower—it seemed an unfortunate choice. How melodramatic, cheaply topical—vulgar—it sounded, and my revulsion intensified as I read the title poem. It carries the subtitle “(Saturday, January 20, 2001),” for the day George W. Bush was inaugurated as President of the United States.
A poem without rigorous form can work if the language and thinking are strong and vibrant. We don’t judge a poem by the political sentiments expressed, though if the poet’s aim is solely to express such sentiments, he’s unlikely to have crafted much of a poem. “Sobbing Superpower,” like most of Różewicz’s later poems, is long-winded and self-indulgent, slack prose made slacker by sophomoric slogans. When he writes poems like this, Różewicz is no longer the valiant literary outsider immune to fashions in poetry and politics. Rather, he is thinking and writing with the herd, like one of Sam Hamill’s Poets Against War:
The Superpower is sentimental
quick to tears
hand on Bible
the son of the 41st president
Abraham Lincoln looks on and listens
not even the downpour could
hide Bush’s tears
the Superpower sobbed
And so on, for more than three pages. The spectacle is embarrassing. In her notes to “Sobbing Superpower,” Trzeciak tells us Różewicz quotes from “To John Brown, Citizen,” a poem by the Polish poet Cyprian Kamil Norwid (1821–83), written in 1859 during Brown’s trial for treason, murder and conspiracy. The echo is revealing. Brown was the Mumia Abu-Jamal of his day—a criminal lionized as a victimized hero. Among Brown’s prominent champions, besides Norwid, were Thoreau, Emerson, and Victor Hugo.
The poet who earlier in his career wrote that evil comes “from a human being / always a human being / and only a human being,” has forsaken his sense of moral acuity, along with any dedication to poetic excellence he once possessed. As he wrote in 1959, “I’m beginning to rave.”
Patrick Kurp is a writer living in Houston, Texas, and the author of the literary blog Anecdotal Evidence.
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