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Ruins and Poetry

I intend to speak on the experience of poetry in a strictly defined time and place. The time is 1939 to 1945, the place, Poland. Before World War II Polish poets did not differ much in their interests and problems from their colleagues in France or Holland. The specific features of Polish literature notwithstanding, Poland belonged to the same cultural circuit as other European countries, Thus one can say that what occurred in Poland was an encounter of a European poet with the hell of the twentieth century, not hell’s first circle, but a much deeper one. This situation is something of a laboratory, in other words: it allows us to examine what happens to modern poetry in certain historical conditions.

A hierarchy of needs is built into the very structure of reality and is revealed when a misfortune touches a human collective, whether that be war, the rule of terror, or natural catastrophe. Then to satisfy hunger is more important than finding food that suits one’s taste; the simplest act of human kindness toward a fellow being acquires more importance than any refinement of the mind. The fate of a city, of a country, becomes the center of everyone’s attention, and there is a sudden drop in the number of suicides committed because of disappointed love or psychological problems. A great simplification of everything occurs, and people ask themselves why they took to heart matters that now seem to have no weight. And, evidently, one’s attitude toward the language also changes. It recovers its simplest function and is again an instrument serving a purpose; no one doubts that the language must name reality, which exists objectively, massive, tangible, and terrifying in its concreteness.

In the war years, poetry was the main genre of underground literature, since a poem can be contained on a single page. Poetry was circulated in manuscript or in clandestine publications, transmitted orally or sung. An anthology entitled Poetry of Fighting Poland published a few years ago has 1,912 pages of poems and songs, written mostly under the German occupation.1 The vast majority have documentary value and, at the same time, fulfilled an important function; today we would not grant them high artistic rank. Only a few show any familiarity with poetic craft. All of them, however, are characterized by that law discovered by Michal Borwicz in his book on the literature of prisons and concentration camps:2 they belong stylistically to the prewar period, but at the same time they try to express “the new,” which cannot be grasped by any of the available notions and means of expression. This poetry is often too talkative and blatant in its calls to battle while simultaneously, on a deeper level, it behaves like a mute who tries in vain to squeeze some articulate sound out of his throat; he is desperate to speak but does not succeed in communicating anything of substance. It is only later, after the war, under the pressure of a strongly felt need to find an expression for an exceptionally trying collective experience, that Polish poetry begins to move away from the stylistic modes common to the prewar poetry of many countries.

To define in a word what had happened, one can say: disintegration. People always live within a certain order and are unable to visualize a time when that order might cease to exist. The sudden crumbling of all current notions and criteria is a rare occurrence and is characteristic only of the most stormy periods in history. Perhaps the generations of Frenchmen who lived through the revolution and the Napoleonic wars felt something similar, and perhaps too Americans from the South felt they were witness to the ruins of their entire way of life after the Civil War. In general, though, the nineteenth century did not experience the rapid and violent changes of the next century, whose only possible analogy may be the time of the Peloponnesian War, as we know it from Thucydides. Nevertheless, the disintegration of which I speak had already taken place in the nineteenth century, though it was under the surface and so observed by only a few.

The pact concluded between Hitler and Stalin on August 23, 1939, brought all of Europe’s poisons to the surface. This was a fulfillment of things that were already prepared and only waiting to reveal themselves. It is necessary to keep in mind this peculiar logic of events in order to understand how poetry reacted. Perhaps, in proclaiming the end of European culture, Dostoevsky was, to a considerable extent, motivated by his Russian anti-Western obsession. But it was precisely in that manner that poets in Poland perceived Europe sinking in consecutive stages in to inhumanity—as the end of all European culture, and its disgrace.

The main reproach made to culture, a reproach at first too difficult to be formulated, then finally formulated, was that it maintained a network of meanings and symbols as a façade to hide the genocide that was taking place. In the same way, religion, philosophy, and art became suspect as accomplices in deceiving man with lofty ideas, in order to veil the truth of existence. Only the biological seemed true, and everything was reduced to a struggle within the species, and to the survival of the fittest. Yes, but that reduction had already been made. A whole system of values had been destroyed, with its neat division into good and evil, beauty and ugliness, including as well the very notion of truth. Therefore Nietzsche was not entirely mistaken in announcing “European nihilism.” Yet the façade was maintained, and it provoked angry reproaches: “You spoke of the dignity of man, a being created in the image and likeness of God, of good and beauty, and look what happened; you should be ashamed of your lies.” Mistrust and mockery were directed against the whole heritage of European culture. This is why many years after the war a play by Stanislaw Wyspianski, Akropolis, written in 1904, was staged by Jerzy Grotowski in such a peculiar fashion. The play is composed of scenes from Homer and the Bible and thus sums up the main components of Western culture. In Grotowski’s version, those scenes are played by prisoners in Auschwitz wearing striped uniforms, and the dialogue is accompanied by tortures. Only the tortures are real, and the sublime language of the verses recited by the actors is sarcastically colored by the very law of contrast.

Putting culture on trial so summarily must provoke serious doubt, for it simplifies the human condition and in that way departs from truth, as happened in the past with various kinds of Weltschmerz and mal du siècle. By living through disintegration in its most tangible varieties, Polish poetry, strange as this may sound, joined once more with Western poetry contaminated by “European nihilism,” only to give it a more radical expression. This is true of the poetry of Tadeusz Rózewicz, who made his debut after the war. Characteristically, while putting culture on trial, he often makes use of shorthand and symbols borrowed from that culture, as for instance in his poem “Nothing in Prospero’s Cloak,” which takes off from The Tempest. The civilizing power of the wise Prospero, who on his island introduces Caliban to the world of human speech and good manners, proves to be a sham.

Caliban the slave
taught human speech

his mug in dung
his feet in paradise
he sniffs at man

nothing arrives
nothing in Prospero’s magic cloak
nothing from streets and lips
from pulpits and towers
nothing from loudspeakers
speaks to nothing
about nothing

Poems of this kind seem to fulfill a surrogate function, that is, they direct a global accusation at human speech, history, and even the very fabric of life in society, instead of pointing out the concrete reasons for the anger and disgust. That probably happens because, as was the case in Poland during the war, reality eludes language and is the source of deep traumas, including the natural trauma of a country betrayed by its allies.

The reality of the war years is a great subject, but a great subject is not enough and it even makes inadequacies in workmanship all the more visible. There is another element which shows art in an ambiguous light. Noble intentions should be rewarded, and a literary work so conceived should acquire a durable existence, but most often the reverse is true: some detachment, some coldness, is necessary to elaborate a form. People thrown into the middle of events that tear cries of pain from their mouths have difficulty in finding the distance necessary to transform this material artistically. Probably in no language other than Polish are there so many terrifying poems, documents of the Holocaust; with few exceptions these are poems which survived and whose authors did not. Today a reader hesitates between two contradictory assessments. Next to the atrocious facts, the very idea of literature seems indecent, and one doubts whether certain zones of reality can ever be the subject of poems or novels. The tortures of the damned in Dante’s Inferno were, after all, invented by the author, and their fictitious character is made apparent by form. They do not appear raw, as do the tortures in documentary poems. On the other hand, because they use rhyme and stanzas, documentary poems belong to literature and one may ask, out of respect for those who perished, whether a more formally perfect poetry would not be a more appropriate monument than poetry on the level of facts.

After the war the annihilation of the Polish Jews appears in the poems of several writers, some of which found their place in anthologies. But applying severe criteria, one can say that the subject is beyond the authors’ capacities and rises up before them like a wall. The poems are considered good primarily because they move us with their noble intentions.

The difficulty of finding a formula for the experience of elemental cruelty is exemplified by the case of Anna Swirszczynska. She made her debut before the war with a volume of prose poems, quite lovely and refined, which testified to her interest in the history of art and medieval poetry. And no wonder, for she was the daughter of a painter, grew up in a painter’s studio, and at the university studied Polish literature. Neither she nor any of her readers could have guessed what purpose would be served one day by her predilection for illuminated manuscripts and miniatures.

During the war, Swirszczynska lived in Warsaw. In August and September of 1944 she took part in the Warsaw Uprising. For sixty-three days she witnessed and participated in a battle waged by a city of one million people against tanks, planes, and heavy artillery. The city was destroyed gradually, street by street, and those who survived were deported.

  1. 1

    Jan Szczawiej, ed., Poezia Polski Walczacej (PIW, 2 vol., Warsaw, 1972).

  2. 2

    Michal Borwicz, Écrits des Condamnés à Mort sous I’Occupation Allemande (1939-1945) (Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1954).

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