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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
waits

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

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.

Many years later Swirszczynska tried to reconstruct that tragedy in her poems: the building of barricades, the basement hospitals, the bombed houses caving in, burying people in shelters, the lack of ammunition, food, and bandages, and her own adventures as a military nurse. Yet those attempts of hers did not succeed: they were too wordy, too pathetic, and she destroyed her manuscripts. (Also, for a long time the Uprising was a forbidden topic, in view of Russia’s role in crushing it.) Only thirty years after the event did she hit upon a style that satisfied her. Curiously enough, that was the style of miniature, which she had discovered in her youth, but this time not applied to paintings. Her book Building the Barricade3 consists of very short poems, without meter or rhyme, each one a micro-report on a single incident or situation. This is a most humble art of mimesis: reality, as it is remembered, is paramount and dictates the means of expression. There is a clear attempt to condense, so that only the essential words remain. There are no comparisons or metaphors. Nevertheless, the book has a high degree of artistic organization, and, for example, the title poem can be read in terms of the rhetorical figures with Greek names that have been used in poetry for centuries—anaphora, epiphora, epizeuxis:

BUILDING THE BARRICADE

We were afraid as we built the bar- ricade
under fire.
The tavern-keeper, the jeweler’s mistress, the barber, all of us
cowards.
The servant girl fell to the ground
as she lugged a paving stone, we were terribly afraid
all of us cowards—
the janitor, the market woman, the pensioner.

The pharmacist fell to the ground
as he dragged the door of a toilet,
we were even more afraid, the smuggler-woman,
the dress-maker, the streetcar driver,
all of us cowards.

A kid from reform school fell
as he dragged a sandbag,
you see, we were really
afraid

Though no one forced us
we did build the barricade
under fire.

Swirszczynska often uses the form of a miniature monologue or dialogue to squeeze in as much information as possible. The small poem “A Woman Said to Her Neighbor” contains a whole way of life, the life in the basements of the incessantly bombed and shelled city. Those basements were connected by passages bored through the walls to form an underground city of catacombs. The notions and habits accepted in normal conditions were reevaluated there. Money meant less than food, which was usually obtained by expeditions to the firing line; considerable value was attached to cigarettes, which were used as a medium of exchange; human relations also departed from what we are used to considering the norm and were stripped of all appearances, reduced to their basest shape. It is possible that in this poem we are moved by the analogy with peacetime conditions, for men and women are often drawn together not from mutual attraction but from their fear of loneliness:

A woman said to her neighbor:
“Since my husband was killed I can’t sleep,
when there’s shooting I dive under the blanket,
I tremble all night long under the blanket.
I’ll go crazy if I have to be alone today,
I have some cigarettes my husband left, please
do drop in tonight.”

Enterprises like Swirszczynska’s, a diary of events reconstructed many years later, are rare in postwar Polish poetry. Another poet, Miron Bialoszewski, succeeded in doing the same thing in prose, in his A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising.4 Previously, his poems had given no indication that their author had the experiences he related in his memoir. Yet, when the book appeared, it shed light on a peculiar quality of his verse. A Memoir is a faithful, antiheroic, and nonpathetic description of disintegration; bombed houses, whole streets, human bodies disintegrate, as do objects of everyday use and human perceptions of the world. A witness of that disintegration could not help but write as Bialoszewski the poet did afterward. For a long time he was not published, and no wonder, for it is difficult to find any poetry more distant from the official optimism. His poetry is mistrustful of culture, no less than that of Rózewicz, but above all it is mistrustful of language, for language is the fabric from which the garments of all philosophies and ideologies are cut.

One can say that Bialoszewski performs a Cartesian operation, in the sense that he effects a reduction and attempts to draw a circle, even a small one, around something in which he can believe. He appears to have divided reality into two layers: a higher layer, embracing all that creates culture, namely churches, schools, universities, philosophical doctrines, systems of government, and a second, lower layer, life at its most down-to-earth. People go to a store, they use a dish, a spoon, and a fork, sit down on a chair, open and close the door, in spite of what happens up there, “above.” They communicate in a language indifferent to correct grammar and syntax, in an idiom of half-words, sentences interrupted in the middle, grunts, silences, and peculiar intonations.

Bialoszewski wants to stay within that lower everyday world and its language. He is like a Roman who, witnessing the fall of Rome, seeks help in what is most durable because it is the most elementary and trivial and, for that reason, is able to grow on the ruins of states and empires. The poetry of the last few decades, not only in Poland but everywhere else, has renounced meter and rhyme, and has begun reducing words to their components; in this respect, Bialoszewski differs only by the radical nature of his attempts. But there is something else in him, an aural mimesis—in the common speech of Warsaw’s streets he hears “rustles, snatches, flows,” and he jots them down in a nearly inarticulate mumble. In such diction he writes of insignificant daily incidents in his life and those of his acquaintances, mixing verse and prose, though the borderline between them already is so blurred that differentiation becomes meaningless. Taken together, these poems make a chronicle of the streets of the city in which he was born and which he saw destroyed and rebuilt.

What is for me most interesting is the democratic quality in Bialoszewski. Like the other poets I have just discussed, he paradoxically breaks the pattern of bohemia, so that the chasm between the poet and the “human family” ceases to exist. This does not mean that he appeals to everybody, for, in a sense. Bialoszewski is a continuer of the avant-garde and an anti-poet. His example indicates that the reintegration of the poet does not mean conformity with the taste of the majority. But Bialoszewski himself is not alienated—he speaks as one of the crowd, gives himself no airs, stands at no distance, and maintains cordial relations with the people who appear in his prose-poetry.

A diction that juggles peculiarities of inflection and a great number of suffixes cannot be rendered in a foreign language and, as a rule, Bialoszewski is untranslatable, especially since his use of fragmentary, stenographic notation has increased with time. One poem from his earlier period, however, does give an idea of his search for something stable, even if it is as unpretentious as shopping in a store:

A BALLAD OF GOING DOWN TO THE STORE

First I went down to the store
by means of the stairs,
just imagine it,
by means of the stairs.

Then people known to people un- known
passed me by and I passed them by.
Regret
that you did not see
how people walk,
regret!

I entered a complete store:
lamps of glass were glowing.
I saw somebody—he sat down—
and what did I hear? What did I hear?
rustling of bags and human talk.

And indeed,
Indeed
I returned

The experience of disintegration during the war years probably marked Polish poetry so firmly because the order established after the war was artificial, imposed from above and in conflict with those organic bonds that survived, such as the family and the parish church. One striking feature of Polish poetry in recent decades has been its search for equilibrium in the midst of chaos and of the complete fluidity of all values, something of sufficiently general importance to deserve attention here. Bialoszewski’s program could be called minimalist.

Taking refuge in the world of objects provided a somewhat similar solution. Human affairs are uncertain and unspeakably painful, but objects represent a stable reality, do not alter with reflexes of fear, love, or hate, and always “behave” logically. Zbignlew Herbert, a quiet, reserved poet with an inclination to calligraphic conciseness, has chosen to explore the world of objects. His example confirms what I have said about Polish poetry’s rejoining Western poetry because of the disintegration that confronts them both, even if that disintegration is different in quality and intensity. Herbert is sometimes reminiscent of Henri Michaux, but his “mythopoems,” as they have been called (poems on objects), are closest to those of Francis Ponge. One notable difference between the two is that Herbert takes a personal approach to an object and Ponge withdraws to the role of impersonal observer. In Herbert’s work a space filled with human struggles and suffering provides the background for objects, and thus a chair or a table is precious simply because it is free of human qualities and, for that reason, deserves envy.

Objects in his poetry seem to imply this reasoning: European culture entered a phase where the neat criteria of good and evil, of truth and falsity, disappeared; at the same time, man became a plaything of powerful collective movements expert at reversing values, so that from one day to the next black would become white, a crime a praiseworthy deed, and an obvious lie an obligatory dogma. Moreover, language was appropriated by the people in power who monopolized the mass media and were able to change the meaning of words to suit themselves.

A person is exposed to a double attack. On the one hand, he must think of himself as the product of determinants which are social, economic, and psychological. On the other hand, his loss of autonomy is confirmed by the totalitarian nature of political power. Such circumstances make every pronouncement on human affairs uncertain. In one of Herbert’s poems the narrator hears the voice of conscience but is unable to decipher what the voice is trying to say. In another, “The Elegy of Fortinbras,” Hamlet loses out because of his “crystal notions,” which show he is unprepared for life, while practical Fortinbras pronounces an encomium to opportunism. As opposed to the human domain with its shaky foundations, Herbert tells us, objects have the virtue of simply existing—they can be seen, touched, described.

A similar motivation seems to mark the poems of Francis Ponge, except that his turning to objects signifies a desire to go beyond psychology; in Herbert the object is an element of his encounter with History. History is present in an object as an absence: it reminds us of itself by a minus sign, by the object’s indifference to it.

THE PEBBLE

The pebble
is a perfect creature
equal to itself
mindful of its limits

filled exactly
with a pebbly meaning

with a secret which does not remind one of anything
does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire

its ardour and coldness
are just and full of dignity

I feel a heavy remorse
when I hold it in my hand

and its noble body
is permeated by false warmth

Pebbles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye

Mankind, unfortunately, is not “equal to itself.” Herbert has read twentieth-century philosophy and knows the definition of man as “he who is what he is not and who is not what he is.” It is precisely this that in Sartre makes man foreign to nature, which is established in itself, equal to itself, and bears another name, “être-en-soi.” It is “mindful of its limits,” while man is characterized by a limitless striving to transcend all limits. The poem is therefore polemical: it indicates that poetry is not bound to avoid philosophy. So “The Pebble” cannot be numbered among the works of pure poetry.

A pebble is free of feelings, that cause of suffering. It has no memory of past experience, good or bad, and no fear or desire. Human ardor and human coldness can be viewed in a positive or negative light, but in a pebble they are just and full of dignity. Man, transient and short-lived, feels remorse when confronted with a pebble. He is aware that he himself has a false warmth. The last three lines contain a political allusion, though a reader may not notice it at first. Pebbles cannot be tamed, but people can, if the rulers are sufficiently crafty and apply the stick-and-carrot method successfully. Tamed people are full of anxiety because of their hidden remorse; they do not look us straight in the face. Pebbles will look at us “with a calm and very clear eye” to the end. To the end of what? we may ask. Probably to the end of the world. The poem ends on an eschatological note.

A final example of the unexpected turns and transfers by which poetry meets the challenge of history is provided by my late friend Aleksander Wat. Wat has left a monumental work—a memoir, My Century, which is currently being translated into English. This book tells of a life rich enough for ten, and of the peculiar dependence of one destiny upon the various philosophies of our century. In his youth, around 1919, Wat was a futurist. Then, in 1927, he published a volume of perverse, parable-like tales, Lucifer Unemployed, a blatant example of “European nihilism.” In 1929 he became editor-in-chief of the major communist periodical in Poland between the wars, the Literary Monthly. After Poland was partitioned by Hitler and Stalin in 1939, Wat found himself in the Soviet zone where he was imprisoned, accused of being a Trotskyite, a Zionist, and an agent of the Vatican. After many years in various prisons and in exile in Soviet Asia, he returned in 1946 to Poland, soon to be accused of departing from the doctrine of socialist realism. And, it should be added, spiritually he was shaped in equal measure, as he has stressed in his memoirs, by Judaism, Catholicism, and atheism.

Wat therefore typifies the numerous adventures of the European mind in its Polish variety, that is, a mind not located in some abstract space where what is elementary—hunger, fear, despair, desire—does not penetrate. Wat experienced the philosophies of the twentieth century bodily, in their most tangible forms. He spent time, as he says himself, “in fourteen prisons, many hospitals, and innumerable inns,” always taking on roles imposed by the people in power: the role of a prisoner, a patient, an exile. After his period of youthful futurism he virtually abandoned poetry for a long time. He fulfilled himself as a poet in his old age. His late poems are sort of haphazard notes by a man who is locked inside “the four walls of his pain,” physical pain. Moreover, Wat is inclined to see his suffering as a punishment, for he was guilty of a grave sin. That sin, widespread in this century, was defined by Nadezhda Mandelstam in her memoirs when she said that, though much can be forgiven a poet, he must not become a seducer, not use his gifts to make his reader into a believer in some inhuman ideology. Wat passed a severe judgment on his nihillstic work of the Twenties and on his subsequent work as editor of the communist periodical that had such great influence in Poland.

Capricious, highly subjective notes—such, at least in appearance, are Wat’s late poems. He speaks of himself, and yet some unexpected transmutation turns that chronicle of his own afflictions into a chronicle of this century’s agonies. Wat’s example seems to verify my assumption that once reality surpasses any means of naming it, it can be attacked only in a roundabout way, as it is reflected in somebody’s subjective self. Herbert’s poem “The Pebble” applies a specific via negativa when he speaks of man’s fate and praises inanimate nature, which contradicts that fate. Wat’s Mediterranean Poems, written when he was approaching seventy, are the memories of a castaway, a sick veteran of beliefs and doctrines, who finds himself in the stony landscape of the Alpine foothills and is engaged in a major reassessment.

I think it was the German philosopher Adorno who said that, after the Holocaust, poetry is impossible. In Wat’s private poetic jottings there is no mention of the Holocaust or of what he, along with more than a million others, lived through during their deportation to Russia. His cry, the cry of Job, tells only of the conclusions drawn by a survivor. As in Herbert, inanimate nature becomes an object of envy.

Disgusted with everything alive I withdrew into the stone
world, here I thought, liberated, I would observe from above,
but without pride, those things
entangled in chaos. With the eyes of a stone, myself a stone among stones, and like them sensitive,
pulsating to the turning of the sun. Retreating into the depth of myself, stone,
motionless, silent; growing cold; present through a waning

of presence—in the cold

attractions of the moon. Like sand diminishing in
an hourglass, evenly,

Ceaselessly, uniformly, grain by grain. Thus I shall be submitted
only to the rhythms of day and night. But—
no dance in them, no whirling, no frenzy: only
monastic rule and silence.

They do not become, they are. Nothing else. Nothing
else, I thought, loathing

all which becomes.5

What can poetry be in the twentieth century? It seems to me that it is when we search for the line beyond which there is only a zone of silence that we encounter Polish poetry. In it a peculiar fusion of the individual and the historical took place, which means that events burdening a whole community are perceived by a poet as touching him in a most personal manner. Then poetry is no longer “alienated.” As the etymology of the term suggests, poetry is no longer a foreigner in society. If we must choose the poetry of such an unfortunate country as Poland to learn that the great schism in poetry is curable, then that knowledge brings no comfort. Nevertheless, the example of that poetry gives us perspective on some rituals of the poets when they are separated from “the great human family.” Clearly, any neat division of poetry into the “alienated” and “nonalienated” will encounter serious difficulties. I pretend to no precision here.

Mallarmé’s sonnet “Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poë,” is a symbolist manifesto and as such provides some valuable hints. Edgar Allan Poe is called an angel who wanted “donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu,” “to give a purer meaning to the words of the tribe.” Curiously enough, it was precisely Poe’s use of English and his form of versification that contributed to his marginal place in the history of American poetry. But a myth needs a conflict between an angel and the hydra of the crowd, and here both Poe’s life and the distance between France and America were of help. From romanticism, of course, comes the idealization of the lonely, misunderstood individual charged with a mission in society, and thus French symbolism emerges as a specific mutation of the romantic heritage. Whereas in romanticism a poet had to prophesy, to lead, to move hearts, here we have the idea of purity and defensiveness, opposed to vulgarity and dirt. On the one side, an angel and “un sens plus pur“; on the other “le flot sans honneur de quelque noir mélange,” “a wave without honor of some black mixture.” But the ending of Mallarmé’s sonnet is probably crucial: Poe’s granite tomb is to remain forever a landmark, not to be crossed by “noirs vols du Blasphème,” “black flights of Blasphemy.”

A landmark that will last forever. Here we can see how Mallarmé’s sonnet departs from romanticism. The relationship between the poet and the crowd is defined as stable, not imposed by circumstances that would be changed by historical movement. Society appears as given, like trees and rocks, endowed with the firm, settled existence typical of nineteenth-century bourgeois France. It is precisely the aspect of poetry in isolation as depicted in this sonnet that strikes us as incompatible with what we have learned in the twentieth century. Social structures are not stable, they display great flexibility, and the place of the artist has not been determined once and for all. To be fair to Mallarmé, let us recall that he appears to say exactly the same thing as Horace, who called himself “Musarum sacerdos” (a priest of the Muses) and declared: “Odi profanum vulgus et arceo,” “I hate the profane crowd and keep it at a distance.” But the similarity is illusory, for we are confronted with two different historical contexts.

Polish poets found out that the hydra so ominously present for the symbolists is in reality quite weak; in other words that the established order, which provides the frame for the quarrel between the poet and the crowd, can cease to exist from one day to the next. In that light, Mallarmé’s sonnet is a typical work of the nineteenth century, when civilization seemed to be something guaranteed. And, of course, Polish poets may reproach their Western colleagues, who generally repeat the thought patterns proper to the isolated poet. That would be a reproach for his lacking a sense of hierarchy when appraising phenomena or, to put it more simply, for lacking realism.

In colloquial speech, the word “unrealistic” indicates an erroneous presentation of facts and implies a confusion of the important and the unimportant, a disturbance of the hierarchy. All reality is hierarchical simply because human needs and the dangers threatening people are arranged on a scale. No easy agreement can be reached on what should occupy first place. It is not always bread; often it is the word. And death is not always the greatest menace; often slavery is. Nevertheless, anyone who accepts the existence of such a scale behaves differently from someone who denies it. The poetic act changes with the amount of background reality embraced by the poet’s consciousness. In our century that background is, in my opinion, related to the fragility of those things we call civilization or culture. What surrounds us, here and now, is not guaranteed. It could just as well not exist—and so man would construct poetry out of the remnants found in ruins.

  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).

  3. 3

    English translation by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literacki, 1979).

  4. 4

    English translation by Madeline Levine (Ardis, 1977).

  5. 5

    From Aleksander Wat, Mediterranean Poems, translated by Czeslaw Milosz (Ardis, 1977).

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