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…

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