Sunday, October 4, 2015

For seeing the world differently: The Polish poets Part 1: Tadeusz Rozewicz (1921-2014)

"What I produced is poetry for the horror-stricken. For those abandoned to butchery. For survivors"
Tadeusz Rozewicz

A friend and colleague of mine recently wrote that she was planning to read some poetry, in the hope of 'seeing the world differently'.
It is wonderful description of the possibilities inherent in good poetry.
For me there are poets who help us see the world differently. Poets whose words give voice and form to emotions, thoughts and experiences that are very real, but somehow mysterious or that we can never know. 

Poets who reinvigorate and revitalise us in difficult or dark times.
Among such poets are Polish poets whose work appears regularly on this blog- Anna Swir, Zbigniew Herbert, Wislawa Syzmborska and Tadeusz Rozewicz, to name four.
Tadeusz Rozewicz, who died in 2014, is  one of Poland's premier writers and poets and his mastery of poetry, prose and drama resulted in nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature and  numerous other awards. His work has been translated into 50 languages.
Rozewicz lived through major events of the 20th century which had a profound impact on the Polish people, including the after effects of the first world war, the redrawing of country boundaries after WW1, the rise of fascism, the terror of WW2, the post war reconstruction, the rise of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe, the Iron Curtain, the Velvet Revolution of the late 1980's and early 1990's and then the freedoms and failures of democracy during the 1990's and 21st century.

Like many of his fellow Polish poets, his poetry sprang from traumatic WW2 wartime experience. Rozewicz was just 18 when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 and he was a member of the Polish guerrilla underground Home Army for 3 years. His brother, also a poet, was executed by the Gestapo in 1944.  

His poetry is imbued with the horror and the crises of humanity and values that those who lived through and survived the war and the post war period experienced- mass death, cruelty, savagery, indifference, civilizational uniformity, disillusionment, the ever present threat of death, totalitarian rule, the inadequacy and betrayal of political leaders and political systems, and ultimately the failure of humanity.
finally I too came into the world
in the year 1921 and suddenly . .
atchoo! time passes I am old and forgot where I put my glasses
I forgot there was
history Caesar Hitler Mata Hari
Stalin capitalism communism
Einstein Picasso Al Capone
Alka Seltzer Al Qaeda
from 'regression into the primordial soup' in  Sobbing Superpower by Tadeusz Rozewicz
As a writer in the Guardian put it:

"Różewicz's eye was merciless but the poems are full of human sympathy".

His poems are often short, with simple and direct language, often leading to dark and bleak conclusions.  
This is a table I said 
this is a table
on the table there is bread a knife
the knife is for cutting the bread
bread feeds people...  
what is a knife for 
it's for cutting off the heads of enemies 
it's for cutting off the heads of 
women children old people…
Rozewicz sought to undermine and discard poetic and literary form, exemplified with his immortal line "The poem/is finished/now to break it".  
In 'philosophers stone' he undermines his own poetic voice:

We need to put
this poem to sleep

before it starts
before it starts

for compliments

called to life
in a moment of forgetting

sensitive to words
it looks to

a philosophers 
stone for help
a passerby hasten your step
do not lift up the stone

there a blank verse
to ashes

As the Guardian obituary notes Rozewicz will be remembered as:
"one of the poets through whom we continue to understand what happened in the last century"
Obituaries for Rozewicz are here, here and here

Interviews with, and articles about Rozewicz are herehere, here and here

The Survivor
by Tadeusz Rozewicz

I am twenty-four
led to slaughter
I survived.

The following are empty synonyms:
man and beast
love and hate
friend and foe
darkness and light.

The way of killing men and beasts is the same
I've seen it:
truckfuls of chopped-up men
who will not be saved.

Ideas are mere words:
virtue and crime
truth and lies
beauty and ugliness
courage and cowardice.

Virtue and crime weigh the same
I've seen it:
in a man who was both
criminal and virtuous.

I seek a teacher and a master
may he restore my sight hearing and speech
may he again name objects and ideas
may he separate darkness from light.

I am twenty-four
led to slaughter
I survived.

Translated by Adam Czerniawski

No comments: