Twentieth-Century Polish Poets on Poetry

“Our planetary reality has split in two into the so-called West and the so-called East, and I have drunk from both one and the other poisoned well. I have also become convinced that the puzzle of the thirties still cries out for a solution.”

-Czesław Miłosz

Polish Writers on Writing

I find myself intensely drawn to twentieth-century Polish poets. Having borne waves of tragedy in the last century, from the Holocaust to oppressive Soviet occupation, the country itself seems have been flung into a kind of national existential crisis. And so, its sensitive and intelligent poets grapple deeply and boldly with questions of faith and reason, tragedy and hope, nihilism and meaning. Many of them, like me, are fascinated with the allegorical dimensions of the Book of Job, with Nietzschean philosophy, with reconciling the tragedies of the great World Wars with the sometimes inexplicable beauty of this world.  In short, they face down the deepest questions about what it means to be alive.

Yet I do not think it is only me, or only Polish poets, who must come to terms with these questions. Triggered by the worldwide disillusionment brought about by the global spectacle of the Second World War (brilliantly explained by Miłosz in The Witness of Poetry), it seems that Postmodernism is the first stage of grieving our collective loss of faith in centrality and certainty. I believe we can, and must, move past this stage by confronting the deep questions that surfaced in this time. We must heal the unspeakable wound.

Even as reconciling personal grief has been an inescapable task in my personal life, I see these same questions refusing to go unresolved in our modern world. In America, and worldwide, we are faced once again with an economic crisis stemming from the inherent problems of capitalism, and once again we regard those who offer a worldview more inclusive of the common good with deep skepticism and fear of tyranny. Religion and scientific reason continue to reinforce their differences. Generativity again takes a back seat to instant gratification in our culture. And all of it has been syndicated, and accelerated, by increasingly more sophisticated technological systems of disseminating information. Yet none of these systems, no matter how good their search algorithms, provide the means to make human meaning from this glut of data. And so, the great questions of the early twenty-first century are actually only the great unresolved questions of the last century.

Nowhere do I find more careful consideration of these questions than from Polish poets. What an unexpected kinship, and how reassuring, to read how they, too, found freedom in poetry, a declaration of their humanity capable of transcending the difficult circumstance of being human in a world that continues to shrink, even as the weight of history increases.

Now, I will let them speak for themselves. Here are some excerpts I found particularly insightful from the excellent compilation Polish Writers on Writing, edited by Adam Zagajewski:

Bolesław Leśmian

That song without words does not originate in the realm of logic where every word originates but in other, nonlogical realms, where it is possible to exist without words and where the concept of existence–freed from the bonds of grammar and syntax–ceases to be a logical proposition, with its obligatory subject and predicate, its beginning and end, its birth and death.

In fact, the true realist is obliged to create what is real for him, his own reality.

Stanisław Brzozowski

Poetry must be seen as the creative self-definition of man.

The word has no absolute extra-historical meanings. It is always an infirm and limited creature of life: infirm and limited even when we consider it as a creature of the whole species, but a single one. The reality of man is relative, provisional, unfinished; there is no ready, finished, closed reality.

Art is dependent on the elements that change the slowest, on what moves us, what we feel, and its connection to our self-sympathy, becoming a moment of the drive to self-impression. So when we begin to write, it is not will that revives in us and gains the advantage of us, but nature: nature becomes will.

Czesław Miłosz

When I was … [a child] … Friedrich Nietzsche’s predictions had already been fulfilled literally, and since that time I have either had to submit to or oppose the workings of ‘European nihilism.’ Nihilistic time, to judge by contemporary art and literature, is completely devoid of values; neither its specific moments nor their duration makes any sense. It manifests itself as only a destructive, absurd force…

Thanks to religion, over the course of many centuries the authentic world, grounded in the sight of God, offered models for the artist who hoped to approach them not so much [by] imitation as by analogy.

The contemplation of time is the key to human life–but one can only circle that key, one cannot touch it. One thing is certain: not every contemplation of time is equally good; however, since it cannot be expressed in words, we can recognize its quality by the use a given individual has made of it.

If we recognize that it is our lot to live in a decadent era, we are faced with the problem of choosing our tactics. Since man is not an animal and is in touch with the entire past of his specie, and since the past, to the extent that forgotten civilizations are being rediscovered, is becoming ever more accessible, we cannot but be depressed by the thought that instead of trying to equal the greatest human achievements, we yield to inferior philosophies only because they are contemporary. It is very difficult to find appropriate tactics for resistance, and our development, if it to be worthy of that name, must be founded, I believe, on advancing from unconscious tactics to conscious tactics.

A pessimistic appraisal of the powerlessness of contemporary forces, and of the literature and art that unconsciously submits to these forces, is not synonymous with a lack of faith in individual achievements or with doubts about an eventual victory of the human race over ‘reality.’

Anna Kamieńska

The ‘cipher’ of contemporary poetry–the desperate desire to preserve the values of art, while it seems everything is being frittered away in cheap utilitarianism.

Poetry is a presentiment of the truth. It’s the vestibule of faith.

People can only open themselves up for brief moments, like flashes of lightning. At times it requires a single word. It isn’t necessarily happening where concessions pour out in a flood tide. There are little words, simple, surprising, perhaps disguised. One must be sensitive to them.

There is also solitude toward God, the fullest kind. That solitude is our freedom. That presence in solitude is difficult, an internal attainment, carved out like a poem.

The task of so-called religious poetry is to cleanse ‘religion’ of the stereotype.

Wisława Szymborska

There is, has been, and always will be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It’s made up of all those who’ve consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners–and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.’

Zbigniew Herbert

A wise person said to me recently that at moments when a person is alone and suffering, let him try to bring that suffering as a sacrifice. That’s very good advice, very practical. I can’t do anything without suffering, but I can ennoble it in some way by an inward act. In any case I am in no way a supporter of the view that we are ennobled only by suffering. In a human life there has to be a balance of suffering and joy, because that is what gives fullness to humanity. On the other hand, a person who only suffers in the end withdraws into himself. The Book of Job, that masterpiece, really says everything about suffering, about revolt, about the overcoming of revolt and about acceptance. It is very instructive seen in that light.

I was asked once in Poland at a poetry reading: ‘but what is God to you?’ Suddenly, this question. I answered: ‘Incomprehensible.’

I had the feeling that my individuality was not absolute, certain, finished, that it was by an accident that I was born into the Herbert family. I could have been that child in the courtyard with whom I played, that daughter of the Jewish shopkeeper with whom I was so in love–she was my first love. Here we return to empathy, which for me is something completely natural and even, let’s say, a precondition of writing.

…my poetry is about fidelity: in general it is about a certain virtue of endurance, of affirming life in all its complexity.

Ryszard Krynicki

I don’t know what poetry is, even though I wrote that poem. Nor do I believe that poetry can save a life. But there are poems that can give meaning to the fugitive moment, and that is already quite a lot.

Adam Zagajewski

I think about form: it is a liberation from confinement, a liberation and joy. … In my opinion, form delineates and liberates. Except one must constantly confront it with formlessness, passion, anxiety, fear; these are the various names of chaos, that is, nothingness. For the nothingness we know is not at all, in spite of appearances, nothing. On the contrary, it bursts with an excess of being, substance; all it lacks, poor thing, is form. It rushes all over the world like a tornado basically seeking form, would like to meet up with form–like wind with a sail.

I know that God would have to be both form and formlessness.

Stanisław Barańczak

The joy of writing (and reading) poems, then, lies in the fact that poetry willfully spoils Nature’s game; while fully realizing the power of Nothingness in the outside world, it questions and nullifies it within the inner world of the poem. But what is especially challenging for the twentieth-century poet is, I think his awareness that the same can be done about the power of Nothingness revealed in modern History. … All the historical dimensions of this world conspire to overwhelm the individual with a sense of his insignificance and expendability…

A poet who is offended by the course of modern History doesn’t even have to write political poetry to find an appropriate response to it. It’s enough that he writes his poems well.

To spite Nothingness–this is perhaps the essence of the perverse ‘joy of writing,’ ‘the revenge of the mortal hand.’ [Szymborska]