Poetry, the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski explains, springs from the negotiation poets routinely make between “the real, tangible world of history” and the imaginary. History is not a benign abstraction for the Poles. This was painfully true in the twentieth century, yet out of Poland’s cruel historical experience have arisen two Nobel laureates, Czesław Miłosz (1981) and Wisława Szymborska (1996), as well as several of the most dynamic poets in world literature in the latter half of the twentieth century. Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Poems and Astonishments: Selected Poems of Anna Kamieńska , recently published in English, are welcome reminders of the powerful Polish lyric voice that emerged to meet the internal need for witness and imagination.

Poles in postwar Poland not only needed poetry; they also had extremely high expectations of it. The vibrancy and resiliency of postwar Polish poetry does not stem from simply chronicling the chaos of daily life. Its lyric power rests in the preservation of the humanity and the autonomy of the individual in the midst crushing historical change. Miłosz’s poetry, for instance, possesses a catastrophic awareness of the lifelong effort to reconcile the acute pain of earthly experience with the promise of an invisible land beyond: All my life I tried to answer the question, where does evil come from? / Impossible that people should suffer so much, if God is in Heaven / And nearby (“High Terraces”).

The Kolumbowie (the Columbuses)¯Herbert, Kamieńska, and Szymborska, together with Tadeusz Różewicz, Miron Białoszewski, Julia Hartwig, and Tymoteusz Karpowicz¯were the generation of poets who came of age during World War II. For them, the decision to write at all was frought with moral and political implications. Crippled to the core by the atrocities of the war and the Holocaust, the poetry of Różewicz, for instance, ultimately reaffirms the possibility of poetry. But in the rawness of his style, Różewicz strips it of all claims to purity and truth. His nihilistic poetry poses in stark terms the struggle to devise a new poetic language capable of expressing the tragic postwar reality of loss and renewal:

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. (“The Survivor”)

Cut off from the past by the war, the poetry of postwar Poland is much more guarded and complex. And yet, in spite of the strain of pessimism, Polish writers had an inherited appreciation for the critical role that poetry has to play in mediating “those questions that History poses to the individual life and that human life poses to History.” The lessons Herbert, for instance, drew from his own life are telling in this respect. “All my life,” he explained, “I have virtually stayed in one place and yet my citizenship has changed four times.”

Too old to carry arms and fight like the others¯

they graciously gave me the inferior role of chronicler

I record¯I don’t know for whom¯the history of the siege

I am supposed to be exact but I don’t know when the invasion began

two hundred years ago in December in September perhaps yesterday at

  dawn

everyone here suffers from a loss of the sense of time. (“Report from the Beseiged City”)

In dedicating himself to keeping an accurate record of suffering, Herbert asserts the fundamental importance of poetry in capturing objective reality. It was no accident that Herbert was among those Polish poets who refused to publish their poetry openly until 1956, when the thaw triggered by Stalin’s death resulted in greater freedom of expression. His poetry possesses a powerful combination of ironic exaggeration and unflinching precision, which is aimed at exposing the twisted logic and dehumanizing substructure underpinning all systems of power.

Through his literary figure, “Pan Cogito,” a figure that brought together a simple, everyman quality with a deeper skepticism, Herbert extended his beyond communist Poland to unite with the historical and cultural heritage of the West:

Mr. Cogito’s imagination

has the motion of a pendulum

it crosses with precision

from suffering to suffering

there is no place in it

for the artificial fires of poetry

he would like to remain faithful

to uncertain clarity. (“Mr. Cogito and the Imagination”)

Far from being an escapist, Herbert uses references from antiquity as a distinct form of cultural resistance, simultaneously preserving the memory of the collective historical experience and undermining official versions of reality.

Meanwhile, armed with a quizzical outlook on the world and existence, Szymborska let her poetry avoid the moral and political questions posed by her contemporaries of postwar reality, taking instead the naive question as a starting point. Unlike many of her counterparts, Szymborska prefers to regard the world at arm’s length, detached, as if it were an object at once familiar and mysterious.

Poetry¯

but then, what is poetry anyway?

More than one rickety answer

has tumbled since that question was first raised.

But I just keep on not knowing, and I cling to that

like to a redemptive handrail. (“Some People Like Poetry”)

The popularity and worldwide appeal of Szymborska’s poetry stems from her ability to make troubling and arcane philosophical questions accessible and, more often than not, uncomfortably funny. In poems such as “The People on the Bridge” or “Hitler’s First Photograph,” Szymborska unmasks the human tendency toward self-delusion and blindness in a way that is both glib and coldly cutting. Far from the metaphyical ponderings of Miłosz or the nihilistic hand-wringing of Różewicz, Szymborkska has a lyrical universe that is self-contained, non-transcendent, and endlessly fascinating:

I prefer many things I haven’t mentioned here

to many things I’ve also left unsaid

I prefer zeroes on the loose

to those lined up behind a cipher.

I prefer the time of insects to the time of stars.

I prefer to knock on wood.

I prefer not to ask how much longer and when.

I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility

that existence has its own reason for being. (“Possibilities”)

In addressing the absurdity of human existence, though, Szymborska never abandons humanity for the sake of intellectual exercises. In common cause with Herbert’s Mr. Cogito, Szymborska concerns herself seriously with fundamentally human questions, and in doing so she raises her poetry to level of universal appeal:

Is there then a world

where I rule absolutely on fate?

A time I bind with chains of signs?

An existence become endless at my bidding?

The joy of writing.

The power of preserving.

Revenge of a mortal hand. (“The Joy of Writing”)

It is perhaps above all this joyful revenge at existence that accounts for Szymborska’s international fame and elevation above contemporaries such as Różewicz and Herbert.

Miłosz asks questions of metaphysics, and Herbert sifts through layers of cultural archeology, but Kamieńska presents her emotional and spiritual experiences in unfiltered form. In a world scorched by man’s hatred for man, the lost authenticity of youth stands out as an aesthetic and ethical ideal for which to aspire rather than to mourn:

There’s only one path of this sacred river

but I still want to remain faithful

to my first astonishments

to recognize as wisdom the child’s wonder

and to carry in myself until the end a path

in the woods of my childhood. (“A Path in the Woods”)

There are traces of the darkness of Różewicz’s poetry in Kamieńska’s repeated return to childhood innocence, but Kamieńska’s lyricism comes across more as a form of meditation than an explication of contemporary events. Coming from the heavily proscribed reality of communist Poland, the search for meaning in self and nature assumes a modest form of resistance. “I write,” Kamieńska explains frankly, “in order to comprehend not to express myself.”

Deeply philosophical and even metaphysical poetry is well represented in postwar Polish poetry, with the likes of Herbert, Miłosz, and Szymborska, but the recurring motif of faith in Kamieńska’s poetry distinguishes it from the poems of her contemporaries. “These verses,” Barańczak suggests, “are not suspended in the least in a historical vacuum¯on the contrary, they exhale with the not always clean air of twentieth century modernity.” Kamieńska turns repeatedly to Job and such “righteous figures” as Janusz Korczak and Albert Schweitzer to underscore the lonely burden and selflessness of faith in such difficult times:

It’s true you couldn’t act otherwise

because truth turned deadly

and the world made by the word

became forbidden to children

like a too truthful film

In fact the world turned round so much

that truth became lie

while the lie that should be the truth

found shelter in your Jewish orphanage. (“Doctor Korczak’s Lie”)

In addition to capturing her own struggles with hardship, her poems on faith, such as her Job series, also exposes the fundamentally human ability to begin again when all is lost, all the while knowing that what survives will not last.

While the collected editions of poetry by Herbert and Kamieńska come as welcome additions to those of Miłosz and Szymborska, new translations by their lesser-known contemporaries and the Nowa Fala (New Wave) poets of the 1970s and 1980s are needed to provide a clearer picture the richness of postwar Polish poetry. In spite of being sequestered behind an iron curtain of ideology, the instinctive Polish need for poetry to maintain a link to truth and to the wider human family resulted in some of the most powerful and innovative poetry of the twentieth century.

The refusal of this poetry to gloss over the wounds of the past and the injustices of the present serves as a powerful warning to contemporary readers to remain vigilant, as Herbert might put it, as guardians of the city in the endless siege of human civilization.

John Merchant received his Ph.D. in Polish literature from the University of Chicago. His dissertation, “The Impact of Irish-Ireland on Young Poland, 1890“1918,” is set to be published this year by the East European Monograph Series (Columbia University Press).

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