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Maintenant #97 – Tadeusz Różewicz

An interview with Tadeusz Różewicz by SJ Fowler.

A poet who changed the face of twentieth century poetry, Tadeusz Różewicz is a giant of Polish literature and undoubtedly one of the most important poets the country has ever produced. Still writing in his 91st year, his lifetime engagement with groundbreaking poetry, fiction and plays has spanned, and often encapsulated, the seismic tumult of the past century in his home nation. His poetic is the rarest of things, an anti-art that resides still within the realm of the explicable, and the ethical, striding between the utterly personal and the political – often brutal in its beauty and intensity, it is an aesthetic that is wholly his own, unique and unwavering. His first poems were published in 1938, before he served in the Polish underground home army in WWII. His brother, Janusz, also a poet, was executed by the Gestapo. This desolate chapter in our collective European history produced few artists and writers able to even begin to make sense of such destruction, but the eruption of poetry and dramaturgy that followed the war experiences of Tadeusz Różewicz has set him aside as one of the most respected innovators and stylists in modern European history. In the decades since the war he has continued to produce extraordinary literature, winning the Nike prize, the Griffin prize and the European literature prize, and now, on the eve of a brand new translation, into English, of his work ‘Mother Departs‘ by Stork Press, we are proud to elevate the Maintenant series with the inclusion of Tadeusz Różewicz, our 97th poet.

Photograph courtesy of Ela Lempp

3:AM: You’ve spoken of an almost epiphanic moment when you realised literature could not provide you with refuge and solace in the aftermath of the horrors of the Second World War and your painfully intimate involvement with those experiences. Is your work centred on a notion of this failure of literature to provide concrete resolutions?

Tadeusz Różewicz: I‘m going back to 1945. I found myself in Krakow. I was going to study Art History at the Jagiellonian University, and it wasn’t accidental that what I chose to study was the history of art. It was in order to reconstruct the Human Being bit by bit. It was as if I had two different men living inside me then. One was full of admiration and respect for ‘fine’ arts – music, literature, poetry; the other was full of mistrust of all the arts. The site for this struggle inside me, between those two personae, was my poetic practice. I felt admiration, reverence, for works of art – the aesthetic experience replaced the religious experience – but at the same time I felt a growing disdain for those ‘aesthetic’ values. I felt something had ended forever – for me, for humanity – and it was something that religion or science or art hadn’t protected. As a young poet – and one who worshipPed all the great poets, living and dead, like gods – I came to understand Mickiewicz’s words, too soon: ‘It’s harder to live well through a day than to write a book’. And I understood, also too soon, what Tolstoy said: that writing a children’s alphabet book means more than all the novels of genius. Well, understanding ‘truths’ like that prematurely doesn’t help a writer who’s got years of apprenticeship ahead of him in the kingdom of art.

3:AM: And do you think this realisation is an ethical reality that all writers and readers need to grasp, to admit literatures limitation, and work forward under that foundation?

TR: I turned away from aesthetic sources. Dismissively. I thought: ethics, that can be the source of creative work. But both those wells had dried up: ‘The murderers washed their hands in them’. So I tried to reconstruct the one that seemed to me the most important for life, and for the life of poetry. Ethics. And because I’d linked politics with ethics and not aesthetics ever since my youth, my work had a political hue, and in my mind the political stood for the socially progressive.

3:AM: What are your reflections now, decades on from your decision to employ your definitive, direct, minimalist and fundamentally reactionary and ethical and responsible, poetic style?

TR: New art comes into being through the invention of a new form – a new form of expression, a new language and syntax. Not through making noble declarations, repeating slogans, signing letters and protests, not through insisting that we’re full of humanitarian feelings. An engaged artist is an artist who’s engaged in the struggle for a new form… the content’s the same for everyone: everybody suffers, has family conflicts, sexual problems, gets ill, has problems with children, political problems, religious, dietary, ecological, housing, and so on and so on. That’s the human condition… but only artists are condemned to try to solve the problems of form. An epigone’s not a creator, because the hardest problems have been solved for him by the real Creators. Nowadays we often hear that everyone’s an artist and a poet, that everything’s poetry… yes, it’s true, everything is poetry… except for bad poems.

3:AM: In this vein, what are your thoughts on the continued, and perhaps surprising, dominance and prominence of realist literature, and pseudo-romantic poetry?

TR: I can’t comment for others, but to me… Music – the sound – and image -the metaphor – they didn’t seem be wings, carrying poetry from its creator up to the audience. They were ballast. Metaphor has to be thrown out, so the poetry can rise, so it becomes capable – not of continued flight yet, but of continued life. I know this could be the route to poetic suicide, or silence, but it seems to me that it was necessary to take on the risk. As for me, my poetry’s founded on this basic element – a metaphor, an image – but the whole thing‘s complicated and I can see the struggle with the image everywhere in my work. I don’t know if it’s possible for poetry to give the image up, and I’m certainly not trying to impose the idea on anyone. But I keep trying, attacking the image from all directions, wanting to remove it as an element that’s decorative, unnecessary. In my understanding, a modern lyrical poetry would be the product of a collision between the feeling and the phenomenon, the feeling and the thing. The image could play a supporting role here, but it wouldn’t be necessary. But in practice the poet uses the image as if to illustrate the verse, the poetry. Meanwhile, in the world of feelings, events don’t want to be conveyed through the most perfect, most beautiful metaphors any more, they want to reveal themselves.

3:AM: Your poetry and theatre has often been marked by its wise aridity, its use of the grotesque and the bleak, occasionally tempered with a wit and satire. Have you felt this tone change at times during your writing life, becoming less and more black as the world has changed?

TR: Yes. It’s got to be said – calmly, objectively – that the breakthroughs, the political and social, economic and religious changes, that took place in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union didn’t give rise to any new forms. Not in poetry, not in drama, nor painting, nor music… The new forms were born in a time of oppression – in times of censorship, mistakes and crimes. This was despite the fact that totalitarianism didn’t only devour works of art but their creators too… Even so, art lived and developed. It’s miraculous, metaphysical, and at the same time it’s paradoxical. In the bosom of death, art’s grains and seeds were still able to live and grow. As for me, my own personal problems, my failures, I want to shed some light on the path that leads a writer from an artistic idea to its realisation… or to resignation. And the creator should accept his weakness, his failure. At a time when all that counts is success in the markets, at the fair, we need to appreciate failures and defeats.

3:AM: You have been celebrated as producing a poetic voice which represents what some have termed the non poet, that is, a voice that captures something of the everyday in diction and never falls into the tropes of poetry is supposed to sound like. Has this always been important to you?

TR: Yes. For me, poetic creation was about action, not writing pretty verses. Not verses: facts. I created – it’s what I thought, it’s what I still think – certain facts. Not (more or less successful) lyrical bits and pieces. I reacted to events with facts – which I gave a verse form – and not with ‘poetry’. That’s why, even though I was a diligent student of the Masters of the Word, I was never interested in so-called ‘schools of poetry’ and their market-place, auctioneering rows about versification and metaphor… Speaking ‘directly’ was to lead to the source. To the restoration of banal faith, banal hope, banal love. Love that conquers death. Love conquered by death. Those were my concerns, those simple matters. The poems where I strained for originality, uniqueness, ‘novelty’, they’re of secondary importance. Possibly from the point of view of ‘aesthetic experience’, they’re better than the others. You can’t have ethics alone. But avant-garde dogmatists had created so much havoc; the only remedy was to replace what people call ‘poetic meaning’ with ordinary meaning, common sense. I consciously began to give up the privileges of ‘poetic meaning’. I turned to the banal truths. After a short trip to the land of ‘poetic meaning’, I go back to my rubbish heap.

3:AM: I’d like to know about your brother’s writing, as when I search for it, I find nothing in English, and whether it influenced you specifically, before his untimely death 68 years ago?

TR: It’s dealt with in the book Mother Departs, which is about to be published in English, and by another – Our Older Brother – where I collected Janusz’s own writing, as well as memoirs about him. Janusz was my first ‘master and teacher’, he was an officer in the underground resistance. He was captured by the terrible Łódź Gestapo. There was betrayal – many people were arrested. He suffered the same fate as many others of his generation… Behind him he left a few dozen poems, several stories, some diaries. The surviving handful of works shows his potential. Unfulfilled. Janusz had a strong character and all the makings of a writer. He gave me direction.

3:AM: To many, your legacy will be as a poet so in tune with his environment that others realise they must be careful before putting pen to paper. The gravity of your engagement with an era of almost unspeakable trauma and its aftermath, the politics of the late 20th century, the fall of Soviet union, the destruction of the environment and contemporary society is such in its precision and its care, that it makes literature regain its power as something rarified and profound, but also pragmatic and necessary. Do you ever give thought to your legacy, and if so, what do you imagine it will be?

TR: I haven’t thought about it, I’m sure I’ll leave my glasses behind. The historical experience I brought with me from the War, the Occupation, the direct contact with Nazism, Fascism – it pushed me towards materialism, realism, socialism. But not towards metaphysics. And the conclusions I drew from that experience, they formed the basis of my poetic output as well. It’s the necessity of sacrifice. The umbilical cord that connected poetry with metaphysics was cut. So poetry had to find another source of life, another environment where it could grow. A purely human environment. The here and now.

Translated and edited by Basia Howard.

{Ed: A great debt of thanks is owed to Joanna Zgadzaj & Basia Howard for their assistance in this edition of Maintenant.}

SJ Fowler is a poet and artist living in London. Author of four poetry collections, including Red Museum (Knives Forks and Spoons Press 2011), Fights (Veer books 2011) and Minimum Security Prison Dentistry (AAA 2011), he has received commissions from the Tate, the Southbank centre, the London Sinfonietta and Mercy and he is the UK poetry editor of Lyrikline and 3:AM. He is a full time employee of the British Museum and a Phd student at the Contemporary Poetics Research Centre, University of London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 24th, 2013.