Polish Literature 101 Mixtape
From 14th century sacred verse to 21st century “hip-hop novels,” Poland has a rich and diverse literary tradition. Though we encourage you to dive in and read everything, seven centuries of literature is….a lot. Fortunately, Poland also has a tradition of setting poetry to music, and the words of many of the nation’s greatest writers have found their way onto rap, rock, klezmer, and jazz albums. Here, Culture.pl offers a playlist to guide you through some of the highlights of the last 700 years of Polish literature.
Bogurodzica (14th Century)
One of the earliest pieces of Polish literature, the Bogurodzica, emerged around the 14th century. The hymn invoking the Mother of God was sung by Poles at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410 and accompanied the coronations of many Polish kings. Originally composed to be sung, it is perhaps no surprise that musicians continue to set the words to music. Jazz, metal, ambient, dubstep, reggae…Bogurodzica has seen it all.
The Polish ambient electronic musician Michał Jacaszek released his own take on the “national hymn” in 2008. The recitation of the famous words over Jacaszek’s sparse and atmospheric track bring the distant past into a sonic present.
Jan Kochanowski (1530-1584)
Polish literature continued to develop in the centuries following the composition of Bogurodzica, and it truly blossomed in the work of the Renaissance poet Jan Kochanowski. Along with the Laments for which he is perhaps most famous, Kochanowski wrote a number of poetic songs. Czego chcesz od nas, Panie, za Twe hojne dary?/What do you want from us, Lord, for your countless gifts?, the first of these religious songs, was written in 1562 and often is called a “Renaissance manifesto.” In it, Kochanowski celebrates and gives thanks for the beauty and order of God’s creation on earth in beautifully composed verse that formally mirrors the harmony he praises and lyrically describes earthly splendor.
What do you want from us, Lord, for your generous gifts?
What for the kindness, that you do not measure?
The church does not contain You, everything is full of You,
And in the abyss, and in the sea, on land, in the sky….
Thou are Lord of the whole world. Thou built the heavens
And embroidered with gold stars;
Thou laid the foundation of the immense earth
And covered its nakedness with various herbs.
By Your command in the shores the sea stands,
And fears to cross its limits,
Rivers hold great abundance of endless water,
Bright day and night dark know their own time.
In 1981, Wanda Warska recorded Pieśni i Fraszki Jana Kochanowskiego, a collection of Kochanowski’s poems set to music. The singer’s poignant rendition of What do you want from us, Lord… highlights the musicality and harmony of Kochanowski’s verse, even for those who can’t read the original Polish.
Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855)
Adam Mickiewicz. If you know anything about Polish literature (or if you’ve ever spent time looking at statues in any Polish city), you’ve probably heard of Mickiewicz. The Romantic poet became the voice of Poland in the turbulent 19th century, and his Romantic spirit continues to affect Polish culture even today.
This ethos of Romantic sacrifice is evident in his Reduta Ordona/Redoubt of Ordon, written in 1832 after the defeat of the Polish November Uprising the year before. The work memorializes Julius Konstanty Ordon, a commander of one of the redoubts in Warsaw during the battle for freedom from Russian partition. The fort was blow up by one of its defenders in the last moments of battle, and in Mickiewicz’s verse the act is committed by Ordon in a display of heroic Romantic sacrifice.
A 19th century poet might seem like an unlikely source of inspiration for the very contemporary genre of hip-hop, but a number of Polish artists see themselves as the heirs of Mickiewicz’s artistic legacy. In 2002, the Polish hip-hop artist Doniu told the New York Times,
If Mickiewicz were alive today, he’d be a good rhymer.
The Polish hip-hop ensemble Trzeci Wymiar (Third Dimension) seems to agree. In 2009, they released a version of Reduta Ordona. Give it a listen and you can hear the timeless rhythm of Mickiewicz’s words brought to life.
Juliusz Słowacki (1809-1849)
Like his contemporary (and sometimes rival) Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki is remembered as a “poet-prophet” of Poland. Perhaps best known for his brilliant (and bloody!) drama Balladyna and the digressive epic Beniowski, Słowacki was a prolific author. His poem Jeżeli kiedy w tej mojej krainie…/If ever in that, my country… recalls his native Krzemieniec from abroad.
If ever in that, my country,
Where my Ikwa flows in its valleys,
Where my mountains grow blue in the twilight
And the two rings above the chattering stream,
Where the tree-clad banks a-scent with lily-of-the-valley
Run up to cliffs, cottages, and orchards –
If you will be there, soul of my heart,
Though given back from the splendor to the body,
You will not forget my longing,
That stands there like a golden archangel
And from time to time circles the town like an eagle,
Then once more rests on the cliffs and shines.
The lighter airs, that will restore you to health,
I have poured from my breast to my country. (Source)
The popular Polish singer Marek Grechuta – known both for his own poetic lyrics and his adaptations of classic works of Polish literature – recorded Jeżeli kiedy w tej mojej krainie… in 1984. Grechuta, whose songs often reflect nostalgically on his homeland, is perhaps the perfect artist to capture the wistful spirit of Słowacki’s words.
Cyprian Kamil Norwid (1821-1883)
Cyprian Norwid never found the success of his Romantic peers. Younger than Słowacki and Mickiewicz, Norwid wrote in an era when Romanticism was on the decline, and his work reflects and critiques the ethos of that era. Norwid was an eccentric and a recluse whose talent was not recognized in his lifetime. He died impoverished in a Paris shelter for Polish war veterans and orphans. As a poet, novelist, playwright, sculptor, painter, and draughtsman, Norwid explored the philosophical and social issues of his age.
In Norwid, Czesław Niemen found a kindred spirit. Niemen, an immensely successful figure of the Polish psychedelic and progressive rock scene, set a number of Norwid’s poems to music – and found more success with them than Norwid ever managed. Niemen once commented, “I feel like Norwid’s late grandson,” adding,
There are some moments, from some verse, picture, memory, or music that cause deep resonance in the soul. Encountering Norwid was for me such a shock – I’d previously not suspected that any artists of the past could be so contemporary, so up to date, also so original in every way, yet so close to every person.
In 1970, Niemen transformed Norwid’s 1861 poem Bema Pamięci Żałobny-Rapsod/To Bem’s Memory – A Funeral Rhapsody into a thirteen-minute prog rock showpiece. The poem commemorates Józef Bem, who fought in the 1830 Polish November Uprising (clearly a popular subject …we saw it in Mickiewicz too).
Stanisław Wyspiański (1869-1945)
Stanisław Wyspiański did it all – he was a playwright, poet, theatre director, and visual artist. Working at the turn of the century, Wyspiański was a leading figure of “Young Poland,” and his symbolist drama Wesele/The Wedding remains one of the most influential works in Polish literature. Densely packed with allusions to Polish history and culture, the work offers a critique of both political stagnation and ideas of “art for art’s sake” through the tale of a wedding that brings together not only peasants and urban intelligentsia, but also a host of spirits and ghosts. It was notably adapted for screen by Andrzej Wajda in 1972.
In 2008, Polskie Radio released a compilation of Polish artists’ recordings of Wyspiański texts. The band NOT’s interpretation of Niech nie nad grobem mi nie płacze/Let Nobody Weep Over My Grave is included and reimagines Wyspiński’s reflection on death and beyond as a moody guitar-driven rock tune. We might think about how this recontextualization changes the meaning of Wyspiański’s words…or we could just enjoy the music.
Let nobody weep over my grave
except my wife.
Your dogged tears I easily waive
and your feigned grief.
Let neither a bell croak over my pall
nor someone sing with a shriek;
but the rain may sob at my funeral
and the wind creak…
And then, perhaps, once more, maybe,
bored with lying down,
I'll break that house enclosing me
and run to the sun. (Source)
Bolesław Leśmian (1877-1937)
Bolesław Leśmian’s career bridged pre- and post- WWI Poland. He masterfully employed the Polish language in verse that found the structure of the world reflected in the structure of language. Because his poetry plays with the innovative potential of Polish and is filled with allusions to Polish folklore, some have deemed him “untranslatable.”
In 2014, the pop/jazz singer Stanisław Soyka collaborated with multi-talented pianist/composer Adam Strug on Strug. Leśmian. Soyka., an album of compositions based on Leśmian’s poetry. So, for those who can’t read his words, perhaps this musical rendition of Tam Na Rzece/There On the River will offer a glimpse into his creative genius.
Julian Tuwim (1894-1953)
Like Leśmian, Julian Tuwim was active both before and after WWI. His linguistic virtuosity found expression in a number of forms, from his work with the interwar Skamander poets, to his keenly observed satirical works (Bal w operze/The Ball at the Opera) and poems for children. Though with age he grew increasingly contemplative and critical, much of his work is characterized by a playful blend of masterful lyricism and humor – particularly his poetry for children. Lokomotywa/The Locomotive, one of the most popular of these poems, uses the sound and rhythms of the Polish language to describe – and aurally evoke – a passing train. Listen to Polish pop/hip-hop singer Lilu’s rendition of the piece to get a sense of how Tuwim creates a “linguistic locomotive.”
Bruno Schulz (1892-1942)
A truly original voice and a master of creating disorienting worlds of great poetic beauty, Bruno Schulz remains a beloved figure of Polish literature. His work evokes inaccessible time and lost experience in dreamlike meditations on the interaction between imagination and experience. Though his life was tragically cut short when he was murdered during the Nazi occupation of his hometown of Drohobycz, the collections he left behind – Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass and Street of Crocodiles – remain and are not to be missed.
It’s hard to imagine the worlds Schulz creates being expressed in any medium other than his own words, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying (check out Wojciech Jerzy Has’ 1973 The Hourglass Sanitorium for a trippy glimpse into Schulz on screen). In 2005, the Cracow Klezmer Band released a recording of compositions by John Zorn written in tribute to Schulz. Though not a direct adaptation of Schulz’s words, the music evokes a feeling for Schulz’s worlds.
Wisława Szymborska (1923-2012)
One of Poland’s four recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Wisława Szymborska is among the most beloved figures of contemporary literature. Her work exhibits sensitivity, wit, and ability to lay bare new perspectives on the everyday. Szymborska’s nimble use of language and relatively simple verse has made her a favorite among musicians. Her poems have been adapted by 60s pop singers, contemporary jazz musicians, and a Taiwanese diva.
Almost forty years after Szymborska published Nic dwa razy/Nothing Twice, the popular Polish rock band Maanam included an adaptation of the poem on its 1994 record Roża. The track’s propulsive rhythm and rock vocals enact the relentless movement of time that Szymborska’s poem conveys. In it, we hear that indeed,
Nothing happens twice
And so for this reason
We are born without practice
And we will die without routine
Even if we were pupils
Dumbest in the school of the world
We will not repeat
Any winter or summer
No day will repeat itself
There are not two same nights
Two same kisses
Two identical looks in the eyes no, no, no, no
Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998)
Along with Szymborska and Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert is one of the most frequently translated Polish writers. His cerebral verse is deeply engaged with questions of ethics and history; it is both moral and ironic. Robert Hass describes Herbert as,
…an ironist and minimalist who writes as if it were the task of a poet, in a world full of loud lies, to say what is irreducibly true in a level voice.
Grzegorz Turnau, a contemporary Polish singer and songwriter, lovingly recited Herbert’s Testament at the inaugural concert of the Herbert Festival. Turnau’s piano and lush orchestration accompany Herbert’s words,
I bequeath to the four elements
all I had in my brief possession
to fire –thought
may fire flourish
to the earth I loved too much
my body that fruitless kernel
and to the air words and hands
and longing superfluous things
all that remains
a drop of water
let it go between
the earth and sky…
…so I’ll give back to four elements
all that I had in my brief possession
-- I won’t return to a source of peace
Dorota Masłowska (1983-)
To wrap things up, we turn to Dorota Masłowska. Masłowska burst onto the scene with the 2002 publication of Snow White and Russian Red. Since then, she’s continued to surprise and delight (and occasionally confuse and infuriate) readers as she brings her gift for capturing the language of the streets to her sharp, often pessimistic, and darkly ironic prose. In The Queen’s Spew, which won the Nike Award in 2006, Masłowska fashions a literary “hip-hop freestyle” that casts a critical lens on contemporary media and pop culture. Though that work suggests an interest in musical forms, Masłowska’s most recent move – from author to recording artist – was nevertheless an unexpected delight.
In 2014, Masłowska released Społeczeństwo jest niemiłe/Society is Mean under the moniker Mister D. On the album, she brings her keen ear and biting wit to a collection of songs that blend rap, punk, and dance. Discussing the project with Agnieszka Kowalska of Gazeta Wyborcza, Masłowska commented,
My creativity intensifies when I am forced to learn something new, when I am so unsure that it pushes me to play games, pretend I can do something I really can’t. Obviously, everything I do is word-oriented, so it is no surprise that lyrics are the cause and the heart of the album.
In this case there is no adaptation. Here, Polish popular music has caught up with Polish literature in Mister D.’s off-beat Chleb/Bread.
Sources: Culture.pl, Zbigniew Herbert The Collected Poems, “Czesław Niemen o Cyprianie Kamilu Norwidzie.” Radio France Internationale, 2001.
Alena Aniskiewicz 20.07.2015