Kazimierz Wierzyński was a poet, writer and essayist. He was born on August 27th, 1894, in Drohobycz (his original surname was Wirstlein, but in 1912 the family decided to change it to Wierzyński. He died on February 13th, 1969, in London.
In 1912 Wierzyński graduated from the classical lyceum in Stryj. He went on to study philosophy, literature and history in Kraków, Vienna and (for a short period after the war) in Lvov. His first published work, in 1913, was the poem Hej, kiedyż, kiedyż, which appeared in Drohobycz's "1863." While still a student, Wierzyński took part in the independence movement (Drużyny Sokole), and at the outbreak of the WWI he joined Piłsudski's regiment. From 1915 to 1918, as a draftee in the Austrian army, he was imprisoned in Riazan by the Russians. After escaping he joined an underground organization in Kiev, from where, in 1918, he made his way to Warsaw and started to become involved in the cultural life of the capital. Wierzyński collaborated with "Pro Arte et Studio" magazine, took part in performances of the "Pod Picadorem" ("Under the Picador") cabaret, co-founded the poetry group "Skamander" and published his first volume of poems, Wiosna i wino / Spring and Wine. During the Polish-Russian war of 1919-1921 he served as a propaganda officer in the Press Bureau headquarters, where he edited "Bibliteka Polskiego Żołnierza" (Library of a Polish Soldier) and the magazines Ukraińskie Słowo and Dziennik Kijowski.
After the war Wierzyński returned to Warsaw, where he lived up to the beginning of WWII. In 1924 he began to work with the monthly magazines Skamander and Wiadomości Literackie, and in 1930 he became the literary and theatre critic for Gazeta Polska. He also edited the weekly magazine Kultura" from 1931 to 1932, as well as Przeglad Sportowy from 1926 to 1931. In 1928, he was awarded a gold medal from a literary contest held during the IX Olympic Games. Later, in 1935, he would also receive the Złoty Wawrzyn (Gold Laurel Wreath) from the Polish Academy of Literature (PAL) and, one year later, the National Literary Award. In 1938 he was nominated to become a member of PAL. After the outbreak of the war, he and the other staff of Gazeta Polska were evacuated to Lwow. Finally, in 1941, Wierzyński emigrated to the USA – via France, Portugal and Brazil – where he became a founding member of the editorial committee of Tygodnik Polski (Polish Weekly), in collaboration with Mieczysław Grydzewski Wiadomosci in London. His work was published in London and Paris through the Instytut Literacki [Biblioteka "Kultury"]). During this period he also worked for Radio Free Europe, eventually moving back to Europe in 1964. He settled first in Rome and then in London, where he died in 1969. In 1978 his ashes were brought back to Poland.
Wierzyński's inter-war literary work began with the poetry volumes Wiosna i wino / Spring and Wine (1919) and Wróble na dachu / Sparrows on the Roof (1921), both of which introduced Poland to chunky poems that express the joy of life and living – a pointed contrast to the Polish tradition of serious, formal poetry. These are the works of a robust young man, a man steeped in the reality of modern urban civilization. He is bursting with joy, lives a carefree life and protests against the severity and senseless rules of the old world order.
But all of this changed in his next book of poems, Wielka niedzwiedzica / Great Bear (1923). Here, Wierzyński's poetry sheds its euphoria in favour of profound reflections on the complexities of life and the world around him (also included in the volume are poems written between 1914 and 1918). Wierzyński's masterpiece, Laur olimpijski / Olympian Laurel (1927), is composed of portraits of sportsmen in action. A combination of realism and acute observation, it is coloured by pathos and hyperbole. It praises sport for its moral values and its endeavour to transcend human limitations.
His next volume, Pieśni fanatyczne / Fanatical Songs (1929), is an examination of urban poverty, an analysis that reflects the vision of Schulz and foreshadows Białoszewski's poems about urban solitude.
Wolność tragiczna / Tragic Freedom (1936), a biography of Piłsudski, includes poetic epitaphs that create the legend of an illustrious loner out of the myths surrounding him, painting a picture of a leader who outgrows his country and tries in vain to transform it into a great nation. The last of Wierzyński's books published before the war, Kurhany / Barrows (1938), is filled with pathos in its descriptions of mainly 19th-century heroes of national mythology. Along the same lines, Wstążka z Warszawianki, written in August 1939, provides a synthesis of Polish mythology. The protagonist here is also Pilsudski, and the poem's final line is: "Coś jak grecka tragedia, coś jak wieś spokojna" ("Something like an ancient tragedy, something like a quiet village").
During the WWII Wierzyński was prolific, publishing a total of five volumes. As a spokesman for fighting Poland, he accompanied Polish soldiers as they fought for the right to have a fatherland and for the preservation of European humanism. In his work this was depicted as a tragic struggle, full of delusions and disappointment, as is evident in the titles of his books: Ziemia-Wilczyca / The Earth-Wolf Mother and Krzyże i miecze / Crosses and Swords.
After the war, the loss of nearly his entire family led Wierzyński to suffer an emotional crisis, which was followed, unsurprisingly, by an artistic crisis. He recovered by writing a book about Chopin (The Life and Death of Chopin). Later, in the beginning of the 50's, he published more volumes of poetry, opening up a new chapter in his life as a writer. His poetic style changed as he rejected classical rigidity, phrasing his poetry in a way that resembled an intimate conversation full of humour and irony. It was a period characterized by a stoic affirmation of life, a sense of attachment to the mother tongue and expressions of the tragedy of exile and cruelty of the world.
Following the war, Wierzyński published a satire entitled Czarny polonez / Black Polonaise. Some critics panned it, while others, such as Michał Głowiński, rated it highly, comparing it to the Poemat dla dorosłych / Poem for Adults by Adam Ważyk.
Apart from poetry, he published two volumes of short stories about the war: Granice świata / World's Borders in 1933 and Pobojowisko / Forgotten Battlefield in 1944. He also wrote a number of reviews and theatrical pieces, published in W garderobie duchów / In the Ghosts' Dressing-Room (1938), as well as a book about America called Moja prywatna Ameryka / My Private America and a collection of memoirs, Cygańskim wozem. Miasta. Ludzie. Ksiażki / Gypsy Cart. Cities. People. Books (1966).
Author: Bartlomiej Szleszyński, Department of Polish Philology, University of Warsaw, June 2003
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