Poland’s Forgotten Women Poets
#language & literature
portrait, Elżbieta Szemplińska-Sobolewska painted by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, photo: Adam Mickiewicz Museum of Literature, elzbieta-szemplinska-sobolewska_witkacy.jpg
In fact, you could almost say they didn’t exist. If one happened to be on par with a man, it was only in his shadow. The history of literature has either forgotten them or labelled them as scandalous… How did women poets cope in a world of linguistic metaphors and distant rhymes?
A man’s perspective
Statistics state that during the Interwar period, every 10th Polish poet was a woman. When looking through biographical notes on women writers of the time, each is listed as the wife, sister, daughter, friend or acquaintance of a male writer. Men often exist independently (in encyclopaedias – but not, of course, in reality).
Therefore, in order to break the patriarchal model of the poetry groups of that period, a woman poet had to be at the very least talented, as it was assumed that even if she learned the rules of the craft, she would never transcend them.
She also had to be well-educated; in reality, the first such generation, with Zuzanna Ginczanka and Anna Świrszczyńska at the forefront, made its debut in the 1930s and later. On top of all of this, a woman poet had to be courageous and uncompromising.
Basically, in a word, a woman poet had to be a ‘man’ in her artistic work. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt if she also happened to be beautiful – then, she could count on the favourable glances of gentlemen. Some succeeded in this, but they operated on different principles.
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It is not difficult to associate women’s surnames with Skamander, the Polish group of experimental poets founded in 1918 – including Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, Kazimiera Iłłakowiczówna and Maria Morska, a muse of male poets and a reciter of their work. In avant-garde currents, however, they are practically non-existent.
The researcher Agata Zawiszewska believes that for the majority of women writing at the time, a high degree of formal awareness was unavailable (including free verse and metaphor as the basic means of expression), as were intellectual discipline and emotional restraint.
The majority is not everything, however. It was customary to call women poets ‘only children’ (girls, of course). This is how the Kraków Avant-Garde group, with its exhaustive poetic programme, regarded Mila Elin. The more malicious probably referred to her as Tadeusz Peiper’s ‘bastard’, considering the fact that he was the only one who valued her at that time.
A similar attitude towards women was held by the Warsaw literary group Kwadryga, which formed part the Second Avant-Garde. It was probably no accident that the editorial office of the magazine was located on Chłodna Street (with ‘chłodna’ meaning cold). Amongst its circle were Nina Rydzewska and Elżbieta Szemplińska-Sobolewska, even though they probably better deserve consideration as outsiders.
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Mila Elin – 16 negatives & one photograph
Mila Elin was the only woman associated with the Kraków Avant-Garde group. All you could really say for certain is ‘she existed’, as her biography leaves many questions.
When exactly was she alive? She must have been born around 1907, since Tadeusz Peiper mentioned a 16-year-old Elin who began to correspond with him shortly after the first issue of Zwrotnica (Points), a magazine issued by the Kraków Avant-Garde, appeared. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Elin died in the Warsaw Ghetto, although the Jewish Historical Institute is not able to confirm these hypotheses.
We know a few details from Marian Piechal, the co-founder of the Meteor poets’ group. For example, we can determine that she lived in Warsaw – first on Leszno Street, then on Elektoralna – and that she was the daughter of a watchmaker.
A photograph of her, from 1928, was also found in Piechal’s collection: the only known one. It shows a young woman with a girly face, a clever look, prominent lips and dark, short hair which emphasises her cheekbones.
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The other preserved items are objects created by Elin: theatrical costume designs for the play Szósta! Szósta! (Sixth! Sixth!) by Peiper, essays implementing the Kraków Avant-Garde programme line (flattering its leading representative), a file of letters to Jalu Kurek (in which Elin wrote about studying philosophy and feeling isolated in literary circles). There are also, of course, poems – scarcely 16, mainly erotic in nature.
The period of flirtation between Elin and all that literature encompassed for her spans just six years. Beginning in March 1927, it ends in October 1932 in Kraków, taking place between the pages of the magazines Zwrotnica and Linia (Line). In the meantime, Elin became involved with the Łódź Meteor, a magazine devoted to verse which was issued in Warsaw in three editions under the same title.
Elin was always faithful to Peiper, with whom she had an intellectual affair. Its fruit is her poetry – a woman’s intimate response to an exceedingly masculine worldview, or, as Andrzej Waśkiewicz would have it, a negative of the works of Peiper, this ‘pope’ of the avant-garde.
On the one hand, Peiper wrote:
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you, a sheet of paper which I shall save
From ‘Naga’ (Naked) by Tadeusz Peiper, trans. AD
I will push into you, font into paper
From ‘Ja, Ty’ (Me, You) by Tadeusz Peiper, trans. AD
Elin, on the other hand, uses an analogy – of a sexual act and the act of writing – characteristic of her master’s erotic poems:
the most expensive book, it was in me
and it made of me a book, in which no one writes.
From ‘Książka’ (Book) by Mira Elin, trans. AD
Although they both move within the same topoi (a sheet of paper, a dream, the scent of skin or body, shadow, night), their relations are usually antithetical. If with Peiper, we have action, with Elin, it is an expectation – one which ends in disappointment. When he deprives the woman of her voice, she does the same to the man. One is watching, the other is running away – or flirting.
There are also convergences. When the poet accuses:
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Seamstress of dreams, on the eyes of day you sew the sleepy eyelids of shadow
onto the open eyes of day.
From ‘Na Rusztowaniu’ (On the Scaffolds) by Tadeusz Peiper, trans. AD
and I am a short night, I, the short shadow of a lighthouse
From ‘Głód’ (Hunger) by Mira Elin, trans. AD
In other works, Elin implements the arrangement of Peiper’s poetics, such regularly distanced rhymes or paraphrasing reality, for example of a love act:
the sky with a bloody kiss of dawn
opens the earth
From ‘Krzyk Kogutów’ (The Cocks’ Cry) by Mira Elin, trans. AD
She does this, however, to describe different emotional states or her experiences as a woman. In Elin’s poetry, intimacy, honesty and, above all, loneliness dominate:
A fan is made from white squares,
The promises of wooden paper printed,
You and me in an apartment of numbers
Even and lonely like some
From ‘Kalendarz’ (Calendar) by Mira Elin, trans. AD
If, to repeat the claims of Zwrotnica, Elin was nothing more than a student of Peiper, it should be added that she was an extremely daring one at that. If, to agree with Jan Brzękowski and Julian Przyboś that her poems are ’colourless’, then you have to remember about the shades of grey.
With the words: ‘she approached me with her poetry like no other, while retaining all the interesting peculiarities of her imagination’, Peiper shut the mouths of those criticizing his protégé – so effectively that Janusz Sławiński left Elin out of a crowning work on the poetic language of the Krakow Avant-Garde.
When in the 1970s, her poems were remembered, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz asked:
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The mysterious Elin, of which nothing is left, whom nobody remembers nor ever speaks of – is not this the most beautiful, and in any case, saddest tale in our poetry?
Nina Rydzewska – ‘The City of the Owl of Mokotów’
In the book Chmurnie i Durnie (Clouds and Fools), Stanisław Ryszard Dobrowolski described Nina Rydzewska as follows:
She was a good-looking [...] 20-something-year-old brunette with a marked tendency towards obesity, with a slightly exotic, oriental beauty.
He was likely secretly in love with her.
Friends nicknamed her ‘owl’ due to her large, dark eyes. Fellow writers remembered her as a modest, cheerful, but lonely woman. She remained the only woman part of Kwadryga for a long time – that is, until Elżbieta Szemplińska-Sobolewska appeared on the horizon (more about her in a moment).
Before the war, Rydzewska wrote poems (translated into German, French, Hungarian, Finnish and Latvian). After the war, she only published novels about Kashubian fishermen and miners; for this purpose, she actually wound up taking a job in a mine. She also created radio reports and various versions of her own biography. She has two reported birthdates: on February 16, 1902 and also in 1906, probably in Warsaw, somewhere in Mokotów, most likely to a poor family.
And here is where we come across four scenarios. First, her father died when she was three years old and her mother remarried. Second, she was orphaned by the First World War and then taken care of by the Rydzewska family. Third, she had both parents, and fourth, she came from Georgia, and her parents died during the October Revolution.
The latter clue would be indicated by her second name, Zaira, and her particular beauty, as well as her love for a Georgian merchant – later her husband – with the surname Asłan Bek Barasbi Baytugan (her contact with him shattered her chances of joining the PZPR [Polish United Workers’ Party]).
Rydzewska took her first job as a tutor of reading and writing when she was just 10 years old – paying for her school and university studies this way. She wrote down her first pieces on official forms in the office of the Chapter of the War Order of Virtuti Militari.
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Her first, but also loudest poem caused a scandal. Published in Głos Prawdy (Voice of Truth), the 1927 poem Madonna Nędzarzy (Madonna of the Poor) – written in the style of Józef Piłsudski – enraged the national democratic and Catholic communities.
Rydzewska was accused of blasphemy in a denunciation to the justice minister. The people – forgetting about the romantic (Mickiewicz) and Young Poland (Kasprowicz) traditions of getting in touch with God – wanted her tried as a criminal and to see her imprisoned, although some were inclined to simply deem the piece talentless.
The poet’s trial did not take place due to a protest by the literary community (including Kaden-Bandrowski, Iłłakowiczówna and Gałczyński), as well as her readers. Ultimately, the poem won the plebiscite for the best work of poetry.
It was actually not Rydzewska, but Kwadryga – the group which she aspired to be a part of – that would gain the most renown, however. Rydzewska cooperated with the Warsaw literary group between 1928 to 1930; she then moved towards prose. Poems from that period were included in the only volume – Miasto (City) – which placed her in the realm of nationalised poetry.
Although critics of the time analysed the works of the young writer in the context of women’s poetry (and not poetry in general), they noted her talent as greater than the achievements of Kwadryga itself. They referred to her work as ‘fresh’ and with a ‘healthy comprehension of emancipation’.
The series Miasto (City), with its expressionist and futuristic tones, is steeped in darkness, poverty and destruction:
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Our world is like the inside of a black, scorching foundry.
Heavy evenings haunt with wind and rain...
From ‘Miasto’ (City) by Nina Rydzewska, trans. AD
According to Jan Marx, it is reminiscent of images from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, with an undercurrent of Baudelaire. She attacks the imagination of readers with urban snapshots, which she composes in the spirit of ballads.
If, in spite of their opposition towards Skamander’s poetics, the work of Kwadryga’s writers dangerously approached them, then Rydzewska drew upon them the least.
Rydzewska often moved, finally settling in Szczecin. She died of heart complications on 3rd February 1958.
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Elżbieta Szemplińska-Sobolewska – Ephebos’ profile, Strzyga’s teeth
With Kwadryga’s second woman poet, who broke Rydzewska’s monopoly – Elżbieta Szemplińska-Sobolewska – the situation is more complicated. She was neither able to acquire the same level of recognition, a fact unsurprising when considering her work, nor was she as temperamental as her predecessor.
Szemplińska was silent, shy. It can’t be denied, however, that she had a unique sense of humour. She refused to provide personal information to the editor of Kwadryga, explaining: ‘My profession is so disgraceful’. Already writing novels by the age of 10, at 14, she had also published poems. She would later study Polish Studies and become a journalist and author of prose.
Sabina Sebyłowa, the wife of a Kwadryga member, also a writer, recalled:
E. Sz. – sometimes signing as Szem. – a poetess and prose writer. With the profile of the wonderful Ephebos and the teeth of Strzyga. [...] [S]he gives the impression of being constantly surprised, even in relation to herself. [...] She speaks using monosyllables, cramming them with sense.
As one can see, it was not only men who reacted coldly to her.
Szemplińska did not dissociate herself from the Skamander tradition; her poetry is full of various influences. The erotic poem Ciało (Body) is a sensual version of Bolesław Leśmian, while her feminine lyrics are smeared with the Pocałunki (Kisses) of Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska.
In Rozmowa z Ojcem (A Talk with Father), you can hear Antoni Słonimski. Witold Gombrowicz even spoke about Szemplińska’s ‘childlike-feminine-animal’ view of the world.
Her non-uniform poetry, written in the 1930s, is characterised by social radicalism and revolutionary accents. Just like Rydzewska, Szemplińska drew from futurism and expressionism:
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A man in a vast jungle that is the city,
among lianas of signals, the roar of smell -
among concrete street networks,
alone – in the jungle – man without claws.
From ‘Prawo Dżungli’ (The Law of the Jungle) by Elżbieta Szemplińska-Sobolewska, trans. AD
Szemplińska was accused of extreme communism. The combination of her unconventional beauty and political views prompted Witkacy to paint her portrait. Even if she believed in social ideals before the war, she changed her mind after escaping to the USSR. At that time, few people believed in her transformation.
Her works written in New York, Rio de Janeiro or east of the Polish border were filled with nostalgia. She published in the pages of the London News and the Parisian Kultura. Few remember her poems devoted to insurgent Warsaw – the Troy of the North, such as Chorągiew (Banner) or Krzyż Warszawy (Warsaw’s Cross).
When poetry failed her, she tried to earn her keep by selling her paintings. She most often painted the face of her husband, Zygmunt Sobolewski, in the style of Chagall (she also dedicated one of her poems to an exhibition of his). Her other favourite subjects included cats or Pekingese.
Szemplińska, using words to fight for her beliefs, demanded the status of poet:
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They’re not for you, glib snobs,
these words –
feverish and hard. [...]
It’s not for you – venal poets,
caressing with sounds [...]
It’s for the brave.
These verses are for the righteous.
For the angry and proud.
From ‘Muzyka’ (Music), trans. AD
To be fair, Gustawa Jarecka and Lucyna Krzemieniecka (both from the Kwadryga circle) should also be mentioned. Their lyrical accomplishments, however, can be summed up in a verse from the song Rymujący Kolega (Rhyming Friend) by Halina Pilecka-Przybyszewska:
They call my male colleague: a poet,
me – ‘a woman who writes’.
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Originally written in Polish by Agnieszka Warnke, Aug 2017; translated by AD, Jul 2019; edited by LD, Oct 2019
Sources: ‘Grupa Poetycka Kwadryga’ by Jan Marx (Warszawa 1983), ‘Szesnaście Wierszy Mili Elin’ by Andrzej K. Waśkiewicz in ‘W Kręgu Zwrotnicy’ (Kraków 1983), ‘Między Młodą Polską, Skamandrem i Awangarda: Kobiety Piszące Wiersze w Dwudziestoleciu Międzywojennym’ (Szczecin 2014)