Polish Literature & the City
#language & literature
#travel in poland
default, Czesław Miłosz's poems displayed on the walls of Wawel, Miłosz Festival in Krakow, photo: Wojciech Matusik / Forum, center, #000000, krakow_wiersze_wawel_forum.jpg
The forms of Polish literature’s presence in the urban landscape are varied: from murals of books to festivals to thematic walking tours. This is not about regular reading; it is about interaction with the surroundings, experiencing and decoding the city.
The metaphor of reading
In his essay A Morning Walk, Ryszard Kapuściński wrote: ‘The city drew back and disappeared; it released its hold and allowed one to take a rest from it’. This was his ritual. When, after 30 years of travelling the length and breadth of the world, he settled down to live near the Mokotów Field in Warsaw, he would take a walk in that park each morning. Surely, as he would stroll through the greenery ‘of the grass silvery and shining with the morning dew, amongst the tall poplar trees’, he would gather his thoughts for his next texts – this was the period during which the ‘king of reportage’ produced his final works.
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Ryszard Kapuściński's educational path at Pole Mokotowskie in Warsaw; pictured: Alicja Kapuścińska, photo: Robert Kowalewski / AG
Since 2010, it’s been possible to walk in his footsteps. A two-kilometre path was designed by a team from Knockoutdesign and Marian Misiak. The path leads from the corner of Wawelska Street and Niepodległości Avenue, winds around a pond and leads up to the building of the National Library which, in Kapuściński’s day, was ‘eternally under construction’. It passes the Finnish Cottage, now in ruins, which in the years 1946 to 1955 granted the reporter’s family ‘luxury and joy’ – although it was cramped and lacked a bathroom and central heating. The path is lined with concrete plaques bearing quotations from the reporter’s books in various languages, which turn the walk into a metaphor for reading.
The Kapuściński path is discreet. It doesn’t announce itself; it doesn’t stand out from the surroundings as do writers’ statues or memorial plaques. But it also doesn’t become as easily ignored a symbol as the names of streets or squares often do. It is simple, although not banal. Its modest character corresponds well to the reporter’s writings,, in which he would take notice of fine nuances overlooked by others. A person walking through the space can remain indifferent to the path, or he or she can go around it, cross it, ignore it entirely or happen upon it by accident. This is similar to discovering literature. This form of presence in the landscape of the city engages the recipient and not only recalls Kapuściński’s work, but brings it to life and makes it generally accessible.
The language of the city
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In an article appearing in the journal Kultura i Historia (Culture and History), Magdalena Lachman described the literary activation of the urban scene:
Daniel Libeskind declared that, in designing the Złota 44 Tower in central Warsaw (popularly known as the ‘glass sail’), he drew a great deal of inspiration from the poetry of Wisława Szymborska, Czesław Miłosz and Adam Zagajewski, whilst in designing the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, he was inspired by Bruno Schulz’s ‘Book’. Bernard Tschumi consistently cites literary inspirations, proposing using the plot of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to shape the new spacial design of Covent Garden in London, giving the space a certain ‘event-driven nature’.
Literature sometimes inspires architects, but more often it is urban scenery which stimulates the mind of writers. It is not without reason that the action of criminal novels takes place in ‘forbidden neighbourhoods’ (e.g.Wałbrzych in Joanna Bator’s Dark, Almost Night), whilst some write ‘walked literature’ (e.g. Warsaw’s Ochota District in the works of Michał Cichy) and others listen to the sounds and history of their local regions to produce a universal tale of Poland as a whole (Paweł Huelle’s Sing, Gardens!).
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One of the methods of reading the city is through literary tourism, i.e. visiting the actual sites described in books (not necessarily non-fiction) or connected to the biography of authors. The London of Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter, Saint Petersburg in the footsteps of Dostoyevsky or Stockholm according to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium are the best-known routes for lovers of literature. In Poland, the practice of thematic literary walks appeared fairly recently, but has quickly found loyal adherents. The designated routes are either developed for special occasions such as an anniversary or a festival or they serve s official memorials – in which case they appear in guides to the city and are designated by information markers in real space. They follow the lives of authors (e.g. the Great Poland of Adam Mickiewicz, the Gdańsk of Günter Grass) more often than the lives of their characters, though the latter type of routes are regularly being developed.
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Warsaw has Bolesław Prus’s The Doll and Leopold Tyrmand’s The Man With the White Eyes (originally: Zły), Suraż has Konopielka’s wanderings from Edward Redliński’s story, Poznań – Małgorzata Musierowicz’s series Jeżycjada, Lublin – the 14 stations along the route of Józef Czechowicz’s Poem about the City of Lublin, and Wrocław – the travels of detective Eberhard Mock from Marek Krajewski’s crime novels. When your tour guide is a literary figure, you generally bypass the most popular tourist sites, instead giving your mind a chance to encounter and relate to sites of as-yet-undiscovered potential.
‘Łódź is a city of women’, local activists insist, seeking out the herstory hidden in the urban context. For years, they have been organising guided walks in the footsteps of women artists and activists and, in early 2020, they launched a smartphone app called ‘The Women’s Route Through Łodź’. There are actually two routes to choose from: one is a two-hour route in the footsteps of notable Łódź women – suffragettes, secret agents and striking textile workers; the other is a one-hour stroll through the hometown of Irena Tuwim – the poet and translator of Winnie-the-Pooh and the somewhat less-known sister of Julian Tuwim. This initiative and others like it combining education with recreation present the heritage and identity of the city from a less obvious angle.
The writing on the wall
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The city as a text of culture speaks in another vocabulary than literature, but this does not mean that the two media cannot communicate with one another. A kind of commentary on the space is offered by fragments of poetry or prose displayed in murals. Such works are usually created in the context of an organised literary event, and they often remain on the walls of buildings thereafter – this was the case behind the scenes of the Lublin ‘City of Poetry’ festival. Kutno’s ‘Wall of Poets’ has a similar pedigree, as an echo of a poetry competition that took place there. Words accompanied by images interpreting them decorate the walls of a former prison. In this case, the murals are a more or less successful attempt to add some aesthetics to an otherwise neglected space, giving it some character.
In Poznań, the authors Wisława Szymborska, Stanisław Barańczak and Zbigniew Herbert have a ‘permanent address’ on the walls of residential buildings and tenement houses. For its part, Wrocław takes pride in Stanisław Dróżdż and his concrete poetry, which uses a visual effect to underscore the meaning of its words. The poet, who would say that the place of poetry is everywhere – ‘in catalogues, in public places, and on the Internet’ – found his haven in the German town of Hünfeld. Gerard Jürgen Blum-Kwiatkowski, for many years associated with Elbląg, lived in that town and began his project Das Offene Buch (The Open Book) in 1996. He placed large-format texts of visual and concrete poetry by authors from around the world on the facades of buildings. His artistic endeavours coincided perfectly with the idea of a ‘city of art’, accessible to all its residents, to which Hünfeld aspires.
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In principle, anyone can become a street poet, and it’s easiest to do so in Kraków. On the facade of one of the buildings on Bracka Street, where ‘rain falls when the need to exist is hard to bear’, as Grzegorz Turnau sang, poems are projected in Polish and English from sunset to 2:00am. You can join in this project, started by Michał Zabłocki back in October 2002 and renewed in January 2006, on the website eMultipoetry.eu by posting a text. The international community of poets has thus far displayed their work over 5,000 times.
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On the first arch
of your body
I lost my reason,
on the second
I broke my heart.
Jakub Mistral, poem projected on 10.06.2013
Tomorrow is also a day
and like every
consecutive day it brings us closer
to the end
of this madness
Alicja Lesińska, poem projected on 6.06.2020
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Poetry on the stairs as part of the City of Poetry project in Lublin, photo: Grodzka Gate - NN Theatre
Not only walls, but also sidewalks and stairs have invited poetry into their space. This is how Lublin broke up the routine of its urban environment, featuring works by Piotr Sommer, Ryszard Krynicki and Miron Białoszewski. At bus stops and in cafés, clubs and shops in residential neighbourhoods of Warsaw, modern European poetry is ‘published’ for one month a year. This project, entitled ‘Poems in the City’ – known earlier as ‘Poems in the Metro’ – promotes reading on the street. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 edition was moved to the Internet, so practically anyone can access the work of poets from 19 regions of the world – amongst others, Flanders, Malta, Moldavia, Portugal, Turkey and Italy. The Internet edition of the project has been dedicated to issues of ecology and Poland was represented by Julia Fiedorczuk with her poem Photosynthesis.
The city from a book
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Miedzianka Fest, the literary festival in Miedzianka, photo: promotional materials / Facebook.com
Encounters with literature in the urban context or out in nature are becoming ever more popular amongst readers. A picnic atmosphere is not as oppressive as that of literary gatherings organised in the confines of libraries and museums. The National Library invites readers for Jan Kochanowski’s name day to meet in the Krasiński Garden in Warsaw. The international Big Book Festival has been able to issue a new guide to the capital city each year, and in late August, the Sopot beach becomes a centre of literary activity for several days. And no one can doubt that the Capital of the Polish Language is Szczebrzeszyn.
A special place on the map of literary festivals is occupied by Miedzianka Fest, a festival of reportage. It is special, because it takes place in a town in Lower Silesia which effectively doesn’t exist – and the history of its disappearance can be read in Filip Springer’s book. One has to admit that the organisers have considerable imagination: discussions about non-fiction in a church, lectures in a factory hall, yoga on the meadow and walks around the area… one can even get an author’s autograph while standing at a bus stop. Miedzianka is a perfect example of how an urban space can serve literature.
Although many festivals have changed their programmes due to the pandemic (moving to the Internet) and others have been postponed or cancelled, they will surely come back a year from now – to once again amaze us with extraordinary dialogues between cities and literature.
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contemporary polish literature
contemporary polish poetry
Originally written in Polish by Agnieszka Warnke, Jun 2020, translated by Yale Reisner, Jul 2020