Poetry has occupied a special place in Polish literature for at least 200 years. After the loss of the nation's independence in 1795, poetry became a vehicle of national identity for over a century until Poland regained her sovereignty in 1918. It was precisely poetry that assumed the duty to develop civic and patriotic attitudes.
Under the Wings of Nobelists
Poetry has occupied a special place in Polish literature for at least 200 years. After the loss of the nation's independence in 1795, which resulted in the disappearance of the Polish state with all its institutions, poetry became a vehicle of national identity for over a century until Poland regained her sovereignty in 1918 (a consequence of the fortunate conclusion of World War I). It was precisely poetry that assumed the duty to develop civic and patriotic attitudes. In poetry Poles sought comfort and consolation in the most dramatic moments of their history. Poets are still held in special esteem in Poland but are also expected to write "seriously". We may risk a statement that even when a Polish poet feels like joking, readers expect that he will joke about something considered important, i.e. civic, social, philosophical and existential topics. Lyrical poetry which only entertains the reader and is fun in itself is generally treated with distrust mixed with slight. We may say Poles respect their prose writers, but love their poets and expect non-banal messages from them. The elevated place of poetry in culture is in a sense specific to Poland and results, as already mentioned, to some extent from historical factors and also to certain fleeting, albeit clearly observable public preferences. There is even a joke, not completely detached from reality, that the most conspicuous difference between French and Polish literature is that 300 novels and 30 books of poetry are published every year in France and in Poland these numbers are reverse. Poles, to use a simplification, have almost always preferred poetry to prose as in poems they looked for explanations and, more importantly, for emotions. Poles have also more often used their pens to write in verse. Jan Błoński, the most senior of Polish literature critics, even says that "lyrical poetry is the pillar of contemporary Polish literature".
History, politics, literature
Two facts seem of fundamental significance to Polish poetry over the past twenty years: the award of the 1980 Nobel prize in literature to Czesław Miłosz and the 1996 Nobel prize in literature to Wisława Szymborska. The previous Polish Nobel prize winners in literature were fiction writers (Henryk Sienkiewicz in 1905, author of Quo Vadis and Władysław Stanisław Reymont, author of a saga entitled Chłopi / The Peasants in 1925). The recognition of both poets seems to confirm the strength and quality of Polish lyrical poetry written nowadays in the country on the Vistula river. Especially that the laureates have not put their pens away and belong still, owing to their growing output, to the group of the most important Polish artists-intellectuals. This is at least how one may interpret the importance of Szymborska's prize (remembering that the distinction is an expression of recognising the writer's individual and unique creation).
The Nobel prize for Miłosz has one more dimension because its award coincided with a political breakthrough. After the end of World War II until the famous European "peoples' autumn" of the late 1980s, Poland remained in the orbit of Soviet influences and the country's political culture was developed by the communist government. Opposition (political and literary) to that rule functioned in exile (mainly in the United States, Great Britain and France) after 1945, i.e. almost since the very beginning of the cold-war division of Europe. Opposition in the country evolved clearly more slowly and its organised structures were established in the mid seventies and were repressed by the regime. In August 1890, as a result of another wave of social unrest in Poland's post-war history as well as a favourable coincidence of various political factors (e.g. inauguration of the Polish Pope's pontificate in the Roman Catholic Church in 1978, temporary détente in the world, and USSR's military involvement in Afghanistan), Poland saw the rise of "Solidarity", an independent trade union (unique in communist countries) and a general relaxation of the state's control over its citizens (also in the sphere of culture). The Nobel prize for Miłosz, who had been an emigrant since 1951 and therefore no-one could officially speak or write about him, provided tremendous support for the nation's desire for independence and for the big group of "domestic" writers. Although as early as in December 1981 the communist government shortened that festival of freedom by proclaiming martial law, the seed of freedom was sown. Political disputes between the rulers and society were concluded many years later and with good will on both sides, in peaceful negotiations which enabled Poland's gradual return to the family of democratic countries in 1989.
All these developments: the feeling of relative freedom for a year and a half (the state's political censorship allowed a lot at that time), followed by the night of martial law, and finally the major breakthrough of the late 1980s which brought about the collapse of the whole communist bloc in Central Europe, left a distinct impression on Polish contemporary poetry. It has a capacity to react faster to current occurrences than other forms of artistic writing although, on the other hand, calmness, subtlety and subjectivity lies in the very nature of lyrical poetry. And such are precisely the poles of Polish contemporary poetry in the last two decades of the 20th century.
The Poles of Polish Poetry
One of them is thus lyrical poetry involved in social and political affairs and in "fight", which addresses questions relevant to the public at a given moment. It responds actively to all important events in the life of the national community. Such characteristics are no doubt visible in the poetry of the 1980s. One even refers to the category of "martial law poetry", or evidently "marked" literature, which is often at the level of propaganda or sheer political satire.
At any rate, public life with all its different factors has left an imprint on the output of Polish writers in this period. The writing careers of poets who debuted in the 1970s and almost from the start were associated with the independent, uncensored circulation of literature, e.g. Tomasz Jastrun, Antoni Pawlak, or Jan Polkowski, who is considered the most talented of them all, have for ever remained stigmatised with the odium of those times. On the one hand, it made it impossible for those writers to find their place in the new reality (Polkowski has not basically published anything for years), or doomed their output to perception in the context of those divisions which are now history. At the same time, however, a number of outstanding poets (e.g., Tadeusz Różewicz, Adam Zagajewski, the two Nobel laureates as well as the youngest readers' favourite poets - Bohdan Zadura and Piotr Sommer - despite the madness of those disputes have saved an enclave of subjective and original artistic accomplishments. Incidentally, since the mid 1980s Polish culture began a debate, which gathered momentum over time, on the need to protect art from being too much entangled in current and often, when seen from a perspective, transient and superficial affairs.
On the one hand, there emerged an idea of poetry as private and "inbred" expression, oriented towards psychological and emotional self-analysis. On the other hand, there appeared an idea of poetry as an artistic genre that should address issues most relevant to human existence (philosophical, religious and spiritual problems) without avoiding a high tone and loftiness. This is precisely the other pole of Polish lyrical poetry and the two dominant tendencies in its development in the 1990s. And while the socially and politically "involved" poetry gladly draws on the rich tradition of romanticism and independence (at the time of subsequent national uprisings in the 19th century and the nation's combats in the world wars of the 20th century), the "private" or "philosophising" poetry is willingly seeking inspiration in foreign literatures (e.g. North American English-language literature) as well as in the native literary output which, due to historical turbulence, could never become known (e.g. in the fantastic-dadaistic tradition of the early 20th century).
Poetry after the Breakthrough
The year 1989 brought a number of changes in Polish poetry and the entire culture. Although critics have been arguing to date whether the political breakthrough (the velvet evolution of the system which preceded all the other velvet evolutions in this region of Europe, such as the one in Czechoslovakia, or evolutions with blood-shed, as in Romania) has produced equally intense aesthetic transformations in literature. Several conclusions are, however, certain. First, the publishing structure has changed, the patronage of political institutions (representing both the regime and opposition) over literature is over and a real market has emerged. The publishing and reading processes have therefore been commercialised. On the one hand, in consequence poets and their output have been "pushed" beyond the margin of the publishing business and its promotion mechanisms; on the other hand organisational structures of cultural institutions have been decentralised and regionalised which allows poets today to make a relatively easy debut as well as to get direct access to the certainly small but competent reading audiences. The other consequence of the breakthrough is the quite radical change of readers' expectations towards poetry. In the 1990s no-one rather expects poetry to provide explanations and a summary of reality, changes in mentality and spirituality or civilisation. These expectations are rather associated with epics which happens to be quite typical of Europe's modern cultural status. Finally, third, the breakthrough enabled a look back on the achievements of recognised poets and thus conduct an initial analysis of profit and loss as well as chances and threats to modern Polish lyrical poetry.
The End of the Century and Great Masters
From the perspective of the end of the century we can observe clearly that Polish poetry of the past fifty years has been privileged in that real pearls and stars appeared among multitudes of writers. Two Nobel prizes awarded to still active representatives of Polish lyrical poetry in 15 years speak for themselves and are sufficient for any promotion of the distinguished laureates. However, also Zbigniew Herbert (who died, regretfully, in 1998) and Tadeusz Różewicz are in the forefront of world poetry. The Nobel prizes confirmed, in fact, the high reputation that Polish poetry has enjoyed for years, especially the reputation of the output of Wisława Szymborska and Czesław Miłosz. At the same time it has to be admitted that the influence of lyrical poetry in the latter half of this century has been waning as importance and popularity were taken over by prose writers. Thus, the popularity of Polish Nobel prize winners was confined to the quite closed circle of real fanatics of poetry.
The past twenty years have been to the Great Four (Szymborska, Miłosz, Różewicz, Herbert) a time of supplementing thematic and artistic ideas present so far in their writing. Czesław Miłosz is in this respect truly remarkable because after he received his Nobel prize, he remained an extremely prolific writer who published volumes of poetry, collections of essays on literature, research and critical books (in 1990s he published e.g., essays entitled Metafizyczna pauza / Metaphysical Pause (1995), Rok myśliwego / The Hunter's Year (1990), a book of poems Na brzegu rzeki / On the River Bank (1994), a book about poetess Anna Świrszczyńska entitled Jakiegoż to gościa mieliśmy / What a Guest We Had (1996), essays Życie na wyspach / Life on Islands (1997), Piesek przydrożny / A Little Roadside Dog (1998). The time of "late" works is also a time of summaries and fundamental statements. This is the case with Polish poets who review fundamental values in their poetry , considering the "art or life?" dilemma (e.g., Miłosz and Różewicz), preparing an ethical balance sheet ,asking questions about the condition of culture (Różewicz), accounting for ideas of generations (e.g. Różewicz, Herbert), and seeking transcendence (Miłosz, Różewicz). We may therefore attempt to distinguish dominants characterising the greatest four Polish poets' recent endeavours. In Miłosz it is affirmation, in Szymborska (particularly in the book Koniec i początek / The End and the Beginning - the ironic and doubting scepticism of an intellectual, in Różewicz (in Zawsze fragment / Always a Fragment - a ruthless commentary on the post-war civilisational and cultural emptiness and fascination with the description of Evil. In Herbert's Epilog burzy / The Epilogue of a Storm it is the ethical judgement of our times and a record of philosophical dilemmas caused by the process of religious erosion in modern culture.
The output of the above poets is therefore a literature of ultimate things transferred by the power of artistic genius into dimensions accessible to everyone. The ability to find important things in any detail of everyday life and, to also generalise the meanings of apparently ordinary situations and events, is a trait owing to which Polish contemporary poetry has unquestionable authorities whose writing sets trends of development.
Among the "old" (i.e. recognised) masters of Polish poetry we should mention also Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz (a poet who both portrays the Polish nation's martyrdom in the 20th century and is a sensitive philosopher addressing the problem of transience and metaphysical dilemmas, drawing upon the artistic achievements of 18th century poetry). Ludmiła Marjańska and Joanna Pollakówna (subdued, emotional and personal lyrics) as well as poets who died in the nineties - Artur Międzyrzecki (erudite and a somewhat academic poet of culture) and Zbigniew Bieńkowski (post-avantgardist).
Social activists, emigrants and observers
The "new masters" are fifty-year-old veterans of socially involved poetry which stems both from the counter-cultural European experience of the year 1968, and the Polish political breakthroughs and upheavals of the same period (anti-semitic excesses of March 1968 caused by clashes of fractions within the communist party, student protests, violent suppression of worker strikes in 1970). That group, which was incidentally numerous and diversified, was labelled "Generation 68" or the "New Wave". Of the whole constellation of authors, the most interesting output is currently boasted by Stanisław Barańczak, Adam Zagajewski (both of whom have lived abroad for years - the former in the USA, the latter in France), Ryszard Krynicki (who has committed himself rather to publishing in recent years), and finally Ewa Lipska (for many years head of the Polish Institute in Vienna). Other poets of the group, e.g. Jacek Bierezin (who died tragically in Paris in the late nineties), or Jerzy Gizella (who has lived in the USA for many years) have not developed their talents, possibly due to meandering paths in their lives, or, like e.g., Stanisław Stabro, Julian Kornhauser and Leszek Szaruga, have concentrated more on research, reviewing and critical work and frequently became ambassadors and advocates of Polish poetry abroad (Szaruga in German-speaking countries and Kornhauser in Balkan countries).
The new masters are characterised by the evolution of their poetry from very strong and aggressive involvement in political and social affairs in the latter half of the seventies and early eighties, to the poetry of emotional detachment, irony, observation of the world and metaphysical implications.
Stanisław Barańczak became the leading dissident among Polish poets in the seventies. He was persecuted by the authorities and censorship at the turn of the decade (could not publish officially) and committed himself to political activity, translation from English (soon he became known as absolutely ingenious in this area) and published also poems and essays, both in Poland, under censorship, and abroad. His books of poetry written in the seventies: Ja wiem że to niesłuszne / I Know It's Wrong, or Sztuczne oddychanie / Artificial Respiration are generally regarded as the top achievement of anti-communist political poetry which is not at the same time "revolutionary" or a poetry of "action" and at the same time it does not fail to address existential dilemmas of an individual human being. Barańczak appears as a writer who discredits the government and relations in the despotically-controlled society by compromising the official language (including also the language used by television, radio and obedient writers, such as authors of so-called "militia novels" which were to present the communist guardians of public order in a positive light). After his emigration to the United States (until recently he was a professor at Harvard) Barańczak's poetry began to change and gradually turned (the turning point was marked by the book Atlantyda / Atlantis published in 1986) into metaphysical poetry that seeks transcendental experiences in everyday life (the selection of poetry Widokówka z tego świata / A Postcard from This World published in 1988 seems the greatest achievement). Barańczak started employing social motifs and typical situations as he was then particularly sensitive as an emigrant to the language as a reflection of the condition of the spiritual and the conscious. In the nineties, despite progressing Parkinson's disease, he still produced and published anthologies of his translations and nonsense poetry, wrote his own poems and essays. He is one of the most universal and prolific Polish writers (in the nineties he published, e.g., Poezje wybrane / Selected Poems (1990), essays entitled Tablica z Macondo / The Macondo Table (1990), nonsense poetry Zwierzęca zajadłość / Animal Bigotry (1991), Biografioły (1991), essays on the art of translation Ocalone w tłumaczeniu / Saved in the Translation (1992), Zupełne zezwierzęcenie / Complete Bestiality (1993), Chirurgiczna precyzja / Surgical Presicion (1998).
The poetry of Adam Zagajewski has been perceived by readers in the most extreme ways. On the one hand, Zagajewski is a poet who has been able to expect the favour of numerous fans of his writing (he is surrounded by foreign readers during book fairs and meetings). On the other hand, he frequently faces quite unsophisticated attacks from critics who charge his poetry with being stilted, artificially bombastic and academic. In the seventies in his books of poetry entitled Komunikat / Announcement and Sklepy mięsne / Butcher's Shops he quite unequivocally derided at the inconsistencies and lies of regime culture and lifestyles promoted by the communists. Zagajewski is a philosophical man of learning who wants to disclose mercilessly the forgeries of existence, politics, power, and ideological doctrine. Zagajewski is the author of two main slogans of "Generation 68' - "say the truth" and "be straightforward" - which illustrate well the ambitions of the group of artists in question (which were at that time, considering the overtly totalitarian regime, quite idealistic and naive). In the eighties, on the other hand, he was one of the first writers who defined the necessity to break the close links between literature and politics because the objectives of art are a little more important, or, at any rate, different (mainly aesthetic, religious, cultural) than those of clamorous public or political journalism which responds to political turmoil (even the most important). This thesis was presented by Zagajewski in his selection of essays entitled Solidarność i samotność / Solidarity and Solitude, published in 1986 in Paris (the author has lived there permanently since 1981). He also lectures on creative writing at the University of Houston in Texas) and earlier this formula had been artistically explicated in the volume Jechać do Lwowa / Going to Lviv (1985). Today Zagajewski remains primarily a poet of beautiful, impressive or symbolic phrases through which he wants to depict various aspects of human existence. His poems contain a lot of reflections on art (especially on painting), but also many extremely precise social observations. Zagajewski is not, however, any longer an insubordinate rebel, but rather being aware of human infirmity he is a portrait painter of the world of ambiguous grandeur and smallness. Dealing with metaphysical questions, problems of agnosticism (in the book of poems Ziemia Ognista / Land of Fire he is also able to acquaint the contemporary Polish reader with dilemmas of people in the West and residents of post-industrial reality Pragnienie / Desire.
Ryszard Krynicki and Ewa Lipska are considered masters by audiences of readers much smaller than those which include lovers of Barańczak's and Zagajewski's poetry. This is so because the former write "chamber" poetry which is difficult. Krynicki is also a "linguist" who uses the tradition of aphorisms and haiku in a different manner than Barańczak. Krynicki's poems are less embedded in the surrounding world (the former world of the regime, or the democratic world now), they are more focused on philosophical problems, mainly those relating to theory and cognition, on description of the chaos of human experience. This is very quiet and apparently modest poetry which leads us to the boundaries of literature, to the verge of silence. Magnetyczny punkt / Magnetic Spot is Krynicki's recent book of poetry which sums up the poet's artistic accomplishments.
The poems of Ewa Lipska (who always gladly emphasises she does not identify herself fully with the programme and activities of her colleagues from the same generation of poets) confront dramatically and ruthlessly human individuality which is in life situations at the mercy of compromises, paradoxes and threats. Lipska frequently approaches the limits of hermetism, her poems require both effort and learning of the reader. Her recent books Ludzie dla początkujących / People for Beginners, or a collection entitled (1999) demonstrate, however, that Lipska is an important existential poet who continues and creatively transforms the old rebellion of Sartre.
From the time perspective we can clearly observe the significance of poems by Bohdan Zadura, a contemporary of "Generation 68" writers Prześwietlone zdjęcia / Overexposed Pictures, Cisza / Silence and Piotr Sommer Czynnik liryczny / Lyrical Factor, Nowe stosunki wyrazów / New Relations Between Words. The latter writer is responsible for the career of colloquial speech, the language of the street (as well as the popularity of commonplace scenes) in modern Polish poetry. On the one hand, he follows the path once shown by a Polish linguist poet Miron Białoszewski, on the other hand, by modern poets of the English language with their inclination to depict the ordinary. A great advantage of this poetry lies in the presence of all varieties of irony (also self-irony), pastiche and parody. The former poet, Zadura, has in turn become a modern poets' teacher by turning his lyrics into an experimental range where he explores the capacity to synthesise various traditions, aesthetic trends and a very sensitised record of his own honest confession.
The So-called "brulion" Generation
The future of Polish poetry depends, however, on the new generation of poets. The political developments of 1989 which gave rise to evolutionary democratic transformations in Poland, facilitated the official and market debut of a whole generation of poets born in the nineties. This group has been termed the "brulion generation" (after the name of a magazine published first in Cracow and then in Warsaw which in 1987-1997 was a specific tribune for all literary beginners). Interestingly, these poets, most of whom are almost forty today, are still called "young". This probably results from the fact that, a poet's "youth" in the Polish context, to put it not quite seriously, lasts precisely almost until forty (a specific cultural situation), as well as from the fact that the younger generations of writers have not been recognised by readers yet. Twenty-year-old poets (i.e. born in the seventies) are simply still perceived with a lot of distrust (which does not exclude favour) and treated by readers and critics not too seriously. Still, many talented poets have been noticed and positively commented (e.g. Wojciech Wencel - a religious conservative poet, Maria Cyranowicz - avant-garde linguistic poetry, or brilliant "new existentialists" such as Krzysztof Siwczyk and Roman Honet).
In the so-called "brulion generation" (so-called because there are quite conspicuous internal differences within this group) it is possible to distinguish at least three important artistic trends: classicising poets, O'Hara followers (followers of American poet Frank O'Hara) and avant-gardists.
The most expressive artistic individualities are certainly: Marcin Świetlicki (considered commonly the leading "young" poet) and Jacek Podsiadło - both associated with the "O'Hara" trend (or an idea of poetry which emphasises colloquiality and commonness of human experience as the starting point of literature) which is sometimes referred to as "barbarism" (due to its rough and straightforward forms of expression). Świetlicki's poems (e.g. books: Zimne kraje / Cold Lands, Pieśni profana / Profaner's Songs, inspired by the New York school of poets and artistic personalities of Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery, are an intriguing record of existential loneliness, complicated feeling and emotions. It is a poetry of rebellion against the world which gives people various shades of suffering and spiritual discomfort. It is characteristic that in order to intensify his message, Świetlicki uses imagery typical of rock music as a leader of a group called Świetliki. Podsiadlo's poems on the other hand (e.g. books Arytmia / Arrythmia, Dobra ziema dla murarzy / Land Good for Brick-Layers, rooted in anarchist pacifism, carry a message of human individuals' freedom in experiencing life adventures. It is a message filled simultaneously with affirmation, contemplation of nature, criticism of technological civilisation as well as religious and theological investigation.
Other interesting poets representing the same trend are, for example, Miłosz Biedrzycki, Dariusz Sośnicki and Karol Maliszewski (who is also an extremely prolific and brilliant critic of literature who accompanies his contemporaries and beginning poets with his interpretation). "O'Hara's followers" do not avoid reflections on society - their poems give the reader a lot of knowledge about transformations in the culture and life in Poland at the turn of the century after the collapse of communism. They do it, however, in a discreet manner, emphasising the need to have a skeptical attitude to reality.
The Classicising Poets
Poets representing this line do not renounce reflections on modern times, however, they do it using poetic formulas that draw on the literary and cultural tradition (of Poland and Europe). Numerous writers seek inspiration in the Baroque period as the complexity and chaos of our time resemble slightly the situation of European culture in the 17th century. Polish Baroque metaphysical poetry (in which vanity was a primary motif and which shows fascination with the uniqueness of human life in the perspective of death) is a source of inspiration to Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki. Subtle religious and meditative poetry comes from writer and researcher of literature Krzysztof Koehler Na krańcu długiego pola / At the End of a Long Field. The heritage of Rilke and French classicist poetry is used by Marzanna Bogumiła Kielar Sacra conversazione who subjects the world to a careful description full of detailed observations. Other interesting poets representing the same style are: Andrzej Stasiuk (who is known more as a novelist), Artur Szlosarek, and Anna Piwkowska. Classicising poets have outstanding predecessors among poets born in the fifties of whom Bronislaw Maj Światło / The Light and Zbigniew Machej Legendy praskiego metra / Legends of the Prague Underground seem the most noteworthy.
It is also worth mentioning here some poets whose art and artistic programme include features of the two poetic groups: O'Hara's followers and classicising poets. Perhaps the combination of the two lyrical options which is present in their output will produce the most interesting effects in the future. These poets are: Marcin Baran Zabiegi miłosne / Love Endeavours, Sprzeczne fragmenty / Contradictory Fragments, Jarosław Klejnocki Okruchy / Morsels, Mr Hyde, or Jarosław Mikołajewski Mój dom przestały nawiedzać duchy / My House is no Longer Haunted.
The young avant-garde are poets who indulge themselves in Parnassian, exclusive experiments and devote themselves to intellectual aestheticising poetry that requires deep literary culture from its readers. We should mention here first of all Andrzej Sosnowski Życie na Krecie / Life in Crete, Konwój / The Convoy, Opera, Tadeusz Pióro Okęcie, and Andrzej Niewiadomski Prewentorium.
Poets of the so-called "brulion generation" attempt in various ways to present a picture of contemporary sensitivity. What is common to the whole group? Certainly it is their distance from (or perhaps even suspicions about) community life which manifests itself through strictly political activities. It is also their agreement to the ambiguous (and therefore conscious and filled with a feeling of ambivalence) flirting with mass culture (rock music, film, the world of advertising and commerciality). These poets make use of expression means which originate from colloquial speech ("the language of the street"), they are inspired by the counter-culture of the sixties and have a strong awareness of the generation's ties based on historical experience which integrates this group (martial law, the "freedom" breakthrough of the late eighties).
Contemporary Polish poetry is a little like a thick forest with many different types of trees. It is not possible to even briefly describe all the trees in it and each of them may truly seem unique in its own manner and worth the keen observer's attention. Using the forest metaphor further, the characteristic feature of Polish contemporary lyrical poetry is its spontaneous and lush growth. Every year we observe at least a few interesting poetic debuts and the recognised masters provide us with intriguing books none of which falls below the bottom line of artistic decency which is a bastion that protects us from the banal, pretentious and common in thinking. The dynamics and energy of poetic disputes, discussions and dialogue which take place either at the level of political discourse, or on the plane of literary works themselves, fill us with optimistic thoughts about the beginning of the 21st century. Polish lyrical poetry will surely bring us many nice surprises. I hope the specific characteristics and uniqueness of this poetry will be also appreciated by foreign readers.