Anna Świrszczyńska was an innovative poet. She became a writer as early as in the 1930s but managed to make her breakthrough in Polish poetry only after reaching her sixties. She was born on 8th February 1909 in Warsaw and died on 30th September 1984 in Kraków.
Her poetry books I am a Woman (1972) and Building the Barricade (1974) were a one-woman revolution. She was the first Polish poetess to speak about the fate and emotions of women. I am a Woman was a shock for Polish readers. Many years after its publishing, Czesław Miłosz, who was more accustomed to the new language of women than the ordinary Polish reader, confessed in his book on Świrszczyńska that he had to fight his male prejudices to properly understand her feminism. He acknowledged her (alongside Miron Białoszewski) as the great rejuvenator of poetic Polish language.
It took her thirty years to create a new language to express her experience of the Warsaw Uprising. At the time of the occupation, she already felt that the language of pre-war poetry was not enough to describe this reality – even though, at that time, she had already received awards in underground literary competitions (for her poem Year 1941 in 1942 and her drama Orpheus in 1943). Afterwards, she searched for a new form. She stripped her language of all metaphors and parallels, abandoned the grotesque and Old Polish stylisation. She shortened her sentences. Without creating a language of women, she would have not been able to create the language of the uprising. Without experiencing the Warsaw Uprising she might never have even looked for a new form. She resorted to such intensity of emotions and such descriptions of the body that she was sometimes accused of exhibitionism; she thought she was at its border.
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She wrote as follows about her poetry books Wind (1970) and I am a Woman in an autobiographical introduction to 1973’s Selected Poems:
If a costumed theatre play is supposed to symbolise my debut poetry book then a maternity ward could symbolise the two most recent ones. What is more appropriate for poetry? Surely, many readers would reply differently than me.
In Świrszczyńska’s poetry, the woman gives birth not only to children but also to the world. She appears in many different roles which are very often expressed in the first person: mother, daughter, loving, desiring, tender and grieving, crying after the deceased, taking care of the wounded, wild but very practical.
Świrszczyńska was the daughter of the painter Jan Świerczyński (her last name is the effect of an error in the registry which she never corrected) and Stanisława Bojarska. In 1972, Maria Kwiatkowska created a documentary about Jan Świerczyński titled Passion. His daughter is visible in it almost all the time – the poetess talks about her father but, for whatever reason, she remains unnamed. An education in a painting workshop, where there was more art than means to live, took its toll on her. She passed her high school leaving exams in 1927 but did not go to art school because of financial reasons. Instead, she studied Polish philology. The faculty immediately resulted in new artistic experiences because of Świrczyńska’s discovery of the Old Polish language.
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Her debut poem titled Snow was published in Płomyk magazine in 1930 but she considered the poem South to be her proper debut – she was awarded for it in a Young Poet Competition held by Wiadomości Literackie magazine (the poem was printed in 1934). At the same time, Świrszczyńska published poems for children, fairy tales and summaries of legends, many of them on the topic of the history of Poland and the Slavic people (she would continue to do so throughout her whole career). In 1936, she published her first poetry book titled simply Poems and Prose and became a member of the Polish Professional Writers’ Union. She worked in Mały Promyczek. During the war, she worked as a worker, waitress and nurse’s aide. After the war, she worked with the Polish Radio, wrote animated film scripts and poetic drama. She died in 1984.
She lived her life to the fullest and wrote about it: erotic poems, poems about suffering and about joy.
- Poems and Prose, Warsaw, self-published,1936
- Orpheus, a Drama in Three Acts Towarzystwo Ziemi Pomorskiej, 1946
- Collected Poems, Warsaw, PIW, 1958
- Black Words, Kraków, WL, 1967
- Wind, Warsaw, PIW, 1970
- I am a Woman, Kraków, WL, 1972
- Building the Barricade, Warsaw, Czytelnik, 1974
- Happy as a Dog’s Tail, Kraków, WL, 1978
- Poetic Theatre, Kraków, WL, 1984
- Suffering and Joy, Warsaw, PIW, 1985
Originally written in Polish by Małgorzata Baranowska, January 2005, translated to English by Patryk Grabowski, Jan 2019
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