Tadeusz Różewicz- the ordinary man and the ‘giant’ of Polish poetry

Poetry has ultimately left mass media or perhaps has been kicked out. And since what is mass is often the only that reaches us, poetry has also left our lives. Every now and then it comes back. Flickers , flicks and disappears. If poetry is brought to life, it is most certainly thanks to its great author’s death. Recently, mass media and social networks reminded us about Tadeusz Różewicz.

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Różewicz was born in 1921 in Radomsko. His older brother Janusz, who was a literature lover himself encouraged young Tadeusz to explore literature together with him. It was Różewicz’s brother who first got poetry published in newspapers. The Second World War broke out when he was an eighteen-year-old youth and most certainly changed his life forever.

“I didn’t live in penury, but in poverty yes” said Różewicz in one of the interviews.

Różewicz joined The Home Army together with his brother Janusz, who was captured by the Germans and eventually  shot on 3rd August  1944. Tadeusz started studies on the faculty of History of Arts at Jagiellonian University in Cracow. After a year spent in Budapest in 1950, he moved to Gliwice where indeed lived in destitution. As he admitted, Różewicz was supported by his wife, the only breadwinner in the family. Even after many years and after gaining recognition and achieving spectacular successes, when asked about the amount of money that would make him feel rich, Różewicz answered: “ 3800 PLN? I don’t know. I need to call my wife. I might have underestimated it.”

Many accused Różewicz of nihilism. But his poetry seems to be the exact opposite of that. It is a written quest for sense and meaning. The war left a little boy, hurt, bitter, angry and disappointed. Różewicz felt betrayed. As a soldier and guerrilla, he felt betrayed by ideologies, governments and his own generation. In response to that, Różewicz constantly mocked, ridiculed and accused the world which thought that the past had been left behind. It seems that for Różewicz, the past consumed the future. The atrocities, war and death devoured all opportunities.

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This is one side of the coin. The other side is that in his struggling to make sense of the past, Różewicz lightens up the future for modern people. The topics that he touched upon might have never crossed our busy minds, but they will definitely strike us one day.

So, if live is about learning and exploring the world, Różewicz’s poems are tough but useful lessons. Fine poetry should give us access to new experiences, render ideas which we cannot comprehend. The importance and magnificence of the poems stem from one inalienable truth- at some point, all of us will have to take those classes.

 “Czas na mnie” is undeniably a superb poem. The naked truth and topic it presents makes it permanently current. We are talking about death.

Son talks to his mother before the final departure trying to grasp what he has been involved in, what is life and what is left of it. There is nothing he needs in this journey and there seems to be nothing special about his life. That’s all. That’s it.

Różewicz is famous for his simplicity. The poem seems to be a cluster of crude and common expressions: “więc to już”, “a więc to tylko tyle”, “tylko tyle”.  Reduction and master arrangement of those “clumsy statements” reveal the genius. With every word we immerse in feelings of powerlessness, disappointment and astonishment.

Death ceased to be shocking. It is ubiquitous. Death appears in films, video games and on the evening news. However, the images we know are so gaudy and noisy, so brutal or shallow that eventually they become distant and unreal.

Różewicz’s words are familiar and subdued yet sharp and piercing. While reading, we cannot escape thinking about death. Różewicz makes us feel that there is truly nothing more but also that there is nothing bad about it. You couldn’t have done anything differently, it’s not your fault. It’s alright, but you need to give it up.

The poetry truly discloses its author. Simplicity of words and structures covers the ocean of meanings. Similarly, Różewicz himself seemed to be an ordinary man, but in fact embodied the complexities and intricacies of the past century. In an interview with Kazimierz Kutz he said that: “Sometimes I feel anxious that I am too normal. It doesn’t suit a poet to be so normal. I buy a newspaper. I read it. I eat breakfast, drink white coffee. I write. I go for a walk. I don’t need to fly to Tibet to meditate.”

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This is not, however, how other great poets spoke of him. Julian Przyboś, whom Różewicz considered to be  his master, wrote in a letter to him in 1954 : “You were the only one to express the tragedy of your generation.” Wislawa Szymborska, Polish poet and Noble Prize winner said: “ I couldn’t even imagine post-war Polish poetry without Tadeusz Różewicz’s poems. We all owe something to him, although not all of us want to admit it.”

Różewicz figure combined ordinary and extraordinary in one. On the one hand, he used to answer telephone calls from secondary school students , right before the Matura exams asking what had he meant as an author of the poems. On the other hand, he was a doctor honoris cause of eight Polish higher schools.

As we are gradually being left by the great poets of this generation: Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Wislawa Szymborska and eventually Tadeusz Różewicz we cannot let them live only in Polish courses at school and exams. There is too much at stake. Today like never before, we celebrate freedom, awareness and living to the fullest. If these values have some real meaning, if this is not only about pure hedonism then we need to turn to more sophisticated sources of inspiration and trouble our minds also with some uncomfortable thoughts.

Once Tadeusz Różewicz said: “ The greatest reward to me would be you reading books. But to read books you need to buy them. Of course, you can borrow them from a library. But a book should be kept close to you, like a best friend. Not only hidden in a cupboard but in your bed etc.” Let’s keep the poetry, prose, theatre close to us and let them enrich our lives.

 

Agnieszka

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