For PEN Atlas this week, Basia Howard writes about Tadeusz Różewicz, Poland’s most translated author, considered by many to be of the same stature as Szymborska and Milosz. His memoir Mother Departs, published by Stork Press next month, describes the war he survived, his artistic journey and the experiences that forged his poetic conscience
They were so happy
the poets of old
They were like children
and a tree was their world
What can I hang for you
on the branch of a tree
where iron rain
Tadeusz Różewicz is Poland’s pre-eminent living author. His writings include poetry, drama, prose and film scripts. He was awarded the European Prize for Literature in 2007.
The first English-language edition of his poetry was published in the ’60s in fine translations by Adam Czerniawski that helped build his reputation internationally as one of the greatest writers of the immediate postwar years. This was followed over the next decades by a steady flow of his work in English translations, on both sides of the Atlantic.
Różewicz was born in 1921. His youth was cut short by the Second World War. His home town of Radomsko was one of the first to fall when Germany invaded, and he joined the Home Army partisans to fight the Nazi occupation. Europe’s collective tragedy was magnified by his family’s personal tragedy when in 1944 Tadeusz’s elder brother and mentor, Janusz – also a poet, and an intelligence officer in the Underground resistance – was captured and murdered by the Gestapo. Also, we have to infer from the fact of his mother’s Jewish descent that the family had to evade the constant threat of extermination posed by the Nazi regime. During the war they moved repeatedly, always one step ahead of the raids and mass arrests.
Tadeusz Różewicz began writing for the underground press. But for him the Holocaust and all the War’s other atrocities signified both the death of God and the death of poetry. Later he tried to replace the religious experience with an aesthetic one – he studied Art History at Kraków’s great Jagiellonian University – but he soon realised that it was futile: “I turned away… the source of creative work, I thought, can be ethics.”
And so in his poetry he rejected all the adornments of rhyme and metre. He stripped it down to the bone, to the essentials.
After the end of the world
I found myself in the midst of life
people animals landscapes
this is a table I said
this is a table
on the table there is bread a knife
the knife is for cutting the bread
bread feeds people
man must be loved
I was learning night and day
what must be loved
man I answered
He was writing, he said, for survivors, tasked with the reinvention of devalued language and proving that poetry could, and must, be written after Auschwitz – but through an awareness of Auschwitz:
behind clean glass
lies the stiff hair
of those suffocated in the gas chambers
there are pins in the hair
and bone combs
The simple stark testament of a poet who was a participant and witness in history continues to fall on receptive ground worldwide. Różewicz has been translated into over 40 languages, making him Poland’s most translated author.
He is also an innovative playwright. His drama The Card Index presented the modern European everyman, an antihero with no fixed name or identity. Różewicz proved to be visionary in his choice of subject matter, writing as early as the 1960s about overpopulation and environmental disaster, as well as about the futility and immorality of war, about depression and the loss of moral compass in modern consumerist society. But all this is told through the spectrum of a new form, which he’s relentlessly invented and searched for – he believes this is the task of art. And although austerity and brutal honesty define Różewicz’s most celebrated poetry, his new forms, especially in the theatre, also embrace the humour and irony that he sees as the saving grace of the modern world.
Różewicz has been quietly and consistently present in the English-speaking world for over 40 years. Today at 91, he’s still speaking to us, and indeed in 2012 he wrote a clowning parody of Hamlet to illustrate our cultural deflation and confusion.
Stork Press is about to publish Różewicz’s memoir Mother Departs. It is a biography – told through a kaleidoscope of different genres and the different voices of his family, set against the dark epic backdrop of a country ripped apart, invaded and repressed throughout the 20th century. Tadeusz Różewicz’s vision has not changed during the seven decades of his literary career. But Mother Departs adds to our understanding of the discordant forces that shape a writer. Wars, religion, poverty, politics all do so – but so do the kitchen-table actualities of family love. This is absolutely fundamental to Różewicz.
After the War he wrote:
I am twenty-four
led to the slaughter
Ever since, he has written about all of us who have endured and survived, because we must. Now in Mother Departs he brings us face to face with those closest to him, whom long ago he lost.
About the author
Basia Howard (aka Barbara Bogoczek) is a translator and interpreter based in London. She has had a strong working relationship with Tadeusz Różewicz, publishing his poetry (ARC Press) and drama (Marion Boyars) in collaboration with Tony Howard. She has also translated the work of Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska and many other Polish poets. She often works in theatre and with the Polish Cultural Institute. She is a legal interpreter and is also a member of the Translators Association / Society of Authors. Her most recent publication is the poet Ewa Lipska’s novel Sefer (AU Press). Please see this link for more about the novel. Her translations have been published in the UK, USA, Australia, Canada, Holland and Poland, and have appeared in the New York Times and on the London Underground.
Mother Departs is published by Stork Press in March.
You can read more about Tadeusz Różewicz at Culture.pl, the online magazine promoting Polish Culture abroad, run by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute and funded by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of Poland.
They also host a full resource library concerning Polish literature.