Other Literary Forms
Tadeusz Różewicz is known as a playwright as well as a poet, a leading figure in postwar absurdist theater. He has also published both short fiction and novels, as well as essays.
After World War II, Tadeusz Różewicz became a spokesman for his generation, and the Polish people responded quickly to his work. In 1955, he received the government’s Art Award First Category for Równina (the plain), and in 1959, the city of Cracow gave him its literary award. In 1962, the Polish Ministry of Culture and Art gave him its First Category Award, and in 1966, he again received the government’s Art Award First Category, in recognition of his entire œuvre. In 1970, he received a special prize from the magazine Odra. He received the Prize of the Minister of Foreign Affairs (Poland), 1974 and 1987; the Austrian National Prize for European Literature, 1982; the Gold Wreath Prize for Poetry (Yugoslavia), 1987; the Władysław Reymont Literary Prize, 1999. He was awarded other honors as well: the Home Army Cross (London) in 1956; the Alfred Jurzykowski Foundation Award (New York), 1966; the Medal of the 30th Anniversary People’s Poland, 1974; the Order of Banner of Labour, Second Class, 1977; and the Great Cross of Order Polonia Restituta, 1996. In 2000 he was awarded Poland’s prestigious Nike Award for his book Matka odchodzi (1999; mother departs).
Tadeusz Różewicz’s father, Wladysław, worked as a clerk in the courthouse in Radom, a city in southeastern Poland. His mother, Stefania, came from the village of Gelbardów. They had three sons, Tadeusz being the middle child, born on October 9, 1921. The poet began his schooling in Radom, where he wrote his first works for school publications. When the Germans occupied Poland, they forbade all but the most primitive education for Poles; Różewicz worked as a manual laborer and as a messenger for the city government while continuing his education in a special underground school.
In 1943 and 1944, he fought against the German occupation forces as a member of the Home Army (the underground forces directed by the Polish government-in-exile, in London). His own brother was murdered by the Gestapo in 1944. In an interview with James Hopkins for The Guardian’s May 19, 2001, issue, he recalled: “I saw people who were brought through the streets on carts . . . dead bodies, naked bodies.” After the war, he passed a special examination and entered Jagellonian University in Cracow, where he studied art history. Faced with the horrors inflicted by the Germans during the war, Różewicz determined that he must find a way to “create [Polish] poetry after Auschwitz,” since the innocent Romanticism of the nation’s prewar poetry seemed incompatible with postwar realities.
Because of the special circumstances of his youth, Różewicz knew comparatively little of the world outside Radom when he entered the university. He first saw the mountains of southern Poland, for example, when he was twenty-five years old. His first journey outside the country took place in 1948, when he went to Hungary, a trip that he subsequently described in a travelogue. His later journeys have included visits to China, Germany, and Italy, but his work, even when it concerns foreign places, retains its unique Polish perspective.
In 1949, Różewicz married and moved to Gliwice, where his son Kamil was born in 1950. A second son, Jan, was born in 1953. He made trips abroad, including to the United States. In 1968, Różewicz moved to Wrocław, which would become his home for more than three decades. In his interview with Hopkins, the eighty-year-old Różewicz commented sardonically:
I don’t like bad journalists, bad poets, bad painters, bad singers, and bad politicians; the latter inflict most harm. Next to the Germans.
Różewicz does not forget the past.
The horrific events experienced by Tadeusz Różewicz during World War II have led to his terse poetics that seek the voices of common people, often through quotations, anecdotes, news reportage: an “art of collage,” as Różewicz put it. As a result, his tone is a populist, democratic one—humane and never grandiose.
Accordingly, sparseness characterizes Tadeusz Różewicz’s poems, if not his poetic output. Many of his poems are exceedingly short, and even his longer works are often marked by short lines and short stanzas. Różewicz is a master of the dramatic break in the line and between stanzas. He uses the broad, blank margins of the page for dramatic impact, as if he were forcing the words out into the surrounding silence, as if he did not fully trust the power of words to convey his meaning. The effect is that of a speaker who broods as he speaks, choosing his words with extreme care and, after they have been said, relapsing into a brooding silence. “I See the Mad” presents a complex drama in ten lines arranged into four stanzas. An English translation contains a total of only thirty-nine words, but the Polish original is even more concise: It has a mere twenty-nine.
Różewicz speaks in straightforward sentences with straightforward words. Ordinary, even mundane, verbs and nouns abound, sometimes in lists, as if the poet were insisting to himself that the words actually correspond to the reality he sees before him. When one considers that he spent his youth subjected to the terrors of the Nazi occupation, one can understand his sense of wonder that the ordinary objects of daily life do indeed exist before him, that an ordinary existence is still possible.
Though the speaker of a Różewicz poem may participate in the action or even cause it, his most important role is almost always that of an observer: He witnesses the events of the poem. When he comments upon them, he often does so with terse, sardonic irony. The speaker confronts the reader, causing him to ask himself how a normal life can be possible after such horrifying experiences and even causing him to question what constitutes a normal life.
“I See the Mad”
Różewicz presents his work to the reader in a double dramatic context: the drama that he describes in the work, and the drama reinforced by Różewicz’s sparseness, of the poet speaking or writing his words. Many of his poems may be seen as miniature plays, the characters acting out various roles. In “I See the Mad,” for example, he presents himself at sea in a small boat—a traditional metaphor for life as a journey, especially a journey through obstacles. These obstacles give the poem its unique Różewicz stamp. They consist of crazy people who believe they can walk on water; instead, they have fallen into it. As the poet sails through their struggling bodies, they try to save themselves by grasping his boat. In order to keep his craft afloat, he is forced to knock their hands away from the boat. In effect, he must condemn them to death by drowning.
Who are these people floundering about in the water? One thinks immediately of Christ walking across the water to His disciples and of Peter attempting to walk on the water to meet Him and sinking. Are those in the poem Christians who think that the laws of physics will be suspended for them? Or are they arrogant people who think that they can perform miracles, claiming for themselves the power of God? The poet does not say. He cannot know, for he has no time, in his role of besieged traveler, for philosophical inquiries. He must keep pushing the frantic hands off his boat.
In the second stanza, the poet states: “even now they tilt/ my uncertain boat.” At first reading, the words “even now” might seem superfluous, but they put the poem in a strange, new perspective. The poem is written in the present tense: “I see,” not “I saw.” When the poet shows himself in his boat in the first stanza, he also stands, in a sense, outside the boat, reliving the experience as he writes or thinks about it. Thus, the two actions, writing or speaking the poem and knocking away the hands that threaten the poet’s safety, merge into one, just as the two narrators and the two times, past and present, also merge. In the first stanza, the poet plays a leading role in the drama. In the second, he effectively stands outside the proscenium arch, commenting on the action—only to be pulled dramatically back into the experience.
In the third stanza, the poet is again trying to keep his little boat steady. As he pushes the hands off, he notes that they are stiff, perhaps a natural result of being in cold water. With the word “stiff,” the poet jumps forward in time, as if he already sees the hands as stiff and dead because of his actions. Nevertheless, he has no choice. The poem ends with the poet continuing his journey into the future: “I knock off their stiff hands/ knock them off/ year in year out.”
The poem may be seen as a surrealistic nightmare, the poet sailing through a sea of the dead and dying. It contains also, with an ironic twist, the Darwinian concept of the survival of the fittest: The poet, the survivor, describes himself as “cruelly alive,” and the word “cruelly” vibrates in this context. In one sense, he must be cruel to push off the desperate hands that threaten to capsize his little boat. In another sense, he is “cruelly alive” because his own life force sustains him at a time when it would be easier for him to give up the struggle and simply let his boat be overturned.
The poet remains afloat because he knows a human being cannot walk on the water. He sees the world as it is, and this concept of recognizing the nature of reality plays a central role in Różewicz’s work. One who knows the nature of the world is not guaranteed a happy or beautiful life, but at least he has a chance to survive.
Central, too, is the function of the speaker, who acts on at least four levels: Różewicz himself, in his personal life; Różewicz as a Polish Everyman, responding to the situations a Pole finds in the contemporary world; Różewicz as a twentieth century Everyman, witnessing and responding to the events of the twentieth century; and Różewicz as a universal Everyman, witnessing and responding to the problems humanity has faced throughout its history.
“I Screamed in the Night”
In “I Screamed in the Night,” the dead confront the poet. They may be people he knew as a young fighter in the Polish underground army. (In one of his short stories, Różewicz tells of having to pass a trash can every day, into which were stuffed bodies of Polish partisans for whom the Nazis had forbidden burial.) In addition, Różewicz, speaking as a generic Pole, refers to the many Polish dead who fought against the Germans and the Russians. He may also be thinking of the Poles killed during the time of Joseph Stalin. The poem, however, has even broader meanings. It also refers to all the dead in World War II and, indeed, to all people killed in all wars. History haunts the poet. He screams in the literal night, perhaps in dreams or nightmares, but the darkness also becomes symbolic, a moral darkness: “cold and dead/ a blade from the darkness/ went into my body.” The poem seems to offer no consolation, no solution.
“The Prodigal Son”
Sometimes Różewicz gains even greater dramatic impact and depth of narration by speaking through a persona. In “The Prodigal Son,” the poet questions the routines of daily life from the point of view of an outsider. In the biblical story, the prodigal son...