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Insufficiency of Lyric: Tadeusz Różewicz’s Revision

Aleksandra Majak, University of Oxford

It was late summer when the father of my best friend brought me to the house of the Polish modernist poet Tadeusz Różewicz (1921–2014). I sat on a dark green folding couch talking with the poet’s widow, Mrs Różewicz. I don’t know when our words changed into music but at some point, we all started to sing a pre-war song. Its lyrics filled the living room. ‘Life passes quickly / like a torrent time rush’– the father and Mrs Różewicz united in a vigorous chant while my best friend and I exchanged looks, trying not to roll around laughing like some absurdist characters from Różewicz’s drama. Not long after, the father of my friend died, and now when I read Różewicz’s poems I keep returning to the memory of the lyrics shared between us in the surreal intimacy of the poet’s house. 

Różewicz’s work often reflects on such co-existences of nostalgic memory and disconcerting reality, presence and absence, speech and silence, or the emptiness of existence juxtaposed with the most gentle acts of human kindness, intimacy, and connection. Ever since his 1948 debut volume Anxiety, Różewicz has been among the most provocative and prolific Polish poets of the interwar generation, who witnessed the Second World War aged twenty. In the poem ‘Survivor’, he famously sought a ‘teacher and a master’ who would ‘again name objects and ideas’.[1] But a master – like God(ot) – never came and Różewicz’s work explores how words having once had a mythic power to create reality also fail and abandon us, again and again. In one poem, he dramatises the need for re-naming by alluding to the opening of Dante’s Inferno yet setting the scene in the scenery: ‘after the end of the world / after death’ where the speaker confesses: ‘I found myself in the midst of life / creating myself / building life / people animals landscapes / this is table I said / this is a table’.[2]

This perceived ‘insufficiency of lyric’ – to borrow the title of Donald Davie’s book on Miłosz – prompted Różewicz to deconstruct his own poems, mock the authority of the author as Creator, and call into question the very convention of post-war poetry with its often outspoken representations of the ‘unspeakable’. ‘I wanted to reach poetry and run away from poetry destroy poetry and build poetry’[3] – he says in ‘Preparation for a Poetry Reading’, conveying the paradox of the simultaneous proximity and distance he feels towards the creative act. Of course, some critics have noted that the constant, albeit rhetorical, depreciation of poetry pushes Różewicz ‘alarmingly close to the position of not believing in what he is doing’.[4] Insistent meta-commentaries may sometimes fall into the trap of the poet repeating himself, although Różewicz’s poetic development and unobvious transformations of material considered as non-poetic into poetry show otherwise.

In his middle and late work, the poet’s interests shifted from a distrust of writing to experimenting with the materiality of the page, manuscript, notebook, or typescript. In his prose, Różewicz talks about how the poetic work is in fact under permanent construction, claiming that ‘in our times it is not the final version of the poem but a process of its formation that is more striking for the reader’.[5] The printed and published work might imply the kind of textual authority that often quashes any debate over editorial demands and revisions, yet in Różewicz’s case, purposeful textual alterations and poetic revisions are not merely a matter of composition but part of his conscious poetic method. Even the reader who is new to Różewicz’s work notices the poet’s engagement in re-making, reconstruction, and recycling as reflected in the title of his volumes: The Card Index (1968), An Attempt to Reconstruct (1979), Always a Fragment: Recycling (1996), The Card Index Scattered (1997), or A History of Five Poems (2011).

The author refuses to accept the fixity of the text once it has been written and published. The revision, alternation, changes, erasure or ‘textual fluidity’[6] – as John Bryant called it – enable him to rewrite already existing poems, and perhaps seek refuge in re-making memories, constructing (thus also controlling) the ‘pastness’ of the past. In his mid-career work, Różewicz asks questions about how we relate and return to things that have happened to us. Why do we re-write texts we once considered finished? Is anything ever finished and, if so, how would we know? The most explicit and striking formal example of this questioning is his publication of a revised version of his play Card Index (1968) as The Card Index Scattered (1997) and later Card Index. Reprint (2011). Here, the formal and literal ‘scattering’ of the text evolves and intensifies from the fairly organised play in three acts, through an authorial re-reading and re-interpretation of his own play in the 1990s, to the publication of two variants of the drama facsimile, workbook and loose sheets packed in a literal card index. 

Similarly, traces of the poet’s revision can be seen in A History of Five Poems – a facsimile of Różewicz’s poems that exposes marginal comments, re-arrangements, and corrections that would normally be removed from a neat poetical volume. Corrections dominate the page and direct the reader’s attention to the intensity of the creative act and the poet’s longing (both as author and subject) for deconstructive, simple form. There is virtually no blankness, breath, or space between the lines and the manuscript is overloaded and densely packed with words and changes.

Tadeusz Różewicz, Historia pięciu wierszy (Biuro Literackie, 2011)

Moreover, the facsimile above, for instance, meta-poetically speaks of how the role of the poet is to refuse and delete unnecessary words, while at the same time re-enacting the performative act of crossing out. In translation, the first crossed-out lines read:

this is how I want to save words
through writing I save words
(words hasten up to save us)
the worst thing is that
they reproduce themselves

In the earlier version of the manuscript, the last line ‘they reproduce themselves’ was followed by the addition ‘cover thoughts and feelings / overgrow  deform / one needs to start to / refuse delete’. The line formally enacts the uncontrollable growth of words. The words reproduce themselves and the poet needs to control this flood. Of course, it’s hard to generalise about Różewicz’s revision on the basis of a few selected, published manuscripts, although this very problem of the tension between deletion and excision constitutes much of the poet’s late work.

In Różewicz’s diagnosis of reality, there is always too much stuff and too much past. In Card Index, the trauma of the war determines the hero’s perception of reality and his inability to deal with clashing identities, and alternative life-stories. In The Old Lady Sits Waiting, the action takes place at a garbage dump and consists of past events, people, words, and fragments of conversations that chaotically come together in the dialogue with the old woman. In the poem Recycling, we see the collapse of a decorum as the poet mixes together the themes of the Holocaust, fashion, images of meat, debates over animal rights, and the law of the European Union, in an attempt to communicate the informative chaos that surrounds us. In the gloss to the poem, Różewicz admits that the structure of the poem intentionally resembles rubbish. The tragedy of the contemporary world – the author seems to be saying – is neither an Eliotian search for the Graal nor a psychodynamic lack but rather that we are unlikely to even realise that something is missing.

The poet’s moral response to that chaos is poetic revision as recycling, aiming to reduce words to a minimum, then process them, re-make them into a new meaning, and re-use them. Such a ‘method’ of poetic revision points to the dissipation of a singular authorial authority and mirrors the conflicted vision of a contemporary poet as someone who tries to make sense out of fragments and refuse. It is no coincidence that in one of the poems Różewicz describes Apollo as being on a derisive ‘search for poetry’ where the ancient god sneaks towards the twenty-first century. As the English translation puts it, he ‘stopped over a trash-heap / of rot and waste / lifted in his hand a decaying metaphor endowed it with beauty / and swallowed’.[7]

Tadeusz Różewicz, Adam Hawałej. Śmietnik. 1989. Photography. Courtesy of Adam Hawałej

Apollo’s consumption is not coincidental and volumes such as Recycling further reflect and play with the shallowness of our need for possession, consumption, and digestion. The poet’s quest for poetic recycling doesn’t stop at a metaphorical rummage through refuse. In 1989, Różewicz choreographed a mini-drama of taking out the rubbish to the local tip while being photographed by his friend and artist Adam Hawałej.[8] In the series of monochrome photographs, the poet carefully studies trash and mocks the idealised, culturally established vision of a lasting, non-degradable authorship. Hence, the helplessness of the contemporary poet wandering gaily around a local rubbish tip asks the viewer to participate in poetic recycling, re-making, and the freedom to creatively re-invent. The very possibility of such an act might prompt us to creatively respond to the things we look or wish for. And if I – as the reader – could rewrite the part of my memory, I’d perhaps wish for the scene in the living room to last a bit longer; to remember more clearly how my friend laughed when his father sang. But, as my friend’s father wrote in one of his many, unpublished poems, ‘voices sang no more / of the air-printed prayer’.[9]


[1] Tadeusz Różewicz, Sobbing superpower: Selected poems of Tadeusz Różewicz, trans. by J. Trzeciak (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011), p. 7.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Adam Zagajewski, Polish writers on writing (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2007), p. 171.

[4] Edwin Morgan, Tadeusz Różewicz: The Mature Laurel. Essays on Modern Polish Poetry, ed. by A. Czerniawski (Dufour: Seren Books 1991), p. 100.

[5] Tadeusz Różewicz, Proza III (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie, 2004), p. 136.

[6] John Cf. Bryant, The Fluid Text: A Theory of Revision and Editing for Book and Screen (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996).

[7] Różewicz, Sobbing superpower, p. 285.

[8] Tadeusz Różewicz and Adam Hawałej, Śmietnik (Wrocław: Wrocławskie Wydawnictwo Warstwy, 2016).

[9] Romuald Ratyński, manuscript translated by Michał Ratyński.


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