Posts Tagged ‘Juliusz Słowacki’

Zbigniew Herbert: “after a flood of lies…”

Saturday, November 19th, 2016

Thanks to Lufthansa, I had a blissfully uneventful trip homeward to California and warmer weather. But my mind was still on Kraków, and last week’s conference on Zbigniew Herbert. During a stopover at the Munich airport, I idly paged through Herbert’s The Collected Prose: 1948-1998and found this pertinent essay on the use of language. Here’s an excerpt from “Shield us from the dark word…”

herbert-proseFrom all of this a certain lesson can be drawn for readers: let them try to penetrate the value of a word not only by way of its meaning but also by its back stairs, its lining. Let them try to hear its sound, see its shade, its light and weight. And let them not be ashamed of naïve perceptions. If Słowacki‘s stanza dazzles them with bright radiance, or they hear in Norwid‘s funeral rhapsody the harsh rattle of armies, they will be closer to poetry than those who conceal their literary deafness under a wreath of learned platitudes.

But the word must return to its mother port – meaning. This not just an aesthetic problem but also a moral one. Naming objects and things human conduces to their understanding and judgment. Particularly after a chaos of ideas, after the last war, after a flood of lies, poetry must take on the labor of the moral reconstruction of the world by rebuilding the value of words. We have to part good from evil, light from darkness once again.

For that reason the last stanza of a beautiful poem by Jerzy Liebert is the prayer of all poets concerned not only with aesthetic problems but also with the ethical, social dimension of poetry:

Breathe in us, may your hand
pour olive oil onto our breast.
Shield us from the dark word,
From the dark word, save us!


“You whom I could not save”: Remembering Krzysztof Baczyński, who died this day, 1944

Tuesday, August 4th, 2015

“Asthmatic, of frail health…a disciplined soldier…sheer effort of will.”

My friend Kasia Wozniak reminded me that today is the day Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński was killed as a platoon commander, on the fourth day of the Warsaw Uprising, August 4, 1944. He was 23.

It was what he himself imagined, apparently: a shower of bullets, grenades, hitting the dirt, and “one charge only, straight up to heaven.” Let us hope so.

His beloved wife Basia was wounded and died a month later, not knowing of her husband’s death. The ancient city was entirely leveled – the vengeful Germans brought in architects to more effectively make sure the city was demolished block by block. “In January 1947 Baczynski’s body was dug out of the ruins of the City Hall and Krzysztof and Basia were finally laid to rest together in one grave at the Insurgents’ cemetery at Powazki,” according to this page commemorating him.

He was an only child, the son of a father who was a literary critic and a mother, Stefania Zielenczyk, the sister of the well-known philosopher, Adam Zielenczyk. He grew up in one of those rare periods of Polish history, a free and independent Poland. His early enthusiasm for Marxism-Trotskyism evolved into a romantic nationalistic Messianism. “Asthmatic, of frail health, he became a disciplined soldier of the Home Army by sheer effort of will,” Czesław Miłosz wrote.

Little from this prolific writer exists in English – no book, certainly, but there are a few poems here. He was considered a very fine poet, “whose rich imagery served more and more overtly, as he developed, to point up his central theme of self-immolation for the sake of an ideal Poland.” That’s from Miłosz again. “Those critics were right who maintained that he strangely resembled Juliusz Słowacki in his concept of redemptive martyrdom.” Miłosz had little sympathy for this Polish nationalism and idealism, yet he mourned its many victims in the doomed attempt to protect Warsaw from the Nazis. And he memorialized them.

While search for something online to say about him, I ran across my own article about the Miłosz and Robert Hass collaboration, here, in which I quote from the then (in 2001) newly translated edition of Treatise on Poetry:

Krzysztof Kamil Baczyñski

Idealists died first.

No ancient Greek hero entered into combat
So deprived of hope, in their heads the image
Of a white skull kicked by feet in passing . . .

Trzebinski, the new Polish Nietzsche,
Had his mouth plastered shut before he died.
He took with him the view of a wall, low clouds
His black eyes had just a moment to absorb.
Baczynski’s head fell against his rifle.
The uprising scared up flocks of pigeons.
Gajcy, Stroinski were raised to the sky,
A red sky, on the shield of an explosion.

On this day I also think of the Nobel poet’s famous “Dedication.” Miłosz scholar and translator Clare Cavanagh impressed upon me that this poem, often read didactically, with a rhetorical flourish, in fact has a singular “you.” It was directed at a single listener, which very much changes the way one read it. Was it Baczyński? I wonder.

You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.

What strengthened me, for you was lethal.
You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,
Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty;
Blind force with accomplished shape.

Read the whole poem here. And do check out the excellent commemorative page here.