The Polish poem that I have chosen to write on is Tadeusz Różewicz’s ‘In the Midst of Life’, translated into English by Adam Czerniawski.
I first heard this poem in 2005 during a lecture delivered by the poet and scholar Desmond Graham, who is himself the co-translator of another great Polish poet, Anna Kamieńska. The title of the lecture was ‘Survival Poetry’, and it has stayed in my mind all this time because it marks a pivotal moment in my life as a reader and a writer. While I sat at the classroom table and listened to Różewicz’s poem, I experienced what I remember as a kind of shock; an acute emotion that changed the way I thought about reading and writing. When the lecture was over, and we all pushed out through the doors and down the long dim stairway, I gazed around thinking to myself: everything looks ordinary, but something of great importance has just happened.
The same could be said about Różewicz’s poem ‘In the Midst of Life’. It sounds at first like ordinary people sound when they speak to each other, yet very quickly a clear and intense trauma makes itself apparent. Never, however, does the poem lose its grip on reality or on our attention. How does Różewicz achieve this? Firstly, by the things he says – for example in the sixth section of the poem he sees an old woman leading a goat on a string, and then he suddenly states that ‘anyone who thinks or feels that she is not needed is a mass murderer’. He pulls no punches. Secondly, by the manner in which he says those things: the lack of traditional form; the sparse use of punctuation; the repetition of very simple words; the swapping around of syntax. See for example the short fifth section: ‘my father picks the apple | the man who picks the apple | is my father’. It’s the voice of a child, or a convalescent; it seems simplistic and confused, but it is in actuality complex, and accurate.
In the context of Polish poetry, and poetry written after Auschwitz, both the content and the style of this poem represent a new beginning; a breaking away from tradition which was genuinely and imperatively subversive. The effect is what Różewicz described in 1976 as an ‘internal energy’, and though this poem is now over sixty years old, none of the energy is lost. Różewicz’s writing still has the power to shock, and to thrill, and to show what is possible in poetry. In the light of recent political events, it also has the power to warn, especially of what can happen if we find ourselves thinking that some people ‘are not needed’.