Living Words: On Ryszard Krynicki’s Magnetic Point and Our Life Grows

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Ryszard Krynicki, Magnetic Point: Selected Poems 1968-2014,
trans. by Clare Cavanagh (New Directions, 2017, 227 pp., $18.95)
Our Life Grows,
trans. by Alissa Valles (New York Review of Books, 2017, 157 pp., $14.95)

Sometime in the late eighties, when I was growing up in Poland and just beginning to discover contemporary poetry, I came across this poem by Ryszard Krynicki:

Nie mogę ci pomóc”

Biedna ćmo, nie mogę ci pomóc, mogę tylko zgasić światło.

“I Can’t Help You”

Poor moth, I can’t help you, I can only turn out the light.

I never forgot this poem – though not on account of its unusual brevity. For many years it remained to me a model of compression, a maximum of meaning conveyed with a minimum of words. Krynicki’s poem is concise but semantically rich. Perhaps it offers just a concentrated glimpse of the natural world, somewhat in the manner of Japanese haiku, testifying to the author’s longtime interest in Zen Buddhism. But it also seems to raise moral questions, something about indifference or resignation, compromise or inaction, withdrawal if not betrayal. It takes a long time for these and other meanings to sink in, and even then the process of interpretation is never complete. At some point later I came across Virginia Woolf’s essay “The Death of the Moth,” which can potentially serve as another intertext for the poem. Unlike Woolf, Krynicki can muster no pity, no admiration, indeed not much thought for the insect. But is he turning away from suffering or just searching for inner peace?

Such a poem could only have been written by a poet well attuned to the extraordinary pliancy of language, who knows how meaning can be created, shaped, and, for better or worse, manipulated. And indeed Krynicki, a major figure in Polish poetry of the post-World War II period, exemplifies what it means to write under an oppressive regime yet never lose faith in the liberating power of words. He is well represented in the two volumes under review, each of which is conceived somewhat differently. Cavanagh’s Magnetic Point offers a selection of Krynicki’s poems from 1968 to 2014 and is partly based on a similar selection that appeared in Poland in 1996; it therefore aims to give a comprehensive overview of his career. More limited in scope, Valles’s Our Life Grows is a complete translation of a volume by Krynicki that appeared in 1978 in Paris, at the time when he was banned from publication in Poland.

Krynicki was born in 1943 in Sankt Valentin, Austria, where his parents, Polish peasants from western Ukraine, had been sent to work in a Nazi labor camp. Following a brief return to their village after World War II, the family was resettled to the newly acquired territories in western Poland. Krynicki spent his adolescence in the first decade of the Polish People’s Republic. In 1961 he enrolled at Poznań University to study Polish literature, with a focus on the avant-garde poetry of Tadeusz Peiper and Julian Przyboś. It is there that he formed some important friendships, especially with Stanisław Barańczak, a gifted poet and essayist who would later help Cavanagh with translating some of his poems into English. By the late 1960s Krynicki and Barańczak, as well as Julian Kornhauser, Ewa Lipska, and Adam Zagajewski, among others, gained recognition as the new generation of Polish poetry. Shaped by the political turmoil of 1968, they set out to test the limits of what can be said under the communist regime. Assuming that the language of poetry should reflect the language of its time, they chose to engage directly with the regime’s most powerful tool.

As Cavanagh notes in her introduction, Krynicki’s “distinctive brand of ‘socialist surrealism’ draws on the incongruities between the daily realities of People’s Poland and the ideology that claims to represent them.” Indeed, his poetry paints a world that would seem surreal, even absurd, if it were not at the same time utterly hopeless. The incongruities usually appear in the context of state power: in one poem Krynicki professes no surprise when “a bulging eye falls out” of an opened envelope or “an ear falls out of the receiver” after a phone call. But such irony is never funny; rather, it masks genuine fear and anger, and as often the poet’s disbelief at having been born at this particular moment in history and in this particular corner of (an expression he uses more than once) “Planet Phantasmagoria.” Even poems from the early period that are not directly confrontational, for example those about love and the life of the body, seem precarious, nightmarish, tortured. In some of them the poet hesitates between waking and sleeping: “you’re torn in two directions by / a vortex of dawn / and dreams.” Some are fantasies of escape: “I awoke abruptly at an unknown station.” Others take him to the boundary of nonexistence: “I outstripped my sole life long ago, / The world and I take leave each evening.” Still, “nothing changes,” he recognizes, “only disbelief and the deficit of hope / grow greater and greater.”

It is especially Krynicki’s poetry that shows the linguistic emphasis of the “Generation of ’68.” His poems incorporate newspaper headlines, government communiqués, street signs, posters and billboards. They are expansive, even baroque, as they catalogue the absurdities of daily life in the Polish People’s Republic. Most noticeably, they include examples of wordplay, especially the kind that seems designed to expose the government’s doublespeak. Krynicki is fond of chiasmus, like “progressive paralysis / paralyzing progress” in the title poem of his first book Act of Birth (1969). He frequently employs oxymorons and paradoxes, like “truth belied,” “cruel peace,” “the savings book / of a wasted life.” The poem entitled “And We Didn’t Really Know,” a kind of anthem for intellectuals of his era, states “we were still children / armed only with ideas that we’d been taught in schools, / and that the same schools had untaught us”; it ends with a surreal yet historically specific image of “an iron curtain of clouds.” Another major poem of the period, “Posthumous Journey (III),” introduces expressions like “friendly hatred” and “friendly violence” in reference to the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact forces in August 1968.

Krynicki’s main focus is the media, especially in its printed format; more than any poet of his generation, observes Adam Michnik in the afterword to Our Life Grows, he “gnawed his way through those stacks of newspapers packed with lies.” Those newspapers are described as “toxic” and “poisoned.” They “rot faster than meat and contaminate the air”; they will “never be cured of hatred.” In another example of wordplay, in “Posthumous Journey (III)” Krynicki reproduces a slogan placed in front of a worker’s hotel – “the press hastens progress” – but notes that the second word is missing the first “s” and the “n” (Cavanagh’s brilliant solution to the original’s “toruje” [paves the way], which without the letter “o” becomes “truje” [poisons].) A poem dated September 1980, marking the founding of the Solidarity movement, contains a striking image of “a crumpled newspaper / with a photo, already fading, of the new leader,” which “takes flight and falls beneath an ambulance’s wheels.” Notably, in his hopeful moments Krynicki juxtaposes the falsehoods of newspapers with the enduring power of poetry. As he proclaims in “I Believe,” even the tragic poets of the twentieth century like Georg Trakl and Osip Mandelstam speak to us with “living words.”

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Krynicki did not leave Poland, recognizing perhaps that “exile comes in many shapes // and places.” But he never became an internal emigrant. As social unrest continued in Poland throughout the seventies, he helped edit underground publications, organized clandestine art exhibits, spoke out against the government’s policies. Because of those activities he was often fired from jobs, arrested on spurious charges, and interrogated by the police. Early in his career he had to settle for censored versions of his poems; even the title poem of Act of Birth was ultimately cut from the published edition, possibly because of its subversive wordplay. By 1976 he was not only banned from publication in Poland, but it became forbidden even to mention his name in print.

What is interesting about his poems from the period is how they almost became a kind of game played with the censor. The censor, after all, was not stupid; along with prosecutors and the secret police, he only read poems, as Krynicki puts it, “in their peculiar way.” In “I Believe” the poet seems almost to make light of the predicament:

I’ve grown superstitious, I’ve stopped talking about dreams and hopes out loud, I’d scare them off, I avoid pronouncing words that may take vengeance, I cut them from my old poems (others do this too), I’ll be frank, though, sometimes I forget to take precautions

In “External, Internal” Krynicki distinguishes between two types of censorship; the former, he notes sardonically, “has collected a vast number of files, averages, confiscated / manuscripts and printed materials. You could treat them / as an official history of literature.” But in other poems Krynicki can no longer hide his indignation. In “You Came Down On One Side” he rejects any suggestion of equivalence: “you aren’t my adversary / we live by different lights.” In poems like “You Know Best” and “It Figures” he almost taunts the censor, and the oppressive regime he represents. No different from the torturer or hitman, the censor acts out of “fearful violence”; he is a “slave of nothingness.” A minimalist poem from the seventies encapsulates Krynicki’s feelings:


Quiet, shush, woodborer: the censor’s writing

about freedom of speech.

In 1977 Krynicki was allowed to spend almost a year on a fellowship in Vienna, where he translated the work of several German-language poets, including Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs. Around the same time, his own poems became more condensed and hermetic, often limited to two or three lines. This is the kind of poem that would define him, in the second half of his career, as Poland’s premier minimalist poet. Also thematically this period shows a tendency toward silence; as his friend Barańczak once said, there is a movement in Krynicki’s career “from excess to ascesis.” These still are poems about Planet Phantasmagoria. The game with the censor continued, at least until the late 1980s, as did the police surveillance of his activities in connection with the Solidarity movement. But gradually Krynicki began to pay as much attention to the words as to the white space that surrounds them on the page, and even to punctuation marks. Silence, emptiness, and nothingness became frequent motifs. (In one extreme instance, “Blank Space,” dedicated to the memory of the futurist poet Bruno Jasieński executed in a Soviet prison during the Great Purge, contains no words at all; Valles “translates” it in the only way possible, by simply explaining the context.) Many poems in later collections like Poems, Voices (1987) and Stone, Frost (2005) seem to be forms of meditation and prayer. Themes of love and grief, travel and nature, tend to dominate in this later period, even if they are treated in a more aphoristic style. Cavanagh also translates some of Krynicki’s recent haiku, modeled on his favorite Japanese master Kobayashi Issa.

After the fall of communism in Eastern Europe Krynicki no longer needed to worry about having his poems censored or his activities monitored. Interestingly, at that point he began to put some of his earlier work through revision – not an unusual practice for a poet but, in this context, amounting to a kind self-censorship. Some of those changes seem purely stylistic, limited to cutting superfluous passages. Some correct typographical errors, rife especially in the underground editions, or restore material that had been previously deleted. But in other instances Krynicki does more than tinkering or repairing. Occasionally his revisions seem to be a result of self-examination, coming to terms with his past or his legacy as a poet. The focus of “Not a Poem but a Confession,” first included in Our Life Grows, changes from “he” to “I” by the time the poem is reprinted in Magnetic Point. While Krynicki effectively rewrites each sentence, he keeps the poem’s self-critical emphasis (“I caused dismay when I stopped using / wordplay to amuse”) unchanged. An enigmatic three-line poem from 1987:

* * *

Blind? Deaf? Mute? Incomprehensible?

It is. It aches.

is revised some years later with the last sentence removed, as if to dramatize Krynicki’s movement away from subjectivity (Cavanagh includes both versions.) Even the poem about the moth exists in two versions, one included in Magnetic Point and quoted at the beginning of this review and the other in which the adjective “biedna” [poor] is replaced by “uparta” [stubborn]; the simple word change further expands interpretive possibilities. As Valles observes, “These different, evolving versions of poems are central to Krynicki’s mature view of the poem as an open form. In a real sense for him, poems are never finished, they remain perpetually open to change, correction, rereading, and renewal.”

Krynicki’s poetry as a whole invites a similar approach. Some readers may be drawn to his socialist surrealism, others to his metaphysical lyricism. Some may view him as a moral guide who teaches them (in Michnik’s phrase) “how to live in despair,” others may find the whole idea slightly antiquated. To me Krynicki’s relevance lies in his unfaltering and uncompromising attention to language. Planet Phantasmagoria may no longer exist, but language is still used to deceive and manipulate, no matter under what regime, and freedom of speech does not automatically mean freedom of thought. Younger poets too can learn a great deal about language from tracing Krynicki’s journey from excess to ascesis, just as they can from his wrestling with the “external” and “internal” censor. His work shows that poetry can remain at its strongest even when it pursues two contradictory goals: when it assimilates the language of its time and when it drifts toward silence.