The Experience of Otherness in Polish Poetry After 1990

Anna Kałuża 04 May 2009
In Polish poetry written after World War II we can find many traces of a desire of to be settled as well as a need to inhabit a place. These needs and desires are connected with the search for stable meaning and with the perception of space through the category of similarity. We will find few poems that project heterogeneous spaces, poems for which the experience of otherness is constitutive. Contrary to what Levi-Strauss proposes, Polish poetry of the 1960s or later, when the nightmare of the war had become more removed in time, does not enable the reader "to withdraw from the society of men and move into a different society" [Charbonier 2000, 75].
Although the poetry written in these times is concentrated on the idea of community, of the affirmation of a stable order of reality and tradition, encounters with otherness do nevertheless occur. However, the emphasis is placed on the feeling of community identity. The poets of this era feel that they should concentrate on what is eternal, universal, unaffected by time and context. In other words, poetic gestures appear within a paradigm of poetry understood as one of saving (from the experience of disintegration, emptiness and nothingness) and commemorating; as a result, what is universal is seen as more important than what is particular. Otherness is used in a functional way and it is very rarely seen as an autonomous value.
If we look at otherness as a complex, shifting and multi-layered configuration of difference and similarity, we can see that in the poetry written before 1990, similarity occupied a privileged position. After 1990, when the domination of a single community language ended and the civilizational processes in which Poland took part caused a redefinition of notions such as universality and locality, modern individualism and community ideas, the element of difference in the notion of otherness began to be stressed. Such a perception of otherness - which stresses the processes of differentiation - in contemporary poetry is mainly contextual: anything can be seen as "other". The negative consequence of contextuality - that is, the possibility of annihilating difference (and the danger of standardization) instead of demonstrating it - is counterbalanced by the open inconclusiveness of thinking about otherness.
There is one more fundamental change: before 1990 the only possibility for being different, other, was offered by the folk culture represented by many poets: Jan Bolesław Ożóg, Jerzy Harasymowicz, Tadeusz Nowak. After 1990 Polish poetry became open to new inspirations and topics: hippie counterculture, mass culture, gay and lesbian love, child language in "pure" form, not controlled by the language of adults.
The most general change in the perception of otherness after 1990 was associated with a stronger emphasis on the difference implied by otherness. The stress on difference would make otherness an autonomous value, perceived without reference to anything that is known, domesticated, defined and normative. The subject reacts to otherness in a new way: he or she does not look for its roots in a known cognitive system and tries to do without outside rules.
I will try to demonstrate the experience of otherness in the poetry written after 1990, since this is the date that marks a breakthough in the political situation. It is difficult to speak about the most recent poetry without referring to earlier writing since it would seem that what are most important are the changes in configuration. To narrow the scope of my analysis I shall focus on the poems that deal with the motif of travel.

The Language of Community: Similarity before Difference (Zbigniew Herbert, Czesław Miłosz, Jacek Podsiadło)

In many poetic records written before 1990 one notices a need to provide the individual with a feeling of mythical or historico-political connection with a place. Similarity perceived in "the other" becomes a condition for an assimilatory understanding of otherness. At the same time, the notion of otherness understood in this assimilatory way is used to strengthen the feeling of community identity. In Zbigniew Herbert's "Modlitwa Pana Cogito - podróżnika" ("Prayer of Mr Cogito -Traveller") one encounters figures of otherness and it may therefore even seem that the poem is an apology for them. But the variety and otherness perceived in the foreign place-names (a night in Tarquinia where the speaker "lay down in a square by the well"; a donkey on Corfu island "who sang to me [...] the melancholy of the landscape"; the ugly city of Manchester; the island of Mull in the Hebrides, where the traveller was received in a Greek manner, the Acropolis, the Ionian Sea) are merely covers for a very uniform yet heterogeneous life project governed by the Catholic-national rhetoric. In the strict discipline of ritualistic figures of speech there should be a place for otherness. First - there is thanksgiving:
I thank You for creating the world beautiful and very diverse
also for permitting me in Your inexhaustible goodness to be in places
that were not the places of my everyday torment

[Herbert 1987, 12]
Then: remorse for having a weak and sinful ego, a plea to reward those who "showed me the road/ and said kato kyrie kato" and a plea to be able to understand the world: "Lord, let me [...] permit that I understand other people other tongues other sufferings" and finally, a return to thanksgiving. Thanking is used to promote a tautological identity:
And in the ugly city of Manchester I discovered people who were
sensible and good
nature repeated its wise tautologies: a forest wass a forest the sea
was the sea rock was rock

[Herbert 1987, 12].

As a matter of fact, the traveller does not discover or learn anything new: he only wants to confirm the knowledge he had before. The interest in cultural otherness and the affirmation of difference are fake. They exist only as part of a heterogeneous and total system that allows for otherness but controls it, preventing it from overthrowing the values of that system. In other words, "the other" is only a smokescreen for uniting and standardizing procedures. Otherness is reduced and is used to soften the hidden conviction of the poem, that the subject writing the poem does not see anything beyond his own principle of life.
This community language, which was kept alive by Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert and later, even in the 1990s, by Stanisław Barańczak, Ryszard Krynicki and Adam Zagajewski, makes the reader sensitive to what is similar, identical, common to everybody. Most often, the other is seen through familiar conventions, especially in the case of the subject visiting foreign cities, hotels, museums and railway stations. Miłosz - unlike Herbert - admits that he can only cope with cultural otherness with the support of the culture which he inherited, the one in which he grew up. For example, in the poem "Gdzie słońce wschodzi i kędy zapada" ("From the Rising of the Sun"):
Even if I were gathering images of the earth from many countries on two continents, my imagination could cope with them only by assigning them to positions to the south, north, east or west of the trees and hills of one district

[Miłosz, 1988, 268].
Miłosz appreciates the singularity of different existences, he appreciates rationally cultural and individual difference within the boundaries of one superior culture. In this sense he repeats Eliot's gesture: "a heap of broken images" does not mean the defeat of a holistic vision of a cultural continuity, made up of diverse fragments. Miłosz experiences the otherness of particular cultures. This experience is expressed with the use of a polyphonic, dialogical style of writing and an elaborate architecture in his longer poems. However, individual parts of this structure do not seem to function autonomously; their value lies in their relation to other parts: "Our desire for sense is not absolutely futile" - Miłosz writes in Widzenia nad Zatoką San Francisco ("Visions at San Francisco Bay"), [Miłosz 1989, 31]. In this worldview, there is some space for otherness, but it has a well-defined function. The otherness cannot clash with the stable values of the known system; it cannot provoke any change that might make going beyond this system possible.
Since 1990 there have been numerous poets who have perpetuated the tradition outlined above. However, they do not continue this tradition straightforwardly because it has been "polluted" in the meantime by certain poets who had begun to question the community language. Polish poets took a long time to start speaking in their own voices, free from any feeling of obligation towards the community. This was connected with a change of focus: more attention was paid to the local and particular than to the universal. Moreover, everyday language had entered poetry, and apart from addressing metaphysical and mythological problems, poetry also started to deal with sociological and cultural questions. These processes had a significant influence on the way otherness was understood and experienced. Miron Białoszewski, Witold Wirpsza, Tymoteusz Karpowicz, Krystyna Miłobędzka, Stanisław Czycz, Edward Stachura, Rafał Wojaczek, all writing well before 1990 and contemporaneously to Herbert and Miłosz, are some of the writers who concentrate on the individual; not in the sense that they are against the community's interests, rather that they are just not interested. And what is most important, their work provided an impulse for abandoning the normative, substantialist and procedural concepts of man and community language. They prepared language for the appearance of sense and meaning outside of identity and identification, outside of the idea of God, nature and reality.
Poets writing after 1990 still reproduce the community language, ready to capture everything that is different or other even if they no longer share the ideals of the community. One of the heirs of this language is Jacek Podsiadło. He tries to praise everything that is different: from culture, traditional values, repressive forms of life. In "Lelów. Niech żyje śmierć" ("Lelów. Long Live Death") he surprises us with his willingness to tell of his experience - as an experience of somebody who is other, different - using similes that build up a relationship of closeness and similarity. His subject is constantly moving, watching the changing landscapes; but at the same time he emphasizes the transitory nature of the world using the same images: a tent, swimming in a river, listening to birds singing:
Ready-made images: a kite over the meadow small like a sperm
the only child in the whole blue. Children going
to mass, with the food for Easter Sunday
as with a sick cat, carefully. Wet signs of dusk,
punctures in halogen bulbs. A cubist church like a rocket's model lit from within, [...]

[Podsiadło 1999, 36].

The project of otherness that was supposed to present an alternative to the official culture and its notions of stability and well-defined identity proves to be insufficient when faced with the power of the old language. Instead of stressing otherness, it loses everything in an undifferentiated space.
In Polish poetry after 1990 we can observe a certain helplessness in face of the assimilatory and standarizing quality of language. The poets known as "non-mimetic" poets were the first to realize this, and proposed a language that could render the lightness and volatility of difference.

The Differential Language (Andrzej Sosnowski, Marcin Sendecki, Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki)

The reaction of these poets to the poetry that absolutizes identity and minimizes the importance of difference and otherness consisted mainly in highlighting the process of the diversification of meanings. Their poems changed the traditional understanding of notions such as truth (versus. lie), sense (versus nonsense), ambiguity (versus insolubility), and reality (versus fiction and fantasy). They stood on the side of cognitive uncertainty, conflict and not of consensus and conclusiveness. This current in poetry tries to free itself from having to take an ethical interest in society and from all forms of axiology; it does not take responsibility for anything: it is a free play, a challenge to everything that is stable. In the totally heterogeneous space of the poem various registers circulate and clash with one another. And very rarely is it possible to see any connection between them; their autonomy - unlike in a Miłosz poem - is more important than the process of working out the connections. In the notion of otherness, difference is more strongely emphasized though it is not made static. This is why otherness is observed as it comes into being: before it becomes a difference that divides, or a similarity that unites. Otherness here is outside the relationship between difference and identity: it tries to escape all manner of categorization and ideology. It does not appear in the horizon of a given, well-defined sense. In Andrzej Sosnowski's poem, "Przydźwięk sieci" ("Wire Hum") it is the reader who has to decide where similarity and difference are. What we have here is neither a suspension of differences nor a suspension of similarities - everything takes part in a dynamic process of substitution. Difference and otherness cannot be thought of outside a specific context. The language of faked conclusion, full of various tricks, leads us on a journey through a world where "small Wolf makes love in a cab" while the whole thing can be seen in a movie about "cherubs and their unique phonation". It may prove to be a journey through a world of sounds almost indiscernible to the human ear:
this hubbub is considered real life [...]
because all the sublunar world calls, preens, teases,
clings and rises, all of which is a spasm,
a contraction of birds' flight feathers over the caravan's whiteness"

[Sosnowski 2003, 34].
We do not encounter any figures of the other seen from the anthropocentric perspective to which we are accustomed. However, "the cherubs", "a lane of dumbstruck dogs that know so much,/ that one does not have to" and the final " contraction of birds' flight feathers over the caravan's whiteness" lead us into an ontological otherness. Sosnowski offers "an ontology of states instead of an ontology of beings". He concentrates on inventing new ways of looking at the world.
In this sense, Sosnowski's poem is similar to a short poem by Marcin Sendecki entitled "Wyższe kursy" ("Higher Courses"):
Sweets eaten oats kept for the winter.
A poke is that big mister who wanted to sell us.
And a tirade is a small rodent. It doesn't want to sleep

[Sendecki 2002, 45].
The manner of telling about the world seems non-human, as does the speaker saying that a poke is "that big mister who wanted to sell us".
What happens in Sosnowski's poems in their syntactical structures, in Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki moves to the level of figures. His substitutions of difference and similarity try to express homosexual and national otherness. Otherness becomes a sign of pride and stigmatization but it is neither neutral nor contextual. The language of the other is a mixture of anamorphic deformations, swear-words, and constantly exchanged - in trance-like repetitions - tropes, figures, terms, images and motifs. It creates a world-picture where the other is a dissenter, a homeless freak, a fugitive, as in "Uciekinier" ("The Fugitive"):
when I find myself under a dirty soldier's
blanket and get out from the fatigue
sweat and self-aversion that as usual
will make it happen too quickly
so I'm pretending to sleep more sticky than some
military equipment I'm not an expert in this matter

[Tkaczyszyn-Dycki 2003, 46].
He cannot take on accept the language of which he does not feel himself to be an heir; he also tries to be different from the people of whom he is afraid and who persecute him:
if you mean
the type of weapons I smuggle from the barracks
for two such shots there are at least
two of them and I'm trying hard to provide them with the
best I have when they take me
in the night to be on guard and I clear out"

[Tkaczyszyn-Dycki 2003, 46].

The experience of the other is a challenge to the authority of a culture built
on the male/female opposition.

The Language of Difference (Tadeusz Różewicz, Grzegorz Wróblewski, Marcin Świetlicki)

Let us return to the poetry written before 1990. Although otherness is usually seen through the prism of what is similar, an interest in difference (though less spectacular than later) can also be seen. A sign of a stronger emphasis being put on difference (and not similarity) is the change in vocabulary. Texts speak of strangeness. The stressing of difference in otherness creates sharp, impassable borders, and constructs space around oppositions. The titles of Tadeusz Różewicz's poems - poems that deal with the problem of otherness - may be considered symbolic in this context. They are examples of a poetry that concentrates on the impossibility of understanding "the other" and tries to reach his or her "revelatory" (in the Levinasian sense) character.
Różewicz's epithets "a new man" and "a strange man" from Rozmowa z księciem (Conversation with a Prince), which I am going to treat as metaphors, diagnose very accurately the way in which individual otherness is seen within this worldview. The worldview is defined through a striving for balance in the search for arguments to support an integral view of society and the need for variety; most importantly, it concentrates on a diagnosis (based on observation) of the state of culture rather than on proposing any therapeutic solutions.
One of Różewicz's metaphors, "a strange man", shows that the other is now seen as an incomprehensible stranger:
I'm not a stranger
you look at me
through the peephole
without removing the door chain
through a shut door

[Różewicz 1988, 512].
The otherness of a singular subject - perceived and radicalized through scary hyperbole - makes cognition and understanding impossible. Those who are watching the stranger "through the peephole/ without removing the door chain/ through a shut door" do not understand what he is saying to them:
I'm looking for you
On this desert
I wasn't wrong
you are people
my neighbours

[Różewicz 1988, 512]
Różewicz observes the negative consequences of sharpening the differences that lead to separation.
The metaphor of "a new man" is closer to the opposite pole of thinking about otherness: in this case all differences are annihilated; otherness and the definite character of things disappear. Thus the existential space becomes undefined, and the notion of a "man without features" is back:
The new man
that's him there
yes it's that
sewage pipe
which lets through

[Różewicz, 2004, 85].
Różewicz sees both consequences of the negative and destructive thinking about otherness supported by difference. Firstly, the radicalization of difference leads to a breakdown in communication and to social catastrophe. Secondly, the annihilation of difference brings everything under the dominion of uniformity.
Since Różewicz's poem telling of the impenetrable separation that creates strangeness, two separate trends, leading in different directions, can be observed. One is followed, almost 40 years later, by Grzegorz Wróblewski in his poem "Nasze ostatnie spotkanie" ("Our Last Meeting"), the other - by Marcin Świetlicki who tells a story of permanent separation and loneliness.
Wróblewski's poem "Our Last Meeting"- which also speaks of the phenomenon of impassable separation - shows that no otherness is neutral, that it always creates an antagonistic relationship. Seemingly, the situation is similar to that in Różewicz's text - a meeting between two strangers, members of the same species. This time it takes place in a shop. However, it seems that instead of the fear and uncertainty known from Różewicz's poem we find - or so it may only seem - an attitude of mutual interest and openness. A suddenly discovered similarity -
I'd been watching him for a long time
he was like me
(he put Nikita Delicious Banana into his trolley)
a man! The creator of everything

[Wróblewski 1996, 20].
- proves to be a threat to the rituals that stabilize this space. The moment of realizing a possible closeness with somebody else, somebody who is not me, provokes a feeling of such deep disbelief and surprise that it causes a revolution in the world of the unwritten rules of human behaviour. The behaviour of the subject who wants to check this similarity perversely highlights this border difference:

I touched the pink skin
and he: what do you want?
I want to check out the surface
you bastard! We'll talk behind the shop!
and this was our last meeting
(you probably meant the paper with squirrels!)
he prepared a long umbrella
and I turned into the crowded shelves

[Wróblewski 1996, 20].
The fiasco of misunderstanding is caused by the fact that each of the men has his own ways of functioning in the given space and of familiarizing it. The poem examines the cultural understanding of curiosity and "opening oneself to the other". Somebody functioning outside the space of normative rules enters this space and causes a momentary disruption in the whole system. Otherness is a destabilization, something unacceptable in the world of the permanent rules of human society. Wróblewski's poems (I have quoted one of his most neutral examples of otherness) direct the attention to such spatial dissonance, to the uneasiness caused by the appearance of something that - marked as other - causes violent, aggressive reactions. It makes us aware of certain social, political and aesthetic orders and rules. Different variants of psychiatric language used in his poems undermine a rational perception of the world; they challenge a culturally programmed way of looking at the world that makes us see only what we already know, as in the poem "Pensjonat" ("Boarding-House"):
Sisters make up songs about wild
berries from Jutland. They spy on
the emaciated Jensen and cover
the sleeping people with waterproof coats"

[Wróblewski 1994, 13].
Thanks to these poems, a new language (and reality) enters poetry - the language of paranoiacs, schizophrenics, psychotics - a radical otherness that undermines the foundations of a rational world, an otherness that usually comes to grief in the predictable, accountable and rational.
Świetlicki's poems, such as "Tresura" ("Training"), "Małżowina" ("Mollusc Shell") [Świetlicki 1998, 55], on the other hand, take to the extreme Różewicz's diagnosis concerning the isolation caused by a disproportion in the perception of differences. An autistic illusion of too big a difference between the subject and the others, who - as a mass and a crowd - remain undifferentiated, appears as a leftover from the romantic notion of the poet as an Other. A phantasmatic otherness, a hyperbole of difference, an illusion of otherness grows in his poems to a gigantic size. The figure of otherness located in Świetlicki's autocreation of the ego is the last stronghold of the romantic understanding of poetry.

Otherness in a Postcolonial Perspective

My interest in the problem of otherness in the postcolonial context is not accidental. Otherness is a great challenge to the coherent value system that a national culture may choose to protect. It causes unexpected reactions culminating in the desire to conquer and dominate. Its understanding has an influence on questions such as: establishing relationships between civilizations, ownership, the controlling of those considered weaker. Thus, the ideological rendering of the notion of otherness is crucial to colonialism and postcolonialism. Often, the notion is rendered with the use of, often negatively valued, metaphors: the Stranger, the Savage, the Misfit. One could claim that colonization can sometimes be an activity that is inseparable from the processes of community integration: the existence of a cultural community triggers various procedures of exclusion, neutralization and assimilation of the dangerous otherness.
In Polish poetry written after World War II the feeling of being colonized is relatively strong. The state of mind caused by this feeling results in an exaggerated concern to maintain traditional values and to remain within the circle of values considered consitutive to the nation. In talking about the postwar colonization of Poland, I am referring to the domination by the Soviet Union, legitimized at Yalta. This domination can be regarded as a continuation of similar 19th-century conquests during the period of the Partitions. For this reason, poets' reactions to the oppressive situation of a people subjected to a foreign power is historically grounded and accompanied by a desire to maintain national identity, often founded on references to Catholicism. The feeling that the space conducive to the development of psychological security is constantly endangered will become a part of the experience of the colonized; I reached this conclusion after analysing poems by the first group of poets. For example, in Herbert's poem the speaker, visiting the Mediterranean countries, treats a certain system of values as superior; he wants to prove the universality of these values at all costs. Travelling is not a discovery of the new and other but a confrontation with them, after which the views and conscience of the traveller should remain unchanged. What we can see is a kind of "besieged tower" syndrome.
After 1989, if postcolonial consciousness appears in Polish poetry, it usually takes one of the two following forms. The first one is a sensitivity to the way in which descriptions of the world are constructed, to space arrangements governed by the opposition between difference and similarity. This is illustrated by the second group of poems I have chosen. Sosnowski, concentrating on the process of differentiation and endless substitution, sensitizes us to the fact that all meaning - and it is well-known that rhetorico-ideological practices are constitutive to the creation of conditions for classifying people as masters and slaves - can be seized upon by ideologies that exclude the Others. This is why poems should act as points of resistance to the promotion of worldviews in which there could appear a privileged position, sanctioning inequality and the feeling of superiority of one culture over another. Sosnowski's poems move the borders of what a given culture considers to be familiar or foreign; they show the relativity of all orders and values, and finally - they are open to radically different ways of ordering the world. They also stage the psychological states of the colonized, of the excluded, of those subjected to dominant languages. This is the case in Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki's poems: his subject puts on the brilliantly ambivalent costume of a cunning victim trying to win the favours of those more powerful than himself, but ready to take his persecutors' place at any moment.
The other form of postcolonial consciousness is presented in my discussion of the last group of poems. It is in the affirmation of differentiation processes and the consent to a heterogeneous space of languages where no language sets the hierarchy or is an absolute point of reference, that poets such as Sosnowski, Tkaczyszyn-Dycki and Sendecki see a chance for minimizing colonizing ambitions, conquest and viewing otherness as a threat. After 1989 some poets have also discovered the negative aspects of the promotion of difference. According to their interpretations, the sharpening of difference can lead towards colonialism. Its mechanism is based after all on the impossibility of any identification between those who impose their will and those who must yield. The poems of Różewicz, Wróblewski and Świetlicki show the oppressiveness of any culture in which the balance between difference and identity has been disturbed. In these cases postcolonial consciousness in Polish poetry is expressed in the conviction that there exist in contemporary Poland cultural conditions favourable to the return of colonial arguments, which would make possible the domination of others, i.e. of those who are really different. And such others can be always found.


Charbonier, G.,2000, Rozmowy z Lévi-Straussem, trans. J. Trznadel, Warszawa.
Herbert, Z., 1987, Report from the Besieged City and Other Poems. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter, Oxford University Press.
Miłosz, Cz., 1988, The Collected Poems, New York: Viking.
Miłosz, Cz., 1989, Widzenia nad Zatoką San Francisco, Kraków.
Podsiadło, J., 1999, Wychwyt Grahama, Warszawa.
Różewicz, T., 1988, Poezja, t. I, Kraków.
Różewicz, T., 1991 [repr. 2004], They Came to See a Poet: Selected Poems. Introduced and translated by Adam Czerniawski. Revised and enlarged edition, Anvil Press, London.
Sosnowski, A., 2003, Taxi, Wrocław.
Sendecki, M., 2002, Szkoci dół, Kraków.
Świetlicki, M., 1998, Pieśni profana, Czarne.
Tkaczyszyn-Dycki, E., 2002, Przyczynek do nauki o nieistnieniu, Wrocław.
Wróblewski, G., 1996, Dolina królów, Białystok.
Wróblewski, G., 1994, Planety, Kraków-Warszawa.

Translated into English by Adam Zdrodowski
[From: Korek. J. (edit.) From Sovietology to Postcoloniality. Poland and
Ukraine in the Postcolonial Perspective, Södertörn Academic Studies 32,
Stockholm, 2007, ss. 115-127]