Poetry for the Street

Turbulent times followed Poland's independence in 1918, as Poles came to terms with their freedom. To put into words the emotions of a nation, poet Julian Tuwim tried to rid poetry of its elitist image. How far did he succeed?

Artists and writers often complain of the lack of public interest in their work, and it has to be said that modern poets are the chief victims of this growing apathy. The obvious problems for modern poetry are firstly that much of it is far removed from people's lives; next, it is often difficult to understand; and, lastly, it is addressed to a small and elite circle.

An episode in Poland's recent history, however, provides an unusual example of poetry finding its place in people's hearts and minds. In late 1918, a small group of poets living in Warsaw conceived of a Poets' Café on Warsaw's exclusive Nowy Świat Street, which would symbolise the many emotions that accompanied Poland's first months of independence. Its participants were the first to proclaim a new democratic life for both the people and the nation's artistic outlook, calling for a new "poetry for the street". The café was called The Picador (Pod Picadorem). It is questionable whether the café enjoyed patronage by the masses, and most likely it remained a gathering place for Warsaw's intelligentsia and student body. Most importantly, however, was the fact that the café itself did not pose any barriers to the wider public other than the low entrance fee.

The founders of The Picador went on to form the Scamander group, and they became Poland's most acclaimed poets of the inter-war years. For those not familiar with the group, they were Julian Tuwim, Jan Lechoń, Antoni Słonimski, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz and Kazimierz Wierzyński. In spite of the fact that these poets all came from different backgrounds, the subject matter of their early poetry focused on the man in the street and general questions of identity in the newly independent Poland. Whether they were ultimately successful in this is debatable, but the attempts by Julian Tuwim, above all the other poets belonging to the circle, to place ordinary people in the arena of literature was both revolutionary for its time and remains one of the poetic highlights of 20th century Polish literature.

What Tuwim did best in his early poetry was to peer through the windows of pubs and houses and enter the minds of poor people, people who were otherwise under-represented. However, whilst Tuwim takes a stylised view of the city and its people, it does not always make for comfortable reading. The realities of poverty, and the inability of the poorest classes to behave in a manner expected of them by a nation trying to find its feet following centuries of occupation, weighs heavily upon the poet's mind.

The poet - and this holds true for today as well - has two avenues of opportunity: he may either be a spokesman on behalf of the masses or a spokesman for culture and communicate with the masses. Tuwim's poetry fell somewhere between both options. The following poem, which is perhaps one of his lesser known works, shows the dilemma that Tuwim was faced with. Drunkenness is just as much the sport of many today as it was then, and the protagonist in this poem seems like a merry rogue set to embark upon a night of drinking and good cheer. But it is soon made apparent by the violence of his drunken exclamations that drink looses the monster from within the man and that his malnourished and ailing children shivering up in the cold attic can expect poor treatment when their father gets home. Reading the poem, one senses the monster behind the drunken bravado, and the likelihood of domestic violence and degradation long after the lines of the poem have been read.

Nonetheless, in spite of such social observation it is important to remember that the Scamanders also wrote beautiful nature and love poetry, not to mention poetry featuring their travels in Europe and elsewhere. The most famous of these travel poems was written by Jan Lechoń. It is in fact a dreamlike episode where Lechoń as the poetic hero takes himself on a visionary journey to mediaeval Ravenna in Italy where he meets Dante, another mystical traveller of times past. On meeting Dante, Lechoń begs for counsel on a spiritual crisis. Like Dante at the beginning of Inferno, he has strayed from the path of life. Lechoń's petition, however, is met with a vague response from Dante, who seems to suggest that death is followed by nothingness and that placing faith in heavenly figures is a futile exercise.

Whilst Russian poetry of the same era is held in great esteem in both Europe and America, poets such as the Scamanders have never really come to light. This is mainly due to the lack of translations, as well as the poor efforts of Polish writers and academics to push their case in the West. Nevertheless, Poland needs to show the world its literary achievements in their entirety.

Central to the Scamanders' early self-portrayal was the idea of there being a radiant centre bringing light to a world previously dark. Furthermore, Tuwim and the Scamanders articulated the fears and hopes of a country moving from one era to another, and ensured that poetry had a leading place within it. These poets, if but for this reason alone, should be held up as fine examples to all young writers trying to understand how to function in a world that doesn't seem to want to listen.

- Barry Keane