Adam Michnik, author, historian and political activist, writes about the works of Ryszard Krynicki through the prism of the history of the ‘68 Generation, people who not only grew up in socialist Poland, but were also involved in the struggle against the injustice and lies of the communist regime. The author often uses the form ‘we’, but refers to his own memories, anxieties and questions, which he intertwines with Krynicki’s poems.
Adam Michnik and Ryszard Krynicki met in the early 1970s in Poznań, in the flat of Stanisław Barańczak, another well-known poet from the New Wave group. Michnik asks:
What made these poets stand out from their many peers? Not just their talent. Rebellion? Rebellion against reality is a natural and frequent formula for a poetic debut. Rebellion is often a way to make a name for oneself on the literary market, a method of achieving an important position.
Krynicki, Barańczak, Zagajewski did the opposite. Gradually, they condemned themselves to harsh censorship cuts, and subsequently, their volumes of poetry, slashed already by censors, could not see the light of day. The poets began to sign protest letters against the restrictions of civil liberties, against repression of the democratic opposition. Later, they began publishing their works in underground press, contributing largely to its significance. They did not exist on the official market. They chose nonexistence. They gave up official acclaim, accolades, a place on television and in literary headlines. Unknowingly perhaps, the poets developed a new language of speaking about reality. It was thanks to them that our generation, the ‘68 Generation, could communicate in our own language. We were no longer slaves of other people’s words; we were gaining individuality and freedom.
Exposing the propaganda of the communist period was one of the essential features of Krynicki’s poetry up until the introduction of the martial law (1), when people no longer believed in the propaganda. The poet’s method consisted in ‘putting the language of ritual lies to the test of his own language by means of a brutal albeit ironic confrontation of both.’ This was very important in the early 1960s. The rubber batons used by the militia to suppress the 1968 students’ demonstrations made Michnik’s generation aware that:
Cruelty, hatred, ruthless lies [were] not simply categories of prehistoric times, that is the times of Hitler and Stalin … The batons and newspapers stripped us of any remaining illusions … We abandoned the naïve hope of youth. We were left with images of the intervention in Czechoslovakia, of soldiers shooting at people in December 1970, of our friends emigrating and our friends bowing down [to the system]. We started a new education on how to live in hopelessness.
Michnik emphasises that Krynicki actually saw the opposition to ‘tainted language and enslaved consciousness’ as a duty of the writer. He recalls the poet’s words: ‘Those who have the courage to turn away from reality during a time of the greatest threat to human dignity, when after some time they turn towards it again, they can see the faces of their friends, those who looked reality on the fingers and in the eyes, that their faces have been spat on.’ Hence, Krynicki’s politicalness did not stem from ideology or a struggle for power but consisted of his disagreement to ‘the practice of spitting at people, his refusal to take part in this practice; it was his solidarity with those spat upon.’ It was both an ethical and an aesthetic choice:
[Krynicki] saw a chance in speaking directly, not just with ‘historiosophical allusions and allegories.’ He wondered: ‘Perhaps our poetry is too impatient since it wants immediate truth.’ He added: ‘The stylistic individualism of the new poetry consists in the fact that poetic expression has been saturated with the realities of the present, sometimes to the limits of a poems resilience, and above all, in that the new poetry does not wish to identify with the enslaving mechanisms of reality; both the “natural”, linguistic mechanisms, conventionally termed “the language of newspapers”, and those that provide for a more “subtle” manipulation of this reality to concoct its one and not another image that meets social demand.’
Michnik also notes:
[Krynicki] was interested in the outcome of these techniques: ‘A thus shaped image of reality is, in a sense, graphomaniacal, formulated in a crippled, wounded language. All the more, it shapes a crippled social consciousness and individual attitudes. The young generation of poets had to self-educate, because their educators had been compromised and could not be trusted; they wanted to find their way by trying to build a new consciousness, a new symbolic imagination and, ultimately, a new culture.’
According to Adam Michnik, involvement, resistance and rebellion define the work of Ryszard Krynicki, but do not exhaust it. The work is also metaphysical, seeks the truth and God, and listens to the voices from the beyond. In the case of Krynicki, the search for God was not a symptom of conformism and a springboard to social advancement, but an expression of a humble yet rebellious stance. In a reality restrained by cordons of special agents and barbed wire, where ‘people suffered from spiritual claustrophobia,’ to the ‘68 Generation Krynicki’s work was a sphere of liberty, faith and humanity.
I think it was Jan Błoński who said that a poem by Krynicki is like a shot to the heart. I often wonder about the nature of this poetry’s power, a poetry so fragile and designed so much in defence of the fragile. Apart from artistic perfection, I look for reasons in Krynicki’s particular moral perspective. I can read in these poems a strange and beautiful record of a fusion of Conrad’s heroic ethic with a great metaphysical perspective. Seeking and combining moral self-rigorism with Christian compassion towards others; protecting the solitary status of the excommunicated poet yet still identifying with a wronged and humiliated community.
In his beautiful essay about Krynicki, Stanisław Barańczak notes that this poetry has progressed along the road from excess to ascesis. I might also add, a road from sleeping to awakening, from after-life journeys to a real-life crossing of prison gates, all the time remaining in the dialectic of solitude and solidarity. Sleep was an excess; awakening calls for ascesis. For Ryszard Krynicki, a poet that has accompanied our actions and conversations for over two decades, of equal importance is the decision to name both external and internal threats. The problem of external and internal censorship is a question about the shape of existence.
The text is an abstract of Adam Michnik’s essay ‘Biały gołąb pokoju’ (The white dove of peace), originally published in Zeszyty Literackie (1992 nr…). The essay is now included in Adam Michnik’s book Wyznania nawróconego dysydenta (Confessions of a converted dissident) (Wydawnictwo Zeszytów Literackich, Warszawa 2003).
Adam Michnik is a publicist, essayist, historian and political activist. Since 1989, he has been the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza. Between 1968 and 1989 he was a leading activist of the democratic opposition, a member of KOR (Workers’ Defence Committee) and Solidarity, imprisoned and repressed as a political prisoner.