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THE RETURN OF THE FORESTER: On Reading Tymoteusz Karpowicz [*].

even when time orchestrates our arms to sing up and down all along the sleeves in the music-stand set at moderato and in unison with the arms of others

Tymoteusz Karpowicz, "Musical Evening Stroll" [1]

Czeslaw Milosz had this to say about him: "He has continued, in his solitude, to add splendor to Polish poetry." Another poet, Boguslaw Kierc, lamented that he was "a master not present"--referring to the nearly thirty-year period during which the poet, playwright, and essayist Tymoteusz Karpowicz (b. 1921) refrained from publishing. His most influential books of verse, Kamienna muzyka (Stony music) and Trudny las (Difficult forest), and his phiosophico-poetic treatise, Odwrocone swiatlo (Reversed light), were published in 1958, 1964, and 1972, espectively. Following the publication of this last volume, he repeatedly rejected requests to contribute individual poems to periodicals, and refused to authorize a new edition of his works. Instead, for the last quarter-century, Karpowicz has been working on a single volume of poetry, Sloje zadrzewne (Rings beyond the tree). Composed of more than three hundred poems, spread over three hundred pages, the volume became a literary sensation immediately after its appeara nce in Poland earlier this year and is currently a key candidate for the Nike Prize 2000, the most prestigious literary award in Poland. But who is Karpowicz? What kind of wordsmith--so convinced of the power of silence, and completely indifferent to the possibility of losing several generations of readers--makes himself wait decades before publishing a new volume?

During the years of communist rule in Poland, Karpowicz co-edited the literary journals Poezja and Odra, and used his influence to promote new writers--including Rafal Wojaczek and the "New Wave" poets of the rebellious 1968 generation, such as Stanislaw Baraiiczak and Adam Zagajewski. In 1973, as if choking on the flood of statesponsored political kitsch, Karpowicz elected not to return from a lecturing post in West Berlin. Stripped of his editorial positions in Poland, he made his way, via Paris and Iowa City, to the University of flhinois at Chicago, where he began teaching as a professor of Polish literature in 1974. As a writer, he withdrew into total privacy, insulating himself from the banality of American democracy and the menace of PolishAmerican anti-intellectualism. It was from this vantage point of solitude that the author began to peer back, through his own "linguistic binoculars," into the forest of his earlier poetry-and to evaluate the degree to which his poetic forest had aged or grown disea sed. Each of the earlier poems that did not meet his standard of innovation was to be pruned. The results of this work, supplemented by his most recent poems, have finally been published as Rings Beyond the Tree.

Karpowicz is, for some, a geologist of literature who knows its complex historical strata and is therefore able to ruthlessly distinguish between what is new in contemporary poetry and what only pretends to be. And it is precisely the truly new that Karpowicz--an admirer of Rimbaud, Rillce, and Lesmian [2]-demands of himself as a poet. He is a nightmare for critics who would try to bushwhack their way into his D4f/icult Forest or Rings with the axe of structuralist or linguistic analysis. "Possibly the most difficult of all Polish writers," in the words of the poet Krzysztof Karasek, Karpowicz remains the "first forester" of the Polish avant-garde.


Much has been written about Poland's so-called linguistic school of poetry and its key representatives, among them Karpowicz and Miron Bialoszewski. From the 1960s on, Karpowicz in particular was given the (unfairly reductive) label of "linguistic poet": he was understood as a specialist in the preservation of games of language and of the semantic tensions produced between words. Active in the ravines of grammar, by means of linguistic cross-cuts, he was one who, as Karasek complained, "tortured the imagination." But one might well ask: What is the point of this torture?

Its purpose is first of all a practical one: the efficacious pain of reading poetry can actually sharpen the imagination, a faculty required in all realms of human reflection. In Karpowicz's view, poetry is neither a "window" onto the emotions, nor a metaphysical meditation on a "falling leaf," for example; nor is it a podium for self-promoting stylists, a megaphone for the suffering individualist, or a device for augmenting social appeal. Poetry is, primarily, a mode of thinking. It is a strategy of condensed, quickened thinking which operates like a particle accelerator, in which the drama inherent in language plays out at the speed of light.

For Karpowicz, poetry's utility is anchored in the vicissitudes of meaning: "For words to relate to an actual world, to a Heraclitean reality of endless change, they must constantly be renewed. It is in this context that I am interested in Giambattista Vico, Martin Heidegger, and Julian Przybos, all of whom argue that, 'The world is not; it continuously and infinitely is becoming."' [3] Indeed, the power of individual words is easily spent. Therefore, new words and expressions are needed, to reflect the ever-changing world. In the accelerator of the imagination, language must continuously pursue a reality that constantly escapes adequate representation. What was once a stimulating metaphor becomes, in a moment, a colloquial turn of phrase that loses its nuance and petrifies . And as language hardens, so does the imagination. People whose imagination has grown "lazy," who rely on dead metaphors, sooner or later fall prey to an automatism of the mind and, ultimately, to a false picture of the world. As they co me to dominate the public sphere, their civilization collapses. In order to prevent this, the task of the poet is two-fold: to diagnose the climate of the age and to keep language at a boiling point. For poetry, Karpowicz asserts, "is a diagnostic or cognitive tool that precedes, anticipates, and implies all other tools. Poetry has always been a kind of primal philosophy by mode of which we can constantly hypothesize about the world."


In the time of Homer, before the age of specialization, poetry was an all-embracing mode of expression. It engendered knowledge and encompassed science, religion, arts, and entertainment. It was a method for discovering and naming reality--a reality which adopted new faces the more quickly as contacts among cultures became more frequent. For Karpowicz, who like Milosz spent his youth in the multicultural environment of pre-War Vilna, poetry is a holistic attitude, of a kind that tends to flourish in multicultural borderland regions, where relations among cultures are characterized not only by dialogue but also by symbolic competition--a further catalyst to the imagination. In the rich mythology of the Polish-Lithuanian frontier, the image of the forest is of particular importance. For it is the forest which, like the woods surrounding Vilna, separates periphery from metropolis, good from evil, and the borderland from the "center"--which is always slicker and more homogenous, more bureaucratized and for that r eason less truthful. For Karpowicz, this idea of forest reappears as the Difficult Forest which he places between himself and the aesthetics and oversimplifications of that center.

Rings Beyond the Tree, however, goes further; it is a treatise that relates poetics to ethics and the trauma of reading to the ontology of evil. To the author of Rings, evil is above all the product of dead language, of the petrified or "centralized" imagination, and of the routine conduct that these engender. Trapped in routine, we become incapable of empathetically imagining another person's difference, or loneliness--and may one day become accomplices all the more easily to enormous yet banal crimes. And this is precisely why poems are necessary: to strip evil of its banality and to exercise the imagination, which, through exertion and the "hard labor" of reading, nourishes in us the faculty for empathy.


How is Karpowicz's poetry to be read? Holistically, where poetics and ethics are one. As daunting as it may appear, Rings should be read in its entirety because, though its parts can certainly be treated separately, it is only as the larger design of the 360-page volume becomes clear that they reveal their deeper meaning.

On the level of the word, new metaphors continuously burst forth ("to kill life to the utmost yet not pack himself / in the cartridge earth gaping wide for him") refreshing language and disarming the banality of its potential for evolving into evil-laden routine. On the level of the discourse, the "eschatological" narrative of the book emerges. It progresses from chapters ("rings") such as "Annunciation" and "Nativity" to "Crucifixion" and "Solving the Spaces," where poems epitomize the birth, life, death, and resurrection of language. To be born to, and immersed in, language means to feel "guilty" due to the lack of perfect compatibility between language and thought. Thinking, or cognitive action, is always faster than language and almost never succeeds in finding the most appropriate linguistic "dress" to fit its changing occasions. Here, poems can be viewed as forms ("the best possible clothing") of an action that occurs in continually changing contexts--an idea worked out at length by Kenneth Burke. In R ings, the poems go through a series of tests, of such fluid contexts. They are paired, and each pair is displayed on facing pages. What is presented on the left page is thematically related to yet contextually different from what is placed on the right. For instance, the poem "Magic Mountain" is confronted by the poem "Polychromes from a Village Church" in a duel where even identical words ("truths") bear painfully different meanings. The emergent self-awareness (of both the contextual pluralities of "truth" and the moral imperative to acknowledge them) is the first step towards "resurrection." Through this and dozens of similar confrontations, the poems in Rings dialectically attain a third level-or ring--of a higher poetic synthesis: that of artistic "redemption."

It is this dialogic intention that underpins the two poems presented in this issue of Chicago Review. Several critics have cited these poems as typical of Karpowicz's poetics and of his "idiom." However, what they share is related less to Karpowicz's linguistic technique than to his thematic obsession, that is: beginnings. Both poems depict moments of inception. Both profile two similar yet competing cosmogonies, one in the realm of feelings and one in the register of physical transformations. "Love's Ring Dance" portrays the birth of erotic love. The dance of the lover's mind (the accelerator of words) creates not only her life-compassing excitement but also her gradual self-destruction: "and in love she shed the scarf from her hair / then shed her hair beyond the scarf." Likewise, in "Tri-lateral Lullaby," the birth of a new universe proceeds in such a way that its matter must devour itself (with "the tongue he uses to clean the womb / of his own birth") in order to produce new worlds in the larger cycle. In a kind of Big Bang of images, all that which is initially compressed expands, by metaphor, into its intellectual contradiction, namely irony ("a cradle / itself self-hammering sideboards"). As in Vico, each metaphor catastrophically carries the seed of irony, in a spiraling, endless process of biological and cultural transformations. Hence, any beginning is both life and death--a borderline escaping any robust categorization.

In 1971, Stanislaw Baranczak described Karpowicz's poetic strategy as "the unmasking of the omnipresent practice of oversimplification." In 2000, one might rightly argue that Karpowicz's Rings Beyond the Tree is a further powerful illustration of a passion for unsimplified truth; for a truth whose layers are as numerous as the rings in an ancient, magical oak. In Karpowicz's universe, these rings are intended to outstrip even the trunk itself--expanding beyond its circumference: to pass from the realm of poetry, into that of ethical and aesthetic salvation.

The above introduction may seem to sound alarum, that an abstract Polish poet, the forester of avant-garde, is about to disrupt some new audiences. Nothing of the sort. Given the fact that Karpowicz is one of the most difficult poets to translate, his Rings will not appear in English in the near future. Perhaps the author himself is aware of that when he jokes, in another poem from Rings: "I want to assure those who hunt me with legends: it was the customs officers who deprived me, when entering England, of the Holy Grail..."

If we accept poetry as a mode of thinking, then Karpowicz's poems represent a challenge in which the key to a more complex, human-oriented knowledge is the moral stance underlying the poet's approach to language, and to the word. As he himself says, "the universe cannot expand more widely than the breadth of a human embrace."

Tomasz Tabako is the author of Strajk '88 (1992). A Polish-born journalist and literary critic, he is Editor of the U.S.-based 2B: A Journal of Ideas, and a Ph.D. candidate in Rhetorical Studies at Northwestern University.

(*.) The author would like to thank Karen Underhill and Frank Kujawinski for their help in adapting the revised version of this essay (originally published in Gazeta Wyborcza) for American audiences.

(1.) All translations of Karpowicz's poetry cited here are by Frank Kujawinski.

(2.) Karpowicz has also written a study on Boleslaw Lesmian which is considered by many to be the most penetrating study of Lesmian's poetry (Poezia niemoiliwa [Unthinkable poetry],Warsaw, 1975).

(3.) All quotations of Tymoteusz Karpowicz are from conversations with the author.
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Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Poem
Geographic Code:4EXPO
Date:Jun 22, 2000
Previous Article:LOVE'S RING DANCE.

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