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Jakub Kornhauser //Caution! Danger of the Patting Poets Epidemic: On Ryszard Krynicki's// G

Jakub Kornhauser Caution! Danger of the Patting Poets Epidemic: On Ryszard Krynicki's G

Let us talk frankly: when we think about visual or concrete poetry, when we remember various experiments of interdisciplinary nature, when we recall the avant-garde radicalisms, which went against the rules of the genre we hardly ever think about the history of Polish poem. This is not only due to the fact that none (or almost none) of the native avant-garde movements, be it the inter-war ones, like Futurism and Constructivism or the post-war ones, more in the vein of Pop art or more in the vein of Body art, could boast of revolutionary zeal. On the contrary, they seemed to bask in the reflected glory of the Paris, Saint Petersburg or Berlin centres. Nor is it because the few exceptions, like Stanisław Dróżdż, despite their position on the border between the verbal and the visual, the linguistic and the pictorial, were eagerly appropriated by one side, usually the visual one. The main problem, I believe, is the sanctification of historical clichés, which, by growing rich in academic (that is infallible and lasting) ermines make it impossible to look at the history of Polish literature and art in a broader perspective.

A special case, worth considering, as its significance seems to be a good starting point for the discussion about re-evaluating the old judgements about Polish poetry, is certainly Ryszard Krynicki's poetry book G[1], reprinted after 43 years. We can look at this fascinating book in two complementary ways. Firstly, G is a collection of collages, letters, words and sentences cut out from newspapers and arranged in more or less random compositions, which endow them with new meaning, echo the media message, which is often rich in political overtones and bring the language itself to the fore. Secondly, G is a 24-page notebook bibliophilic in terms of nature and circulation. It consists of grey A4-sized Bristol board cards, whose pages on the right hand side are occupied by reproductions of newspaper slips no wider than your finger, accompanied by two illustrations at the beginning and the end. The significance of this document, not only as an overlooked, however important document of the era, but also as an example of a universal phenomenon  – for example, the Polish (missing?) link in the chain of the development of liberature – is indisputable. Hence, the fact that G has quite universally disappeared from the minds of literature scholars and art historians, who value those rare and precious manifestations of avant-garde ingeniousness and courage in shaping new forms of artistic expression, is all the more puzzling.

In a note loosely attached to the notebook Maria Anna Potocka says that Ryszard Krynicki worked on his collection of newspaper collages from 1967 to 1971. At that time the poetics of the generation of young writers debuting in the face of political, social and artistic change of 1968 was taking shape. This movement, in the textbooks known as New Wave and represented, beside Krynicki, by Stanisław Barańczak, Julian Kornhauser or Adam Zagajewski, had high aims. The most often mentioned are the demand to "speak straightforwardly" and come back to the reality seen and experienced here and now. These assumptions were confirmed by the name of the Krakow outpost of New Wave – poetic group Teraz (Now) and the famous manifesto published by Kornhauser and Zagajewski – the collection of essays Świat nie przedstawiony (The world not represented) (1974).

All of the above are facts worth noting. However, under this varnish of schoolbook wisdom, political opposition and martyrdom of New Wave there is a whole different, avant-garde and rebellious message, the familiar face of the creative explorations of that time. The need to overcome the dictate of the traditional language in literature brought truly dadaistic in terms of form and artistic model subversive activity, whose excellent example is G. What in European poetry of 1950s and 60s was associated with the neo-avant-garde revolution, with the concrete poetry of Stuttgart (Eugen Gomringer, Max Bense), Czech (Jiří Kolář, Ladislav Novak) or Brazilian (de Campos brothers) schools, French (Pierre and Isle Garnier), Italian (Luciano Ori, Eugenio Miccini) or English (Ian Hamilton Finlay, Alan Riddell) visual poetry, in Poland came into being thanks to Ryszrad Krynicki, as is emphatically reminded by the republished G.

Of course, in a sense, G is something more than just a game of 'Exquisite corpse' beloved by the Surrealists[2] or a version of Dadaist poem according to Tristan Tzara[3], who ordered to cut sentences out of newspapers, shake them in a bag and take out randomly, which was a game ruled by anarchy and chaos. It is also a response of a poet, for whom, after all, language is a primary tool, to the hypocrisy of the 'official' message: columns in the daily newspapers Trybuna Ludu or Trybuna Robotnicza, used by Krynicki. In this sense, entrusting his private expression to newspaper excerpts, which by being arranged in new contexts and accords can create a new quality that is unpretentious and free from any ideology, but above all poetically and formally 'pure', seems to be a gesture all the more important. One may think here of Jiří Kolář and his 'objective poetry'. He tried to find/cheat the language, reduced by the system of Stalinist repressions to the role of the megaphone for propaganda, by creating poems-objects made of razor blades, scraps of fabric, pencils threaded on thin strings. This neo-avant-garde quipu steered away from the reefs of censorship and showed the necessity to restore the language as means of artistic expression. Krynicki's G on the one hand tries to handle the existing political and social situation and on the other allude to the discoveries of Conceptual art of 1960s in a similar fashion. The works, created by means of scissors and chance, are at the same time classic poems – read as separate entities on the consecutive right hand side pages of the notebook – and the negation of poem: a visual  (as collages with distinctive typography and layout) and performative experience (as a kind of poetic happening consisting in randomly extracting the successive elements of a newspaper mosaic).

This multi-directional experiment provokes, as it puts a spoke of poetic freedom in the wheel of the device for tailoring language to utilitarian purposes[4], usefulness for the state in this case. Indeed, as Julian Kornhauser wrote in 1970s, "the state is the most prominent Polish poet."[5] In this sense, the author of the poems-pictures is as much Ryszard Krynicki, as the state itself, whose press organs provided material for art, although it was obviously unmasked and ridiculed by Dadaist chance.

The possibility of perceiving G in two complementary ways, indicated at the beginning of my essay, sets Krynicki's book in the context of two different, but from time to time intersecting paths which mark the progress in thinking about the 20th century poetry. Firstly, G can be regarded as a specific version of the European post-Dadaist collage tradition in literature, established by Hugo Ball, Hannah Höch and Kurt Schwitters and cherished in1920s by, for example, Lajos Kassák and his 'picture-poems' in Hungary or Victor Brauner and Ilarie Voronca and their idea of 'pictopetry' in Romania. These trends intensified since 1950s in the activities of representatives of concrete poetry or the Italian movement of poesia visiva and were taken over by American Postmodern writers, the most conspicuous example being Michael Kasper, whose collection All Cotton Briefs[6], assembling collages of newspaper excerpts and notes and 'enriched' with pictures taken out of context, could be viewed as the reverse of G. I shall not dwell on other, closer affinities, like Wisława Szymborska's collages. Although the artist did not regard them as artistic activity on par with writing poetry, thanks to such enterprises as a recent exhibition at MOCAK the collages started to have a life of their own and, properly contextualised, are getting close to visual poems.

However, the most important –  for being the closest in terms of poetics and the most analogous formally – point of reference must be Herta Müller's collages. The winner of the 2009 Nobel prize for literature has created them for 20 years, the results being series of poems-collages made of newspaper clippings, fashioned in a way quite similar to Krynicki's method. The collages are printed on separate cards and collected in special small-sized boxes: the most well-known collection is Der Wächter nimmt seinen Kamm[7], a set of collages consisting of 94 loose cards in a red (blue in the Polish language version) cardboard casket. The parallel nature of the two author's explorations becomes even more conspicuous in the most recent Polish edition of Müller's poetry, which is an anthology of her collages known from the two last volumes she published in Germany. The series Kolaże[8] has the shape of a classic poetry book, where computer font has been replaced with printed newspaper slips, which is reminiscent of the method employed by Krynicki. The difference, it seems, lies in the very approach to material. While in the case of the German writer words cut out from newspapers become a semifinished product, which is then used to consciously construct new, formally more complex, but still minimalist and concise works, the author of G abandons strategic activities aimed at achieving poetic brilliance in favour of freeing himself from any artistic constraint. This act of self-restraint, however, has an effect that is common for both writers: silence, which falls as a result of giving up the universal (but also clichéd, hackneyed) language of literature is the silence of the poet himself, as it requires questioning one's own expression and one's own individual language.

Herta Müller's boxes with collages harmonise with the other way of receiving G, which was mentioned above.: by putting it in line with the books distinct for their unusual materiality – shape, size or structure – Krynicki can be regarded as the Polish forerunner of liberature, or 'total literature' propagated by Zenon Fajfer since late 1990s. Liberature comprises bottle-books, brick-books, stone-books, but it also inclines towards those works, which, while preserving their paper 'self', carry out some serious revaluations concerning their internal structure. Take, for example, the classic Stéphane Mallermé's A Roll of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance from late 19th century, which, by means of various typefaces and words chaotically scattered across the pages, plays the blank spaces' concert of silence. Questioning the integrity of language as a system of signs is also characteristic of Krynicki, in whose case the blank spaces are empty spaces between the lines cut out from daily papers, which function as unassuming background and infinite expanse. Some pages of G have cuttings arranged densely one under another; others have just a few and they occupy various nooks or time and again gather together in surprising constellations. In addition, the left hand side always remains mute; its grey and cardboard identity is forever in conflict with the noisy captions – news from the party's papers deformed by the unruly poet: Caution,/Yesterday/a man!/drowned/in mourning/The Customer/does not care. (Our reporter informs)/Toilets on strike. Declining birth rate/10 rats/will replace/one inhabitant. Due to the spatial arrangement of individual elements we have to do with a work that is simultaneously read, looked at, but also touched. And in this way, but not only this way, Krynicki's book becomes an object, an artefact, unique in nature and in a limited number of almost non reproducible copies.

On the other hand, I am writing about G as if this title was completely comprehensible and easily explained, while it derives from a letter common for two words, made of newspaper cuttings, which intersect on the title page of the book: paneGiryk/naGrobny (gravestone/panegyric). This collage subtitle sheds interesting light on what has been said so far. Whose death does the poet commemorate by means of mass media? The death of his own language? The language of newspapers (G)?  Artistic autonomy and freedom? Of course, looking for an answer to this, after all, unasked question would be the worst decision and the least appropriate behaviour. I may have not said it yet, but it needs mentioning, even in the final part of this text, that the gravestone panegyric is simply a series of funny (often ridiculous) and non-standard (often bizarre) combinations, associations and fragments, like the one below: Over 100 workplaces in PGR/for/2.5 million/women/with home delivery/for foreign currency/One fits into a goose eggshell/Live does/for export/Tanks/at the post office/A car stuffed with/A hammer/was stopped at the border. Or this one, speaking volumes about the semantic potential inherent in the party's Newspeak, but also about, vital and rich in metaphors, Polish itself: Caution – /Danger of /the patting poets/epidemic/high tension!/of non-permanent members.

The fun of reading these dilemmas of the persona surely matches the 'joy of creating' the collage entity confined to an A4 notebook. Silence is silence, 1968 is 1968, Dróżdż is Dróżdż, but it is also about, perhaps in the first place, the high ideals of meaninglessness: the joy of the fact that Despite winter/Despite terror and persecution/in 9 months/GROWS/The first home/OLD MAN/made of plastic/GOOD FOR EVERYTHING/ – the symbol of modernity/ZUS already calculates the pensions. What is more, there is never too much of this joy, as Polish poetry and Polish art suffer from its severe shortages. Who knows, maybe the greatest radicalism of this collection, going far beyond filling the gaps in avant-garde mentioned at the beginning, is that it has pierced the balloon of metaphysics hovering over the history of literature textbooks. Let this be the point of destination in my reflections on G, the book with probably the shortest title in the history of Polish poetry.

Translation: Joanna Wadas

[1] Krynicki, Ryszard. G. Krakow: MOCAK, January 1971/2014.

[2] The game of 'Exquisite corpse',  le cadavre exquis, was one of the main methods propagated by André Breton and Surrealists in the early stage of the movement (1920s). The idea was to collectively create a poem by writing down the successive sentences on a sheet of paper. Having written their sentence, the participant would fold the paper to conceal their contribution, and pass it on to the next player for their contribution. The resulting poem was then read out. The name is derived from a phrase that resulted when Surrealists first played the game.

[3] Take a newspaper./Take some scissors. … Cut out the article./Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag./Shake gently./Next take out each cutting one after the other... . Tzara, Tristan. "Dada Manifesto on Feeble Love and Bitter Love" [1920], Surrealizm. Teoria i praktyka literacka. Antologia. Ed. Adam Ważyk. Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1973. 45–46.

[4] André Breton already demanded  releasing language from the fetters of usability and "hunting down the mad beast of habit". See: Breton,  André. "The Crisis of the Object". Surrealizm. Teoria i praktyka literacka. Antologia. Ed. Adam Ważyk. Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1973. 166.

[5] Kornhauser, Julian. "Urząd poezji."Zabójstwo. Krakow: [self-published to avoid censorship], 1973. [no pagination].


[6] Kasper, Michael. All Cotton Briefs. Expanded Edition. New York: Benzene/Brooklyn, 1992.

Parts of the book appeared in Polish translation by Bohdan Zadura and Piotr Sommer as "Obcisłe gadki" in the 'American' issue of Literatura na Świecie (1977, No. 6, pp. 29–30, 98–102, 144–145, 220-223).

[7] Müller, Herta. Strażnik bierze swój grzebień / Der Wächter nimmt seinen Kamm. Trans. A. Kożuch. Krakow: Korporacja Ha!art, 2010.

[8] --- . Kolaże. Trans. L. Szaruga. Wrocław: Biuro Literackie, 2013.