Writing It All: Białoszewski’s Poetry as the Act of Mind

In my talk, I analyze the relationship of language, epistemology, and the aesthetic in the work of the twentieth-century Polish poet Miron Białoszewski (1922–1983), focusing on his poetic cycles No (Uh-huh), Pobyt (Staying), and Ziewanny (Yaaawnings) (1980). I will examine these works in the context of the modernist tradition of a poet’s attempt to capture the process of consciousness, of poetry, to quote Wallace Stevens, “as an act of mind.” From this, I draw the conclusion that Białoszewski’s verse appears to be an aesthetic manifestation of the act of cognition.

Virtually unaffiliated with any poetic school or movement (except for a brief association in the 1960s with the Linguistic Poets), Białoszewski has often been labeled as a poet of the empirical (M. Glowinski), of the quotidian (M. Levine), or of the immediate (S. Baranczak) whose poetic language can be identified with spoken, even low, language. More recent criticism, however, has problematized these claims by pointing out that Białoszewski’s verse encompasses not only linguistic, minimalistic, and empirical aspects but also what has been referred to as a maximalist-realist agenda—what Baranczak passingly calls “[Białoszewski’s] revelation of both language and reality” (1993). Despite Baranczak’s insight into Białoszewski’s work, critics have not yet fully addressed the tension between the minimalist (empirical) and maximalist (revelatory) aspects of Białoszewski’s work, perhaps on account of the largely structuralist approach that has played a determining role in the reception of Białoszewski’s work. It is possible, however, to explore the seeming contradiction between empirical and revelatory facets in Białoszewski’s work by reframing that contradiction as a question of the formation of the poetic self within the Kantian paradigm of cognition as self-cognition.

The maximalism of Białoszewski’s poetics is apparent in his refusal to observe any restrictions on what he includes in his verse and in the consequent inclusion of all acts of perception regardless of their aesthetic value. This ever-changing flux of perceptions creates a kind of “hyper-realism,” endowing reality with an excessive, even hyperbolic, quality that fully exposes the mind’s perception of the heterogeneous ingredients of phenomenal reality before it subjects that reality to the analytical process of exclusion and ordering into chains of causality and analogy.

In this, Białoszewski’s cognition is comparable to Kantian self-cognition, rather than to the Cartesian structures of the self. The plurality of phenomena in Białoszewski serves not as a screen for him to project individual psychology, but a means to manifest the form-giving faculty of the mind. Ultimately this results in writing where we see the process of reality emerging as it is comprehended by the mind. In the oscillating tension between the exteriority of reality and the interiority of the self (which Białoszewski refers to in his poems as “migotanie,” or “shimmering”), Białoszewski’s “I” either exuberantly loses itself in the excitement of reality’s excesses or cautiously distances itself in order to establish, if only momentarily, a sense of singularity. This folding and unfolding of reality around the axis of consciousness can be compared to the effect of the sublime, which for Kant creates a higher awareness of the subject’s mental faculties by overwhelming the subject. Whereas in Kant the sublime marks the failure of articulation, in Białoszewski language seems to be both the tool of cognition and articulation, apprehension and comprehension. The apprehension of reality by means of the senses is transformed into an “aesthetic” comprehension of reality via its totalization in language. By transforming his perception of reality into a totalized act of comprehension through language, Białoszewski mak es his poetry appear to be an aesthetic manifestation of the act of cognition—that is, an act of mind.