“I see and I describe”: The Interpretation and Adaptation of Mickiewiczian Visuality in the Poetics of Julian Przyboś and Czesław Miłosz

Kris Van Heuckelom, Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium

The aim of the paper is to critically revise the well-established proposition of the Polish literary historian Błoński (1978:197-210) stating that contemporary Polish poetry is generally characterised by a bipolar evolution (avant-garde versus classicizing tendencies). Although Błoński’s dualistic approach has been subject to modifications, both on a theoretical level (Balcerzan 1978) and a literary historical level (Sienkiewicz 1998), it remains for many Polish literary historians an important and legitimate frame of reference (cf. Kwiatkowski 1985:94, Stala 1991:7-10, and Fiut 2003:249-250). Błoński links the dualistic character of contemporary Polish poetry with the names of two authors who have gathered a following in postwar Polish poetry: Julian Przyboś (1901-1970) and Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004). During the interbellum, Przyboś was one of the main representatives of the so-called Cracow Vanguard, a literary movement that advocated a clean break with literary tradition. Czesław Miłosz too was initially influenced by the poetics of the Polish Vanguard (during the 1930s, he was a member of the so-called Second Vanguard), but shortly afterwards he set out on a new course. Instead of emphasizing (as Przyboś did) the constant renewal of the “poetic medium,” Miłosz conceived of poetry as the ability to capture human experience in language (departing from a creative approach to literary and cultural tradition).

The attempted revision of Błoński’s dualistic approach to contemporary Polish poetry is based on an analysis of a significant micro-element that fulfills a key function in the poetics of both Julian Przyboś and Czesław Miłosz, viz. visuality. As recent research has shown, both the “avant-gardist” Przyboś (see Wysłouch 1994 and Sienkiewicz 1998) and the “classic” Miłosz (see Van Heuckelom 2003) ascribe a fundamental role to various forms of visual experience, in poetic theory as well as in poetic practice, and can be regarded as “oculocentrically” inspired poets. Particular attention is paid to the interpretation and adaptation of the Mickiewiczian formula “widzę i opisuję” (“I see and I describe”, from the Invocation in Adam Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz) in the poetics of both Przyboś and Miłosz. On the one hand, the paper attempts to analyze the interpretation and evaluation of the poetical strategy of “seeing and describing” in a series of metatexts by Przyboś and Miłosz (especially Przyboś’s well-known essay “Widzę i opisuję” (1950) and Miłosz’s Nobel Lecture (1980)). On the other hand, the paper examines the adaptation of Mickiewiczian visualist poetics and some of its artistic, ethical and philosophical features in a series of poems by Przyboś and Miłosz. Particular attention is thereby paid to the significant function of mimesis and the principle of “Anschaulichkeit” in the poetry of both Przyboś and Miłosz.