The history of Poland, since the 18th century, has been marked by an almost unending struggle for survival. From 1795 through 1945, she was partitioned four times by her stronger neighbors, most of whom were intent on suppressing if not eradicating Polish culture.
Because of this, it is maybe not so surprising that much of the great literature written in modern Poland has been politically and patriotically engaged. Yet there is a second current as well, that of authors devoted above all to the craft of literary expression, creating art for art’s sake, and not as a didactic national service. Such a poet is Tytus Czyżewski, one of the chief, and most interesting, literary figures of the 20th century.
Growing to maturity in the benign Austrian partition of Poland, and creating most of his works in the twenty-year window of authentic Polish independence stretching between the two World Wars, Czyżewski is an avant-garde poet, dramatist and painter who popularized the new approach to poetry established in France by Guillaume Apollinaire, and was to exert a marked influence on such multi-faceted artists as Tadeusz Kantor.
A Burglar of the Better Sort (Glagoslav) offers, in the English translation of Charles S. Kraszewski, the entirety of Czyżewski’s surviving literary output, from surrealistic plays like “Donkey” and “Sun in Metamorphosis” and his inimitable “formistic poems” through the playful Christmas “pastorals” which so delighted Czesław Miłosz, to his theoretical writings, which form the basis for his radically individual, shamanistic approach to literary creation. A truly global talent, Czyżewski belongs to the world, a world which, beyond Poland, finally has the opportunity to get to know him.
Tytus Czyżewski (1880–1945) was a multifaceted artistic talent, creative in drama, poetry, and painting. His sometimes belligerent critical manifestos — included in this translation — helped establish the foundations of contemporary art in the early decades of the 20th century.
Czyżewski studied for a while under the tutelage of another great Polish polymath, the painter and poet Stanisław Wyspiański. As a painter, he was associated with Expressionism and Formism (of which he was the main motor, in both painting and poetry).
After completing his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, he spent some five years in Paris, where he came under the influence of Picasso, the Cubists, and Cézanne in painting, and Guillaume Apollinaire in poetry. His poetry and plays, all of which are contained in A Burglar of the Better Sort, are refreshingly disengaged, politically and patriotically, which marks him as fresh voice in the literary tradition of his homeland, and arguably makes his stunningly creative output more accessible to readers beyond Poland’s borders.
Chiefly concerned with form, he strove towards the anarchization and autonomy of the word and the poetic phrase, admittedly following in the footsteps of Apollinaire and Marinetti, both of whom he held in high esteem. Both his literary works and his painting are imbued with a radical modernism which yet acknowledges the folk traditions of southern Poland, where he was born and spent most of his life. In this respect, and others, Czyżewski had a significant impact on the future of Polish art, in particular, that of another giant of contemporary painting and theatre, Tadeusz Kantor.
Recently published in paperback, hardback and as an e-book, the book can be ordered on Amazon and other places. ◊