Tag Archives: poetry

THE WORD AS WEAPON

An audience, trusted and gathered by word of mouth, had assembled in a large meeting room with blocked windows on a street in the heart of Warsaw. They had come to hear poetry. If discovered by the Gestapo police, they knew they would be killed on the spot! Lookouts were posted at strategic points.

The poet, an underground member of the Home Army (or A.K.) began. His careful reading of the vital and historic memory of the recent past.

Introduced by his code name, Mierzwa, Józef Pluskowski spoke of the shut down schools, closed universities and newspapers, and all meetings not in German. Hitler had come to Warsaw on October 5th having announced that his army should “kill without mercy, men, women, and children of the Polish race and culture” .

“Attack
Shouts Stefan Starzynski Send help Europe
To fighting Poland”

Poetry therefore was an act of defiance, to preserve a living language during a reign of terror.. Józef continued his observations reporting that

“each day the tormentor lurked,

Each day people were shot to fill hearts with fear”

His young wife Irena had already lost her brother Henryk in the daily roundup of people, taken randomly from the street as “hostages”, then executed. She had also terminated her first pregnancy by jumping off a tree – it was not a time to bear children.

Instead came the effort to preserve lives. Hidden in Józef and Irena’s extensive apartment, at 5 Elektoralna, was a Jewish family of four, the Millers, and a space where Józef/Mierzwa could write, in some safety, notes, reports, and poems in the newly forbidden language.

There was also his contact with the Ghetto. An official entrance existed near his home in the wall separating the Ghetto from the “Aryan” side. Irena, mourning her brother, had volunteered to carry arms to the desperate Ghetto fighters preparing for revolt. On one recorded occasion, she had carried some 98 hand grenades past the guards at the entrance, having practised how to walk casually with a heavy weight under her fur coat. Her younger blonde sister, Lucyna, came along as a distraction for the guards.

When the uprising of 1943 took place, Józef recorded the ultimate fate with another clandestine meeting in which his words contrasted the exceptional sunny autumn days with the protest of those fighting the tanks.

“Each step is in blood. The traces of blood of the fighting
The Ghetto! A graveyard! Grave next to grave
The ashes of the burnt! Blood in the rubble and smoke”

After every organized reading he never went home, sleeping in pre-arranged hiding places so as to ensure he wouldn’t be followed and denounced. Even then, he still had to pay off blackmailers and,, according to witnesses, he was questioned extensively and even tortured, surviving only because of his fluent knowledge of German and ambiguous answers.

His verses at this time were collected and mimeographed. Just before the uprising of 1944 they were issued under the title “From the struggle and Labour”. As important as carrying arms, Poetry was an efficient way of doing this. In five lines, as much information and feeling could be conveyed as in five paragraphs of prose, providing topics for internal debate. Resist, witness, educate were the recurrent themes. Always the threat of instant death was there to focus the mind.

He wrote that
“The enemy foams, and gasps in revenge Warsaw is a burnt desert,
Blood mixed with sand,
Glory to the soldiers”

Fighting as an officer in the great uprising of 1944, he was given the highest military awards for bravery. He was wounded three times before being captured. Concentration camp for seven weeks was followed by being classified as an official POW and deported to Germany.

His verses from the “Officers Transit Camp” in his “Saga of the Warsaw uprising” asserted that “the world will never forget, even if a century were to pass”.

In the camp at Gerolstein, writing letters was permitted as long as they could pass scrutiny. Here, writing in Polish, in verse, enabled him to confuse the censors and send vital information home:


“German town, near the Belgian border

from a distant and to us
such a hostile land
write those in captivity
Once from Warsaw, the uprising, now

In the camp” – 11/11/1944

Until the liberation that followed the Battle of the Bulge, he barely understood that his wife, Irena, had given birth to a son in the middle of the German bombardments, in the cellars of 5 Elektoralna. Only after the German surrender was he able to meet him, a year later.

He died in exile in Paris, away from a Stalin controlled Poland. He was aged 54.
The last verses in the selected “96 poems” were those in the “Words of Freedom” section where he wrote that
“we are citizens of the world
No citizenship do we have
After prison, detention, confinement and gulag…
How our desire to soar free grows”.

The poems are in the original Polish with an outline introduction, in English,
 to his life and work and available under : Józef Pluskowski, Poesie


He is also acknowledged in the Warsaw Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

In 2016 Józef and Irena Pluskowski were honoured by the Yad Vashem Holocaust


Memorial in Jerusalem with the title Righteous Among the Nations.


Poland awarded him the highest order for valour, the Virtuti Military, during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.

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Books, Beats and City Lights

ginsberg-dylan-mcclureWriting in the 1950’s but projecting “to Posterity” , Irish poet Louis MacNeice, envisioned a time when reading and even speaking would be replaced, “By other less difficult media.”

Today bookshops are vanishing, the internet rules and knowledge is too often submerged by a flood of information. However, in San Francisco, still standing out as a major source of mind-energy is the famed City Lights bookstore in North Beach. Its principal founder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, defined his endeavour as a “finger in the dyke holding back the flood of unknowing.”

ferlinghetti-1Presenting itself as a literary meeting place since 1953, City Lights now at 60, both a bookshop and a publisher, places itself firmly “where the streets of the earth meet the boulevards of the mind.”

Placards in the windows proclaim “Open doors, Open books, Open minds”. Ferlinghetti, self-styled as an earlier bohemian, enabled the Beat Generation by publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl ( ‘’ I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”) following the ground breaking live reading at Gallery 6 in 1955.

Behind the poets, the new approach was marked by the train-of-thought writing of Jack Kerouac adding a new dimension to the easy going City-on-the-Bay. In his seminal novel “On the Road” the hero, Dean Moriarty, asserted that “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who…burn, burn, burn, like fabulous roman candles.”

Many had experienced that feeling of jazz music “splitting the earth” and Kerouac was delighted that “Everybody in ‘Frisco blew. It was the end of the continent, they didn’t give a damn.”

d5271702lDefense of free speech, liberation of the word from censorship became another rite of passage to the developing counterculture. Obscenity trials involving the publishing of Howl by City Lights and presenting Michael McClure’s “The Beard” on stage were eventually won. They made possible other publications such as the first printing of Henry Miller’s provocative novels in the United States, and drew much attention to the writers on the Bay.

Above all, it was knowledge escaping from the academy, and for the poets a revival of the oral tradition with the writer as performer ; Kerouac demanding that we “ Shout Our Poems In San Francisco Sreets – Predict Earthquakes”.

By 2001 City Lights was established as an official landmark. Ferlinghetti had become the first Poet Laureate of San Francisco and a street, Via Ferlinghetti was named in his honor.

Jack Kerouac Alley materialised as a pedestrian precinct behind the bookstore while the Gallery 6 poetry reading is remembered on Fillmore Street with a bronze plaque outside the site of the former building. All very formal and official and yet the voice of the Beats continues to resonate .

Among the many to acknowledge their influence was Stuart Brand whose work did so much to make technology liberating. He considered meeting the Beats to be his great transforming moment and an antidote to corporate brain-lock. It led to Haight-Ashbury, LSD and the psychedelic revolution, where poets talked and musicians listened.

“My words man, my words” exclaimed Jim Morrison of the Doors, while the coming of Bob Dylan was seen to disturb the peace and discomfort the powerful.

jobs_stewart_brandFinally Steve Jobs , whom Stuart Brand defined as a total hippy ( “I was an early hippy and Steve Jobs a late hippy, we were paying attention to the beatniks”), expressed his admiration for the way Brand had linked various ideas together in his Whole Earth Catalogue to provide the tools to “change civilisation”. Brand still offers controversial ideas on TED conferences and lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.

Each generation rediscovers the vitality of what became known as the San Francisco Renaissance. Charismatic actor of our times, Johnny Depp, when advised how to read Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues for a film protested “ I’m not reading as him, I’m reading it as me. It’s my interpretation of his piece.” Depp insisted, however, that without On The Road or Howl there would never have been a Bob Dylan or “The Times They Are-a-Changin”.

tv-poetry-9609-1In tribute to the indispensable collections emerging from City Lights, Johnny Depp emphasizes that “the riches I was able to walk away with from these heroes, teachers and mentors are not available in any school that I’ve ever heard of.”

City Lights Bookstore remains a shining beacon in San Francisco, a reason in itself to visit the city.

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