Recognised by no less an authority than Czeslaw Milosz as one of the most original poetic voices to emerge in post-war Poland, Tymoteusz Karpowicz was born in the district of Vilnius in 1921. A contemporary of Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Rózewicz, he made his début in 1941, two years after the Soviet invasion of his homeland. When Poland's frontiers shifted in 1945, he moved westwards to Szczecin, where he worked for Polish Radio.
Karpowicz refrained from writing during the period of socialist realism, preferring to take a degree, and then teach, at the University of Wroclaw. His first post-thaw volume, Kamienna muzyka ("Stone Music", 1958), presented a balance-sheet of Poland's recent past.
After being awarded the Literary Prize of the City of Wroclaw in 1958, Karpowicz renounced his academic career to devote himself to poetry - editing and co-editing literary magazines such as the short-lived Nowe Sygnaly ("New Signals"), Odra and Poezja ("Poetry"). He also wrote a number of fine radio plays and stage dramas. His next two collections, Znaki równania ("Equations", 1960) and W imie znaczenia ("In the Name of Meaning", 1962) showed a further incursion into dream space and its magical connotations, through which reality is perceived as a tangled forest of pluralistic symbols.
Often classified as linguistic poetry, his writing was paradoxically motivated by a deep-rooted distrust of the word. From the very beginning, his poetic language was opposed to the norms of everyday speech. He vigorously dissected, then dispensed as in a retort, the primary essences of a new language; he revered Rilke. And Odwrócone swiatlo ("Inverted Light", 1972) was seen as a turning-point in Polish linguistic awareness.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Karpowicz's poetry has been labelled "difficult", "inaccessible" or even "impossible". According to Karpowicz's tenets, the creative act was a dramatic attempt to build a pure cognitive situation, an eternal game of irreconcilable opposites. Way back in the Sixties, he provided a major source of inspiration and undisputed authority to a whole bevy of younger poets.
In the Seventies, Karpowicz travelled on scholarships to France, America and Germany, and in 1978 was appointed Professor of Polish Literature at the University of Illinois in Chicago. He won an Award of the Alfred Jurzykowski Foundation in New York. But his meticulous and unrelenting dedication to his teaching duties resulted in a slowdown of his poetic output. Retirement in 1992 as Professor Emeritus enabled him however to complete the highly crafted structure of his magnum opus. Conceived as a linguistic model of the universe, Sloje zadrzewne ("Rings Behind the Wood", 1999) is also a poetic treatise of ontological, theological and metaphysical import, for which he received the Odra Literary Prize in 2000.
Karpowicz has inevitably tended to enjoy élitist rather than widespread acclaim. His last years were marred by an acute sense of "exile", his largely self-inflicted isolation in suburban Chicago, and the death of his wife Maria. Like much of his writing, Karpowicz's poetic testament and swansong calls for an erudite readership. The reception of his work may not have been helped by his own charming obduracy and uncompromising perfectionism. Yet it by no means detracts from the intellectual mastery and strikingly innovative quality of his verse.
Nina Taylor-TerleckaReuse content