Fr Jan Twardowski (1915-2006)

A poet passed away

Milena Kindziuk

'God smiles and has a sense of humour', Fr Jan Twardowski said just before his death. He passed away in one of the Warsaw hospitals on Wednesday 18 January. He dictated a poem during his last night. He wanted it to be read during his funeral.

Poetry like religion

Fr Twardowski dedicated his most famous poem 'Let us hurry to love people; they depart so quickly' to Anna Kamienska, the poet who was converted in his presence. 'I knew that God's matters were happening in Anna's soul', he confessed once.
He was unknown as a poet till 1970. Very few people read his poetry. Few knew he existed although he was born in 1915. When he was born there were horse carriages in Warsaw. World War I was being waged. He lived in Elektoralna Street in Warsaw, in a four room flat that had belonged to the writer Melchior Wankowicz, who had moved out. He had three sisters, and grandmother lived with them. He finished the well-known Tadeusz Czacki Gymnasium.
His first poems were published in the gymnasium youth newspaper called 'Kuznia Mlodych' when he was seventeen. In 1935 he began his studies: Polish philology at the University of Warsaw. It was during his student life that he published his first volume of poems entitled 'Powrot Andersena [Andersen's Return] in 1937. In those times Kazimierz Wierzynski enjoyed great success and received a reward for his 'Laur Olimpijski' [Olympic Laurel Wreath]. For many years Fr Twardowski wrote his poems only for himself. After the war he published poems from time to time in 'Tygodnik Powszechny' weekly. Wojciech Zukrowski, his pre-war colleague, brought Fr Twardowski's poems to 'Tygodnik'. Jerzy Turowicz published them at once. It was in 1946. Jerzy Zawieyski discovered Fr Jan's talent, too. In his Diary, on 28 July 1955, he wrote, 'I went to Zoliborz, to the outstanding poet Fr Twardowski. He read his poems to me; he dedicated one poem to me. His poems are characterised by simplicity and beauty. They contain great charm. They are authentic poetry... Twardowski speaks about God using the most common words, he speaks like he prays. That's why his poetry is some sort of religion'.
It was thanks to Zawieyski that in 1959 the first post-war collection of Fr Twardowski's 'Wiersze' [Poems] was published. After that collection there was silence again. Till 1970 when his 'Znaki ufnosci' [Signs of Confidence] appeared and made him famous. Then there were 'Niebieskie okulary' [Blue Glasses], 'Ktory stwarzasz jagody' [You Who Create Blueberries], 'Rwane prosto z krzaka' [Picked up Directly from the Bush]. The collection entitled 'Nie przyszedlem pana nawracac' [I did not Come to Convert You] brought him overwhelming success. Since then his poetry has been simply snapped.

War and call

During the war he belonged to the Home Army. He fought in the Warsaw Uprising. He was in Konskie in the region of Kielce when the Soviets marched in. He found his family in Radom where one of his sisters lived. Then his parents moved to Katowice. Twardowski returned to Warsaw to continue his studies. And something unexpected happened. He had a dream that he was a priest. It was after the fall of the Warsaw Uprising when he often thought why he had survived the war since so many of his colleagues and acquaintances were killed. Soon, in 1945, he entered the seminary and at the same time he finished his Polish studies (he defended his master's thesis in 1947). He received Holy Orders on 4 July 1948. Soon after his ordination he wrote, 'I fear my priesthood/ I am afraid of my priesthood/ I fall to the ground before my priesthood/and before my priesthood I kneel'. Fr Jan did not like to talk about the post-war times. He only mentioned them in his poetry 'I was faithful to You in Stalin's times...' He was not involved in politics during the marshal law. He was engaged in pastoral ministry, talking to people, confessing, and naturally writing. In these years he took part in evenings of poetry.

'To yell or not to yell - that's a big question'

Literary critics toiled over his poetry. They measured the rhythm, weighed the words. They compared them with Fr Baka or with the Skamander group.
'It happened that the critics, analysing my poems, wrote about dialectic, antinomies, Pascal, Heraclitus, Hegel', Fr Twardowski said. 'I was frightened. I opened a volume of my poems. I read, 'a field mouse is sitting, scraping a confessional booth'; 'the one who lifts crepe paper has a swollen hand'; 'sister Konsolata, because she bites and flies' and I calmed down. He wrote his poetry mainly during his vacations.
'I do not wait for inspiration' he ensured us. When he left Warsaw he saw nature, he listened to it and he felt it. And his poems came into being. Fr Twardowski willingly referred to other writers. He knew their works by heart. Sometimes he recited them and changed their words. Thus funny paraphrases came out: bitter ones - 'have heart and do not look into the heart/ it will scare you off' or funny ones ''To yell or not to yell - that's a big question'.
Being a lecturer on literature in the Warsaw Major Seminary he was famous for his literary allusions. 'I will saw [harp] you like this Kuba saws his leg', he said while examining a seminarian, today Bishop Jozef Zawitkowski.

Fr Jan's acquaintances think that the secret of the great success of his poetry is its simplicity. Fr Twardowski said himself, 'Poems are my weaknesses, I always wanted to write them but I could not know how. It is the great grace of God that people read my poems. I am moved, especially now that I am walking with a bag, a stick and death is beckoning to me'.

"Niedziela" 5/2006

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: