Polish literature, body of writings in Polish, one of the Slavic languages. The Polish national literature holds an exceptional position in Poland. Over the centuries it has mirrored the turbulent events of Polish history and at times sustained the nation’s cultural and political identity.

Poland acquired a literary language in Latin when it became a Christian land in the 10th century. When Mieszko I, prince of Poland, accepted Christianity in 966, he invited Roman Catholic priests from western Europe to build churches and monasteries as religious and cultural centres. In these centres Latin was the official language of the church, and it eventually became the language of early Polish literature.

Thereafter literature in the Polish language was slow to emerge. The development of a national literature was restrained in part by Poland’s remoteness from the cultural centres of Western civilization and by the difficulties that assailed the young state, which was frequently attacked by plundering invaders and subsequently weakened by division into small principalities.

New trends in poetry and drama

Poetry after 1956 was a vehicle for expressions of philosophical thought. The satirical poet Stanisław Jerzy Lec was noted for his skeptical philosophical aphorisms in Myśli nieuczesane (published in series from 1957; Unkempt Thoughts). Zbigniew Herbert, one of the outstanding 20th-century poets, distinguished himself with moralistic and metaphysical poems (many of them appearing in English translation in two volumes entitled Selected Poems, 1968 and 1977). The individual’s entanglement in momentous 20th-century events dominated the intellectual, ironic poetry of Wisława Szymborska, as evidenced in such volumes as Wołanie do Yeti (1957; “Calling Out to Yeti”), Sól (1962; “Salt”), and Miracle Fair (2001), the English translation of poems from several volumes. Poet Tadeusz Różewicz had a profound influence on his younger followers; from Niepokój (1947; “Faces of Anxiety”), his first collection, to Głos anonima (1961; “The Nameless Voice”), Różewicz’s work was preoccupied with moral themes. He also wrote plays resembling those of Eugène Ionesco: Świadkowie albo nasza mała stabilizacja (1962; “The Witnesses, or Our Little Stabilization”; translated in The Witnesses and Other Plays), and one published with poems in Kartoteka (1961; The Card Index and Other Plays).

The lyrical poetry of the generation of poets born about 1930 was characterized by a variety of aims and styles. The controversial work of such poets as Miron Białoszewski showed extreme experimentalism; on the other hand, a poet such as Ernest Bryll reasserted traditional poetic forms. Some poets—Tadeusz Nowak and Jerzy Harasymowicz, for example—turned for inspiration to the peasant culture; others—among them Jarosław M. Rymkiewicz, an outstanding translator of English and American poetry—based their poetic practice upon the example of T.S. Eliot, in a return to Baroque and classical forms, and developed an erudite, allusive poetry. Most representative of the poets of this generation is perhaps Stanisław Grochowiak, who created an expressive poetic style based on unexpected juxtapositions and a deliberate emphasis on the grotesque.

Critics and essayists included Artur Sandauer, Kazimierz Wyka, Jan Błoński, Andrzej Kijowski, and Jan Kott, who immigrated to the United States and whose Szkice o Szekspirze (1961; Shakespeare, Our Contemporary) was widely translated and discussed. Leopold Tyrmand, a successful novelist, also immigrated to the United States, where he published a series of essays highly critical of communism.

Political events in 1968—student riots, anti-Semitic campaigns, harsher censorship—forced a number of writers to emigrate and publish abroad. Émigré centres such as those in Paris played an increasing role in supporting the opposition and promoting literature free of censorship. Particularly important was the Institut Littéraire in France, headed by Jerzy Giedroyc. The Institut was the publisher of the literary monthly Kultura (1947–2000). (After 1989, when the communist system was abolished in Poland, writers and books circulated freely, but the role of émigré publishers in promoting Polish literature remained quite visible.) Among those writers who stayed in Poland, many, including Paweł Jasienica and Stefan Kisielewski, were temporarily blacklisted for their political views. Jasienica published a series of historical studies emphasizing Poland’s liberal traditions, while Kisielewski used his magazine column to strongly criticize the political system. In the 1970s and early 1980s, social tensions, political upheavals, and economic crises dominated Polish life. Major civil unrest, in particular the workers’ riots and strikes that led to the creation of the independent trade union Solidarity, encouraged writers to challenge the authorities and the official aesthetic. Censorship still forced many of them to publish abroad, but independent publishing houses emerged that allowed their works to be circulated in Poland. This opened the way for the works of hitherto proscribed foreign authors, such as George Orwell, and émigré authors, such as Miłosz and Gombrowicz, to be published. Also available were books that analyzed the political situation and delved into the recesses of Polish life and history. Among the most important and widely discussed books of the period were Konwicki’s novels Kompleks polski (1977; The Polish Complex) and Mała apokalipsa (1979; A Minor Apocalypse); Andrzejewski’s long-suppressed novel Miazga (1981; “Pulp”); and the ironic reflections recorded in a monthly diary called Miesiące (1980; A Warsaw Diary 1978–1981) by Kazimierz Brandys, who left Poland in 1981. Also important were volumes of poetry and essays by Ryszard Krynicki and Stanisław Barańczak, who moved to the United States; the diaries of Gombrowicz; and two additional volumes of Zbigniew Herbert’s poems, Pan Cogito (1974; “Mr. Cogito”; partially translated in Selected Poems), the poetic meditations of a kind of intellectual Everyman, and Raport z oblężonego miasta (1983; Report from the Besieged City).

With the restoration of freedom after 1989, Polish literature’s political influence diminished but its artistic values remained strong, as evinced by Wisława Szymborska’s receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. Polish literature at the turn of the 21st century accommodated various literary trends. While many young writers escaped into realms of fantasy and abstraction, a trend toward realism resulted in outstanding novels such as Madame (1998; Eng. trans. Madame), by Antoni Libera, and Oksana (1999), by Włodzimierz Odojewski.