Janko Polić Kamov

The Knight of the Black Swearword - the young man whose verses shocked his contemporaries.

Janko Polić Kamov (17 November 1886 – 8 August 1910) was a Croatian writer and poet.

On 8 August 1910, a young man died in Barcelona who, during his life time unnerved and made all those around him crazy, and even today manages to excite the world’s literary public who see him as a true discovery. The most frightening Croatian poet, The Knight of the Black Swearword, as he was known, died before he turned twenty four. This miraculous pen was broken as befits only the great and the damned – at exactly the right moment, when his time was up. His name was Janko Polić Kamov.


 

I love you, my paper, and warm is my love;
warm as my blood and frantic as my fury.
Give yourself forever - black are my kisses;
black are my kisses, with rosy blood within them.
J. P. Kamov: A Curse


The first Croatian poet of the asphalt was born in Sušak, a small provincial settlement which developed rapidly following the construction of the Zagreb-Rijeka railway, on 17 November 1886. He was registered as Janko Mate Vinko Polić in the register of births. Young Polić graduated from the Pećine popular elementary school with excellent grades and very exemplary behaviour at Sušak. Whilst enrolled at the Sušak grammar school he continued with appropriate behaviour and good grades, but in retrospect this was all merely an illusion under which rebellion and the disappointment of a well-read and sensitive boy who grew up before his time seethed. Together with his companions and peers Mijo Radošević and Josip Baričević he founded the Cefas Secret Society which was also a revolutionary group, a literary political association and a secret anarchist organization. Their aim was to start a rebellion, blow up entire Croatia with dynamite and bombs and turn it into a revolutionary chaos.

Honest beyond all limits, always almost solemnly ready to reply as he saw fit, Polić started being punished at school. Following one of the conflicts with a professor, Polić was expelled from his grammar school and continued his education in Senj. There he was enrolled in the Senj grammar school and lived in an ultra conservative Catholic boarding-school Ožegovićianum. He was a rebellious and defiant boy who worked hard on his education by reading literature, which at that time was forbidden for students. He went from bad to worse.

The discipline was too much for the young man who had been preparing to blow-up the entire Croatia only a year earlier. Five months in Senj were more than enough. He was expelled. He went to Zagreb where his family had moved in the meantime, due to his father’s bankruptcy on Sušak. The seed of his escape grew. Zagreb was too insignificant and Croatia too small. He became obsessed with escaping to anywhere. He was only eighteen years old. His health was sometimes good, sometimes bad. The dark side of the Polić family slowly came to prey upon Janko, grafting into him the mark of death abundant in his nearest and dearest who had been dying as if for a wager from a variety of illnesses, in madness and alcohol. The lungs of freedom with which the Polić family so willingly breathed were incurably sick. Out of the fourteen children of Ante and Gemma Polić, only eight lived for a time plagued with illnesses. Their deaths and self-destruction followed Kamov until the end of his life. His sisters died, followed by his mother and father. Only the brothers remained and his dream of escape. The dream that would soon become a reality. Escape and writing. Both terrible and frantic. As if he had known that those fatal signs of destruction and madness were not only present in other people.

In 1906 he went to Venice where he lived with his brother Milutin who was studying music. A serious bone tuberculosis had begun consuming the already extremely talented composer of melancholic, intimate and romantic melodies who died two years later under horrifying circumstances. In 1907 Kamov returned to Zagreb where he wrote the “Tragedy of the Brains”, while recuperating from pneumonia which he caught following a heavy drinking session with his companions. By pen and by drink. After a series of unsuccessful attempts to publish his works, his permanent benefactor, his brother Vladimir, came to his assistance. The twenty year-old Janko Polić published four books together: two collections of poems “A Curse” and “Paper Pinched All Over” as well as two drama studies the “Tragedy of the Brains” and “On Native Soil”. The books were shocking for Zagreb's “kiss-your-hand and obedient servant” public. Kamov screams, roars, abhors and spits, detests and grinds his teeth. This eruption of human anger against the hypocritical morality, Stanislav Šimić later wrote, was unprecedented in the Croatian language.

Kamov wrote his hurricane-like lyric diary, completely sweeping away the Croatian literature of the day, writing exclusively according to the dictate of freedom, announcing the imminent arrival of European Expressionism. He spent his summers in Punat where his brother Vladimir had a house, spending time with the local inhabitants and writing. The climate had a positive effect on the poet and this is where he rested after his wanderings around Italy. He left Punat again and went to Italy, France and Spain. His unshaken faith in his work remained. In 1910 Kamov arrived in Barcelona by ship, which at the time was not only the most restless European city, but also the birthplace of the new avant-garde art, the city that awakened and rebelled. Janko Polić Kamov found a place to live in the Calle de Sant Pau 55, in an obscure neighbourhood, close to the luxurious Rambla. He wrote only two articles and several memos. He suddenly fell ill and was taken to the Santa Creu hospital where the dejected and the poor people were treated or met their end. After a short three-day agony he died at 2 pm of 8 August, as documented in the Santa Creu and Sant PAU hospital’s Register of patients that had either been released or had died. The renegade of the fateful name was buried as befits a Croatian poet. Without a name. In the so called Cementerio del Este – a mass grave used for the Catalan poor. Whether by chance or not, today at the place where the hospital once stood, we can now find the Catalan National Library. And the souls of the cursed.




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Any comparative historical analysis of literature demonstrates from the context of examination that a point of division, a beginning or foreshadowing of something new, is present in various places. This time, aside from the usual division, let us consider the special status of the fin de siècle as an inherently undefinable yet sufficiently recognizable category and a motif for discussion of the intercontinentally virtually unknown but very important Croatian writer Janko Polic Kamov.

Janko Polić Kamov: Bitanga

Rebellious by nature, Janko Polić Kamov (1886-1910) was expelled from Rijeka high school and dropped out of the school in Zagreb. Because of his participation in the demonstration against the Hungarian governor in Croatia, Khuen-Héderváry, he was sentenced to three months in prison in 1903. Headstrong and temperamental, he called himself Kamov, after Ham (or Kam) from the Old Testament, who saw his father Noah naked but unlike his siblings Shem and Japhet did not cover his nakedness, thus issuing a curse. Kamov probably saw himself as a revealer of bourgeoise hypocrisy and wrote to his brother Vladimir in 1910 - "Kamov to me is a literary program..."

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