UST Theologian Honored For Poetry
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UST Theologian Honored For Poetry

Fr. IhanowitzIn between his duties as a priest, theologian, professor and university administrator, Father Janusz Ihnatowicz would find time to scribble a few lines of verse, painstakingly revising and editing them to his satisfaction.

Over the years, Ihnatowicz’s little hobby yielded nine volumes of published poetry, inspired literary scholarship and now has earned him a lifetime achievement award. Ihnatowicz, 82, was recently honored by the Union of Polish Writers Abroad for his contributions to Polish literature. The retired University of St. Thomas theology professor traveled to London in January to receive the award.

Ihnatowicz’s passion for poetry predates his call to the priesthood – he got his first poem published at 19. Unlike the work of a more famous Polish poet-priest – Pope John Paul II – Ihnatowicz said his poems are not intended to be philosophy in verse. Instead, his poems are inspired by everyday images and experiences.

“A poem is painting through words,” Ihnatowicz said. “Some image strikes you, and you try to convey that through the meanings and sounds of words.”

Images as common as a dog sitting outside a kennel or a flower bed of red poppies beside a train station can get his poetic juices flowing, Ihnatowicz said. Despite these seemingly humble origins, the resulting poetry has attracted scholarly notice for its skill and depth. His poetry has been the subject of at least two doctoral dissertations and now a literature professor in Poland is compiling for publication a comprehensive collection of Ihnatowicz’s work.

Most of his poems are written in his native Polish, but Ihnatowicz did write one published volume of poetry in English. Good poetry is meant to be read aloud, he said, and developing a feel for the sound and nuance of a second language takes work.

“When you write in a different language, you have to embrace the genius of that language,” Ihnatowicz said. “Your thoughts and feelings and intuitions have to be in that language.”

Translating poetry into another language while still conveying all the meaning and richness of the original is even trickier, he added. Ihnatowicz himself has translated the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Yeats and others into Polish.

He credits renowned 20th century English poets – particularly T.S. Eliot – as deep influences on his own style and technique. Ihnatowicz identifies with Eliot’s no-nonsense approach to poetry, with its emphasis on mastering the craft and storytelling.

“A poem isn’t a romantic idea or a confession,” he said. “It has to say something objective.”

This methodical approach is borne out by Ihnatowicz’s meticulous writing habits. A five-line poem would typically require about 15 pages of drafts. And he had to squeeze in this work during bits of leisure time over a long, busy career as a priest and academic.

Ihnatowicz first left Poland when he was 15 to escape the new post-war communist regime. He and his mother were smuggled out to Berlin and then to London. There, they rejoined his father, a former Polish military officer who survived the German invasion in 1939 and fled to England. The family eventually settled in Canada. 

Ihnatowicz returned to Poland in 1958 to enter the seminary. After his ordination, he was tasked with college student ministry, an especially risky assignment because Communist authorities had little tolerance for any Church attempts to influence young people.

When Pope John XXIII released the encyclical Pacem in Terris, its publication was censored in Poland, with authorities cutting a line that criticized some political systems as tyrannical. Ihnatowicz, who was already under government scrutiny and had his apartment bugged, took to the pulpit and read the censored part aloud. Under mounting pressure from authorities, he had to leave Poland for good.

He went on to receive a licentiate in theology in Rome and then went to Toronto to work on his doctorate. It was by happenstance that Ihnatowicz, who is not a Basilian, found his way to UST. A Canadian priest who knew Ihnatowicz got word from a Basilian acquaintance that there was an opening at St. Thomas that had to be filled quickly. Ihnatowicz was tracked down through a Toronto phonebook and in 1969 he moved to Houston and joined UST’s theology faculty.

He eventually became chair of the theology department, a post he held for 15 years. Retired now, he still lives at the Basilian residence in Donaghue Hall and stays busy writing theology. However, he does not rule out another work of poetry, if inspiration strikes. 

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