Updated: Nov 21
Adam Zagajewski appeared on the public stage in Poland as a poet and critic during the turbulent years of the 1960s/1970s. With Stanisław Barańczak, Ewa Lipska, and Ryszard Krynicki, he was a part of the “New Wave,” Nowa Fala literary movement that marked its presence with passionate protest and social engagement. His collection of essays The Unrepresented World, written together with Julian Kornhauser, became the manifesto of the Generation of ’68 that proclaimed poetry’s ethical obligations and the commitment to an unadorned description of reality.
Zagajewski’s life was marked by dislocation. He sums it up in “A Defense of Ardor”: “From Lvov to Gliwice, from Gliwice to Kraków, from Kraków to Berlin (for two years); then to Paris, for a long while, and from there to Houston every year for four months; then back to Kraków.” This journey across two continents, from one temporary home to another, from one strange city to another, was defined by necessity and historical circumstances beyond his control, but also by personal choice. He decided to move to Kraków, to study philosophy and psychology at the Jagiellonian University, and to Paris, in December of 1982, to follow his heart in a quest of a beautiful woman, Maja Wodecka.
Living in Paris as a still unrecognized émigré-poet, Zagajewski stated, “I lost two homelands, but I sought a third: a space for the imagination.” This world of the imagination was vast and inclusive, as his wanderings offered him a broader perspective and an access to literatures of diverse kinds. Zagajewski knew how to appreciate and cultivate these riches, turning the readings and personal encounters into sources for his poems and essays. He wrote movingly about Józef Czapski – as a painter, an imposing figure of moral authority, a keeper of fascinating diaries, and as a dear friend. A similar blend of personal and literary elements characterizes his writing about the American poet Edward Hirsch; Joseph Brodsky, an exile from Soviet Russia; or Derek Walcott, from the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia.
In Zagajewski’s pantheon, the “poets of witness” are especially important: Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam, who could “blend a tragic vision of life with a strong sense of humor and a wonderful concreteness of images.” But he also greatly appreciates the diversity of voices: the German-language poets Hölderlin and Rilke “yearning for eternity” as well as Gottfried Benn, more expressionist and pessimistic; the Czech Vladimir Holan, dark-toned and full of surprises; the exuberant French mystic Rimbaud and Guillaume Apollinaire, who stands “in the middle of the world,” at the crossroads of Tradition and Modernity. He returns faithfully to the great C. P. Cavafy, W. H. Auden and Czesław Miłosz – “ the poets of reason,” with reason regarded as a gift of God, the inner voice that should direct us towards beauty and good.
Of the Polish poets, besides Miłosz, whom he reread again, and again, Zagajewski considered himself in debt to Cyprian Norwid, Aleksander Wat, Wisława Szymborska, and especially to Zbigniew Herbert, whose poetry became a steady point of reference and a crucial sign-post. Several times in his writings Zagajewski refers to a visit that the already famous poet paid to his high school in Gliwice. As a teenager in that provincial city, like his schoolmates, he cared more about parties, pop music or sports, than about anything related to poetry. In literature, the theater of the absurd and Kafka were fashionable at the time among the more ambitious or snobbish classmates. It was a passing and casual encounter - Herbert probably on the way to readings in Cracow stopped by in a couple of smaller cities in Silesia – but it made lasting impression on young Zagajewski, as described in the essay “The Shabby and the Sublime: “[H]is visit changed my view of literature. Not right away; but slowly and steadily. I followed his work attentively from then on, and I noticed that, unlike certain absurdists, Herbert had no parti pris, no a priori theory of the world. In place of dogma, I found a flexible, unforced, search for meaning; flexible, like a person crossing an Italian town at dawn. His poetry was marked by the war, by the occupation by the dingy totalitarianism of the Soviet state. But it retained a certain humanist buoyancy, a serenity.”
Zagajewski’s poetry follows in the direction traced by Herbert’s humanist convictions. Commenting on “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” one of his best-known poems, he highlights the moment of self-revelation that occurred during yet another journey, on a train crossing Germany. The poem was born from the clash of emotions, from a juxtaposition of two certainties: “The first was the certainty, which I reached after years of looking for an understanding of my inner stance, that I’m rather one of those who praise than a radical rebel (even if in my beginnings I was on the rebel’s side). The second was the observation (…) that this world I wanted to praise was deeply corrupt, mutilated, filled with despair, with loss. It ignited my imagination. Contradictions are beautiful.”
Over the years of continuous, impressive in scope work – 15 volumes of poetry, 10 books of essays, two novels, a couple of translations – Zagajewski turns from protest towards affirmation, from the polemics to deepened reflection. In his later work, the poet becomes comfortable with the use of the personal “I,” dedicates attention to remembrance and celebration of the particular, accepts the limits of certainties.
There are no clear or fixed answers to our doubts and fears and anxieties. The world is mysterious and the meaning of it all remains veiled. But the lack of ready answers does not doom us to the inner discord or nihilistic despair. To the contrary, the uncertainty demands action. It prods one and prompts to continue a search. It leaves open a possibility of grasping the “world’s wholeness.”
“We write,” Zagajewski repeats in various contexts, “to understand the world.” To sustain hope that the moments of lucidity, moments of “higher consciousness,” are possible, even if rare and precious. To uphold our capacity to feel wonderment and delight. In his own words:
Let me see, I ask.
Let me persist, I say.
A cold rain falls at night.
In the streets and avenues of my city
quiet darkness is hard at work.
Poetry searches for radiance.
New York, 4.23.2021