Prose from Poetry Magazine

Dangerous Considerations: A Notebook

by Adam Zagajewski
I won't tell you everything. Since nothing's really happening. I represent, moreover, the Eastern European school of discretion: we don't discuss divorces, we don't admit depressions. Life proceeds peacefully on all fronts; beyond the window, a gray, exceptionally warm December. A few concerts. A marvelous young singer performed recently in the lawyers' club. And last night there was a splendid concert of Dmitry Shostakovich's music (they also played a string quartet dedicated to him by his biographer, Krzysztof Meyer: Au-del d'une absence). They performed, among other things, Seven Romances on Poems of Aleksandr Blok, op. 127, a piece I hadn't previously known. The performers were students from the Music Academy, passionate, with excellent technique. The final work, the suite I just mentioned, made a tremendous impression on M. and me. The concert commemorated the composer's hundredth birthday, and thus had an extra something, an extra charge; the students lit candles on the stage and only a few spotlights remained. They seemed to have achieved an extraordinary degree of concentration. That's often the case with very young performers who haven't yet been ruined by routine and careers, young musicians playing joyously, with their whole bodies, their whole souls.

* * *

The joy I feel nearly every time I find myself in Krakow's main square. Regardless of the season or time of day I'm amazed at the place's majesty, the strange, cubist layering of buildings, the conjunction of symmetry and assymmetry, the Italian airiness of the Cloth Hall and the Gothic sobriety of the Marian Cathedral, as if they were gigantic building blocks.

* * *

In today's newspapers: Zbigniew Herbert's archive has been purchased, with government funds, by the State Library in Warsaw for a million dollars. In the US the library and the writer (or his heirs) negotiate such matters; here it became the subject of unpleasant public polemics. Originally the Beinecke Library in New Haven rushed to buy up Herbert's archive, but a group of right-wing writers raised the alarm, protesting (not entirely sincerely, it seemed to me) against “handing over a great poet's legacy to foreigners,” until the rightist government agreed to arrange the purchase. Zbigniew Herbert, a free man and a splendid poet, became the object of political haggling.

* * *

I'm reading Michael Hofmann on Gottfried Benn in Poetry. At the same time the Warsaw journal Literatura na swiecie (Literature in the world) has just published a large selection of Benn's poems, letters, and essays in an issue dedicated to him and Brecht. They both died in 1956 and thus the iron rule of anniversaries caught up with them both fifty years past their deaths — two poets who shared nothing else. Benn mocked the application of Marxist theory to literature early on; in the years before Hitler came to power, his scornful stance isolated him in leftist, literary Berlin, the incorrigible aesthete surrounded by doctrinaire improvers of the species. Every so often I return to Benn's poems and almost always find them electrifying (“Jena vor uns im lieblichen Tale”), along with certain passages in his essays and nearly all the letters to Mr. Oelze, a merchant from Bremen. The letters are offhanded, a bit cynical at times, occasionally lit by moments of pure poetry. Benn, the petty bourgeois par excellence, leading the craftsman's modest life (he was a doctor, a dermatologist, but he was never fashionable, not a financial success), took a liking to Oelze, whom he idealized, glorified, endowed with a higher social standing than Oelze in fact possessed — he became the beneficiary of Benn's own thoughts, provocations, observations, and projects.

* * *

I'm reading Karl Corino's bloated biography of Robert Musil. Musil, the author of The Confusions of Young Törliss and The Man Without Qualities, wrote a beautiful speech on Rilke's death — he was one of those who recognized the poet's greatness early on. I found in the same book an account of Musil's tragicomic performance at the June 1935 Congress in Defense of Culture in Paris. He didn't have a clue that the congress had been organized by the Communists and that one was permitted to criticize only Hitler's regime, not the Soviet Union. But Musil defended artistic individualism and warned against the collectivism growing in various European states. He also insisted that there was no connection between culture and politics; the very existence of culture contains something fragile, capricious, unpredictable, he said, and even a decent political system won't necessarily produce great art. He was hissed by the factions of that great congress's audience, which had expected propagandistic pronouncements, not considered, objective reflections.

Corino also has much to say about the poverty in which Musil lived; the writer even considered suicide during the thirties, at those moments when he could see no financial hope for either himself or his wife. He was attacked by Nazis and Communists alike; the very title of Musil's novel, The Man Without Qualities, must have angered both — since, of course, both groups labored to create a new type of man whose qualities would be sharply defined. He was for both “a representative of the bourgeois era in decline.” (In hindsight, the era never declined at all, or perhaps it declined and then returned.) But Musil spent his last years in Swiss exile, where he lived even more modestly than before, in poverty and isolation. Thomas Mann was an important figure for him; Musil felt a kind of love-hate for him, Hassliebe, as the Germans say. Mann knew nothing but success; even his emigration wasn't a disaster. In conversation, Musil would tremble nervously at the mere mention of Mann's name. Musil's splendid definition of Magic Mountain: the work is a “shark's stomach.” He meant that Mann's great novel holds all sorts of undigested fragments of actual, existing European systems of thought, viewpoints, and so on. The Man Without Qualities follows completely different principles: here all references to political and philosophical realities take on an oblique, allusive, mystical quality. Musil was drawn to der Moglichkeitssinn, the sense of possibility, to whatever happens only in the conditional mood. The question remains open, though — perhaps Mann was right to toss large chunks of actual ideas into Magic Mountain.

* * *

Christmas in Poland is a quintessentially domestic holiday. It is always celebrated at home. Christmas Eve is its climactic moment. Homes and apartments are transformed into strongholds of familial egotism — family love, if you'd rather. The lonely must undergo true miseries unless they're invited to someone else's home. You can't count on restaurants: they're closed. Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday this year, and by morning the streets had already emptied. On Thursday and Friday I saw scores of students trudging towards the train station with their suitcases and backpacks. Krakow was deserted. By seven in the evening, the city was vacant. The Market Square, which teems with people every other day — and night — was black, a wasteland. A wartime atmosphere, as though curfew had fallen.

M. and I went for a walk. We circled the Square, marveling at its extraordinary silence, darkness, emptiness. The countless restaurants facing the Square on every side were all — all! — closed and black. Only one enterprising soul on the whole expanse had realized that a few hungry, thirsty people might turn up. That single warm and lighted spot drew tourists who doubtless couldn't imagine why the ordinarily hospitable restaurants were now shut. Why the churches were also closed (and would open only for midnight mass). They didn't know that the priests were also eating suppers consisting of at least twelve courses, that borscht stood steaming on their tabletops. Frenchmen, Italians, Americans, and Japanese waited in line for their modest sausages and cabbage. Darkness surrounded them. Beyond the windows Polish families feasted, indifferent to the fates of those outside. We sat for a moment at one of the improvised tables; it wasn't cold. Tourists all around, devouring their roasted meat from plastic plates. Honey-colored dabs of mustard on white trays. It was an oasis. It was a caricature of Bethlehem, that lighted space beneath a wooden roof. I told M. that you could write a play trying to capture something from that moment. A silent city and the hushed chatter of tourists. So write it. But I won't.

* * *

I won't get any poems written during these weeks either. It's not the first time this has happened. And I won't go on about it. There isn't much to say. Victor Hugo once summed it up as follows (Karol Berger told me about this as we strolled through Paris, the sixteenth arrondissement). When someone asked him if writing poetry was easy, he said, “When I can write it, it's easy; when I can't, it's impossible.”

* * *

This fall — which was long, warm, and fair — I often passed by the little street called Boguslawskiego. St. Sebastian Street runs right by it, a little isthmus permitting you to pass from the Catholic city center to the Jewish district, Kazimierz; at one point you pass along a wall which conceals a large monastic garden. Next you have to cross Dietla Street, which was built where a branch of the Vistula once divided the city of Kazimierz from the city of Krakow like a moat, and then you're in another world. Almost every time, I go up to the orange-yellow building where Czeslaw Milosz lived for several years. There's a plaque on the wall to this effect. The plaque wasn't here earlier, but Czeslaw himself, one of the city's most distinguished residents, was in residence then. And Carol, his wife, who tended the flower bed in the courtyard.

Boguslawskiego Street is empty now. But an extraordinary man used to live here, an extraordinary mind, someone who resisted the age's tendencies (but who said we have to follow them?) by trying to grasp the ideas and events of  his entire historical moment. He was the only serious intellectual I knew who studied even the Harry Potter novels. What for? To see what the children are reading now, what draws the very young, what this says about an evolving world. He accepted Harry Potter with good humor. There's nothing wrong with it, he'd say in his baritone. He was far closer to Mann than to Musil. It wasn't Moglichkeitssinn that excited him, not the sense of possibility, but only what actually existed. It's not that he lacked for mystical appetites in his writing — but his mysticism fed upon the real, it rose on the yeast of reality. He was a shark in his long poems. And a shark in his reading; he devoured theology, philosophy, poetry, and history. I think about this sometimes when meeting young poets, on both sides of the Atlantic. They often give the impression that they're interested only in the most recent issue of the choicest poetry journals. As if poetry weren't, inter alia, an answer to a world that expresses itself in a thousand different forms, through the sorrow of the unemployed man sitting in the park on a fine April day as well as symphonies or philosophical tracts.

* * *

In November, an evening dedicated to the poetry of Stanislaw Baranczak. Crowds of listeners, masses of students, one of those readings where you have to turn up half an hour early just to get a seat. The publishing house a5 has organized the reading, inviting a group of Krakow poets to read from Baranczak's recently published Collected Poems. Wislawa Szymborska was given the privilege of reading one of his most beautiful lyrics, “She Cried That Night, But Not for Him To Hear.” I chose several poems from his Podróz zimowa (Journey in winter), a remarkable series of variations on the poetic texts Franz Schubert used in his cycle Winterreise. The author of the German poems in Winterreise was Wilhelm Müller, a second-rate Romantic whose work would no doubt be forgotten if not for Schubert's marvelous music. Full of haste, impatience, the music hurries like fate. Its energetic, almost military rhythms contrast with the deceleration that ordinarily accompanies a Northern European winter. Stanislaw Baranczak created absolutely original versions of these works, whose metrics nonetheless fit the music perfectly. Read separately, as individual poems, they don't create as strong an impression as, say, “She Cried at Night”; taken as a whole, though, their hallucinatory melancholy, their modern motifs (airplanes, busy urban streets), and a certain indefinable “metaphoricity” make them unforgettable. Stanislaw himself, who has suffered for many years from a chronic illness, couldn't fly in from Boston, where he's lived for twenty-five years.

* * *

A present in the morning mail from Faber & Faber: Ted Hughes's Selected Translations, edited by Daniel Weissbort (Weissbort once drove me to the airport — was it in a Volkswagen? — many years ago in Iowa, in early spring). I begin my day by reading Yehuda Amichai in Hughes's translation. Amichai's poems burst with an excess of meaning; every line has something to tell us. If poetry holds two extreme states of textual “concentration” — poetry as texture (as when, for example, in Saint-John Perse the language keeps a consistent distance from the poem's well-concealed center) and poetry as statement — then Amichai is of course a royal representative of this second strain. In this he is similar to Zbigniew Herbert. Both these great poets, born in the same year, 1924, have so much to say that they couldn't possibly take their lead from the French diplomat (Saint-John Perse) in creating endless rhetorical epics. There's a certain similarity between them, between two poets whose imaginations fixed on war and love (there was more love in Amichai) and were tempered by the classics, which they read and believed. Amichai read the Hebrew bible, while Herbert read his Greeks. They must have sensed their affinity: they liked and admired each other. I met Amichai only once, at a festival in Rotterdam in, I think, 1983; he told me over breakfast in the hotel that he was interested chiefly in poets and artists born in 1924. I understood then that I'd been born too late. Unfortunately, I no longer think so.

* * *

While organizing my papers (something I should do far more often), I came across a clipping from the local paper, a review of one of my books written by a very young person. The review's title — “The Old Wave.” A typical example of gratuitous, thoughtless malice. After all, we'll all die one day, even young reviewers.

* * *

I'm reading the essays of Gershom Scholem, his polemics and intellectual portraits (a portrait of Franz Rosenzweig, polemics with Martin Buber, and so on). As always, while reading an intelligent author who writes with passion about the sacrum, I'm seized by religious yearnings.

* * *

E.M. Cioran criticizes Proust somewhere for the way that music, one of his great novel's themes, intertwines with the characters' personal vicissitudes, provokes associations with concrete events from the past — but never opens onto something “completely other.” It's an interesting observation. But look who's talking — the same Cioran who spent most of his brilliant aphorisms trying to convince us that this something “completely other” doesn't exist. He momentarily changed his mind only upon listening to Bach's cantatas or passions.

* * *

A poem is like a human face — it is at the same time an object that can be measured, catalogued, described, and also an appeal. You may hear an appeal or ignore it, but it's difficult simply to limit yourself to checking it with a tape measure.

* * *

In the works of the Swedish poet Goran Sonnevi — I read them in Rika Lesser's translation — the manuscript of a wonderful, previously unpublished book. In these superb poems — meditative, linking deeply personal elements with observations on the physical, biological world — music, classical music, very nearly turns into God. My friend, the German writer Hartmut Lange, says similar things about music, especially Gustav Mahler's Song of the Earth, which is, for him, God. I argued with him, I who listen to music constantly and for whom Song of the Earth is almost in a class by itself. I argued because, for me, God cannot be identified with music. Those poets who listen chiefly to pop music — and their numbers are growing — don't seem to have such mystical tendencies. Jazz, likewise, as far as I can see, does not lead to idolatry.

* * *

I seem to be one of the last authors, not counting theologians, to refer now and then to the notion of a “spiritual life.” In our day, we confine ourselves at the best of times to discussing the imagination. The word “imagination” is beautiful and vast, but it doesn't hold everything. Some people look at me suspiciously for this very reason; they think I must be a reactionary, or a double-dyed conservative at the very least. I open myself to ridicule. Progressive circles condemn me, or at least look at me askance. Conservative enclaves likewise fail to understand what I'm talking about. Poets a generation younger keep their distance. Only a certain young Spanish poet told me in Barcelona that my essays perhaps signal that postmodern irony may yet be conquered one day. But what is the spirit, the spiritual life? If only I were up to defining such things! Robert Musil says that the spirit synthesizes intellect and emotion. It's a good working definition, for all its concision.

In the case of poetry, literature, it's simpler to say — theologians know a thing or two about this — what the spirit isn't. It's not psychoanalytic any more than it is behavioral, sociological, or political. It is holistic, and in it are reflected, as in an astronaut's helmet, the earth, the stars, and a human face.

These are difficult and dangerous considerations.

* * *

A few days in Paris at the beginning of January. It's the strangest feeling: I lived here for twenty years and left in 2002. But each time I return, after half an hour everything seems so perfectly familiar, so obvious, that it's as if I'd never left. We take the bus from Orly and in front of us rises a wall of ugly new apartment buildings, then the skinny little houses of the Parisian suburbs, next the Porte d'Orléans, a stadium, empty now, the Avenue General Leclerc, then the Avenue du Maine; we pass by the Place Barcelone, the work of Bofil — a Spanish architect and exponent, nolens volens, of the socialist realist tradition — and finally the Place d'Invalides. The bus stops right next to the Quai d'Orsay, that is, by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs — passersby see only a vast building on the Seine. In the thirties, one key player here was the ministry director Aléxis Léger, known to readers of poetry as Saint-John Perse, the author of Anabasis. It's a little known fact, but Aléxis Léger was at that time perhaps the only poet on the globe who exerted a genuine influence on actual political activities, real-world events (since I refuse to count Mao Zedong, who was a monster, or, in a different register, Léopold Senghor, who much later became the president of Senegal). There was, to be sure, no dearth of poet-ambassadors; you could make a long list, but an ambassador is not a particularly powerful figure. Léger was something else again: he touched the instruments of power; he was the highest-ranking unelected official in the French ministry. It would seem that the long-cherished dream of poets ruling the earth had come true: one of us might actually influence the course of events. And what came of this? Léger (we must in this case strictly segregate his two surnames, political and poetic), who took up residence in Washington during the war years as a political emigrant, does not enjoy the good opinion of French diplomatic historians. They place him with those who sought to placate Hitler's Germany, who paved the way for the cowardly Munich Accord of  1938 — among those, that is, who failed to recognize the true nature of the danger. Our emissary to the land of reality disappointed us, it seems. Is the experiment worth repeating? Probably not.

* * *

Still in Paris: a warm, damp January. In the subway cars many people are reading thick novels, even during rush hour, when cramped passengers who couldn't find a seat hover over the reader's head. Paris is after all the capital of the novel. Writing and reading novels is serious business in this city. The patrons of both subway and commuter lines require a vast amount of reading matter each month. Read away: the publishing houses are fully cognizant of the situation and produce new novels around the clock. The large bookstores, for example, the famed FNAC, create shrines dedicated to specific novelists, shrines where the author's picture stands surrounded by pillars of his or her books — as in Proust's description of the Parisian bookstores after Bergotte's death, where he compares the writer's opened volumes to angels with outstretched wings hovering over the author's soul. For Proust this is an unusual affair, quite beautiful. In the FNAC bookstores, though, it is a daily matter, and absolutely commercial. And these novels, written for the patrons of subways and commuter trains, are soon forgotten. New ones appear. Hardly anyone reads them twice. The bookstores along the Seine hold thousands of yellowed covers from books dating fifty or eighty years back that had their brief moment of fame, but now soak and freeze beneath the open sky — their fate scarcely differs from that of the clochards.

On the other hand, poetry fares poorly in Paris. It's true that you often see posters with brief poems in the subway cars (just as in the New York subway). But I don't think anyone gives them a second glance; absorbed in their thick novels, the passengers don't see them and don't want to see them. (Once in Germany when I voiced my theory on the brief hold of novels on our memories, my neighbor at the table hissed: das ist Kulturpessimismus!)

* * *

The main reason for our trip to Paris was the fiftieth birthday of Miquel Barcelo, a painter born in Majorca, on the banks of the sea, who is associated first of all with Barcelona, where he had his first great successes, then with Paris, and also with Africa, where he regularly spends time in Mali, painting, drawing, sculpting. Barcelo is one of those artists who can't not work, the more so since it must be difficult to separate this particular work from play. He is a painter whose passion is representing the world — his canvasses and watercolors betray a childish joy in the existence of forms. He's an endlessly sensual artist. Some of his works, perhaps especially the simplest ones, represent animals or plants, and also the rich submarine world of the Mediterranean. (Miquel is an experienced diver.) They exude a remarkable freshness, as if someone had seen for the first time — with a lover's gaze — an acacia, a dog, a monkey, an octopus. It seems that the spirit of the times (if it exists) has been kind to Barcelo — not just him, of course — by putting a stop to the monotony of a certain sort of abstract art whose hermeticism had proven intolerable. One of his masterpieces is the chapel in the cathedral in Palma de Mallorca: a rich, baroque assembly of ceramics representing the miracle of the loaves and fishes. It is an extraordinary festival of existence, a celebration of life, which has achieved the fullness of its forms — full, perhaps even too full, since the loaves, fishes, and creatures are about to burst: they've reached the boundary dividing ripeness from overripeness.

* * *

I'm reading Milosz's Last Poems, published by Znak two years after their author's death. Milosz's foes — and there's no dearth of them in this polemical, sometimes petty nation, where his towering stature guarantees that he won't be spared the resentment of greatness that typifies democracies — claim that his poetic power waned near the end. You only need to read a few lines of his “Orpheus and Eurydice” to be convinced of his critics' error:

He sang the brightness of mornings and green rivers,
He sang of smoking water in the rose-colored daybreaks,
Of colors: cinnabar, carmine, burnt sienna, blue,
Of the delight of swimming in the sea under marble cliffs,
Of  his having composed his words always against death
And of having made no rhyme in praise of nothingness.

Milosz's Polish opponents may be grouped into several types. There are those who have no interest in poetry but charge the author of The Captive Mind with treason, since he served in the Communist diplomatic corps for several years. (But he didn't praise nothingness. He never wrote a single poem fit for inclusion in an anthology of Stalinist poetry.) Others can't tolerate his aversion towards Polish nationalism. (This aversion is, I should add, completely justified.) Just before his funeral some accused him of being a bad Catholic — and thus not worthy of sharing a crypt with various Polish national luminaries. Those who do read his poetry sometimes attack its lofty, hymnic tone. These days one should write only flat, ironic poems and wait for better times.

When I read the line “Of  the delight of  swimming in the sea under marble cliffs,” I'm reminded of a conversation with Milosz I had a few years ago. M. and I were vacationing then with Milosz near Lucca, in Tuscany, along with C.K. Williams. Once we set out for the beach at Bocca di Magra, a little town in Liguria (from the highway you see an ad for the hotel “Shelley”: the poet drowned nearby). The Magra is a river that reaches the sea at this point. Milosz heard this and began reminiscing. He'd vacationed in Bocca a couple of times with Mary McCarthy, Nicola Chiaromonte, and other friends — he'd also gone swimming there and always remembered the white marble cliffs that might be mistaken at first for snowy mountainsides. But it's marble, not snow; Carrara, a town famed among sculptors, sits at the foot of the white marble mountains. And the sea is deep blue, warm, salty, with little waves. Lines and irregular geometric forms take shape briefly on the water's velvety surface and then vanish — the ocean's papillaries. Gulls circle over fishing boats. The shoreline is steep, as it should be above the Mediterranean, since flat, sandy beaches plastered with the huge towels of sunburnt German tourists don't match the sea's nature, but turn it into the pale, chilly Baltic, and it loses its deep cobalt hue.

Milosz died thinking, working, writing poems right up to the very end — as if he had swum far out to sea, toward Carrara, toward sky-blue mists and white mountains.
Originally Published: October 15, 2007

Translated by Clare Cavanagh


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This prose originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Poetry magazine

October 2007


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 Adam  Zagajewski


Adam Zagajewski was born in Lvov, Poland, in 1945; as an infant he was relocated with his family to western Poland. He lived in Berlin for a couple of years, moved to France in 1982, and has taught at universities in the United States, including the University of Houston and the University of Chicago. Zagajewski writes in Polish; many of his books of poetry and essays have been translated into English.

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