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Risk, Try, Revise, Erase

Polish poet Adam Zagajewski on his growing fame, his past as a political activist, and his desire to see the world as if from outer space.
When The New Yorker published Adam Zagajewski’s poem “Try To Praise the Mutilated World” after 9/11, his words filled a need for readers looking for a way to express their grief. Cynthia Haven profiles this Polish émigré who has been embraced by America.

Three angels appear by a bakery on St. George Street in Krakow and question the bystanders. “We just wanted to see,” the first angel says, “what your lives have become, / the flavor of your days and why / your nights are marked by restlessness and fear.”

In Adam Zagajewski’s poem “Three Angels,” the patient angel is met with the usual litany of complaints, which culminate in “a swelling sonata of wrath.” The second angel, however, “mumble[s] shyly” that

there’s always a little joy, and even beauty
lies close at hand, beneath the bark
of every hour, in the quiet heart of concentration,
and another person hides in each of us—
universal, strong, invisible.
Zagajewski is the second angel. His quiet, insistent poems chart an idiosyncratic spiritual sensibility. Acclaim has followed: in 2004, he won the biennial Neustadt International Prize for Literature, often viewed as a precursor to the Nobel.

Praise has been widespread: “Nothing could take the reader in a direction more contrary to today’s cult of the excitements of self than to follow Zagajewski as he unspools his seductive praise of serenity, sympathy, forbearance; of ‘the calm and courage of an ordinary life,’” wrote Susan Sontag.

Zagajewski, who divides his time between Krakow and Houston, replies with characteristic modesty: “Sometimes I wish I were an arrogant prophet, an aggressive guy. But my force—if I have any—is different; it lives more in nuances, in tranquility of my voice,” he told PoetryFoundation.org. “Somehow I hope that the rhetoric of tranquility is after all stronger and more long-term than the one of a furious attack.”

Zagajewski was born in 1945 in Lvov. After the victorious Red Army occupied the city, integrating Poland into the Soviet empire, the family was forcibly repatriated to western Poland. They lived in Gliwice, a grim industrial Silesian city formerly in Germany. He studied philosophy at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow.

His poetic masterpiece “To Go to Lvov” recalls the city (now in Ukraine) that his family abandoned during his infancy. It has been called the anthem of all émigrés and exiles—but it is more than that, for all of us are exiles, in time if not in space. We recall the innocence and beauty of our imperfect but idealized past, cities we cannot return to because they never quite existed, except as we make them in our minds.
. . . I won’t see you anymore, so much death
awaits you, why must every city
become Jerusalem and every man a Jew,
and now in a hurry just
pack, always, each day,
and go breathless, go to Lvov, after all
it exists, quiet and pure as
a peach. It is everywhere.
Zagajewski’s self-effacement is inevitable. He follows in the footsteps of giants: the last century has brought an international spotlight to the outstanding poets in a previously obscure tongue. Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Aleksander Wat, Wislawa Szymborska, Anna Swir, Tadeusz Rozewicz, and their contemporaries created one of the greatest literary legacies in world history.

Zagajewski has “many contradictory explanations” for the sudden embrace of 20th-century Polish poetry. “One of the main ones is that the attention given to the meaning of human life in radical circumstances, as opposed to the hermetic direction or to a purely formal quest.” Polish poetry “after the World War II catastrophe . . . gave the dying Modernism a new energy. It ‘rehumanized’ a highly sophisticated but a bit empty palace of modern poetry.”

In his Neustadt lecture, “Poetry for Beginners,” Zagajewski bewailed the predicament of today’s writers in this context: “The fact that we, the living ones, still write poems verges on impudence. After all these masterpieces!”

But then he added, “We also recognize that imagination has to struggle with the dragon of time afresh each day. Poetry must be written, continued, risked, tried, revised, erased, and tried again as long as we breathe and love, doubt and believe.”

The death of Milosz in 2004, the year Zagajewski won the Neustadt, effectively marked the passing of the scepter to the younger poet, the crown prince of Polish poetry. “What a joy to see a major poet emerging from a hardly differentiated mass of contemporaries and taking the lead in the poetry of my language,” Milosz had written in a 1985 introduction to his verse, by way of investiture and blessing.

Zagajewski’s self-effacement is more than a stance before history, however. According to poet Dan Rifenburgh, a colleague in the University of Houston’s creative writing program, “I think Adam trusts natural facts more than ideas, that he sees the world as a site of exile, and strange in its beauty, alien, but beautiful still. I think his greatness lies in his humility before the natural facts of the world. I love the human touches and grace notes he employs, speaking of newly washed linen or fresh strawberries as mystical objects.”

Indeed, Zagajewski sees grace notes everywhere: in Two Cities he wrote: “Human life and objects and trees vibrate with mysterious meanings, which can be deciphered like cuneiform writing. There exists a meaning, hidden from day to day but accessible in moments of greatest attentiveness, in those moments when consciousness loves the world.”

While the earlier generation of Polish poets was honed by war, Holocaust, Stalinism, and Nazism, Zagajewski remembers a long, gray Soviet occupation.

Zagajewski reacted as his counterparts in America did: with poetry of protest. In fact, he became the leading Polish poet of the “Generation of ’68” or “New Wave,” an unofficial literary movement that attempted, and to some extent succeeded, in speaking for a generation. They paraphrased and parodied the empty rhetoric of the official communist propaganda.

In 1979 he received a fellowship from the International Künstlerprogramm and spent two years in Berlin. In 1982 he moved to Paris, returning to live in Krakow two decades later. His emigration coincided with a growing change of heart. Zagajewski finally broke with the poetry of protest—characteristically, without repudiation, insisting only on his need to balance the concerns of the outer world with those of the inner.

In Solidarity, Solitude, published in Paris in 1986, he summarized his position: “I have the urge to become a dissident from dissidents,” he wrote. “I take a seat in between. . . . I am alone but not lonely.”

His former colleague Julian Kornhauser, in reviewing the book, criticized him for exchanging his “collective subject” to become a mere “lyric speaker.” Said Kornhauser: “Birds, trees, wind now carry [Zagajewski] beyond space and time. . . . He has brought himself to a halt in order to forget about conflicts. He has brought the world to a standstill in order to commune with mute material.”

The charge stings—at least a little. In America’s fascination with poetry rooted in historical circumstance, Zagajewski is seen differently than he is in Poland, where he said he has been called a “frivolous” poet.

“In their accusing, Polish critics are like district attorneys—they all have this accusatory mood. And they accuse poets, but also fiction writers, of not being socially motivated enough,” Zagajewski said in a 2004 Agni interview.

America has been kind to Zagajewski: His translated books of poems, memoirs, and essays—Tremor (1985), Canvas (1991), Two Cities (1995), Mysticism for Beginners (1997), Another Beauty (2000), Without End (2002), and A Defense of Ardor (2004)—have been published by the premier house, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (Solidarity, Solitude was published by Ecco in 1990). In 1988 he received an appointment to teach every winter at the University of Houston. In 2003 his Without End: New and Selected Poems was short-listed for a National Book Critics Circle Award. He became one of the most recognized, if least pronounceable, names in American poetry.

But Zagajewski shot to national prominence—if any poet can be said to have reached that empyrean without marrying a rock star—following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center towers, when The New Yorker published his poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World”:
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world. . . .

Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.
According to The New Yorker’s poetry editor, Alice Quinn, the poem was tacked to bulletin boards and refrigerators across the nation.

Zagajewski’s quiet, persistent optimism is refreshing in a nation of shallow enthusiasms. What are its roots? Friend and fellow poet Rifenburgh has an insight: “I personally think he believes in a ‘world without end’ and the eternality of the spirit. I think he believes death as a finality would be too easy: it’s not that simple.”

Expressing such a vision is not that simple, either. Milosz once said that “we are in a largely post-religious world.” He recounted a conversation with Pope John Paul II, who commented upon Milosz’s work, saying, “Well, you make one step forward, one step back.” Milosz replied, “Holy Father, how in the 20th century can one write religious poetry differently?”

Zagajewski concurred: “I don’t want to be a New Age vague religious crank, but I also need to distance myself from ‘professional’ Catholic writers. I think poets have to be able to find fresh metaphors for old metaphysical objects and longings. I’m a Christian, a sometimes doubting one (but this is almost a definition of a Christian: to doubt also). In my writing I have to be radically different from a priest. My language must have the sheen of a certain discovery.”

His view is a counterpoint to the current fashion of irony, which he decries. “I adore irony as a part of our rich rhetorical and mental apparatus, but not when it assumes the position of a spiritual guidance,” he said. “How to cure it? I wish I knew. The danger is that we live in a world where there’s irony on one side and fundamentalism (religious, political) on the other. Between them the space is rather small, but it’s my space.”

Hints and guesses: how else in the 21st century? When a breath of apocalypse arises, it is mentioned offhandedly, in passing. It must be whispered. In “Houston, 6 p.m.” he writes:
Poetry summons us to life, to courage
in the face of growing shadow.
Can you gaze calmly at the Earth
like the perfect astronaut?
In the face of growing shadow, Zagajewski aims for his effects with averted vision—subtly, like the three angels who, after visiting Abraham in Genesis 18, gaze silently at Sodom and turn their steps toward the city they will destroy. The image of three angels is a recurring motif of Christian iconography, an Old Testament prefiguring of mankind’s redemption, unforgettably evoked in Russian painter Andrei Rublev’s “The Hospitality of Abraham.” Significantly, in Zagajewski’s “Three Angels,” the second angel’s argument for forbearance and joy meets with swelling crowds and “waves of mute rage”:
until at last the envoys rose lightly
into the air, whence, growing distant,
they gently repeated: peace be unto you,
peace to the living, the dead, the unborn.
The third angel alone said nothing,
for that was the angel of long silence.
In Zagajewski’s poem, the angels bless only as they return heavenward—perhaps reminding us that it is wise to limit our downward gaze as they do, before they disappear.


  • Cynthia Haven has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Washington Post Book World, the Los Angeles Times Book Review and the San Francisco Chronicle. In 2007 she received a Milena Jesenská Journalism fellowship with Vienna's Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen. Haven is the author of Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations (2006) and Invisible...


Risk, Try, Revise, Erase

Polish poet Adam Zagajewski on his growing fame, his past as a political activist, and his desire to see the world as if from outer space.


  • Cynthia Haven has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Washington Post Book World, the Los Angeles Times Book Review and the San Francisco Chronicle. In 2007 she received a Milena Jesenská Journalism fellowship with Vienna's Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen. Haven is the author of Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations (2006) and Invisible...

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