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Adam Zagajewski: where to start with his literature

Adam Zagajewski: where to start with his literature
Image: Frankie Fouganthin via Wikimedia

26 October 2021

Days after 9/11, US poetry readers found unexpected solace in a voice from afar. Try to Praise the Mutilated World, by Polish author Adam Zagajewski, was published in The New Yorker in Clare Cavanagh’s fresh translation; its search for flashes of grace among history’s cruelties found new resonance amid the rubble of Ground Zero. Almost overnight, interest in Zagajewski’s work skyrocketed. English speakers discovered a mature, singular artist taking on distinctly modern themes: displacement, the exile’s search for identity and a means of expression, the writer’s struggle to wrest his mother tongue from the distortions of propaganda.

This last preoccupation was central to Zagajewski’s literary beginnings. He burst onto the stage as part of Poland’s “Generation ‘68”, a loose grouping of poets turning away from solipsism and formal experimentation to explore the social use of language. They were especially interested in how official communist rhetoric seeped into, and corrupted, other forms of speech. In 1974, Zagajewski and fellow Kraków poet Julian Kornhauser published The Unrepresented World, a literary manifesto calling for poetry to remedy this corruption. They set out to probe contemporary reality in simple and direct language, hoping to encourage independent and critical thought.

In 1975, Zagajewski’s work was censored in Poland, after he signed an open letter protesting constitutional changes which would cement the country’s status as a Soviet satellite. By 1981, he had moved to Paris, only returning to his beloved Kraków in 2002 (he also spent time lecturing at the universities of Houston and Chicago).

For years before his death in March 2021, Zagajewski was viewed as a prime Nobel contender. Polish critic Jerzy Illg once quipped that the poet’s 1998 memoir, Another Beauty, read to his contemporaries like “a collection of draft acceptance speeches”. Widely acclaimed in the West, Zagajewski divided opinion back home. His patrician demeanour was sometimes derided as out-of-touch – he once famously claimed that a poet had no business listening to pop songs. That said, his love of classical music was genuinely touching, having inspired his first-ever published work - 1967’s Music. He used his popularity abroad to champion the work of other Polish poets; he also remained curious about the exploits of younger literary generations.

This beginner’s guide traces some of Zagajewski’s essential works available in English.

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

This 2001 poem made Zagajewski a household name in the US and the broader English-speaking world. American readers, reeling from the tragedy of 9/11, seized as their own the poet’s cry to cast a redemptive gaze over the ruins. (“Try to praise the mutilated world. / Remember June’s long days, / and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew. / The nettles that methodically overgrow / the abandoned homesteads of exiles.”) Zagajewski was not responding directly to the terrorist attacks – though in interviews, he spoke of his joy at “having been helpful to his audience… it isn’t often that a poem plays this kind of role.”

In fact, the piece was inspired by Zagajewski’s memories of the wreckage of postwar Europe — his wanderings in Poland’s Beskid mountains, full of abandoned villages which once housed ethnic Ukrainians resettled by the Communist authorities. However, his call to find solace and clarity in a “cosmic” world outside of history — whether in nature or sublime works of art - rings universal. (“Return in thought to the concert where music flared. / You gathered acorns in the park in autumn / and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.”) Zagajewski soberly documents the ravages of the age — the poem takes in “executioners singing joyfully,” “refugees heading nowhere,” and “salty oblivion” awaiting ships. Yet in the end, he chooses hope; it is that hope that helped his poetry and his name cross oceans. (“Praise the mutilated world / and the grey feather a thrush lost, / and the gentle light that strays and vanishes / and returns.”)

To Go to Lvov

This 1986 poem is a stirring evocation of Zagajewski’s native city – or rather, all the things it could be to one who waited half a century to walk its streets. (“To go to Lvov. Which station / for Lvov, not in a dream, at dawn, when dew / gleams on a suitcase, when express / trains and bullet trains are being born.”)

The Zagajewski family was resettled from Lviv — freshly ceded to the Soviet Union — to the formerly German city of Gliwice soon after Adam’s birth in 1945. The experience was far from uncommon: the Zagajewskis joined throngs of ethnic Poles heading west after the postwar redrawing of their country’s borders. Zagajewski made clear that he could not feel the earlier emigrants’ longing for their “Lwów,” once a fulcrum on which a whole cultural universe turned. (“But the cathedral rises, / you remember, so straight, as straight / as Sunday and white napkins and a bucket / full of raspberries standing on the floor, and / my desire which wasn’t born yet. (...) / There was always too much of Lvov, no one could / comprehend its boroughs, hear / the murmur of each stone scorched / by the sun, at night the Orthodox church’s silence was unlike / that of the cathedral, the Jesuits / baptised plants, leaf by leaf.”)

Yet the experience appears to have marked him as a migrant for life, foreshadowing his later flight to Paris and his life in the US. In the final lines, Zagajewski embraces fellow exiles as brothers (“why must every city / become Jerusalem and every man a Jew”) and, once again, lets an unexpected light in: “go breathless, go to Lvov, after all / it exists, quiet and pure as / a peach. It is everywhere.”

“I lost two homelands,” the poet wrote in a later prose piece, “but I sought a third: a space for the imagination.” This homage to his dream city flings open the borders between them.

Without End: New and Selected Poems

This 2003 anthology, perfect for readers new to Zagajewski’s writing, draws on three earlier English-language offerings — Tremor (1985), Canvas (1990), and Mysticism for Beginners (1997). Following a surge of interest in the poet in 2001, the editors put together a selection of seminal works, many of which share the luminosity and poise of Try to Praise the Mutilated World.

One example is Mysticism for Beginners, which first appeared in Polish in 1999. While it alludes to the half-healed scars of a divided continent (“the hushed talk of travellers / from Eastern, so-called Central Europe”), the poem soon becomes an anthem to the moment: the morning streets of Montepulciano, white herons in fields of rice, “stained-glass windows like butterfly wings / sprinkled with pollen.” Once again, Zagajewski pays tribute to everyday snatches of the sublime, which come across as far more than “mysticism for beginners, / the elementary course, prelude / to a test that’s been / postponed.” “On Swimming” similarly finds eternity in the mundane: “Swimming is like prayer: / palms join and part, / join and part, / almost without end.”

The tragic echoes of history rumble in the background — even the lush landscapes of “Autumn” harbour within them the horror of the Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939. Yet Zagajewski is just as alert to the rhythms of the natural world, sudden flickers of artistic brilliance, and stolen moments of tenderness. In “Speak Softly,” he gently exhorts fellow casualties of history to “write letters, read books of five hundred pages. / Speak softly. Don’t give up on poetry.”


A later collection, first published in Polish in 2014 and translated into English four years later, bears the influence of Zagajewski’s extended stays in the US (where he taught creative writing at the University of Houston, and also became a faculty member at the University of Chicago). Zagajewski himself commented that he’d found himself developing a more “American” sensibility — a willingness to draw more directly on personal, as opposed to collective, loss, in which he claimed to find “something new (...) more tenderness.”

There is a distinctly elegiac tone to most of the poems in Asymmetry. Childhood weaves exquisite sound tapestries as it measures out the lost lands of youth (“republic of loquacious sparrows / measureless thickets of nettles / and the timid wood owl’s nightly sobs.”) In contrast, the sparse and direct tone of About my Mother documents the artist’s muteness, as death takes away his chance to make right the casual cruelties of family life (“how I teased her, for example, when she / compared herself to Beethoven going deaf, / and I said, cruelly, but you know he / had talent, and how she forgave everything / and how I remember that, and how I flew from Houston / to her funeral and couldn’t say anything / and still can’t.”)

The whole collection is a powerful work of remembering: Zagajewski finds space for his father (Nowhere) and recently departed friends (Ruth, Krzyś Michalski Died), but also his ill-fated artistic heroes (Mandelstam in Theodosia) and an unsung hairdresser from Kraków’s Karmelicka Street (Mr. Władziu). Punctuating this landscape of loss are the poet’s trademark small epiphanies — glimmers of beauty and connection, showing love as the obverse of grief.

A Defense of Ardor: Essays

This 2005 collection showcases Zagajewski’s talent as an essay writer. (Readers wanting more might also like to turn to 2017’s Slight Exaggeration, titled after his tongue-in-cheek definition of poetry).

In the central piece, Zagajewski lays out his creative principles, pushing back against caustic resignation and glib irony. (“Doubt is poetry for the resigned. Whereas poetry is searching, endless wandering. (...) Doubt prefers to shut, while poetry opens. Poetry laughs and cries, doubt ironises.”) To replace them, he proposes to reinstate “ardour” as writing’s central driving force; he also urges authors to reclaim other “unfashionable” terms, such as the soul, inspiration, and the sublime.

In the West, at the turn of the century, this might have sounded like a cheap proposition. Yet the book disarms criticisms by showing Zagajewski’s ideals in action, as embodied by Polish poets writing amid — and against — authoritarian repression. (The book’s finely drawn portraits of Zbigniew Herbert and Czesław Miłosz are a highlight; in fact, it makes a fine companion piece to Miłosz’s more widely known A Captive Mind).

However, little is black and white here. While Zagajewski gives an amusing account of discovering Nietzsche under Communism (the “moustachioed philosopher” ended up on the blacklist for his scornful treatment of the state), he goes on to examine how the German’s impatience with objective truth came eerily close to that of the Polish United Workers’ Party. Elsewhere, he gets to visit post-Soviet Lviv for the first time, and all manner of turmoil ensues.

All of the 14 essays are streaked with a warmth and wit which belie Zagajewski’s lofty image. Here is a restless, inquisitive mind — one to reconvene with again and again.

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