I’m Most Interested in Poetry I’ve Yet to Write: An Interview with Adam Zagajewski
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Arguably Poland’s greatest living poet and certainly its most lauded, Adam Zagajewski tells Culture.pl about his childhood, what the future holds, and why he doesn’t know his poems by heart.
Poetry searches for radiance
Sveta Gutkina: The American poet and critic Edward Hirsch equated your poetry with prayers…
Adam Zagajewski: I think some of my poems might evoke such associations, and I have nothing against it, but in actual fact it isn’t just a modus. Some of my poems are slightly philosophical in nature, while others are more lyrical. I’m very fond of Edward Hirsch, and we’re great friends, but on that point I disagree with him.
SG: Can poetry resemble prayer?
AZ: Absolutely. Many poems, sometimes very beautiful ones, have a prayer-like aspect. The urge to write poetry is somehow akin to the urge to pray, also because most poets are convinced that someone or something seems to dictate poems to them. To many poets, the very premise of writing poetry is something religious in itself, as if some higher authority assists with the writing. This cannot be scientifically proven, of course.
SG: You once wrote that ‘Poetry searches for radiance’. Is poetry also a search for God?
AZ: I wouldn’t go that far. It’s one interpretation of the metaphor of radiance, but I wouldn’t reduce all poetry to a search for God, as poets also touch upon very earthly themes. There are political poems, and love poems, in which poets seek their beloved, not God. Poetry is diverse and has a variety of goals. Some poets are completely non-religious, which should be respected.
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SG: In ‘Lekka Przesada’ (Slight Exaggeration), you quoted a French poet who told you that, since the French already know there is no God, they write about other things.
AZ: In that respect, French poets are more of an exception, although there might even be religious poets in France (I don’t know, I’m not up to date).
SG: How does Polish poetry differ?
AZ: I think it differs due to its great interest in what drives communities, meaning political affairs. Polish poetry emerged in its current form directly after the Second World War. Miłosz and Różewicz were responsible for its redefinition and were later joined by Herbert. Polish poetry took a marked turn towards a fascination with the community. Not in a journalistic way, but in a more sophisticated, metaphorical fashion, I feel it was different to a lot of other national poetry that remained faithful to a more classical model, namely that poetry need not necessarily delve into historical and civil issues. Polish poetry is not averse to that.
SG: What is the future of Polish poetry?
AZ: I don’t know. I think I belong to the last generation that adheres to Miłosz, Różewicz and Herbert’s poetic vision. Younger poets of the BruLion generation veered away from that, and poetry became reprivatised; poets only write about their own things and experiences, with no concern for what society thinks. Perhaps another reaction will ensue and it will come back, because poetry doesn’t only develop in one direction. It could happen that those aged 20 today, of whom we know little or nothing, will return to that community trend.
SG: Do you follow contemporary poetry?
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AZ: I’m not like Miłosz, who said that Polish poetry was his countryside home. I have a few friends and acquaintances among younger poets, and they send me their poems. I have some degree of contact, but only with individual samples. They’re often poets who haven’t even been published and aren’t in circulation yet. Among those aged over 50, my favourite is Tomasz Różycki, whose poems I like very much. He doesn’t fully identify with the model I mentioned. His family also came from Lviv. He wrote many poems about his sensitivity towards things that affected not him directly, but the fate of his family.
SG: Why is most Polish poetry written in free verse?
AZ: Some poets are trying to return to classical forms. The Polish language was relieved to have shaken off the constraints of syllabic verse. Unfortunately, all the stress in Polish falls on the penultimate syllable, which limits the acoustic opportunities for poetry. Russian has more variable stress, as does English, while French puts it on the final syllable. Certain languages are somewhat ‘disabled’, but that is no hindrance: everyone wishes to have poetry like the French! That would imply that Baudelaire or Apollinaire were poor poets. Secondly, there are various models of free verse. I try (but I don’t know if I’m always successful) to make my verse rich and render it elegantly.
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Rhymes actually irritate me, a bit like the bell calling you to kneel in church. I don’t like rhymes and, what’s more, they’re a recent invention. They were only discovered in mediaeval times, whereas Greek and Latin poetry and Biblical psalms don’t contain rhymes or count syllables and meter.
In free verse, I try to encompass the wealth of form through images and metaphors. I don’t like free verse that is meagre, where it’s enough to write sentences in columns to create a poem. That is not sufficient; the depictions and metaphors have to be ingenious. Poetry without metaphors is of no interest to me. The soul of poetry is neither rhyme nor length of verse, only metaphor. One must give the language a certain richness unknown to journalistic articles or even prose.
SG: How would you define poetry?
AZ: I’m partial to a very old definition articulated by an Italian Jesuit poet and philosopher at the turn of the 18th century: ‘Poetry is a dream made in the presence of reason’. I adore that, as it contains two elements – something wild connected to imagination and dreams, yet still kept in order by reason. A sort of dialogue with the imagination.
SG: What do you think of your earlier poetry (from the times of the Polish New Wave)?
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AZ: I think my later poems are more interesting and richer, but some of my readers believe the opposite and enjoy my earlier poems. Those are candid poems without metaphors, which I don’t like now, but they came to life in a certain climate as an expression of a certain generation. I believe they were essential at the time. Poets usually operate in a near vacuum with a couple of thousand readers. Very few poets have such a readership as Mayakovsky or Gałczyński, but we did manage to reach a large number of readers. For a long time, I was known as the co-author of Świat Nieprzedstawiony (‘The Unrepresented World’), but that was nearly fifty years ago!
SG: Do you know your poems by heart?
AZ: No, and I regret it. Here’s an anecdote: the American poet W.S. Merwin died recently. He was friends with Herbert when he was living in California in the 1960s. He told a story of how he once saw Herbert looking glum and asked, ‘What’s up, Zbyszek? You don’t look well. What’s the matter?’ Herbert answered, ‘Well, I wrote some new poems and I was happy, but then I took a taxi and forgot them in it’. Merwin asked, ‘What, didn’t you learn them by heart?’ to which Herbert replied, ‘Only Russian poets learn their poems off by heart’. It’s still common in Russia today. Brodsky would sometimes slip up at poetry evenings, but for him, reciting from memory was a starting point.
SG: Perhaps the rhymes helped?
AZ: Rhymes certainly do help. There’s a theory that mediaeval monks introduced rhymes as a mnemonic device to help memorise religious poems. They wanted people to learn them by heart.
Childhood is the poetry of life
SG: You once said you weren’t only thinking about politics in 1968, but you were also young and happy…
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AZ: Young people don’t know that they’re young. We were happy because we felt we were doing something positive and our poems were reaching people in spite of all the censorship and police issues. I was in Rome at a conference on Brodsky once, and someone was talking about his terrible times in Leningrad, when he was under police surveillance and exiled to the north. I spoke up and said it wasn’t true. He was young and aware that he was a genius; he felt the joys of talent. I think young artists start out with uncertainty: Have I got anything to say? He quickly acquired proof that he was talented and admired as a young poet. I said I didn’t believe that he was miserable as a young poet. Apart from the police and communism, in a way he was happy, bursting with the energy of his talent. Happiness is not automatic, sometimes people are able to express something through poetry, art, science, or even football. Happiness springs from having found a form of expression that also earns recognition.
SG: Can the same be said of childhood? You wrote ‘Give me back my childhood’ and ‘Now I’m sure that I’d know how to be a child’.
AZ: A child certainly doesn’t know it’s a child. But I wasn’t a miserable child. I think a lot of people dream of somehow returning to childhood, which is impossible, as we know. But there are times when we only really experience our childhood as it’s coming to an end. While we’re children, we know no other way of experiencing the world. Only when we reach adulthood do we encounter another type of life, more mundane and survival-orientated, then suddenly realise what a treasure childhood was.
SG: Do you dream of going back to your childhood?
AZ: No, it’s a figure of speech. Some of my childhood recollections seem to have survived in me, so my childhood isn’t irretrievably lost.
SG: You write about childhood a lot…
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AZ: I do, but I’m not the only one to say that poetry can’t exist without childhood. Childhood is the poetry of life. Everyone has the gift as a child; some lose it, but others preserve it.
SG: Some believe that the main themes of poetry are love and death. Your poetry contains a lot of love, but even more death…
AZ: I’ve never counted. I’ve written numerous elegies for people who have passed away. It’s my individual approach to death. Of course, no one who writes elegies can forget that he, too, will pass someday. Fundamentally, an elegy is a gesture against death, which allows the person we’re writing about to be resurrected for an instant. An elegy is a form of consolation or resuscitation and is therefore a kind of duel with death: ‘Give me back that person, even for a brief moment!’ Although it’s about death, it’s more against it. But obviously there are some poems in which I ponder what my death might be, but I don’t think there are so many of them.
SG: You also wrote ‘You are my masters, the dead’…
AZ: Partly, that results from the obvious statement that, when we go to a museum or concert, we encounter manifestations of the dead: great composers or great painters who may have been dead for several centuries. The deceased play a part in our lives, not to celebrate death but, on the contrary, to give us life. People often listen to Bach and he gives them strength. Isn’t it incredible that someone who’s been dead for several centuries can still give people strength?!
The journeyman years
SG: In Dwa Miasta (‘Two Cities’), you wrote that people are divided into the settled, the homeless, and the emigrants. You regard painting as an art of the settled, music an art of the homeless, and poetry an art of the emigrants. Do you feel like an emigrant?
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AZ: Not any more. I would say that I’m less homeless these days because Kraków is my city now. In fact, settled people are the ones who never leave the place where they were born and know that city or town so well that they’re bored there. To me, Kraków is a new city; I moved here to study when I was 18 and fell in love with it. I also have friends who were born here and say, ‘Remember the little shop that used to be here?’ … but I don’t. There is an era of Kraków about which I know nothing. I was almost an adult when I came here, and I’m not a member of that Cracovian sect who know everything.
SG: But later on, you left Kraków for quite a while…
AZ: Yes, but that was due to both communism and love. I didn’t leave Kraków because I was bored of it. There's this concept of ‘journeyman years’, and many artists have had such a period. Artists were already journeying around Europe in the Middle Ages – to Italy, Rome, Florence. Those were my journeyman years, which were rather prolonged, indeed, but fitted in with that classical pattern.
SG: One might say that your life began with travel.
AZ: I was subjected to travels as an infant, without having any say in the matter.
SG: The theme of displacement also played a vital role in your poetry.
AZ: Yes, but not right away. That theme arose when I was already over 30. I observed it in my parents’ and aunts’ generation, since I hadn’t experienced their sorrow at losing Lviv. I knew I had lost something, but for a long time I didn’t know what. Auntie Ania, whom I mentioned in Lekka Przesada, was the saddest of them all, and she was also less professionally active. My father was professionally active but, when he retired, those sorrowful feelings returned. It wasn’t just my parents; none of them wanted to go to Lviv. They preferred not to sully the image of their pre-war recollections. They never went back. From conversations with friends, I see that this was the norm. That generation just didn’t want to go back.
SG: Probably because it had become a different city?
AZ: It would’ve reopened old wounds. They didn’t want to go through that pain again. They had rebuilt their lives somehow but, right until the end, they felt they had lost their motherland. Gliwice was such a provincial city…
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SG: You’ve described Gliwice as ‘a nondescript city’, ‘an ugly city’, ‘a mute city’. Was there nothing good in Gliwice?
AZ: That’s exaggerating a little. I still go to Gliwice sometimes, for which my friends reproach me slightly. I had two perspectives, as it were. My own view: I liked Gliwice, and for a long while it was the only city that I knew in the world. But I also had the perspective of my parents, that it was worse as a city: ‘Now, Lviv was a real city! Gliwice is so mediocre…’
SG: Do you visit Lviv?
AZ: Yes, once every two or three years.
SG: So, that Leopolitan mythology still lives on, but the Gliwice mythology is no more?
AZ: Yes and no. I once looked back though my poems, and more of them are about Gliwice than Lviv! But Gliwice was my real childhood. My first discoveries and major experiences occurred in Gliwice. Lviv reappeared later on, like a departed fatherland.
SG: After more than two decades, you returned to Kraków in 2003. Had much changed?
AZ: I saw more continuity than change. I remembered Kraków from my student years, my first months there when I was 18, but it was a kind of childhood. Every rediscovery is a form of childhood. I used to go for a lot of walks in those days, discovering various districts, and I was thrilled. Cracovian friends told me, ‘This city used to be so grey under communism’, but I had seen Kraków’s beautiful side and felt its potential. I’m rather sensitive to the presence of history. I like cities where you can walk the streets and feel that a lot has taken place, sometimes terrible events, but there is that historical dimension. I didn’t come straight back to Kraków for good, either. I’d been able to return to Poland since the 1989 elections, so it didn’t feel like a grand homecoming. It was divided into stages. As soon as communism collapsed, I wanted to return.
Poems are a dive into the unknown
SG: You write poetry and essays. Are there any themes about which it’s easier to write an essay than a poem?
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AZ: Nothing is ‘easy’. I sometimes wonder about the difference, but I think that writing poems is more of an unknown quantity. Essays are written on topics you know about. Poems are written about what we don’t know; a dive into the unknown. But essays allow you to impart greater erudition.
SG: Poems are more emotional, and essays more rational?
AZ: In some ways, but it doesn’t mean that poetry does not require thought. Poetry is more important to me, and if I was forced to choose, it’d be poetry. I often write essays when I’m unable to write a poem, but I also enjoy writing essays, so I don’t suffer while writing them.
SG: Do you have fixed writing hours?
AZ: Generally, my hours are during the first part of the day; hardly ever in the evening. The hours nearer noon, the zenith of the day, are good for working.
SG: Do you write every day?
AZ: No. I’m not writing now, for example. But from ancient times we’ve had breaks in summer, when the world is at its finest and the trees are lusher; then we take a break from our work, like children’s holidays. I love to work; it’s not tedious. There have been summers when I managed to write something, but usually not.
SG: That’s interesting, since summer appears frequently in your poetry.
AZ: Yes, because I worship the summer, which doesn’t exactly encourage me to work, but I tell myself that life isn’t all about working. For me, summer is a time to enjoy the world, and I want to see as much of it as possible.
SG: You also write a lot about birds: thrushes, swallows, blackbirds…
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AZ: …and swifts. I’m no expert, but I love birds. For example, a little A5 book by Hans Magnus Enzensberger has just come out, translated by Krynicki. I hadn’t heard of him, but I saw a poem about swifts, so Berger likes swifts, too. I think you can find other poets who watch birds but, on the other hand, they also love cats that kill birds.
SG: Do you like cats?
AZ: I adore them!
Gdyby Rosja (‘If only Russia’) – Russian culture & Brodsky
SG: To change the subject, in one of your poems, the lyrical I says, ‘The first time I cried was after Stalin’s death’. Do you remember the death of Stalin?
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AZ: Only very vaguely, and that I’d been slightly indoctrinated. I was seven at the time, in my first year at school, and I think I did cry; I didn’t realise it was actually joyful news. I remember my parents being glad. Children are extremely easy to indoctrinate. After all, Stalin was always smiling, kind to children, carrying flowers. But that didn’t last for long with me.
SG: At school, did they tell you it was a great loss?
AZ: Of course. We had an assembly and sang communist songs… It was a communist school, but not that bad; I think our teachers were only pretending, and didn’t genuinely love that monster.
SG: You wrote the poem ‘Gdyby Rosja’ (If Only Russia). What do you think of Russia today?
AZ: That poem still seems relevant to me. I find the two Russias terribly interesting: the Russia of Akhmatova and… It was already like that in the 19th century: the Russia of Pushkin, and the Russia of police and Chief Procurator Pobedonostsev. I don’t think any other country has such a split personality, with such exquisite culture, literature and music, but, on the other hand, a police state.
SG: You were friends with Joseph Brodsky. Could you tell us something about him?
AZ: I loved Brodsky; I admired him. I thoroughly enjoyed talking with him, and I know he liked me, too. It was a friendship. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
SG: How was Brodsky as a person?
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AZ: Also two-sided, but in a different way than Russia. On the one hand, he was known for a certain arrogance; he was incredibly intelligent and well aware of it. When he met someone new, he would instantly judge whether or not he could like them. I think he would immediately try to gauge someone’s intelligence and see if they read poetry. Poetry was his absolute focal point. If he found out that they did, that person could join ‘his club’ and everything was fine, but he could be disagreeable with people he regarded as philistines. He was an utter chauvinist when it came to the arts, including poetry; they were central to his life.
I heard he was so arrogant that, in the company of Americans, he would even correct them. And he was so forceful that they didn’t dare to say, ‘Joseph, we know best’. He spoke excellent English, but would occasionally use outdated idioms. Every language has idioms that were popular in the 1920s but are now consigned to dictionaries. Brodsky would read dictionaries and sometimes pick up idioms from them. But once he had accepted somebody, he was a great, sensitive, caring friend who would ask how you were feeling or if you were sick.
SG: Do you recall any funny situations with him?
AZ: Let me think… I recall an extremely un-funny situation with him, when we both spent the night at a friend’s house in Cambridge, USA. He had his room, and I had mine. He had some serious heart problems that night, and in the morning I spoke to him as he lay in bed. I saw the fear. He knew that someday his heart would be the death of him. I’d never seen him that way before. I saw a man who was frightened; a man with a bomb ticking in his heart. They never fully cured him. I was amazed to see such existential angst in him, because he was so brilliant in company and loved cracking jokes and laughing.
SG: Brodsky loved America. Do you?
AZ: Brodsky decided never to return to Russia. He spoke excellent English and took an active interest in the language. For me, America was a seasonal place. I was living in France and would go to give lectures for one semester, and I didn’t want to stay in America because I’m very pro-European and I love old cities. I like the Americans I know, but it never occurred to me to settle there. Brodsky felt at home in America and was incredibly successful, quickly joining the elite. He was friends with Susan Sontag, and I think they even had an affair. I also got accepted into that elite somehow, but the main difference was that, for me, the USA was just a semester, then I’d be back in a year. Brodsky had the passport; he was officially American. He never visited Russia, even though he was invited.
SG: The Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova said that in America he missed the architecture and the Old Town. Was it the same for you?
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AZ: Yes. I was lecturing in Houston, Texas, for many years. Houston is a very new city. I love cities with a centre, like the Market Square in Kraków. They don’t have that in the States. A few cities were built upon Magdeburg rules, but not many. I really like New York, which has no centre (although you could count Central Park). In that respect, I’m like Venclova – I always seek the mediaeval that’s missing in America. I love university libraries the most: huge and luxurious, where you’re allowed to take books off the shelves on your own.
SG: Have you ever done translations?
AZ: I have no talent for it. I don’t know how to get familiar enough with the text of a poem to be able to engage in that transformation process. I regret that. I’ve tried many times, but I don’t know how.
SG: Do you read translations of your poems?
AZ: Yes, but not enough. Analysing translations is no great passion of mine, to the point that I can’t force myself to be that attentive, so minor mistakes will sometimes make it into a book. My explanation is that I’m most interested in poetry I’ve yet to write, and existing poems that have already been translated are dead to me, to some extent. When I read them at poetry evenings, they come back to life. I think that’s common among poets – a strong desire to pen new poems, like a testimony that we’re still alive and on form.
Interview conducted in Warsaw, July 2019, translated by Mark Bence, June 2020
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