“Poetry Has to Defend Itself”: A Conversation with Adam Zagajewski

April 6, 2021

I met Adam Zagajewski in 2008, when I was in Kraków on a fellowship — a newcomer to Poland, though not to Polish literature. The genial and yet austere poet guided me through the ancient city and introduced me to its writers, as he had done for so many others. This interview took place over a decade ago, in preparation for an article for the Poetry Foundation. As the world now knows, he died far too soon, on March 21 of this year, at the age of 75. His last message to me, a month after his birthday, read: “75 is actually not so bad — if you’re in a good shape. I don’t complain, so far.”

He lives in his words now — and, as always, I was surprised by their wisdom and timelessness when rereading this interview.

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CYNTHIA HAVEN: First, a simple question from my own personal interest. I love your poem “Three Angels.” It takes place on St. George Street — I take it that’s in Kraków? Did you have any particular bakery in mind when you wrote this poem?

ADAM ZAGAJEWSKI: No, there’s no bakery on St. George Street. Actually, there’s no St. George Street in Kraków — there’s a St. John Street, though. I like sometimes small shifts like that: I’m close to reality but not too close. And there are many bakers in Kraków (bread is good here).

Americans are puzzled by your ability to juggle such radically different worlds: Houston and Kraków. I would have thought that, say, Boston would have been much more congenial. Or perhaps to you they aren’t as radically different as they seem to us?

Well, that’s very true, Boston would have been more congenial, but it so happened that I went to Houston instead; the invitation to teach came from Houston. And both as a human being and a writer I have to live with what is there, with the reality of my life and to use it as a building material for my imagination. These realities do connect even if in a strange way; Houston is very strange when measured by Central (Eastern) European standards and yet the longing for something (for some ideal European things) can easily be seen in Houston.

I notice on the cover of your book, A Defense of Ardor, you feature Gus Powell’s photo, “Polish Wood” — but the landscape seems peculiarly Californian or Texan — a representation of your mixed worlds?

The photo on the cover of A Defense of Ardor is bizarre, that’s true, and represents a mix that I’d prefer to avoid in my writing. On a different level, the juxtaposition of Houston and Kraków for instance corresponds to the mobility of people now, both in the US and, more recently, also in Poland.

Czesław Miłosz once said, “We are in a largely post-religious world.” He recounted a conversation with Pope John Paul II, who commented upon his work, saying, “Well, you make one step forward, one step back.” Miłosz replied, “Holy Father, how in the 20th century can one write religious poetry differently?”

You have referred in your essays to a “higher reality” and “yearning for eternity.” You have observed that Polish literature is one of “last bastions of a more assertive attitude” towards such things. You have upheld the need for sacred feeling, religious sensibility — while avoiding the word God. Comment?

That’s an interesting question; I don’t think I avoid the word God, though. I have Jesus Christ in “Senza Flash” and God in many poems. 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, a certain newness, a certain surprise.

What is this disease that you have identified — this relaxing into irony, if not cynicism — and how do we cure it? And why have two prominent Polish poets struggle with it so consciously and conspicuously? I ask because so many are completely oblivious to it — and it is a noticeable feature in both your writing and Miłosz’s. 

I recall your comments about the influence of Nietzsche: Noting his minting of such terms as “superman,” “will to power,” “beyond good and evil” — and adding that “someone once rightly observed that beyond good and evil lies only evil” — you suggested that without these influences, “the spiritual atmosphere of our century might have been purer and perhaps even prouder.” 

Well, the disease of irony seems to be well identified. I adore irony as a part of our rich rhetorical and mental apparatus but not when it assumes the position of a spiritual guidance. 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.

You wrote: “We need to go on, paying the price, sometimes, of being not only imperfect but even, who knows, arrogant and ridiculous.”

My temperament is different. 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 the tranquility of my voice. Somehow I hope that the rhetoric of tranquility is after all stronger and more long-term than the one of a furious attack.

“My defense of poetry would be much more savage and desperate now than it used to be.” You said that several years ago. 

I don’t quite remember the context of this statement so it’s hard to say. Defenses of poetry are not very efficient, and anyway, poetry has to defend itself. Does it go downhill (the situation of poetry)? Probably not.

You have urged young poets to “please read everything,” and in your Neustadt speech you comment on the importance of tradition, of being humble before the “gigantic shadow of the dead.” From one of your essays: “The writer ordinarily sits alone with a blank piece of paper or a pale computer screen staring boldly and intently back at him. He’s alone although he doesn’t write for himself, but for others. Inspired and impeded by tradition, that great tumult of dead voices, he struggles to see into the future, which is always mute.” Brodsky also spoke for the need to acknowledge and respect “hierarchy” in this way. Did you speak of this as a common point? Do you feel this cry has any sort of resonance in a world that largely seeks novelty? 

What can I say? I’m in favor of reading and taking into consideration past writers. But you know, I don’t know ancient Greek, my Latin almost doesn’t exist; I’m not one of those lofty professors who know everything and terrorize others with their perfect erudition. What’s important is to think, to read, to meditate, to react, to be imaginative. Sometimes a reduced reading list, if given strong attention, can be better than a classical education when pursued somewhat mechanically. Of course I want the past writers to persist but first of all I want thinking and being moved by intelligent texts to persist.

Could you offer a word of explanation about the amazing miracle of Polish poetry in the 20th century — what forces caused it to burst from obscurity (what Miłosz called “an unheard-of tongue”) to becoming one of the great world literary legacies?

Good question. I have many contradictory explanations. 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) in Polish poetry after the World War II catastrophe was a very important move: it gave the dying Modernism a new energy. It “rehumanized” a highly sophisticated but a bit empty palace of modern poetry.

The future of poetry. I know this sounds trite — the lamenting of poetry as an “endangered species.” But as someone who writes about poetry for a living, I know what a tough sell it is. Despite the national drumbeating for “Poetry Month,” we live in a world where long, slow thoughts are disappearing.

What do you think? What is the future for us who like to spend our days chewing the end of a pen and having long thoughts?

We’ll be living in small ghettos, far from where celebrities dwell, and yet in every generation there will be a new delivery of minds that will love long and slow thoughts and books and poetry and music, so that these rather pleasant ghettos will never perish — and one day may even stir more excitement than we’re used to now.

You wrote that “Erbarme dich is the heart of civilization. Comment?

Bach represents the center and the synthesis of western music. To say, as I did, that this particular aria is the center of western music is a leap of faith, of course. I couldn’t prove it. I love this aria.

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Cynthia L. Haven, a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar, is the author of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. Her most recent volume is The Man Who Brought Brodsky into English: Conversations with George L. Kline. Her Czesław Miłosz: A California Life will be out this fall.