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Agnieszka Tennant


Try to Praise the Mutilated World

A conversation with poet Adam Zagajewski

When, after September 11, The New Yorker published a poem, "Try to Praise the Mutilated World," on its back page—a rare departure from the cartoons and parodies that usually occupy that space—it resonated with many readers. They posted it on their refrigerators, on bulletin boards and websites. The author who helped America heal is Adam Zagajewski, a cosmopolitan poet and essayist who writes in Polish. His most recent collection of poems, in which irony is balanced by wonder, is called Without End. It was published this year by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. In the spring, when Zagajewski was teaching creative writing at the University of Houston, Agnieszka Tennant gave him a call.

You wrote "Try to Praise the Mutilated World" before the terrorist attacks. What occasion inspired it?

No particular occasion, no single event. For me, it's the way I have always seen the world. When I was growing up I saw a lot of ruins in postwar Poland. This is my landscape. Somehow it stayed with me, this feeling that the world is wounded or mutilated. The poem reflects a philosophical conviction more than an event.

Let's talk about this conviction. In the last lines of the poem you speak of "the gentle light that strays and vanishes / and returns," a description that beautifully captures hope. Where does your hope—hope about anything—come from, and what makes you its advocate?

It's a very interesting question—one I never ask myself but I'll try to answer nevertheless. The experience of someone who tries to live and write is very rich and encompasses the register of ecstasy, of joy. Years ago I was with someone in a taxi, and he asked me, "Do you believe in happiness?" and I said, "No, I don't believe in happiness, I believe in joy." I don't believe in happiness as a constant state, but I do believe in joy. Which I always think has to correspond to something.

What does it correspond to in your case?

I am a religious person—a bad Christian, a slightly lapsed Catholic. From the pope's point of ...

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