Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

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 view, I'm probably a very bad Catholic.

But maybe not from God's point of view.

[Laughter] This we cannot know. I believe that our mental states are not purely subjective. They correspond to something that's transcendent. We don't produce everything in us. On the other hand, probably not every despair and not every joy is produced by something outside us. Far from that: we can swallow a pill and become this way or another. So it's not an absolute rule.

If you were to name a poetic manifesto—a poem that best captures your approach to life—which one of your poems would it be?

In a way this little poem "Try to Praise the Mutilated World" is a manifesto. But in a way you can say every poem is this kind of manifesto. It would be almost sad if one single poem functioned in this way, because our creeds are mostly multifaceted. So writing poems is perhaps continuous manifesto-writing.

The poems are different articles of the manifesto?

Yes, it's like a constitution—there are many paragraphs.

You were born in Lvov after the Soviets took it from Poland following World War II. You lived and studied in Krakow, Poland. You moved to Paris in 1982. Was it for political reasons?

I was a dissident in my country, but the reason that propelled me to leave Poland was not a political one. I fell in love with a woman. It sounds a little bit goofy, because when I moved, it was a historical moment when many of my compatriots were moving to the West for political reasons.

Whatever happened with that woman?

I married her, and we're still happy together.

Since 1988 you've spent your springs in Houston, where you teach creative writing. Lvov, Krakow, Paris, and Houston are settings for your poems, which one could almost categorize geographically. You often go to Germany for readings. What parts of Polish, French, American, and perhaps German culture have you adopted into yourself willingly, and what aspects of your Polish background and your immersion in French and American ways have you consciously rejected?

In a way, I consider myself a traveler against my will. I don't like travel so much, to tell you the truth. I've told you honestly why I moved to Paris. And when I came to Houston it was out of dire financial necessity. It wasn't the decision of an aesthete who wanted to taste life in Texas. I don't regret it, and I think I have learned something, but I can imagine myself living in a village in Poland—with a good library of course—and being exactly the same person.

In your times of nostalgia—"When Europe is sound asleep at last, / America will keep watch // over the poor mute world / mistrustfully, like a younger sister"—what do you find yourself missing the most?

I see a dramatic split in the so-called developed world, between the United States and Europe. What I love in America is the human energy; this continent is incredibly energetic, and people are driven by this energy, which is mostly friendly. Europe is a little sleepy. Western Europe is a beautiful museum. But of course when I am here in Houston, I miss the old stones in the villages near Paris. In every village there's a tiny, beautiful Romanesque church where you can almost see the human hands that made it 800 years ago—it gives you a feeling of solidarity with the old generations and tenderness for them. Here, where people think that a house should last maybe 40 years, not more, you cannot have it. So I miss this oldness of things and the tenderness of the oldness. But when I go to Europe, I miss the energy of America—and the people. I have many friends here.

What is home for you?

Home for me is Krakow, my university town. I grew up in Silesia, the unattractive industrial region in the south of Poland. Krakow was the enchantment of my youth. I pilgrimaged there as a young man, and I fell in love with the city. Even now, after so many years and continents, when I go back to Krakow, I still feel admiration for this old city, which has been miraculously preserved. Even the population seems ancient, unlike the people in Warsaw and the cities with German influences such as Wroclaw and Gdansk.

What do you think is the place of poetry in modern culture, so bombarded by images, sound bites, and other forms of ceaseless stimulation?

This is a delicate question. Poets have a tendency to magnify the importance of poetry and to close their eyes to its real situation. I try to be quite sober. My late friend, the great poet Joseph Brodsky, was a tireless defender of poetry. I try not to defend poetry too much. But when people compare poetry to modern classical music and say that it's one of the dead arts, of course you cannot expect me to agree. By pure chance yesterday night I heard Carl Dennis, who won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry this year and is a friend of mine, defending poetry by saying it's the voice of a human being. I think that's a very good point of view. Unlike other arts, lyric poetry offers—well, "offers" is maybe too capitalistic a word—but in poetry you hear a voice, you hear someone speaking. It's not a narrative, it's not a cascade of images, as in a film. Voice is most important in poetry. But I would add to Dennis' words that this voice has to say something important. The voice is just a vehicle for it.

It strikes me that your life resembles that of Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski. When in the '70s Kieslowski's films were a part of the so-called Cinema of Moral Anxiety, your poems also bucked against the abuses of communism. After you and Kieslowski left Poland, both his cinematography and your writing began addressing universal, human—and not so much specifically Polish—experiences. What took you in this direction?

First, I too see this parallel. I met Kieslowski in Paris. We became very good friends, and I was immensely sad when he died so soon. We recognized in each other these kinds of similarities, so there was a solidarity between us.

What brought me to this change was a feeling that there's something universal in poetry, and that dwelling on very local subjects and answers is a kind of castration for a writer. Not that you have to totally move away from your local subject. Even when I write about Houston, which happens very rarely, I still react as a Polish poet and person. But there are some traditional subjects in poetry—transcendence, death, beauty, time—that are given to all of us. I don't think we should avoid these traditionally given subjects, we should just treat them in a fresh way. Any art is a combination of the very old and the very new.

Another reason why you remind me of Kieslowski—and of course the comparison can only be taken so far—is that you employ understatatement in your portrayal of spiritual matters. God, for example, is mentioned, hinted about, or implied in several of your poems. He's there, but he's marginal, a little like the lanky young man who appears in eight of Kieslowski's films in The Decalogue—always watching but not intervening. To what degree is the portrayal of God in your poems a reflection of how you personally perceive him?

My poetry is more a poetry of longing than a poetry of assurance. The reason for this is in my metaphysics. I'm not one of the lucky ones who have a very strong faith and a solid assurance. My religious experience expresses itself in a quest that is never resolved. So this understatement is not an artistic take, not a trick—it's something that corresponds to the way I experience God. But also in reading Dante, for instance, I'm afraid we'll never be able—and now I'm switching to the plural to be safer—we'll never be able to have such a firm, strong vision, which in Dante's case, of course, was helped by St. Thomas Aquinas. Still, maybe I shouldn't use the plural: I'm sure there are poets who have a different kind of assurance and faith than I do.

In "A Quick Poem," you contrast civilization and progress (you in a speeding car on a highway) and the enduring values of remembrance, ritual, place (represented by monks singing Gregorian chant). You say, "In place of walls—sheet metal. / Instead of a vigil—a flight. / Travel instead of remembrance." Am I right in detecting a warning in these words?

Yes, but the message is ambivalent. The warning and anxiety are there because the way we live is very fragile. The car is such a good symbol of the fragility of our existence. Think of the difference between a commercial that shows a brand new shiny car and a glimpse of a wrecked car on the side of the road, a shell of something that you hardly recognize—you see how destructible it is. But, at the same time, I also like driving. I'm not a staunch conservative who, like Pascal, thinks that all disasters stem from leaving your room. This poem is also a way of claiming modernity—that you can drive and listen to Gregorian chant, that you can have a meaningful life in modernity. I see both readings as legitimate. You know, I live this modern life—I fly and I drive, and I find joy in it. I try to make it meaningful.

You're fluent in Polish, English, French, and German, but you continue to write in Polish and have your works translated, very skillfully, into English. Why do you keep writing in Polish?

For a simple reason. It's the only language in which the inspiration comes. It's almost impossible for me to write poetry without the spark of inspiration. As much as I adore English—it's such a wonderful, strong, sensual, and rich language—it's not my language. I know all the words in Polish in a way I will never know the idioms in English. Writing a poem and having to look up words in a dictionary every other line—it's impossible.

When I arrived in the states, I was surprised by the stereotype of a dumb Polak in the so-called Polish jokes. At first, I couldn't understand why the word "Polak" has a derogatory meaning—whereas in Poland it simply means "a Polish man." What was your encounter with this and your first reaction?

To tell you the truth, I never encountered it. I came to Houston, which doesn't have many Polish people in it, and I have good friends who never treated me with Polish jokes. But someone told me an anecdote about another Polish poet, the late Zbigniew Herbert. He spent a year or two in this country in the late '60s. A dean of a university approached him at a party and told him Polish jokes, one after another. And after a while, Herbert stopped him, and said, "Excuse me. My English is very poor, so I'm not quite sure whether the word I'm going to use is right. But you are—and correct me if I'm using the wrong word—you are an idiot, aren't you?"

Most ReadMost Shared