ACCORDING TO SOME POETS and critics, even working poets hate poetry. Why? Because poems so often fail in their efforts to express the ineffable. Spurred to write, poets sense, can tell, even from the start, that their poems will be but a shadow of the impulse—dare I call it inspiration?—that compelled them to put pen to paper. This mismatch between intent and outcome, according to Ben Lerner, who recently published a bestselling treatise about this very topic, is also why nobody reads poetry anymore. To assuage the pain stemming from their own failures and disappointments, poets may not only turn against poetry as an art form but also ridicule those still advocating on its behalf.
Adam Zagajewski, the great Polish poet and essayist who died on March 21, 2021, never wavered in his belief that poetry can make things happen. Born in 1945, he burst onto the scene calling for poets to focus on—as the title of the manifesto he co-wrote with Julian Kornhauser tells us—the unrepresented world. Adam’s rejection of the literary status quo in Communist Poland was deeply political and existential, embodying the belief that words and ideas pertaining to individual freedoms and honest representation of reality, matter, especially when they are being distorted by politicians and their henchmen. Not quite ten years later, in 1983, while living an émigré’s existence in Paris he would publish a volume of poems that seemed to his erstwhile colleagues a refutation of their ideals of poetry as a tool of overt political engagement. Friendships ended or went dormant. Yet it is also true that his turn to the high style, i.e. deep lyricism and somewhat elevated diction, did not erase in Adam his rebellious streak. Unashamed to write about his love for Mahler and Vermeer, he also wrote about the moments that make up our quotidian existence—some fleeting, like birdsong; others, like human stupidity, here to stay, alas. His detractors saw him as aloof—they wondered why he had stopped writing political poetry—but his voluminous speaking out against the dismantling of democratic institutions in Poland and elsewhere proves that he never stopped speaking truth to power.
He was also kind, funny, and generous, especially toward younger poets. When I applied to the MFA Program, I wrote in my application letter that I wanted to be like him. Reading his poems and essays, first in English translation, then in Polish, I had fallen under the spell of his ability to combine the lyrical with the intellectual. He espoused the view that our existence here on Earth is nothing short of a mystery while simultaneously keeping both of his feet firmly on the ground. I still find that combination difficult to pull off. Three years after earning my MFA, in 2009 I had a chance to finally meet my master, and then we would meet again and again. Every time I came to Kraków to visit family and friends I questioned if I should call him or not—he was world famous and a pillar of the city’s literary and intellectual community!—but he always made me feel welcome. What did we talk about? Poetry, politics, books we read, travels, family, and…swimming.
I believe poets should be promiscuous in their reading. When we’re just starting out, we should also be ready to steal from other poets, especially those who write in a different vein—that’s how we learn and expand our craft. If we’re lucky, with time we discover that we read different poets for different reasons. One poet may challenge us intellectually or craft-wise, while we turn to another for humor, consolation or timeless wisdom.
Is there anything specific I learned from Adam? His work hits many spots for me, that would be the easiest answer, but let me give you a specific example: In 2002 Adam and his wife, Maja Wodecka, moved back from Paris to Kraków. A year later Adam published a slim volume of poems, called, in translation, Return—his love letter to the city he was again calling home. “In the late evening you drive into your city,” reads the first line of the opening piece, “In the Evening.” “Nobody greets you, nobody stops you,” he goes on, then, after a dozen or so lines, concludes with this:
everything that’s happened
is waiting for you,
your defeats haven’t forgotten you.
It’s already late,
silence returns to silence,
you should try to fall asleep.
I love this poem unconditionally, but these concluding lines move me to the core. For years now, as my plane begins its descent toward the airport outside of Kraków, the city where I was born and raised but left years ago, I recite them quietly, intimately identifying with the speaker of Adam’s poem. If that’s not proof enough that a poem can help one make sense of his life, then I don’t know what is.