Writers & Company

Polish poet Adam Zagajewski wrote with urgency and eloquence about history, homeland and loss

One of the leading writers of his generation, poet, essayist and novelist Adam Zagajewski died on March 21, 2021. In this 2005 interview, he spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about writing poetry shaped by the complex legacy of Polish history.
Born in 1945 in Lviv, Adam Zagajewski was one of Poland's most celebrated contemporary authors, winning numerous awards, and was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for literature. (Jerry Bauer)

The Polish poet, essayist and novelist Adam Zagajewski, who died on March 21, 2021, aged 75, was one of the leading writers of his generation. He came to prominence in the late 1960s as a dissident — a member of the Polish New Wave of poets, opposing the Communist government. His writing was banned for a time, and he lived in exile in Paris, while also teaching in the U.S., before finally returning to his beloved Krakow.

Zagajewski was born in 1945 in the medieval city of Lviv (now in Ukraine), where his family had lived for generations. As the borders of Central Europe were redrawn, they were forcibly repatriated to Silesia, an area that had been part of Nazi Germany. He explored this rupture in his book Two Cities: On Exile, History, and the Imagination. His other, award-winning titles include the poetry collections Asymmetry and Without End and the essay collection A Defense of Ardor. His poem Try to Praise the Mutilated World was featured in the New Yorker just days after the 9/11 attacks. 

Zagajewski spoke to Eleanor in 2005 from Houston, where he was teaching at the University of Houston. 

Poetry as manifesto

"The poem Try to Praise the Mutilated World was written a year and a half before 9/11. Of course, in my mind, the connection was established only by the fact of it being published in The New Yorker. 

"For me, it was a poem of my childhood, the childhood in the ruins after the Second World War. It is about the double experience, on the one hand, of destruction and pain — and the other hand, of joy, of art, of thinking. 

"This is something that interrogates me all the time: How can those two things coexist?

The poem Try to Praise the Mutilated World was written a year and a half before 9/11.

"I grew up not far from Auschwitz; all those scars were not even scars yet when I was a child. Yet there was this discovery of joy, of art, of music, of poetry and of religion. So if this is a manifesto, it's simply in the sense that it puts together those two major forces that interest me, that fascinate me."

Of belonging and homelessness

"I was born in a city now known as Lviv, in the Ukraine. It was known as Lwów in Polish, Lemberg in German and Leopolis in Italian. It has had many names. 

"It used to be a Polish city before the war. This was a city where my family lived for several generations. But because of the change of the borders after the Second World War, the city became a part of the Soviet Union. The majority of the Polish population had to leave. I was only four months old when my family journeyed to the west, to post-war Germany. So this was an incredible movement in Central Europe. The Germans, those who were innocent civilians, had to go west, as did the Poles. 

My city still exists, but it's a Ukrainian city now, which has its own problems and a different language, et cetera. So this is not my place.

"My city still exists, but it's a Ukrainian city now, which has its own problems and a different language, et cetera. So this is not my place. I'm saying I'm homeless. It's not complaining. It's just a matter of fact."

The legacy of the New Wave

"The Polish New Wave of poets, those that opposed the Communist government, was a great experience. It was perhaps the best thing you could do under the circumstances, to revolt — and to revolt in a wise way. It was done by thinking and trying to understand, not by rushing to a radical political action that would make you land in a prison, though I had a lot of admiration for people who undertook this radical action. 

"But for people like myself, it was a wonderful adventure. It was not without a risk, but there was a lot of friendship and solidarity involved. This was a kind of collective movement — which now I see as a problem. 

The Polish New Wave of poets, those that opposed the Communist government, was a great experience. It was perhaps the best thing you could do under the circumstances, to revolt — and to revolt in a wise way.

"I think writing is basically a solitary thing. Back in the 1970s, I cherished very much having those strong ties with other young or older writers, and having this feeling that we were doing something important."

Polish poet Adam Zagajewski walks on stage after receiving the 2017 Princess of Asturias Award for Literature during the Princess of Asturias Awards ceremony in Spain on October 20, 2017. (Miguel Riopa/AFP via Getty Images)

The power of my history

"The complex legacy of Polish history is both a burden and a gift. It's a burden because it is not an easy history there are some painful ingredients. But it's a gift because it does exist; it has richness. And even if it's painful, it's a living legacy. 

"I see my country is still growing and evolving, maybe more than Western European societies. When I go to France, I have the feeling the French society has been shaped by its many centuries of existence. But the Polish society has been slowed down by the partitions, by the disastrous history. 

The complex legacy of Polish history is both a burden and a gift. ​​​​​​

"In a way, it's a gift: I feel, even in a very small way, that I can contribute to this growth, to this kind of invisible debate about who we are."

Adam Zagajewski's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?

now