Back to Basics

"I couldn't be a politician - I would die of boredom in two weeks," declares Polish essayist and poet Adam Zagajewski, who visited Israel last week within the framework of Israel-Poland friendship year. Zagajewski goes on to offer his own satirical definition of his art: Poetry is the revenge of introverts, he explains. Introverts are not sufficiently valued in society. They stay home, read books, listen to music and nobody really needs them. But when an introvert creates something like a poem, Zagajewski suggests, and this poem enters the public sphere, suddenly and paradoxically the introvert assumes "a social role." As far as this poet is concerned, therefore, the choice for him wasn't between being a politician and being a poet, "it was more between being a reader or a writer."

Zagajewski was appearing at Makom Leshira (Poetry Place) in the Nahlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem, at an event organized in his honor by the Ketovet poetry group and Beit Hasofer (Writer's House). The event also featured David Weinfeld, who translated a selection of Zagajewski's poets into Hebrew, actor Doron Tavory and singer Yasmin Levy.

In a certain sense Zagajewski is continuing in the path of the important Polish poets, who are older than he is - such as Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert and Wislawa Szymborska, who were born before World War II - and this is evident in his work. He was born in 1945 in Lvov (then Poland, today Ukraine) and moved to Krakow, where he studied psychology and philosophy at the university. He began writing in the 1960s and was among the poets of the "new wave," born in the post-war years; their poems reflected the political and social climate of the time in Poland. They experienced the dark years of the Stalinist regime, the fall of communism and the transition to a democratic society.

In the 1980s Zagajewski was active in the Solidarity movement, which opposed the ruling Communist Party; in 1989 it spearheaded the revolution headed by Lech Walesa to bring about a democratic regime. In 1982 Zagajewski left Poland for Paris. "I went there because of a woman, who became my first wife," he explains. From there he went on to the United States and taught literature at the University of Houston in Texas. In 2002 he returned to Krakow with his second wife, but he still continues to teach one semester a year at the University of Chicago.

"For me political dissidence and poetry are one and the same," says Zagajewski, going on to explain the difference between poetry and social activity: Every poet has to choose whether to be more socially active or more of a poet, because poetry contains "an element of criticism." A poet has to be critical, "if necessary, even toward the movement of which you are a member."

Asked whether poetry can exercise political influence, he says he believes it can change people or history "up to a certain point." W.H. Auden once said that poetry does not cause anything to happen in reality, Zagajewski says, but adds: "I don't think that's true. Several of the poems of Zbigniew Herbert were used by Solidarity. Poetry is supposed to express views, it helps put people's needs and dreams into words. In that sense the poetry of Herbert, for example, had an important presence."

Zagajewski sees a line connecting the great Polish poets of the 20th century such as Milosz, Herbert and Szymborska, and notes that during the past decade, the work of such poets has become very popular in the Western world. "They all react to history," he says. Their poetry is not hermetically sealed, as it were, but rather "open to changes wrought by history, society, the human condition, and that is a somewhat exceptional trait in modern poetry. Milosz called it Polish historicism in poetry."

Zagajewski defines his fellow Polish poets' work as "more concrete than realistic. It focuses on the concrete aspects of everyday life, objects, the landscape of life."

Asked about the fact that his own work reflects the ambiguity of life, in which great kindness exists alongside great cruelty, he says he feels writing poetry "is a way to live with this ambiguity. Most people hate ambiguity. We prefer straight, simple formulas - happiness or despair, love or hate. But we all experience this ambiguity in any case. Writing is a way of dealing with it."

Like quite a number of artists whose creativity blossomed during the days of the repressive regime, and afterward found themselves trying to adjust to an entirely different atmosphere, Zagajewski agrees that he is also seeking his own way today in a new, open and democratic Poland.

"For most of the writers the transition from a totalitarian regime to a democratic one is not easy," he explains, adding that under communism everything was clear: The arts had to be critical toward the communist government. Now things have changed, however: "We are still learning how to write and create in a free society. I think that many young writers have gotten somewhat lost because of this," Zagajewski explains. There is no longer one simple formula of how to be an artist in a democratic society. Formerly, he and other artists knew how to confront what he calls "the totalitarian monster." It's more difficult in cultural terms to live in a democracy, because it's more amorphous, he adds. "You don't know where your rivals are."

For example, the poet explains, if he doesn't like a certain government, he won't write a poem about it because in a democratic regime, it will anyway disappear within a few years and another government will be elected instead.

"We have a free press that protests against the government, so poets no longer have a place in this protest. I think that poetry today in Poland is returning to its original mission, which is to react to the human condition."

Poetry exists within what Zagajewski calls an "existentialist realm of life and death and love," although he notes there are young poets who disagree with him. Do poets always need something or someone to rebel against? "We have natural enemies like death, ignorance, hatred. I don't think that the enemy has to be some establishment," he answers. In a democratic world, poets won't attack a government ministry for being inefficient. What is left, he stresses again, is to write "about the existential situation."

Zagajewski grew up in a Catholic environment and describes himself as a religious person, but says: "I rarely go to church, because I have a problem with the Catholic Church. Since the end of the communist era a spirit of arrogance and victory has been emanating from within it, which is far from the spirit of Christianity."

Until the age of 11, he recalls, he didn't even know that there was such a thing as Jews. Then his best friend, Henry, and his family suddenly left Poland. Zagajewski says his parents told him they left because they were Jews. That was the first time he had heard such a thing. Many years later, he adds, their paths crossed again in the United States.

At various points in his life he met Jews and became friendly with them. Slowly but surely this subject became an element of his consciousness and sensitivity, he says, adding that he has read a great deal about the war and the destruction of Polish Jewry. "The Jewish past in Poland is very important to me. It's not only an aspect of my intellectual interest - it has become part of my world of imagination."

When told that many Israelis considered Poland one big "Jewish cemetery," Zagajewski admits that for a long time, "I didn't know about that. I was born in June 1945, so that I myself was born into a cemetery. The Jewish cemetery was part of the Polish cemetery. Three million Poles died in that war. The war shaped the context of many of my poems, of my thoughts - what it means to be born into a landscape like this, of mourning and death." He notes that Auschwitz is very close to Krakow and its shadow has hovered over his life.

"Perhaps one of the reasons why I write poetry is an attempt to create life inside the cemetery. I wrote a poem in 2000 called 'Try to Praise a Mutilated World.' After 9/11 it was published in a special edition of The New Yorker and became famous in the United States. I wrote it long before the disaster, but for some reason it was chosen to be the poem that represents that event."

This is a poem, he explains, about catastrophe, about how to live with catastrophe. In America the catastrophe took place on September 11, 2001, but for him it took place right before he was born. The poem was his way, Zagajewski says, of reacting to the landscape of his childhood - a landscape of ruin which took years to rehabilitate.