Poet Adam Zagajewski, who died aged 75, was one of the leading voices in Poland New wave (New Wave), also known as the Generation of ’68, an informal group of poets who opposed the corruption of language imposed by communism and promoted the simplicity and honesty of their mother tongue. Like many of his generation, informed by the horrors of World War II, Zagajewski focused on the ethical obligations of poetry to understand and present the world to the reader “after Auschwitz.”
In 1974, together with the poet and critic Julian Kornhauser, Zagajewski published a manifesto in the form of a collection of essays on Polish literature, The Unrepresented World, which called for “non-naive realism” (Kornhauser’s term) in fiction: realism understood not as a literary movement but as an obligation to describe the social reality in communist Poland, which brought them into conflict with the authorities. Along with this mission to provide “The basic source of information about the world and its people”Zagajewski also reflected on the concept of freedom, as in his poem Freedom, translated by Antony Graham:
But even when I can’t define
the essence of freedom
I know the meaning very well
Emigrating to Paris and teaching in the U.S. Before settling back in Poland, Zagajewski was known and respected outside of his home country (his first major international award was the Tucholsky Prize, Stockholm, in 1985), but after The September 11 attacks, when the New Yorker published his poem Try to Praise the Mutilated World, written before the tragedy, in his special issue on the attacks, his profile was raised considerably. In the poem, translated by Clare Cavanagh, he demands that we see both the tragedies of the world and its eternal beauty:
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather was lost a thrush,
and the soft light that is lost and faded
And come back.
Zagajewski saw the world through continual dichotomies and the need to rebuild what was once mutilated or destroyed; never a exiled, but “not settled either”. His essays, such as Two Cities: On Exile, History and the Imagination (1995), and A Defense of Ardor (2004), as well as his poetry, including Mysticism for Beginners (1997), Without End (2002), and Asymmetry (2018), he also explores the paradoxes of modern civilization, as he saw them.
He preferred to use the traditional free verse (“Rhymes really irritate me, a bit like the bell that calls you to kneel in church ”) and avoided poetic experimentations, since his focus was on communication and understanding, but still participating in“ a dialogue with the imagination ”. He demanded that poetry tell the truth (“we write to understand the world,” he said), and once ironically concluded that “some French poets say that Polish poetry is just journalism, because it can be understood.”
Adam was born in Lwów and was the son of Ludwika (nee Turska) and Tadeusz Zagajewski, professor of electronics; his family, including his older sister Ewa, were expelled when the city became part of Ukraine and moved to the small town of Gliwice in Silesia.
After studying for separate degrees in philosophy and psychology at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, graduating in 1970, Zagajewski focused on his poetry; had first published, in 1967, his poem Music, in a literary magazine, Życie Literackie, and his first volume of poetry, Komunikat, was published in 1972. It was during this time that he, Kornhauser and other colleagues such as Wit Jaworski, Ewa Lipska, Ryszard Krynicki and Stanisław Barańczak forged Nowa Fala.
In 1975 he signed a letter, along with 58 other intellectuals, against the proposed political changes to the constitution that would make Poland a vassal state of the Soviet Union, and his works were banned. The following year, he co-created an independent underground magazine, Zapis, and later established a Society for Academic Courses to break the state monopoly on higher education.
He moved to Paris in 1982, following a fellow Jagiellonian graduate with whom he was in love, Maja wodecka, actor and translator. They were married in 1990. In Paris he continued to publish, mainly in the monthly Polish émigré magazine Culture, but also began to spend more time in the United States, where since 1988 he taught creative writing at the University of Houston and, since 2007, at the University. from Chicago. With a soft, gentle and unassuming voice, he knew how to talk to his students about poetry, not just how to write it. He continued to write in Polish although he was fluent in several other languages.
In 2002, Zagajewski returned to Krakow, which he had described as “the beautiful city under the gray cover of communism,” and taught poetry workshops at the Jagiellonian, as well as meeting his friends, including Nobel Prize winners Czesław Miłosz and Wislawa Szymborska.
In his later years, he often wrote about love, but even more about death, viewing his elegies as a “gesture against death” but recognizing the limitations of language to express the magnitude of the loss, for example in About my mother (2018), translated by Cavanagh:
… and how she forgave everything
and how i remember it, and how i flew from houston
to his funeral and I couldn’t say anything
and I still can’t.
Zagajewski won many awards, including the 2004 Neustadt International Literature Prize, the 2010 European Poetry Prize and the 2013 Zhongkun International Poetry Prize.
He is survived by Maja and Ewa.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism