by Piotr Parlej

When it comes to reading contemporary Polish poets, the poetry of Adam Zagajewski may present the most difficult task.

Of course, much of this difficulty hinges on the meaning of the word contemporary, an ambiguous yet inevitable word in the case of a poet who stands at a critical point in the timeline of Polands century-old literary tradition. And a word especially ambiguous and inevitable because Zagajewski seems to be the only one in his generation to interrogate this critical moment and the only one whose work embodies the very ambivalence of this historic change.

Even a brief excursion into the historical context from which Zagajewski’s poetry originates risks becoming entangled in the great dilemmas and debates of Poland’s aesthetic and political history, debates both emotionally heated and conceptually confused. Like many other national literatures in the nineteenth century, Polish poetry broke with classicism and embraced romanticism by riding the wave of national aspirations. However, while the nationalist component became only one among many other ingredients of Western European romanticism, in Poland it came to define and dominate literary experimentation and innovation. The triumph of national romanticism is responsible for shaping the concept of the Polish poet as national destiny’s supreme interpreter (Mickiewicz), its inspired visionary (Slowacki), or its shrewd dialectician (Krasinski). Each individual voice became vatic ex officio, at the same time pushing the lyrical voice into a sort of tolerated exile (Norwid).

Thus, as the standing literary wisdom in Poland has it, Polish poetry is indebted to romanticism. Most of modern Polish poetry, especially the poetry written after World War II, could be described as an argument defined, even in its rebellious manifestations, by the romantic horizon. Poland’s social reality was pressed in the service of grand national narratives, and individual perspective was sacrificed at the altar of patriotic soul – searching. In various forms, Polish lyricism has repeatedly fallen victim – although not without a fight to the stern demand for historical, not personal, narratives (the diaries of Andrzej Kijowski and Kazimierz Brandys, are a testimony of these struggles).

As the work of Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniew Herbert, Poland’s most celebrated poets, testifies, the romantic framework found a way to insinuate itself into contemporary Poland’s aesthetic and national preoccupations. In the case of Milosz, the return occurred in the attention to universal ideas, preoccupation with history, ironic stance, and the sense of the poet’s formative relevance to his community. In the case of Herbert, it occurred as a dissection of the lyrical self with the lancet of the moral judgment of history and the intellectual judgment of classical aesthetics.

Zagajewski, who lives on the crest of the generational wave, has both flirted with Poland’s modern vatic tradition and proposed a new, more viable form of accommodating the needs of the lyric. The path of his career would seem to reflect this course of progression. Initially known for his association with the Krakow group of language poets, Zagajewski’s poetry started out with the tension between the linguistic substratum of poetry and its potential to address the community (for instance, the symptomatic title of his essays, Solidarity, Solitude, written in the early 1980s). However, the delicate and precarious transaction, which other poets negotiate with a measure of success with the help of irony (Heaney, Walcott, Milosz, Neruda), became in the case of Zagajewski a non- negotiable proposition. That is, on the one hand Zagajewski traced the irony of the poetic voice to the irony of language itself; and, on the other, in a series of essays written in 1980s, he managed to provide an analysis of Poland’s communal concerns that were not legitimized by the vatic certificate.

Early on, Zagajewski, like other Polish poets, found his voice in opposing the totalitarian regime. He wrote in the prescribed genre and ethos that permitted lyrical irony as long as it was collectively applicable. But as it developed its lyrical stance in successive volumes (in English: Tremor, 1985, Canvas, 1992, Mysticism for Beginners, 1997, and Two Cities, prose, 1995), Zagajewski’s poetry, and with it the poets career in Poland, became poised to confront the central questions of Polish poetry, especially the question implicit in the prime directive of Polish romantic tradition: to what extent should poetry be a national poetry? The question is a high stakes game for Polish national and aesthetic consciousness, and the possible solutions carry implications extending well beyond the confines of future poetry textbooks.

Of course, under national romanticism lyricism managed to express itself quite vocally, but whatever power it had came from the fever and authority of national sentiment that underwrote and monitored it. (Consider only the convenient ambivalence with which Mickiewicz wrote with high personal sentiment the long impersonal pages of the national epic Pan Tadeusz.) This lyrical ethos, as curtailed by the prerogatives of national enthusiasm, is characterized by enhanced personal sensitivity, high lyricism, vatic pretension, and obsession with empirical history.

The poetry of Wislawa Szymborska (Nobel prize for poetry, 1996) is paradigmatic of these inner contradictions as they played themselves out in postwar Polish poetry. Initially a young lyrical poet, she allowed herself to be swept away by the high tide of Stalinist social realism, a mode of universalist thinking that sustains the poet’s far imaginative reach. After she became disillusioned with dialectics, she wrote ever more refined, private, self-mocking studies of ever smaller units of emotion and feeling. Szymborska’s poetry encapsulates the trajectory of Polish poetry in that, always concerned with universals, it only hesitates whether it should side with nominalism or realism. In the high style of Polish poetry, the cause is one universalism, while the methods of reaching it are already pre-approved.

What distinguishes Zagajewski from Szymborska, in terms of the present argument, is the reverse distribution of detail and generality. Where Szymborska generalizes, Zagajewski leaves a detail uninterpreted, and vice versa. Consider, for example, Zagajewski’s poems “To Go to Lvov,” Tremor and “Houston, 6 p.m.,” Mysticism for Beginners. Both poems settle accounts with memory and history as the maker and destroyer of individual lives. But, in a critical moment, the poems refuse to grant priority to history or to individual will, playing out a circle of endless origination and causation that both recognizes and nullifies any dialectical account of source or formative determination. In a word, whatever judgment on history is made, it is pronounced under the infinite (that is, fluctuating and powerful) mandate of the lyric.

To restate the point: romanticism has entangled Polish lyricism in a false dilemma from which Polish poetry has so far not managed to recover: it is unable to assert its superiority over history, or, alternatively, to assert and maintain a separateness from history and from immediate communal concerns. Polish lyricism needs to include history in its lyrical vision (Gottfried Benn) or fashion a lyrical position with no thought of (or for) empirical historical turbulence (the exemplary accomplishment of Hölderlin).

In his attitude towards the culture of the West Zagajewski has managed to avoid the pitfalls of Poland’s high lyrical formation, such as Herbert’s stance of the humble Easterner come to rescue, or at least rightfully to mourn, the fall of a great civilization. This attitude, traceable to Mickiewicz’s Polish messianism, is transformed in Zagajewski into an encounter with works of art (a strong strain in recent Polish poetry) intent not on comparing national achievements but on finding the source of the luminescence which is Western art’s fragile and therefore credible claim to transcendence. The poems contemplating works of art found in Zagajewski’s latest English-language volume, Mysticism for Beginners, not only add to a considerable catalog of valuable poems by Herbert and Milosz but also shift the endeavor from the passive platform of the beautiful soul onto the active matrix of the search for human experience in aesthetic experience.

The trajectory of Zagajewski's poetic development seems to be the reverse of the path of Czeslaw Milosz, who abandoned his early avant-garde affiliations to fashion on a national scale the edifice of didactic poetics for a nation of poet-citizens. Zagajewski seems to have evolved from being a poet brought up on the notion of poetry based on a collectively recognized language of concern, into one capable of fashioning his own language of concern and of offering this language as a vehicle of collective transformation. The change implicit in this reversal may introduce an age of poetry based on a social recognition that, however, is not a collectively notarized and patented reception. If there is a momentous break in the making of poetry in Poland initiated by the poetry of Adam Zagajewski, it may be the emergence of a new poetry free from the conceptual constraints of its one-time luminaries.

Moreover, and finally, the trajectory pointing away from the traditional language of accepted aesthetic concerns to an interrogation of ever newer languages of poetic thinking (and Zagajewski himself makes such a distinction when talking about collective imagination) raises the question of the shape of the new avant-garde in Polish poetry and of Zagajewski's role in ushering it in and shaping its formative moments. And the scene of this intervention is unclear, to say the least. It may be only a little of an oversimplification to assert that the avant- garde option in Polands recent literature has existed as a second-class citizen. And neither will it be far from the truth to claim that this option has been more accessible and agreeable in its nature to playwrights than to poets. Such is the grip of the romantic imagination that the avant-garde poetry has been deemed incapable of addressing the nation’s collective imponderabilia, inadequate to the task of uplifting and perfecting the national soul. And yet the example of Miron Bialoszewski’s “A Memoir of the Uprising,” an account of the Warsaw Uprising, of the playwrights Tadeusz Kantor and Witold Gombrowicz, or of Marek Grotowski’s experimental theater, all show that avant-garde approaches are fertile soil for both lyrical energies and universal themes.

Zagajewski may be undertaking an unprecedented task of reminding contemporary Polish poetry about avant-garde possibilities, and, perhaps even more impressively, of doing this not by destroying the established tradition but by bending it to new winds and currents, some of which he himself is creating.

An example of such creative bending can be discerned in the poems about works of art. Too numerous to list here even in a representative group, these poems most often show how art reveals the human experience of the subject to the observing poet (for example, how music reveals Schumann to Zagajewski). However, in what seems to be an increasing tendency in Zagajewski, this traditional moment is disturbed by a new perspective, one in which a given artist reveals the truth of his art, and in which ultimately the art becomes the object of the poets experience.

In this new situation the contemplative poem remains attentive only to the essence of art. And it is in this attention that the avant-garde moment occurs, as the granting of priority to art beyond any comprehension, and especially beyond the comprehension of art as the expression of human experience (for an example of such critical hesitation see the poem “Degas: The Milliners Shop” in Mysticism for Beginners).

A similar dynamic characterizes Zagajewski's use of metaphor. Always superb, Zagajewski's metaphor always manage to surprise, not only with their image but also with their unexpected placement and the speed of their discharge. In any phrase, the metaphorical element seems to be standing where the reader would expect the literal element. Flaring up like shooting stars or firecrackers, these metaphors exist only in their afterlife, while the main moment of visibility escapes the readers attention. Hence the impression of delayed action, or of fast forward, the illusion of immaterial simile, somewhat like the lack of all feeling just after we have suffered a severe laceration, and just before dull pain sets in.

To put it differently, Zagajewski's metaphors have lost their prominence because they are embedded in the language that they create. They are easy to overlook, and the poetry does not look like poetry. In a process actualized differently by every poet, these metaphors do not simply camouflage themselves well in the background but remain invisible amidst the language that they bring forth. They appeal to us less because of their representational content than because they move out of rhythm, with an unpredictable velocity, attaching themselves randomly to the language they animate. Like Hölderlins flowers of the mouth Die Blume des Mundes (Germany), these metaphors (again, Hölderlins words, like flowers, Worte, wie Blumen, Bread and Wine) appear so natural in his mouth that they dis-appear.

In a language prepared in this fashion, Zagajewski clears the stage for the emergence of speech moving all by itself. Rather than directing irony at targets, objects, and themes, he lets irony shape his words, in an ironic play of metaphor that to some readers may feel too light and insubstantial to form the basis of poetic utterance. Zagajewski's verse can be very easily overlooked as verse, and this may very well be its ironic intention not simply a keen ability to forge figures of speech but a way of pointing to the original making that makes the poet a poet. Because here, for the first time in quite a while in Poland, it is the metaphor that makes the poet and not the other way around.

Issue One


Babylons: Poems by Michael Barrett

Piotr Parlej on Zagajewski & Polish Poetry

Adam Zagajewski

Stephanie Strickland

Reginald Gibbons

Göran Printz-Pählson

John Peck

David Kellogg

Ken Smith

Jesper Svenbro

Kymberly Taylor

Ilya Kutik

C.S. Giscombe

Reginald Gibbons and Rosemarie Waldrop

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