Adam Zagajewski 1945 –
Polish poet, novelist, and essayist
Adam Zagajewski is considered the pre-eminent poet of the generation of Polish writers born after World War II. His literary career began with the protests that swept Poland in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and was primarily concerned with the political struggle to overturn totalitarianism. An exile since 1982, his later poetry addresses themes of both historical and metaphysical alienation. Balancing the concrete and the abstract, irony and mysticism, his poetry no longer advocates a single truth but chronicles the difficult and painful search for meaning in an unsettled world.
Stanislaw Baranczak identifies Zagajewski as a member of "the generation whose birthdate coincides with the establishment of the Communist order and whose youth was spent rebelling against it." Zagajewski was born on June 21, 1945, in Lvov, in eastern Poland. When Eastern European borders were redrawn after World War II, Lvov became part of the Soviet Ukraine. By 1946 his family was living in Gliwice in western Poland. Zagajewski attended university in Cracow where he was also an editor of the journal Student. In March 1968 he participated in student protests against censorship, and this experience shaped his writing. A prominent voice of protest during the early 1970s, Zagajewski was eventually blacklisted by communist authorities. By 1975, he was editing an underground literary periodical called Zapis (The Record). He lived in Western Europe for several years, returning to Poland in 1981. Martial law was imposed soon after he arrived, and he did not manage to leave again for several months. He now divides his time between Paris and Houston, Texas, where he teaches at the University of Houston for part of each year.
Zagajewski first came to prominence in Eastern European literary circles for attacking the generation of Polish poets that preceded him. As a member of a literary movement called the New Wave, he argued that poetry should address the social and political needs of the present day. In 1974 he and Julian Kornhauser published Swiat nie przedstawiony (The World Not Represented), a collection of essays criticizing older authors for endorsing an abstract, contemplative poetry that failed to do enough to change the totalitarian regime in Poland. Zagajewski maintained that poetry should remain focused on the "here and
now," and he advocated for a direct and unambiguous poetic language to represent the truth about current conditions in Poland. Straight talk would, he believed, undo or subvert the traditional "double-speak" of the communist party. This kind of language characterizes his first two collections of poetry, Komunikat (1972; Bulletin) and Śklespy miesne (1975; Meat Market).
Following the imposition of martial law and the beginning of his exile in Paris, Zagajewski began what Adam Kirsch called his "flight from history." He became increasingly concerned with defining a mission for poetry that encompassed, rather than served, politics. Tremor: Selected Poems (1985) includes the poems he wrote during his first few years in Paris. His first book translated into English, Tremor transcends the poetry of protest and confronts the multiplicity of individual experience. During the 1980s and 90s, his poetry became increasingly contemplative and metaphysical. In an essay published in Solidarity, Solitude (1990), Zagajewski writes "We have to conquer totalitarianism in passing, on our way to greater things …"; his focus shifted from the limitations of a communist regime to the psychological, moral, and spiritual restrictions on human existence. The poetry in Canvas (1991) displays a fascination with the mysterious or divine aspects of people. Here Zagajewski expresses his frustration with our conceptual development, rather than our political progress, as he writes of "dreams of imagination / homeless and mad." The theme of imaginative alienation continues in Mysticism for Beginners (1997). In these poems, Zagajewski attempts to restore mystery and ecstasy to modern poetry, as he expresses the conflict between his urge to accept the world and his impulse to flee from it.
The arc of Zagajewski's career, from politics to mysticism, has shaped the critical debate about his poetry. In an introduction to Tremor, Czeslaw Milosz observed that protest poetry is "noble-minded, but often one-dimensional," and he praised Zagajewski for moving beyond political poetry. Most critics have echoed this praise, though all agree that history and politics retain an important role in his work. Scholar and poet Stanislaw Baranczak states that the historical context "cannot really be subtracted from Zagajewski's poems." Poet Robert Pinsky considers Zagajewski's view a recreation of the historical within the mundane, stating that it's "an immense, sometimes subtle force inhering in what people see and feel every day." Critic Adam Kirsch points to Zagajewski's interest in mysticism as "the natural consummation of the private, the ahistorical," emphasizing Zagajewski's synthesis of the concrete and factual with other, more personal opinions.
Zagajewski's poetry has frequently been compared to the work of English metaphysical poets such as John Donne, who often transformed sensual imagery into abstract metaphor. One critic, Eva Hoffman, admires his quest for transcendence that frequently begins with a concrete image: "The movement from a specificity of physical images to a moment of abstraction is characteristic of Mr. Zagajewski's poetry; it corresponds to his delight in the sensuous surfaces of things and his urge toward a disembodied, spiritual insight and for a breaking out of the self." Several critics have observed that Zagajewski's work celebrates the process of discovery, and the theme of transcendence may be what connects politics and metaphysics in his poetry. By contemplating people confined by the social and political constructs that evolved throughout history, he arrives at a deeper and more abstract understanding of the human experience. "Zagajewski may be looking at Eastern Europe," Steven Birkerts writes, "but his gaze wraps itself around the whole globe."
Komunikat 1972 [Bulletin]
Śklespy miesne 1975 [Meat Market]
List: Oda do wielo ci 1983
Jechać do Lwowa 1985
Tremor: Selected Poems 1985
Plotnó 1990 [Canvas, 1991]
Mysticism for Beginners 1997
Swiat nie przedstawiony [with Julian Kornhauser] (essays) 1974 [The World Not Represented]
Cieplo, zimno (novel) 1975
Drugi oddech (essays) 1978
Cienka kreska (novel) 1983
Solidarność i samotność (essays) 1990 [Solidarity, Solitude, 1990]
Dwa miasta (essays) 1991 [Two Cities: On Exile, History, and the imagination 1995]
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SOURCE: Introduction to Tremor: Selected Poems, by Adam Zagajewski, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1985, pp. xi-xii.
[In the following introduction to the first English translation of Zagajewski's poems, Milosz praises him for transcending protest poetry and admires "the steady increase of his creative powers."]
What a joy to see a major poet emerging from a hardly differentiated mass of contemporaries and taking the lead in the poetry of my language, a living proof that Polish literature is energy incessantly renewed against all probabilities! Born in 1945, Zagajewski belonged to the angry "generation of 1968" and started by satirizing both in his verse and in his prose the surreal character of the totalitarian state. While mocking the official language, he gradually developed a taste for expressing the political opposition of his generation through a "naked" speech practically stripped of metaphors. I discovered him then and praised the freshness of his style, not expecting that it marked just a phase in his evolution. For soon he left behind that poetry of political commitment—noble-minded, but often one-dimensional—and embarked upon a new adventure, a search in a labyrinth where meditation on the flow of time brings together the historical and the metaphysical. His poems have been acquiring a more and more sumptuous texture, and now he appears to me as a skillful weaver whose work is not unlike Gobelin...
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SOURCE: "Alone but Not Lonely," in The New Republic, Vol. 194, No. 1-2, January 6 & 13, 1986, pp. 39-41.
[In the following review of Tremor: Selected Poems, Baranczak argues that Zagajewski's use of irony raises his work beyond protest poetry.]
The first of many things that make Adam Zagajewski's poetry worthy of note is the author's birthdate: 1945. Thus far, America's acquaintance with the most recent Polish poetry (if we take only book-length selections of specific authors into account) has been limited to a few aging giants, now in their 60s or 70s, such as Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Tadeusz Rozewicz, or Wislawa Szymborska. Tremor is the first book of poems issued by a major American publisher that presents one of the "children of People's Poland," the generation whose birthdates coincide with the establishment of the Communist order and whose youth was spent rebelling against it.
Of course, the multidimensional meaning of Zagajewski's poetry can by no means be reduced to that of "a poetry of protest" or a generational manifesto. The book can (and should) be read also outside the framework of Poland's recent history, and it will not lose much this way. After all, it has something important to say about life, death, love, loneliness, and other rather universal matters. And yet the keen sense of history that pervades and distorts contemporary existence seems...
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SOURCE: "Remembering Poland," in The New York Times Book Review, February 16, 1986, pp. 14-15.
[In the following excerpt, Hoffman examines Zagajewski's sensuous imagery and abstract insights in Tremor: Selected Poems.]
…Adam Zagajewski, who has lived in Paris for the last few years and has emerged as one of the more noted poets of Poland's postwar generation, takes European culture as his native province, even as Mr. Herbert does. Many of his poems are reflections on actual figures—Beethoven, Schubert, Schopenhauer—or on moments in the past. And like Mr. Herbert he finds in civilization and art a solace for the ravages of history. Sometimes his poems seem written in dialogue with Mr. Herbert. The poem "On the Escalator," for example, in which the speaker informs those who are riding up that "no one is waiting / up there," is surely a response to Mr. Herbert's "From the Top of the Stairs," in which the poet wishes that "those who are standing at the top of the stairs" might come down and admit that "what the posters shout isn't true." But—and perhaps this is partly because he is further removed from the events that gave Mr. Herbert's poetry its original impetus—the balances in Mr. Zagajewski's writing are very different: power weighs less, and beauty, contemplative leisure or imaginative transcendence have at least as much significance as the stern lessons of history.
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SOURCE: "Pure As a Peach," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4,382, March 27, 1987, p. 315.
[In the following review of Tremor: Selected Poems, Enright praises the poetry for its clarity and simplicity as well as its distinctive humor.]
Referring to the early writing of Adam Zagajewski (Polish, born in 1945, resident in Paris since 1981), Czeslaw Milosz remarks in his brief but weighty preface that the poetry of political commitment is "noble-minded, but often one-dimensional". The trouble with such poetry is that its message might as well be couched in prose, generally has been already, and, since the poetry soon vanishes out of the window, still is. However self-soothing for a while, protest poetry is rarely more productive than muttering into one's pillow in the dead of night. And yet, nothing should be alien to this most human of the arts, and it would be an odd poet, one of suspiciously iron control, who never touched on public events, on contemporary distresses and disgraces.
Zagajewski, Milosz continues, has abandoned the poetry of political engagement in favour of a meditation on the flow of time which brings together the historical and the metaphysical. The world thus created or recreated is not a place of escape, but "on the contrary, it is related in a peculiar way to the crude reality of our century". As inferred, Zagajewski's views on the world are unexceptional,...
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SOURCE: "Adam Zagajewski," in his The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry, William Morrow and Company, 1989, pp. 423-31.
[In the following essay, Birkerts argues that rather than writing poetry determined by history, Txigajewski has developed a metaphysical imagery that expresses "our common exile from a comprehensible reality. "]
A recent review of Adam Zagajewski's Tremor (Renata Gorczynski, translator) by his fellow Polish émigré, the poet Stanislaw Baranczak, points up to me just how much historical context conditions the interpretive act. Baranczak, as a member of Zagajewski's poetic gen eration—the so-called generation of 1968—and who surely knows the poems in their original cadences, writes as follows:
…the multidimensional meaning of Zagajewski's poetry can by no means be reduced to that of "a poetry of protest" or a generational manifesto. The book can (and should) be read also outside the framework of Poland's recent history, and it will not lose much this way. After all, it has something important to say about life, death, love, loneliness, and other rather universal matters. And yet the keen sense of history that pervades and distorts contemporary existence seems to be something that cannot really be subtracted from Zagajewski's poems. While his work contains a wealth of sensuous imagination and philosophical perspicacity, the reader here...
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SOURCE: Introduction to Polish Poetry of the Last Two Decades of Communist Rule: Spoiling Cannibal's Fun, Northwestern University Press, 1991, pp. 11-13.
[In the following excerpt from an introduction to a collection of Polish poetry, Baranczak argues that Zagajewski's reconciles individualism and moralism and calls this achievement "a unifying feature of whatever is most valuable in recent Polish poetry. "]
…The question of how to reconcile poetry's natural individualism with human solidarity and respect for supraindividual values is, in fact, the single most pressing issue that Polish poetry faced during the last decades of Communist rule. It was fascinating to observe how this dilemma was approached by various poets of the younger generation, such as Ryszard Krynicki, Adam Zagajewski, Ewa Lipska, Julian Kornhauser, Piotr Sommer, Jan Polkowski, or Bronislaw Maj. Born in the 1940s and 1950s, most of these poets entered literary life in the wake of the political protests of 1968, 1970, or 1976, and all of them contributed greatly to the "social awakening" of Polish poetry in the early 1970s and after. The recent poetry of Krynicki, for instance, is an extreme manifestation of the individual self's humility in the face of commonly shared values and compassion for human suffering. This essentially Christian attitude goes along with a heightened sense of responsibility for the word. Krynicki goes so far...
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SOURCE: "The Plural of Vision Remains Vision," in Ohio Review, Vol. 48, 1992, pp. 101-2, 108-11.
[In the following review, Revell praises Zagajewski for his "poetry of witness, " particularly for his ability to truthfully convey his vision.]
Poetry survives ideology because poetry is the body, the act, and the desire of an entirely stateless radicalism. By "stateless" I mean a condition of constant dispossession on behalf of the freedom of the real. Eurydice travels ahead of Orpheus. And by "radicalism" I mean a dedication to root experience which, of necessity, requires the preliminary experience of uprootedness. The waking of a poem uproots a dream from sleep. In the aftermath of ideologies and the unmasking of cynical reactionaries long disguised as reformers, only one radicalism, the Ur-radicalism, remains credible: vision, the gift to imagine without ownership or control. For poets, vision entails an unmethodical sequence of contacts and convulsions in the matters of language, identity, and community. It is vision that deprives poets of their original language and sends them out in search of new syllables which, when contacted in the moment of the poem, convulse and escape, requiring a further search. It is vision that erases the presumed identities of poets, their positive capabilities, and empowers them with the brief anonymity necessary to sympathy, the intensity of which results in the...
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SOURCE: A Review of Canvas, in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 4, Autumn, 1992, pp. 746-47.
[In the following review of Canvas, Baer calls Zagajewski's metaphorical imagery "extraordinary" and suggests that he often writes his poetry as if in conversation with other poets and thinkers.]
In his wonderful book of essays Poetry and Experience (1961) Archibald MacLeish quotes Yeats's lines on the "ultimate meaning of which poetry is capable": "What is the meaning of all song?" Yeats proceeded to answer the question himself: "Let all things pass away." It is this stance, this position toward the world, which projects from the slim collection of Adam Zagajewski's poetry titled Canvas, sensitively translated from the Polish originals, which had been published in a variety of Polish émigré publications.
One could use various epithets to describe Zagajewski's verse: reflective, metaphysical, atmospheric, impressionistic, pictorially vivid. Some of the longer poems are phrased as interrogative sentences: "Things, …have you loved, and died, at night, wind opening the windows, absorbing the cool heart? Have you tasted age, time, bereavement?" ("From the Lives of Things"). Others are brief statements of observations caught in the present ("On a Side Street"). All these exquisite poems, however, are cast in the context of the passage of things: "What was, endures...
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SOURCE: "Out of History," in The New Republic, Vol. 208, No. 4, January 25, 1993, pp. 43-45.
[In the following review of Canvas, Pinsky finds Zagajewski's poetic expression of an individual persona within a larger, historical context provides a "revealing mirror of contrasts" for American readers.]
Unlikely as it may seem, the poems of the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, wonderful in themselves, may also suggest ways to think about American culture. Zagajewski's shrewd, clear, passionate poems have a distinctive way of touching the relation of historical reality to the lives of individuals, and to art. And because he writes in the language of a country that has seen itself as small, often-defeated, but innately noble and even aristocratic—a nation deeply unified by shared religion, art, historical knowledge—the contrast alone should interest us.
So Zagajewski deserves the attention of readers accustomed to swerve away from poetry. And moreover, he is good: the unmistakable quality of the real thing—a sunlike force that wilts clichés and bollixes the categories of expectation—manifests itself powerfully through able translation, both in Zagajewski's first book in English, Tremor (1985), and now in Canvas.
This book is about the presence of the past in ordinary life: history not as chronicle of the dead, or an anima to be illuminated by...
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SOURCE: "Gurus and Gadflies," in Parnassus, Vol. 18, No. 2, 1993, pp. 100-06.
[In the following excerpt, Marx claims that our expectations for poetry have changed since the end of the Cold War, and examines Zagajewski's poetry in relationship to this changing aesthetic]
With freedom comes the inevitable trip back to prison for Central European poets. Not the boxes created by a class, a party, or a dictator, but the dusty eater-corners used moral exemplars are bundled into. For decades in the West, Central European poets were chiefly admired for their heroism and tenacity—they were embodiments of our guilty fantasy that persecution is not only good for the soul but essential for art. Aesthetics took a back seat to ethical, or political, admiration. Central European poets are still greeted with obligatory salutes to their civic gravity, but now the homage sounds like special pleading. With the Cold War over, critics and readers have a choice: either stow Central European poets in ethical limbo or throw them back into the boxing ring with all the rest, letting them slug it out for attention with Swedish, Japanese, and German versifiers. The Berlin Wall falls—dialectical materialism flies out, literary Darwinism flies in.
Though some admirers would like to preserve Central European poetry in righteous amber, a tumble into the contemporary slugfest would be salutary as well as...
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SOURCE: A Review of Canvas, in Partisan Review, Vol. 61, No. 4, Fall, 1994, pp. 704-8.
[In the following review, Simic suggests that Zagajewski explores the philosophical and imaginative homelessness of modern men and women.]
… When Adam Zagajewski's selected poems were first published in English in 1985, it was clear that he was a major poet. Tremor was a book that reminded one of other great contemporary Polish poets, Milosz, Herbert and Szymborska, especially in its preoccupation with history and its love of irony. It was equally clear, however, that Zagajewski is an original voice. This new, well-translated collection confirms it. His subject, if one could generalize about a poet so intellectually complex, is the epoch's end. Not solely the end of a long and murderous century, but the death of ideas that underwrote all our now failed Utopian projects:
Philosophically and imaginatively we are once more homeless. We are once more jailbirds from every Garden of Eden of every lofty idea. Who could still be a follower of Hegel or Neitzsche in this age? Perhaps some professor, but not a poet. The ode is dead; long live the elegy! The past is like the tenement window in Zagajewski's poem called "A Warm, Small Rain."
"Things, do you know suffering?" Zagajewski asks…. The mystery of the object is like the mystery of a closed door that we have no way of...
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SOURCE: "Between Fire and Sleep," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 1, 1998, p. 6
[In the following review, Anders suggests that in Mysticism for Beginners Zagajewski understands the contradictions intrinsic to modern mystical poetry but demonstrates that poetry can still transcend irony.]
In the title poem of this remarkable volume by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, the author takes us to an Italian town (Montepulciano in Tuscany) where, among the usual splendors of such places (the dusk "erasing the outlines of medieval houses," "olive trees on little hills," "stained-glass windows like butterfly wings"), he suddenly confesses his belief that the world given to our senses may not be all there is, that all this,
and any journey, any kind of trip,
are only mysticism for beginners,
the elementary course, prelude
to a test that's been
The phrase "mysticism for beginners," however, comes from the cover of a book spotted by the poet in the lap of a German tourist, possibly another New Age guide to higher spiritual awareness. The contrast between the serious, straightforward declaration of a mystical premise and the ironic, trivialized context in which the word "mysticism" appears points to the central question of Zagajewski's poetry: Can metaphysical inquiry still be a legitimate concern of poetry in a culture in which ideas of...
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SOURCE: "The Lucid Moment," in The New Republic, Vol. 218, No. 12, March 23, 1998, pp. 36-40.
[In the following essay, Kirsch considers Myticism for Beginners in relation to Zagajewski's early work and compares his "philosophical wit" with the imagery of metaphysical poets such as John Donne.]
A poetry of mysticism, now? For a mystic of the seventeenth century, for Vaughan or Traherne, the object of mysticism was the old one, the obvious one: God, or Christ. For a Romantic neo-Platonist such as Shelley, the object was less clear, but still plausible: the Idea, the great pattern hidden from human sight. But if Romanticism was spilt religion, today the spill has just about been sopped up; and the presumption, or even the suggestion, of a mystical dimension to life can seem anachronistic, an evasion of the real and secular responsibilities of the time. So how can a poet—an intelligent, serious poet—write mystical verse now? The poetry of Adam Zagajewski provides the beginning of an answer to this question.
Zagajewski is the preeminent Polish poet of his generation. He is a thoroughly contemporary man who aspires, without embarrassment, to a verse that is a concrete avenue to an invisible reality. And the peculiar forms into which this situation forces him, the poetic strategies and the poetic evasions that it requires, reveal a great deal about the possibilities of poetry...
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SOURCE: A Review of Mysticism for Beginners, in The Hudson Review, Vol. LI, No. 3, Autumn, 1998, pp. 609-11.
[In the following excerpt, Haines praises the historical consciousness, and the concentrated imagery of the poems in Mysticism for Beginners.]
…To turn from Stafford's poems to the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski2 is to depart from a familiar terrain and enter another space altogether, strangely removed from our still coherent neighborhoods:
Europe is already sleeping, Night's animals,
mournful and rapacious
move in for the kill.
Soon America will be sleeping too.
"Houston, 6 p.m."
I think I would know, without being told, that these lines were not written by an American. Indeed, it is hardly possible to find in this slim book a poem in which the history of our time is not in some way acknowledged. The events, the terrible absences, are there, even when not directly referred to.
The train stopped at a little station
and for a moment stood absolutely still.
The doors slammed, gravel crunched underfoot,
someone said goodbye forever,
a glove dropped, the sun dimmed,
the doors slammed again even louder,
and the iron train set off slowly
and vanished in...
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Ascherson, Neal. "'How to Leave a House of Slavery.'" The New York Review of Books XXXVIII, No. 14 (August 15, 1991): 17-20.
Considers Zagajewski's career in relation to changes in Poland and its intellectual culture since the end of the Cold War.
Gorczynski, Renata. "A Vindication of Being." Parnassus 14, No. 1 (1987), p. 77-78.
Calls Zagajewski an able and original heir to Polish masters such as Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniew Herbert.
Levine, Madeline G. A review of Tremor: Selected Poems. The Partisan Review 57, No. 1 (1990): pp. 145-50.
Reviews Zagajewski's poetry along with books by Czeslaw Milosz and Anna Swir.
Maciuszko, Jerzy J. A review of Tremor: Selected Poems. World Literature Today 60, No. 3, (Summer, 1986): 489.
Praises Zagajewski's originality and calls him a "major force in Polish poetry."
Parker, Michael. "Out of Suffering." Times Literary Supplement No. 4,723 (October 8, 1993): 33.
Reviews Canvas along with two volumes of poetry by Zbigniew Herbert.
Witkowski, Tadeusz. "Between Poetry and Politics: Two...
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