(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Critics frequently divide the poetry of Adam Zagajewski into two major periods: one “political,” focused on the problems of the human community, the other “philosophical,” concerned with the individual. The poet’s first three collections, published during the 1970’s, followed the poetic program of the Generation 68, with its emphasis on the social responsibilities of the artist in a totalitarian state. Beginning with the fourth collection, Oda do wielości (ode to plurality), published after his emigration to Paris, Zagajewski turned to a poetry of philosophical reflection, rich in complex metaphors and sophisticated symbolism. A number of his contemporaries had commented on the poet’s passage from one period to the other. However, it is also important to emphasize the continuity of themes and methods in Zagajewski’s work. Even in the most political poems, he deals with the oppression of the individual. Even the most private lyrical reflections are situated within the broader context of European, or world, culture.

Komunikat, Sklepy mięsne, and List

When Zagajewski and other poets of his generation, such as Stanisław Barańczak, Julian Kornhauser, Ryszard Krynicki, Ewa Lipska, and others, set out to wage poetic war on the Communist state, they focused their efforts on laying bare the “falsified language” of state propaganda and bureaucracy. The newspeak favored by the government and disseminated by the mass media had become, according to the young poets, a tool of totalitarian oppression. Rather than representing reality, such language falsified it. In contrast, the poetry of the Generation 68 was to be plain, clear, and direct. It aimed at a sincere realism, a reclamation of the concrete. This goal is illustrated in Zagajewski’s poem “Sklepy Mięsne” (meat shops). The poem describes the change from the older, straightforward term “butcher,” to the new, sanitized “meat shop,” a name that conceals rather than reveals the true nature of the establishment.

Another feature of Generation 68 poetry is an interest in the problems of its time, adequately reflected in the name of the poetic group Teraz (Now), of which Zagajewski was a co-creator. His early poetry collections, Komunikat (communiqué), Sklepy mięsne, and, to a lesser extent, List (a letter), realized the ideals of contemporaneity and simplicity. These poems spoke of Communist Poland in a language verging on the prosaic. They were characterized by a frequent use of the present tense (conveying a sense of immediacy), a scarcity of conjunctions and adverbs, and a disciplined syntax. Syntactic simplicity is particularly apparent in the first collection and gives way to slightly more sophisticated structures, such as inversion, in the later volumes. This simple, almost conversational form revealed a deep distrust of inflated or manipulative language. The goal of Zagajewski’s early poetry was to defend the individual against the obscure manipulations, linguistic and otherwise, of the regime. Like other members of his generation, Zagajewski strongly believed in the ethical dimension of a poetic calling.

Oda do wielości

The title poem of Zagajewski’s fourth collection, Oda do wielości (ode to plurality), introduced a theme that would become central to the poet’s subsequent writing: a fascinated affirmation of the world’s multiplicity and richness:

I don’t understand it all and I am
even glad that the world like a restless
ocean exceeds my ability
to understand . . . 
You, singular soul, stand before

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