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Spring 2010

The Last of His Kind

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Arthur Lubow

Marginal in America, poets in Poland are lionized as authorities—not merely on syntax and scansion, but on political affairs. In Krakow, the historic city that Adam Zagajewski calls home, a commanding bronze statue in the central square commemorates Adam Mickiewicz, a nineteenth-century Romantic poet who is the national hero; it’s as if Walt Whitman were celebrated with a monument in Times Square, rather than with an eponymous rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. For Polish poets, all that public respect is both a glory and a burden. Their outwardly focused gaze lends their work a heft that can seem like a blessed anachronism, and in part explains why, over the last three decades, the Nobel Prize in literature has been awarded to two Polish poets (Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska), arguably should have gone to a now-deceased third (Zbigniew Herbert), and is often discussed in connection with a fourth—Zagajewski himself. “Our favorite joke among friends is that Adam already won the Nobel Prize many years ago,” says Polish publisher Jerzy Illg. To have your poetry taken seriously is gratifying, yet the recognition carries a price tag. Grappling on a regular basis with the complex tragedies of Polish history is onerous. And if great events are clanging around you, your clarity of perception can die in the din.

In 1979, Zagajewski, who was in his mid-thirties, left Poland for Germany, seeking refuge not, as you might suppose, from the stifling pressures of the Communist regime but from the intoxicating pull of the opposition. “Aesthetically speaking, you cannot imagine the grayness of Communist society,” he explained. “And suddenly, within this gray boring society you have these people who are very young, and some are very beautiful.” Displaying personal courage to the point of recklessness, the rebels dared to suggest that the Polish Communist regime—which Zagajewski had assumed would last another two hundred years—might topple. As an opposition supporter, Zagajewski endorsed protest letters and solicited other signatures, but he felt he wasn’t contributing enough. “People expected me to give expression to the movement,” he continued. “The balance between this and being yourself is so delicate. I had two years when I wrote very little. I was happy as a person in the opposition movement, but I was unhappy as a writer.” In the struggle against Communist conformity, he was losing his individual voice. So he ended up monitoring the 1980 birthpangs of the Solidarity trade-union movement and the strike by the Gdansk shipyard workers from the relative distance of West Berlin. “It is very good to have it in your c.v. that ‘I went up to the shipyards,’” he told me, with his characteristic tone of gentle mockery. “I don’t have it in mine.”

When Communism in Poland finally did collapse in 1989, Zagajewski was once again elsewhere. He had moved to Paris at the end of 1982 to be with Maya Wodecka, a psychoanalyst, who became his second wife. “My first year in Paris was probably the happiest year of my life,” he says. “I am almost ashamed. Back in my country it was so gray and some of my friends were in prison. I was in love with Maya. I had no job. I would wander through this beautiful city. I had this freedom—I did not belong.” The peculiar privileges of exile constitute another component of the Polish poetic tradition. “Our best Polish writers in the nineteenth century lived in Paris,” says Pawel Kloczowski, a professor of philosophy in Krakow and a longtime Zagajewski friend. “The idea was that as an outsider you could speak more freely and you could even have a better view of the situation at home.” And of the great postwar Polish poets, Milosz and Herbert both resided for years in Paris, refurbishing the literary mystique for modern times. But Zagajewski says he resisted the mythologizing. “I knew that the Poles were well suited to the role of exile,” he told me. “It was a Polish tradition. We had it in the genes that once you are in Paris you don’t despair.” Walking through Paris, he would see plaques “where Mickiewicz wrote this and Chopin lived here,” he recalled. “It was so easy to become theatrical about the situation. I tried to keep the right proportion.” Once, at a poetry reading, he was introduced as a political exile. “Excuse me, that is not correct,” he responded. “I am an erotic exile.”

Uprooted from Poland to an unfamiliar land, he found himself. As a Parisian flaneur, he viewed his new world with a detachment that was punctuated by occasional bursts of euphoric epiphany. “I think it was only in the Eighties that he discovered his own poetic idiom,” Kloczowski says. “Earlier, I think he was borrowing poetic languages. When you read a poem by Zagajewski in the Eighties, you can’t mistake it for anyone else. In the Seventies it might have been one of his friends. In the Eighties, it’s signed—it’s his breath, his temper, his voice.” Zagajewski’s poems typically dash from one image or thought to the next, to form a whole that is disjointed yet perceptibly connected, like a landscape glimpsed through a train window. The poetry is willfully hopeful—the optimism of a man who has to work at staying optimistic. In one characteristic poem, which was framed as a response to the gloominess of a Polish émigré painter living in Paris, he wrote that as he pondered his friend’s verdict on the implacable cruelty of the world, the sun emerged from behind the clouds; and (in imagery recalling the religious visions of St. Theresa) he was “impaled by sharp barbs of bliss.” He declared in his most recent collection, Eternal Enemies, that poetry “searches for radiance”; he might more precisely have said that he himself is searching for it. “Don’t allow the lucid moment to dissolve,” he titled one of his earlier lyrics. Or, as he expressed the sentiment in a poem that became his most famous, upon its publication in The New Yorker the week after the September 11 attacks: “Try to praise the mutilated world.” The desire, in a fragmented and imperfect life, to extend the blinding flash of revelation into abiding truth is the impossible dream that Zagajewski evokes in his writing.

Aleksander Wat—who, in his own way, incarnated the contradictions of Polish intellectual life in the twentieth century—also spoke rhapsodically about the interruption of everyday life by poetic rapture. In his extraordinary memoir My Century, which was recorded in conversations with Czeslaw Milosz, Wat mentions that when he was a Soviet political prisoner in 1939, he was taken from jail briefly to see a magistrate a short distance away; reveling in the beauty of the autumn sunshine and the lightly dressed women, he knew all the while that very soon he would be locked up again. Epiphanies by their nature are fleeting, and Zagajewski understands that as surely as Wat did. “I feel an important part of my constitution is ironic, but what I want is moments of emotional feeling,” he told me. And in his poetry, as in more direct historical accounts such as Wat’s, it is apparent that these intense personal moments acquired political substance in the atmosphere of People’s Poland. Because the Communist bureaucrats were intent on effacing or trivializing any signs of independent internal life, the honest depiction of authentic experience gained a political potency it doesn’t have in liberal societies. Indeed, just having a profound experience could take on political overtones. As Zagajewski observed in one of his essay books, Solidarity, Solitude, “if politics is forbidden it is sought everywhere.”

Zagajewski was born in Lvov, just after the Second World War ended in Europe. In the postwar settlement devised by the Allied powers, a sizable chunk of eastern Poland, including Lvov, was incorporated within the Soviet Union; in compensation, Poland received a stretch of eastern Germany. Zagajewski’s family joined a migration of Poles that departed Lvov and moved westward to Silesia, settling in Gliwice (formerly Gleiwitz), which had been emptied of its German population. In industrial Gliwice, situated in coal-mining country, the older generation made no attempt to adapt to their new “post-German” surroundings. They dressed as they had in Lvov, and saluted each other with the professional titles they had enjoyed there. “They simply did not want to accept the fact that they had ended up in a difficult, strange, ugly city,” Zagajewski wrote in the title essay of his book Two Cities. “They considered themselves still in Lvov. Mr. Attorney, Mrs. Wife-of-Doctor So-and-So. They were incapable of moving to Gliwice. Indifferent, whether they had lost their memories or not, they pretended that nothing had changed.” Although Adam’s grandfather belonged to the ranks of those who remained mentally in Lvov, his more practical father was young enough to embark on a career as a professor of industrial electronics at Gliwice’s technical university. But the young and the elderly were alike in eulogizing the Lvov they had left behind.

When he was eleven or twelve, Zagajewski resolved to be a writer. “But for many years, I was just an avid reader,” he told me, “the way you read only when you are sixteen, and you read the entire Tolstoy in one month or the entire Dostoevsky in one month or the entire Thomas Mann in two months.” As it happens, Gliwice is home to one of Poland’s leading poets, Tadeusz Roszewicz, a war survivor who writes an unadorned, brutally direct verse. But Roszewicz was a recessive figure in town, never giving readings or otherwise making public appearances. Zagajewski was seventeen when he met his first famous poet, Zbigniew Herbert, who paid a visit to his school. A fellow native of Lvov, Herbert lived in Warsaw and spent much time abroad. “Now I tend to mythologize it, but I was deeply impressed,” Zagajewski told me. Herbert autographed the book that the youth brought him, signing it to his “colleague A.Z.” Flattered as he was, Zagajewski says he knew he “was hopelessly underequipped in terms of writing.” But he did now have a poet to model himself on.

Against his parents’ strenuous wishes, Zagajewski declined to attend Gliwice’s technical university and instead matriculated at the venerable Jagiellonian University in Krakow, an historic city that had survived the war unscathed. “I wanted to go to a city with libraries and theaters and music,” he recalled. “Living in a post-German place, I wanted to be in a place loaded with Polish history and Polish artists.”

At my request, Zagajewski led me on a personal tour of Krakow, pointing out the places with special significance to him. Although the weather was chilly and wet, the city sparkled in comparison to the streetscape that greeted the young Zagajewski in 1963. Back then, the facades were blackened and crumbling from smoke emitted by the Nowa Huta steel mills in the eastern part of town. He pointed out the apartment building on Dluga Street where his mother helped him find his first room. “It was hard for me to get rid of my mother,” he said. “She was so overprotective.” Not far away, on one side of Market Square, stands a building that formerly housed a literary magazine for which, in the early and mid-Seventies, Zagajewski ran the poetry section. We rode the gleaming glass-and-steel elevator, a recent improvement, as he tried to remember on which floor the offices had been. Beneath blond wood veneer it was all unrecognizable. Less than a block away is a building that had contained a literary magazine that provided him with his publishing debut. “I went there in March ’68 and didn’t notice there were demonstrations in Market Square,” he recalled. “The editor said, ‘Look, look.’ And then I joined the demonstration.”

This journalistic and political milieu represented one pole of his existence. The other was located in Philharmonic Hall, where he attended concerts regularly. “I felt that tension even more strongly then, between artistic pursuits and social obligations,” he said. He loves music, with a particular fondness for works of tragic exultation, such as Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and Schubert’s Quintet in C Major. He attended concerts without any special musical knowledge. “I was a stranger, coming from outside the musical world,” he said. “It suited me, this position of outsider.”

I had asked that our tour include Kazimierz, the former Jewish district that was emptied by the Nazi occupation. In his book of essays, Another Beauty, Zagajewski describes how his walks through Krakow in his student days would sometimes include Kazimierz, this “open wound” of “ramshackle huts,” a precinct that was even more decayed than the rest of the neglected city. In his quest for wholeness, the gaping hole of Kazimierz challenged Zagajewski’s integrative powers as a young man; and yet, he writes, knowing that “the world is unfinished, in tatters, frayed like a second-hand shirt,” he nonetheless experienced irrational spells of elation even there. Like much of Krakow, Kazimierz has changed greatly. “Twenty years ago there was nothing,” he told me. “This was a place of nothingness in Krakow, of repressed memory.” After the war, it had been settled by drunks, prostitutes, and other social outcasts; it was shunned as dangerous after dark. Now it is bustling, the entertainment center of Krakow. Jewish culture is also in vogue locally, with cultural centers and festivals devoted to it in Kazimierz—but the devotees are almost all Christians. The Jews themselves are irretrievably gone.

Zagajewski was startled as we passed an apartment building to recall unbidden that this was where a Warsaw actress, the girlfriend of the activist journalist Adam Michnik, stayed during a visit in late 1975 that had an important impact on his life. She brought a document protesting a change in the Polish constitution; it would become famous as the “letter of 59,” named for the number of professors, writers, and artists who signed it. Zagajewski not only signed it in that apartment, he helped circulate it, taking the letter, for example, to a dinner party at Szymborska’s, where the poet and her husband endorsed it at once. Although he had built his growing reputation as a dissident poet and critic on the argument that a clear depiction of contemporary society was needed to pierce the veils of lying literature, Zagajewski recognized that these pronouncements were tolerated as elitist palaver. A political broadside that protested the government’s formalizing of its tight alliance with the Soviet Union (the point of constitutional change in question) was different. “I knew that that was my moment, my life was going to change,” he told me. “I knew I wasn’t going to Siberia, but I could lose my job. And I did. And I was blacklisted from official publishing houses.”

He never went to prison. His only interrogation was an hour spent at a police station with a not unfriendly inquisitor. But his life did change. Fired from the literary magazine, he eked out a living as a part-time editor at a Catholic monthly, supplemented by a small stipend from his father. His energy went elsewhere. He was caught up in the fervor of the opposition, with the dissemination of new petitions and participation in the “Flying University,” which staged seminars on politically sensitive subjects in a changing sequence of private apartments. He knew the police force was monitoring these activities, but it didn’t matter. “It belonged to the ethos of the day, to pay no attention to the police cars,” he says.

What fazed him was the drying up of his creativity. He needed a private life to incubate his writing. An amusing talker and attentive listener, Zagajewski has a large group of friends, whom he sees—as he wrote in his poem “Self-Portrait”—“every other week…thus proving my fidelity.” The poet C. K. Williams, who spent many hours with his friend Zagajewski in Paris, says, “He likes more time alone than most people, almost anybody. And yet I think he has more friends than almost anybody I know.” Another friend, Edward Hirsch, a poet who is the president of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, says, “He has an enormous inner life, and he needs to protect that with long stretches of solitude. He is drawn to a social life but he also needs to withdraw to the world of music, books, and art, and his inner life.” Anti-Communism, like Communism, trespassed over the boundaries of the private realm.

In France, his privacy went unchallenged. “I never struck any roots in France,” he told me. In French literary circles, Zagaweski’s accessible verse failed to crack the established bias for hermetic, abstract poetry. He was alien in other ways as well. “French intellectuals are not fond of hanging around with foreign people,” he said. “They cannot stand the most minimal mistakes in French tenses. When people speak with a slight accent, their face changes. They suffer. For them, language is what matters most, and everyone who doesn’t master French perfectly is a barbarian.” When in 1983 he began teaching a semester a year at the University of Houston (Hirsch, who was a professor there at the time, brokered the invitation), he immediately appreciated the change: “Right away, I made literary friends.” He continued the Houston arrangement until a couple of years ago, when he moved to the University of Chicago, where he now teaches four months a year as a member of the Committee on Social Thought.

Once his stepdaughter had completed her education (she is today a neurobiologist living in Australia), Zagajewski urged his wife to leave Paris. The obvious destination was Krakow, where they had first met as incoming university students in 1963. In 1970, after years as just friends, they had had an intense three-month love affair, but Wodecka was committed to another boyfriend, with whom she emigrated to Paris. There she eventually married someone else. “When my marriage in Berlin was ending, I called Maya in Paris to see how she was doing,” Zagajewski recounted. “She said she wasn’t too happy in her marriage, either.” Soon he was on his way to France.

Acknowledging her husband’s two dutiful decades in Paris, Wodecka reluctantly agreed to repatriate to Krakow. Her chief hesitation was the requirement to terminate her treatment of fifteen analytic patients, which she did all in one week, while Zagajewski was in Houston. “It was very hard,” she told me. But there were compensations. She related the story to me over an elaborate dinner that she had cooked in a splendidly renovated kitchen, in a Krakow apartment ten minutes away from Market Square. In Paris, the couple had lived in a tiny flat in the unfashionable suburb of Courbevoie. Here, in addition to their spacious residence, they own in the same building a ground-floor apartment, which they have divided (under Wodecka’s tasteful control) into his and her offices. “When you are a writer, you are a patriot of your apartment,” Zagajewski said. “Sometimes your study is more important than the country you are living in.”

Zagajewski was not greeted as a returning hero in Krakow. “Adam’s position in Poland is paradoxically opposite to his position in the world, where he is regarded as one of the best contemporary poets, is translated into many languages, and has all these prestigious prizes,” says Illg, the Polish publisher. “But in Poland, young poets have no respect.” The critic Michal Rusinek, who, in his thirties, is Szymborska’s secretary, told me, “Young poets must have old poets to kick. I think it was painful for Adam.”

The younger generation of Polish poets doesn’t wave the standard of Mickiewicz. They are more inspired by the New York School poets, Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery. “Their attitude difference may be their attitude to history,” Rusinek observes. “In the Polish language, if you say ‘it’s history,’ that means it’s very important, the opposite of what it means in English. In the late Eighties, poets began saying, ‘I don’t care about history. I want to write about smoking cigarettes or drinking vodka.’ Adam is ‘in history.’” Illg cites Zagajewski’s recurring references to classical music and Old Masters paintings as contributing factors to the negative reaction. “In his poems, he is surrounded by Mozart and Schubert and paintings and high culture,” Illg said. “It provokes these young people, because they are dirty and prefer other things.”

“It never feels good,” Zagajewski said, when I asked him about the criticism of younger poets. “I see it as the role of nature. I accept it. What can I do? I think some of these younger poets are not aware of what they do. They appear on the scene after this brilliant group of poets—Milosz, Herbert, Szymborska—who redefined Polish poetry and brought it out of provincialism. They reject everything. They reject the very notion of meaningful poetry. I am partial, not a neutral observer, but I think it would be smarter to rebel in a more interesting way, changing some things but accepting some of the heritage.”

“I think Adam is the end of the line,” Hirsch says. “The thing that I first found exciting about Polish poetry doesn’t interest these younger poets. They don’t like its seriousness, its commitment, its engagement with the world. They prefer a poetry that courts meaninglessness, that plays with language, that denies significance, that upsets consciousness. Polish poetry is now like all the other poetries.”

Arthur Lubow, the author of The Reporter Who Would Be King, writes on the arts for the New York Times Magazine and other publications.

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