Let the poet live: interview with Adam Zagajewski
di Arlindo Hank Toska
ARLINDO HANK TOSKA: Recently, Mondadori published Guarire dal silenzio (Healing from silence), a collection of poems that outlines half a century of life and thoughts of one of the most influential and most known poets of present times: Adam Zagajewski. I had the pleasure of asking him some questions.
In the poem Poets are pre-Socratics, you say that poets do not understand anything: for a long time, they remain silent, and then they sing and sing until their throats burst. «What can someone who is a poet – you ask yourself – do in the army, in the hospital or in the world»?
My first question is this: what is Adam Zagajewski doing in the world? Why do you keep writing in the 21st century?
ADAM ZAGAJEWSKI: First, let me comment on your comment. Pre-Socratic philosophers have always intrigued me because of the “unfinished” quality of their writings. They never say anything precise (in the modern understanding of the term), they distance themselves from any “science”. They speak through riddles, images, fragments. They don’t differ much from poets…
You ask “why do I keep writing”. Well, simply because I’m alive. The century’s number had changed 20 years ago but the basic questions that attack us are still the same. Positive sciences are progressing, poetry and philosophy remain in the same state of bewilderment.
A bewilderment that sometimes gives you happiness and sometimes can be a torture.
But here, at the beginning of our conversation I need to say that one of the main engines of my writing is a tension between its more “metaphysical” orientation and a vivid interest in the moral and political questions, in the life of society, my own and also global one.
AHT: In your interview with Svetlana Gutkina, you state that poetry has a lot to do with prayer and that even the impulse to write poetry is somehow related to the impulse of prayer. However, you deny any relationship with God. Could we define Poetry, as Bonnefoy did, a sort of “theology of the earth”? What does it mean?
AZ: “Theology of the earth”—this sounds like a Nietzschean concept, like an expression of contrariness vis-à-vis a more traditional theology. Nietzsche is not my god though when young I was fascinated by his writings.
I couldn’t say I “deny any relationship with God”. Poetry’s luck and poetry’s problem is that poets are somehow allowed not to develop abstract theories, to propose theoretical statements. By doing this they kill a sort of innocence they should preserve. Of course they break this rule all the time. But their element is the concrete, always the concrete. They are not allowed but also mostly not capable of doing it well. For me poetry is groping in the dark. The famously drunk Chinese poet, Li Po, is said to have drowned in the river because he mistook the reflection of the moon for the real moon—or for a lifebuoy. Darkness can be tragic but can be hilarious too. It tends to be rather on the sad side of things since our fate is not very funny. And this quest is, I’d say, parallel to the religious one—and also quite different from it. Poetry, philosophy, religion—they are like researchers working in the same lab but on different floors of the building. And of course they quarrel all the time, each of them saying: I am on the highest floor, look at me!
AHT: I take this opportunity to ask you about “your” authors: when I read the poem A flame (God, give us a long winter/ and quiet music…), the first thing that came to my mind was the tone of La lumière, changée, the poem by Yves Bonnefoy. In My favourite poets, you state that your favourite poets loved the clouds, maybe you were thinking about those clouds that pass, comme ci, comme ça…above and beyond…. Besides Miłosz and Szymborska, who are the poets/philosophers that influenced you the most? Do you read any contemporary writers?
AZ: This is not an easy question—there are many poets who are my masters. Sometimes I find a poet whose one poem speaks to me with a great force, for instance Giorgios Seferis with his “The King of Asine”, a poem that sheds light on the spiritual situation of contemporary Greek (maybe not only Greek) poetry. Yeats with many poems, among them the incredible “Sailing to Byzantium”; a strange poem in the sense that it’s hard to believe Yeats would find in the real Byzantium these miracles of intellect he was longing for. Montale with many poems, with his constant looking for an instant of revelation and enjoying all the impediments, all the obstacles on this road. Mandel’štam who was able to blend a tragic vision of life with a strong sense of humor and a wonderful concreteness of images. Gottfried Benn whose poetry has a secret charm—his poem “Chopin” for example, a coup de force, and how hard it is to analyze its seduction. Vladimir Holan. And the “Polish school of poetry”, as Miłosz christened it (himself, Herbert, Szymborska, Wat, Różewicz) with its bitter reflection on the drama of history—seen both in the perspective of a single fate and in the larger context. I only mention here modern poets, of course I read also old masters.
AHT: You’ve been, and still are I suppose, an avid music listener for all your life, and music, just like literature, threads through your books; you have defined it as «a bridge, or a jetty», that leads you out of the trivial world of practical concerns into the serenity and drama of a nonpractical reality. In Slight Exaggeration, you state that «the eternal dissonance between inside and out, the soul’s romance with the world, this ceaseless, fertile mésalliance is measured in music and poetry; music and poetry study the proportions in which the Internal and the External mix». How do they differ in measuring this eternal dissonance between inside and out? How do music and poetry cooperate?
AZ: I don’t know if I can answer this question. I’m a practitioner after all. Music captivates me through its energy, its élan which here, in sonatas, quartets and symphonies is so to speak naked, quintessential, overwhelming. Poetry vacillates between thinking and emotion, music helps poets in maintaining the equilibrium between the two…
AHT: One of your most known poems – Try to praise the mutilated world – is a strong reference to remembrance: in fact, besides the warning of trying to praise the mutilated world – suggesting that ‘to praise the mutilated world’ is something that must be worked at –, all the verbs are in past tense. Yet, this balance changes throughout the poem, ending with the imperative command ‘Praise the mutilated world’.
Is this «praise» just an ascertainment of what used to be and can’t be anymore, or a solicitation to act (maybe in the social/political contest)? What is the meaning of this “praise”? What is your definition of “world”?
AZ: This poem—I still remember the emotion which accompanied its beginnings, actually just the birth of the line “try to praise the mutilated world”; it happened in a train in Germany, I think (trains are good for inspiration, sometimes). It was for me a simple juxtaposition of two contrary deeply felt convictions. The first was the certainty, which I reached after years of looking for an understanding of my inner stance, that I’m rather one of those who praise than a radical rebel (even if in my beginnings I was on the rebel’s side). The second was the observation which would suit rather an iconoclast: that this world I wanted to praise was deeply corrupt, mutilated, filled with despair, with loss. It simply ignited my imagination. Contradictions are beautiful. I didn’t intend this poem to be a programmatic piece of writing, a manifesto.
And “world”—philosophers don’t know how to define it, don’t expect it from me.
AHT: At the Nexus Institute, when asked about the role and power of poetry, you replied that Poetry has no power at all and poets are unnecessary human beings, as they produce nothing; yet, Poetry is a sort of repository of some lucidity, it gives us some moments of lucidity: a good poem is a record of a moment of lucidity.
Can I ask you to define the concept of «lucidity» in relation to your definition of «world»? What is the most lucid episode you were “given” by a poem?
AZ: These questions—like the one asked some time ago at the Nexus Institute—tend to provoke very different answers. There are times when I do believe in the power of lyric (by the way, there is a good book by an American critic, Robert von Hallberg, “Lyric Powers”). After all, poetry contributed to the democratic revolution in Poland in the 80.
In a different register: sometimes a very strong poem can save someone’s life, convince a man or a woman, experiencing a deep existential crisis, that life is worth living.
As for “lucidity”—here again you push me in the direction of analytic thinking.
Schopenhauer used the concept of “higher consciousness” denoting a mental state which transcends the utilitarian mode of reasoning. I’m not necessarily a Schopenhauerian but I do believe in the existence of moments of “higher consciousness”. They are rare and precious, they are moments of lucidity.
One of the main enemies of poetry (and art in general) is today fascination with politics, observed already by Hegel, Schopenhauer’s opponent. Especially in times of crisis—like the crisis we live in Poland, the rebirth of neo-fascist views and actions, even on the level of the government—poetry is often dismissed as unimportant or escapist. Political commentators are the heroes! Not politicians.
AHT: One last personal question: «Browse your memories/ sew for them a blanket of fabric./ Pull the curtains and change the air./ Be for them cordial, light./ […] These memories are yours,/ you won’t forget them until the end».
Which are your memories, that are «yours»?
AZ: Ah, my memories! At my age! An ocean of memories of all kinds! Yet at any age you turn your gaze in the direction of future wins and losses (the proportion between them may shift though).
AHT: Thank you so much for your time! It was an honor to interview you.
AZ: Thank you for your interest in my work.