This Issue Back Issues Editorial Board Contact Information



A Conversation with Adam Zagajewski

Jolanta W. Best

Clear moments are so short.
There is much more darkness.
Adam Zagajewski

Interviewer's introduction

Adam Zagajewski is one of Poland’s most respected contemporary poets. Born in Lviv/Lwów in 1945, he first came into prominence as the poet of the “generation of 1968,” or the New Wave (Nowa fala). His translated poetry includes A Defense of Ardor (2004), Without End (2002), Mysticism for Beginners (1997), Canvas (1991), and Tremor (1985). All of these except Canvas (translated by Renata Gorczynski, Benjamin Ivry, and C. K. Williams) were translated by Clare Cavanagh. Zagajewski is also the author of a book of essays, Another Beauty translated by Clare Cavanagh (2000), as well as two prose collections, Two Cities (1995) and Solitude and Solidarity (1990) translated by Lillian Vallee. Among the honors he has received are a fellowship from the Berliner Kunstlerprogramm, the Kurt Tucholsky Prize, Prix de la Liberté, Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. Since 1988 he has lectured as a Visiting Associate Professor of English in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston. He is coeditor of Zeszyty Literackie, a Polish literary review published in Paris.

Zagajewski writes about the world and the human condition using the eye of a poet and the mind of a philosopher. He puts equal emphasis on the essence of reality and its visual appearance, while rejecting the view of a classifier and accidentalist. [1] He prefers a perspective of motion and an overall view. The universe to him to be a map of signs leading us to a hidden meaning. The meaning is discovered in the rare moments of epiphany, when the consciousness grasps totality. Zagajewski can thus be described as an essentialist able to read the world map and intuit the world’s essence.

My interview with him was conducted in Houston, Texas, in March 2004 and updated in May 2005. In a modified format, this interview is scheduled to appear in Polish in Dekada Literacka.

Jolanta W. Best: I am glad we are able to meet at Rice University in Houston. The campus is beautiful. We can find a library and trees here. These images are present in your poetry. Adam Zagajewski often writes about a traveler holding a book from a big library, among trees that symbolize the roots of human beings as well. Let me mention the Neustadt International Prize for Literature recently given to you by the University of Oklahoma. How do you evaluate this prize? Czesław Miłosz received it before his Nobel Prize for Literature.

Adam Zagajewski: I do not think I should comment on it. I am glad and accept the Neustadt Prize with joy. It is a surprise and possibly a sign of recognition that my poems exist in America. Some of my readers are here, and I always find it very pleasing. Sometimes during my travels and readings in places like Seattle, Washington, or Portland, Oregon, or Dayton, Texas, I meet people who really read my poems. In a way this is more important than literary prizes. It is remarkable to meet somebody who says that your poems have helped him/her in living or thinking. The Neustadt Prize is significant because only a few people know about it. It has this strange ambivalence. It is an important literary prize, but it is also not so widely known. It is probably better known in Poland because Miłosz got it years ago.

JWB: The wording of the Neustadt Prize subtly expresses a connection between the universal and national element in your poetry. Do you perceive yourself as a universal poet, a poet of modern civilization?

AZ: Your formulations are generous. I accept the existing translations of my poems. I always think it is a miracle that translations succeed. It seems to me that American translations are successful because of the readers and the reception. I tend not to see myself as a Polish poet in the exclusive sense, but I cling very strongly to my language. It does not mean that I am compromising my Polish heritage. I regard my Polish background as a point of departure for what I do. Anyone who writes in Polish redefines the national roots and potentially establishes a new direction. I do not like nationalism and am not a nationalistic writer. However, as I said a moment ago, I cling to my language and welcome what is universal in the sense of joy of a momentary understanding of myself and the moment.

JWB: Certain cultural images appear in my mind when I read your poems. For instance, lines of connection are created between your poetry and The Graduate by Mike Nichols and Andrei Rublev by Andrei Tarkovsky. All these images show a clear distinction between light and shadow, dreamy and everyday reality. Do you see the dialectics of light and shadow in your poetry?

AZ: Yes, I do. I am conscious of this very old religious symbolism of light to such an extent that I try to forbid myself from using it too much. When we become conscious of a particular motif, sometimes we try to limit the frequency of its presentation. I try to renew the motif of light by uniting it with contemporary details. The ability to give the old symbolism a new shade of meaning is one of the tasks of being a poet. The old sense of a motif can be connected with a new realm of contemporary life.

JWB: Following your definition, we might say that the poetry of Zagajewski reminds us of an icon. It has an element of darkness as well as a sudden light or epiphany. I am not saying just now that your poetry has a religious meaning, but it has a metaphysical horizon.

AZ: I agree with it. So far as I know, there has been little historical change in the tradition of icon painting. An icon seems to be a kind of “frozen history.” The “ideal” for an icon painter is probably a pattern that was once given forever. In this sense, I am historical. I think that writing a poem does have a historical dimension. Poetry lives in time. It is a special combination of what is changeable and what is constant. Poems written one thousand years ago were different from those written today. Many of them still speak to us, but we must make a little effort to understand the meaning of some old poems. However, it seems that an icon artist tries to freeze the moment and reveal the idea of an archetype, this idea of the first icon. I am different in this respect because I have more artistic liberty to introduce elements of aesthetic modernity into my writings. On the other hand, I am conscious of the religious, not just metaphysical, component of my poetry. We can call it participation in a historical context, but it sends us back to tradition.

JWB: Is a historical awareness a necessary element of your poetics? What is your definition of history?

AZ: Well, your questions get more and more difficult. What can I say? I do not understand myself so well. When I was young, I was a decent political poet. But I am not young anymore, and I am not a political poet anymore. I hope I am still decent, but I am more complicated. I do not even know exactly what it means that poetry is historical. Of course, I know what it means to say that poetry is ahistorical. For instance, I am very concerned about my American students who have no historical sense and who are not even fascinated by history. I am fascinated by history, and I read historical books. History is one of the immanent ingredients of my poems. Sometimes I use history in a nonhistorical way. Sometimes I put historical dynamics in my poem, then I stop it. Well, if this is really the case, it is suspicious. Not really, I am kidding. It is not suspicious. It seems to me that I write many poems in this mood, but a poet is not a historian in the sense of looking for the truth. He is also not a political actor. A poet is never successful by trying to change something. Therefore, I can modestly say that history is one of my favorite topics. How I treat and use history is a separate issue.

JWB: Historically speaking, how do you perceive Lwów? In the poem, “To Go to Lvov” [Lviv/ Lwów] (Tremor, 1985), you write beautifully about that city: I won’t see you anymore . . . why must every city become Jerusalem and every man a Jew, and now in a hurry just pack . . . and go breathless, go to Lvov, after all it exists, quiet and pure as a peach. It is everywhere. Your description of Lvov/Lviv/Lwów is similar to T. S. Eliot’s distinction between a common reality and dreams. Have you ever confronted the real Lwów? According to your poem, it seems as hard to go to Lwów as it is to bring back one’s childhood. Have you ever visited Lwów?

AZ: Yes, I have. I visited Lwów twice. The first time I was what I consider to be a very young age, around twenty-four. The second time was more recent, in 2001. I left Lwów when I was four months old, and I have no memory of the city at all. The poem, “To Go to Lvov,” is a mythical poem. There I recreate a mythical city I know from my parents and grandparents. I apply a sensual richness and intensity that only childhood gives us, but it is not about childhood. It is not a poetic invention, but a pure dream. It is a dream of possessing something I never really possessed. The first time when I visited Lwów in June of 1969 I was with an organized group of young scholars from Kraków. Some of them were my friends. We stayed seven days, and I did not like it at all. During the seventh and last day, I had a vision and a moment of epiphany. Suddenly, I saw Lwów. I was sitting in the apartment of a very distant Ukrainian cousin on my mother’s side. I had brought a bottle of Polish vodka, and we drank some of it. It was the only time in my life when vodka helped me to open my eyes. Suddenly, from the window, I saw the entire city, all of it. One could see that the city was hilly. It was almost as if it looked at itself from different perspectives. It was like a bird’s eye view. Suddenly, I had this immense moment of discovery and was very moved by the feeling, “This is the City.”

JWB: Theodor Adorno stated that poetry could not be written anymore after the tragedy of Auschwitz. Your poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” appeared almost immediately in the New Yorker after the tragedy of September 11, 2001. It negates Adorno’s statement. What is the role of poetry in the face of suffering and cruelty of the world?

AZ: It is an essential question. I do not know if I am able to answer it. It seems to me that Adorno is not so radical. It is not that he is saying, do not write poetry at all, but rather, think twice before writing poetry after Auschwitz. If this is right, then it is a very reasonable injunction. We should think twice and maybe more before writing poetry after Auschwitz. I definitely think a modern poet lives under other requirements as well. There are many requirements, and Auschwitz is only one of them. Auschwitz exists in our imagination, especially for somebody who grew up about fifty or sixty kilometers from the former camp. This is part of my own heritage. On the other hand, poetry also has an element that is joyful and playful, and no Auschwitz can take it away. Let us admit this is a complex problem. We remember the history and cruelty of Auschwitz, but there is another realm of poetic experience shared by the writer and the readers. It is the playfulness of poetry and the moment of joy comparable only to being free of gravity. Adorno should not paralyze poetical creativity, nor should others who might want to do it.

JWB: When did you write the poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World”?

AZ: The poem was written a year and half before September 2001. It has nothing to do with September 11, 2001, on a factual level. As has been the case with many of my poems, I wrote it in Houston. Houston is a good place for my writing. I think I wrote it in the winter of 2000. That places it a year and a half before the events of September 11, 2001. This poem expresses part of the poetic conviction I have had for many years. We live in a mutilated world. I grew up in the city of Gliwice, which was post-German and post-Auschwitz. It was laced with history. It was bombed and largely destroyed. Some buildings were never rebuilt after the war. The feeling that this world is not so perfect was part of my childhood, and it has never left me. My poem coincided with the tragedy of September 11, but it was never meant to anticipate it.

JWB: How did you get the news of September 11, 2001? Where were you?

AZ: I was in my apartment in a Parisian suburb and saw it live on TV. My wife was talking on the phone with a friend who lives in Princeton, New Jersey. He told her what was happening in America. Most people had not even turned on their TVs. I was deeply shocked and I do not think my reaction was different from anyone else’s. It was an apocalyptic moment.

JWB: As long as we are talking about an apocalyptic moment, what is your understanding of theodicy? Are you closer to Augustine or to Josiah Royce, a Harvard philosopher who writes about evil as substance?

AZ: You are asking a question I could never completely answer. If one is a poet and not a philosopher, one always lives with partly unanswered questions. It is not that a poet plays games with certain questions. Some questions are too serious to play with. They remain unanswered and form one’s intellectual horizon. At this moment, as a poet, I have questions but do not have definite answers.

JWB: Royce suggests that evil has an independent existence. It is not a lack of goodness, and it is not psychological. It exists per se as substance.

AZ: Well, a similar idea exists in the Polish tradition. Aleksander Wat mentions the devil in his book, My Century (Mój wiek). There is something active in the nature of evil, I am afraid. It is not simply an absence of goodness. Nevertheless, I do not think I will ever write a treatise on evil. It is an open question for me. How can it be otherwise? How can one answer such a momentous metaphysical question?

JWB: It is an unanswered question, but it exists vividly in your poetry. You ask about darkness in the poem “Dutch Painters.” For Arthur Schopenhauer, Dutch art represents the most objective description of reality. You almost suggest that Dutch painting lacks a metaphysical dimension. It cannot describe darkness.

AZ: The poem “Dutch Painters” is simply different. It is a metapainting. It deals with a poetic discovery of painting and the limitation of arts. It does not contain anything negative about Dutch painters. It could be about Italian painting, but it happened to be about the Dutch. Dutch paintings are a bit special with their “light-painting” attitude. Nevertheless, the poem indicates the limits of artistic expression. Art cannot represent darkness.

JWB: One can define darkness indirectly using a “negative definition.”

AZ: One cannot define darkness, but possibly you are thinking about a movement from light to darkness which is visible in “Dutch Painters.” At first I build this spark of admiration for the Dutch painters and then take it away. Only darkness remains in the end. It is a poetic definition, an exercise using all known rational means. I like the poem because it is different. It has a gesture of accumulating images and then taking them away. The reader is left with darkness or at least an inkling of it.

JWB: In the poem “Vermeer’s Little Girl” (Without End, 2002), you give a poetic interpretation of the famous painting The Girl with the Pearl Earring. In the Frick Collection in New York City, you admire Vermeer’s Girl Interrupted at Her Music. Why do you define Velazquez, Rembrandt, and Vermeer as the masters of “small epiphanies”?

AZ: An artistic epiphany can happen with a painting or piece of music. It can also happen when you drive and something comes to your mind. Epiphany designates a moment of intensity and revelation. It is a moment of happiness because epiphany is always happy. It does not mean that one does not discover something tragic or maybe partly tragic, but the fact of discovery makes a person happy. Epiphanies are on the side of positive emotions. I intuitively admire Vermeer and Velasquez, and I do not agonize over what they represent. Their paintings are very beautiful but never definitive. It is not the case that I am taking away any value from these paintings. No, they are masterpieces, and they give me an essential energy needed for my inner identity and work.

JWB: So it is not really about Vermeer, but about you. Vermeer’s paintings spontaneously reveal a deep “yourself” in your daily “you.” This revelation can happen not necessarily in a museum, it can happen anywhere. It can occur with the Old Masters, with other artists, or even in the Yosemite National Park.

AZ: Among the paintings of the Old Masters, I have recently started to admire paintings by Caravaggio. I moved from Vermeer to Rembrandt and then to Caravaggio. In Rome I saw many of his paintings, especially those in the churches. Caravaggio represents the most striking juxtaposition of purely painterly qualities and a deep religious drama.

JWB: Literary critics describe your poetry using many terms. It is the “poetry of small things,” “a search for radiance,” “mysticism for beginners,” or “astonishment.” In The Western Canon, Harold Bloom classifies your volume Tremor as “a canonical prophecy” of “the chaotic age.” [2] How do you define your own poetry?

AZ: It is a very serious question: how to define myself? I have always had a problem with definitions. Let me say at the beginning that my students and I have been reading a fragment of Proust’s Within a Budding Grove (A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs). We read two hundred pages, and I was struck again by the power of Proust. In addition, when you read your favorite book with students, you have to understand more than when you read it yourself. I try to understand the mechanics of Proust, and one thing is overwhelming. He tries to capture both the prose and poetry of life. The book consists of approximately 90 percent prose and 10 percent poetry, perceived as ecstatic moments of revelation. Everything else is about snobbery and mostly bad and mistaken love. It is interesting; we have both things in Proust. He is interested in pure poetry and in what is not poetry at all, but rather an imperfect human society. I mention this to explain what I try to do as a poet. Of course, Proust wrote novels. He had to have a different percentage of prose and poetry. I am also interested in this distinction between “what is pure poetry” and “what are the environs of poetry.” For me, poetry always exists in a context.

JWB: What is pure poetry?

AZ: It is two to five of the most successful lines in a poem. These lines create the poem, or the soul of the poem. Most of the time I never know myself which lines are purely poetic lines.

JWB: Thus pure poetry is like epiphany. It happens suddenly, almost like bliss.

AZ: This is something that the poet receives. It is a gift of a few successful lines in a poem, but it is never the entire poem. I think it is almost impossible to write a whole poem which consists only of this gift. A poet works with the environment. Roads leading to purely poetic lines are “ascending” or “descending.” I try to find a few lines of pure poetry, but I do not mean “pure poetry” in the sense of a poetic manifesto. Sometimes pure poetry is perceived as hermetic poetry. That is not what I mean. “Pure poetry” indicates a few utterly successful lines in a poem. It provides a moment of happiness. The reader and poet can equally embrace this happiness through pure poetic lines.

JWB: Does pure poetry come spontaneously or is it based on effort? A moment of happiness does not occur without a certain amount of preparation.

AZ: That is right. I think poetry needs a frame. A writer frames poetry in something that has less poetry. Many might dream about pure poetic lines, but it is impossible to achieve that. A few poets might be lucky enough to write only pure lines of poetry, but I am not.

JWB: A poet writes poetry, and then poems start their autonomous existence. Do your poems send a message to Adam Zagajewski as a human being?

AZ: Yes, but I try to not listen to this message. It is not easy to survive as a poet. From time to time, I try to live as if I were not a poet. I reject the late-nineteenth-century ideologies that make a poet a special human being. They are not true. A poet is exactly the same human being as others, and has many imperfections and weaknesses. I do not think I am really perfected or changed into an angel by poetry. And yet, poetry is also a part of my life, not only of my mind.

JWB: So poetry is a way of living.

AZ: Yes, but I am also a husband in a happy marriage. When I am a husband, I do not think I am a poet. I think I have to be a good husband. Usually if you are a good poet, you are a bad husband.

JWB: Well, a good husband can be someone who understands more. Picasso used to comment on people buying paintings. Many do so because they feel empty inside. Some buy paintings and hang them on the walls because they lack creativity. Do we read good poetry because it connects us with a real meaning of life? And if so, must a poet feel or understand more before transforming it into great verbal art?

AZ: The moments when a poet produces poetry are brief. In a way, they are out of touch with life. Of course they belong to life, but they do not constitute the mainstream of a poet’s existence. These are the most desirable moments, and I always crave them. I would love to have a good day or a good hour of writing. However, I think these moments are not enough to change life in a lasting way. We must remember that a poet is also a reader. This saying of Picasso can be applied to the artist himself. As a poet I have my bad days and weeks when I desperately look for a book, poem, essay, or sparkle of poetry that will help me regain my poetic powers. A reader who is not a poet and a reader who is a poet, but who has not written for a month or two, are not that different.

JWB: Who is your favorite poet if you are a reader?

AZ: Who is my favorite poet? There are many. In the immediate tradition, Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert are my favorites. They are my gods, and I learned a great deal from both of them. The German poets, Friedrich Hölderlin and Gottfried Benn, have my admiration. There are some Russian poets like Osip Mandelstam. I admire Jan Kochanowski and Cyprian Norwid. Very recently I have read Paul Claudel who is absolutely one of my most favored. This is a sizable family of poets. They are like my uncles. In his beautiful poem “Old Masters,” Herbert makes an appeal to the anonymous Old Italian painters. My artistic uncles are not anonymous. There are many anonymous painters but only a few anonymous poets.

JWB: Let us stay with the Old Masters for a while. You brought up Herbert’s influential poem “Old Masters.” A similar idea appears in his collection of essays, Still Life with a Bridle. Ewa Wiegandt concluded that Herbert constructs there a lecture on how “art becomes human nature.” [3] What Herbert announces is equally beautiful and wise; the Old Masters believed profoundly in the purpose of their work and the capability of universal human understanding. [4]

Let me ask you a question about Polish literature. Stanisław Brzozowski is considered to be an important voice in twentieth-century Polish literature. He analyzed philosophical and political aspects of European consciousness. One of his statements stands out in my mind: Polish literature, particularly in Romanticism, has been unable to create its own identity (The Legend of Young Poland, 1909). How do you evaluate Polish literature?

AZ: Well, it certainly is a key intellectual problem. I think Brzozowski’s judgment is now purely historical. We have had an extraordinary generation of writers like Gombrowicz, Miłosz, Wat, Herbert, and others. They have redefined Polish literature. Polish literature has been transformed. It is more spacious. This phenomenon has not been researched enough. The narrow model of Polish patriotic literature with its Romantic exaltation was determined by the political situation of the country. Many wonderful books were written in the past, but the field of Polish literature in the nineteenth century was too restricted. The generation of Miłosz, Wat, Stempowski, and Gombrowicz reopened Polish literature. It was an intellectual revolution. It seems to me that no critic has written about this metamorphosis. As a writer and a poet I am very happy to come after these great writers. They asked new and previously-unanswered questions. They serve as models for enlarging the volume of literature.

JWB: In Another Beauty you profess admiration for Witold Gombrowicz. As a young man Zagajewski read a lot of his works. Gombrowicz used to write mostly about himself. He never told a whole story, but we now see how well regarded Gombrowicz is in America. He demonstrates the universal values of Polish literature. This universality is noticeable during academic workshops. American students enjoy Gombrowicz’s writings and are able to comprehend his intricate style.

AZ: Are you reading Gombrowicz’s Diaries or novels with your students?

JWB: We were reading parts of the Diaries at the University of Houston. The class reacted well to the readings. Students embraced Gombrowicz’s complex and ironic layering of discourse. They grasped the fastidious yet crucial levels of his poetics. Later we read Death in Venice by Thomas Mann. It was a fine text, but everybody appreciated the Diaries more. The cosmopolitan qualities of Gombrowicz were striking. How do you see this phenomenon?

AZ: Well, it is a complicated one. I think he is much more successful in his Diaries than in his novels. In Diaries, he speaks with the voice of a free man. He seems to achieve it easily. Gombrowicz performs a gesture of liberation in Polish literature, and he is not the only one. Miłosz achieves the same or a similar gesture of liberation. Jerzy Stempowski accomplishes it in his essays, but his writings are not well known abroad. It is too bad that he is not widely known outside Poland. It is good that Miłosz is read extensively in the West. It is unfortunate that Stempowski has not been discovered there, but it does not change the main perspective. Wat and other writers from the same generation achieve a similar universality of voice. How do they do it? That is a separate question. Gombrowicz is very vocal also because for him the problem of liberation is a central one.

JWB: In Another Beauty you write that a poet is the philosopher’s brother. You also make a distinction between poetry and philosophy: philosophy formulates the openly critical questions, whereas poetry only suggests the existence of these questions. Do you still have the same perspective? Are poetry and philosophy contiguous?

AZ: Historically speaking, one could argue that the poet appears before the philosopher. Homer is older than even the pre-Socratic philosophers. The pre-Socratics made an enormous impact on modernity because of Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. We can say that a philosopher who knows only a part of the whole might also be a poet. If we have complete works, then poetry disappears. Loopholes and a lack of wholeness create poetry. We have two interesting cases here. It is Heidegger, who has written so many volumes of so many words, that is an important philosopher. But Heraclitus has left us just one slim volume of words. Heraclitus created more, but we do not have his complete works. We know only what is left to us. I think this “fragmentary” approach creates poetry, because no poet has the intellectual ambition to build a coherent worldview. It is part of a poet’s ambition to catch being in action, so to speak, without defining it in a scholarly manner. In a sense, poetry is philosophical. It tries to capture the being itself, but in a capricious way. Even the fact that a poet writes short works is capricious. A philosopher would never do that. He needs six hundred pages to develop an argument.

JWB: Your analysis of the poetic and philosophical realms implies an artistic self-reduction. Do you consciously restrict poetic material when you create?

AZ: It is not the case that we know more than we write. I think we know much less. In the rare moments of inspiration the act of writing brings more than we know. Additionally, there is the problem of revision. Two forms of revision are available to a poet. The first revision occurs in the middle of writing while the poet is still inspired and the poetic fervor is still within him. The second is called a “cold revision.” It takes place a day, two days, or a week later after the poet has lost the moment of vision. I do not believe in a second revision, because one week or month later the poet is almost somebody else. At that time the poet does not understand why he put these particular words in his poem. A revision is very important, but it happens almost simultaneously with the process of writing. I rarely have less than ten versions of a poem, but sometimes ten versions can be done in two hours in a row, one after another, one after another. . . . It is a revision, but it is still very much in the fire of inspiration, and this seldom happens. As I said, I do not get it every day, alas.

JWB: In the poem “Good Friday in the Tunnels of the Metro” (Tremor, 1985), you write about the transformation of pain into beauty. How does this process start, and when does the moment of aesthetic revelation occur? Is it a task of poetry to convert pain into beauty?

AZ: I am not going to offer any set definitions. I do not think this transformation is the only way poetry comes into existence, but it is probably one of the most important ways. There is a relation to pain in poetry. It can be personal pain, and this pain is prevalent in American poetry. Poetry expresses so much of the personal or family suffering. It might be the pain of our time, like Auschwitz, or the pain of the evil we know. This is not a universal definition of poetry, of course. We can imagine a poet who does not relate to pain, and we might still possibly say that he or she is a great poet. All poets I love have some relation to pain. There are purely playful poets, I am sure, and we cannot define poetry completely by its relation to pain. The pain of tradition is an important one in Polish poetry. It is also important in American poetry. There have been many attempts to express pain, to understand pain, or to transform pain.

JWB: Does pain artistically transformed into beauty signify metaphysical poetry?

AZ: This is a dangerous definition. It belongs to the early definitions of metaphysical poetry. Metaphysical poetry is established not so much by pain, but probably by perspectives that go beyond what is immediately given to us. I can well imagine metaphysical poetry which is not related to pain. John Donne’s purely religious poems do not necessarily include pain, but they incorporate an intense religious experience.

JWB: How do you perceive the stories of Ida Fink? She also transforms pain into beauty. Tadeusz Borowski committed suicide after being incarcerated in Auschwitz, whereas Ida Fink praised life during the Holocaust. What is the reason for these two different reactions to pain?

AZ: I like Ida Fink’s stories very much. I do not have a philosophical theory about it, but you make a good point. The mystery of Borowski’s suicide is opaque and has so many interpretations. However, we should be reluctant to draw a straight line between his personal convictions and his radical literary pessimism. Some people say his suicide was not directly motivated by his concentration camp experience, but by his actions afterward. He was almost certainly working for the Communist secret service. He was having an affair with another woman when his wife gave birth to their child. However, some other very pessimistic writers lived longer and found a chance to revise their pessimism.

JWB: Philosophically speaking, do you relate to Platonic or Augustinian aesthetics?

AZ: What do you mean by Augustinian aesthetics?

JWB: Augustine connects Platonic Forms to a religious attitude. It is Neo-Platonism. Is your poetry closer to the Platonic dichotomy of pure Forms and shadows or the Augustinian unity of pure Forms and the Divinity?

AZ: It would be difficult to answer this question. Of course, I read Plato and Augustine. But I do not want to know where I stand, nor do I need to know it.

JWB: Clare Cavanagh defines your poetry as “lyrical ethics.” Bożena Shallcross names lyricism as your poetic trademark. It permits epiphany to be born. Do you agree?

AZ: Your question seems to transcend the limits of our discourse. A year or so ago I was asked by the publishing house Znakin Kraków to give a lecture, and I agreed. Later I regretted agreeing but finally prepared a lecture. The starting point was whether poets are good at interpreting poetry. My argument was that poets are not good interpreters, because they often do not know what they are saying. That does not mean they are ignorant about poetry. They know a lot about it, but they cannot hear their own voices. I continue to think that this is true. If you are a poet, you do not hear your own voice. You know the voice of every other poet, but you are blissfully ignorant about the sound of your own voice. Metaphysically speaking, by a “voice” I mean “poetry” itself. It is a little difficult for me to judge if there is an ethical element in my poetry. I have no idea. Some critics, like Marian Stala, make a distinctionmily between “ontological” and “ethical” poetry. Many years ago Stala classified me as an “ontological” but not “ethical” poet. This is a complicated problem. It is very hard, but I try to be a good person. That might be visible in my poems, but I never wanted to make this a conscious or main issue in my writing. I am afraid of the possible danger of hypocrisy. That has been the case for Bertolt Brecht. The students and I have read him recently. Brecht was such a bad person. He also was completely mistaken in his Communist convictions. Mistakes are possible. Yet, in his writings, there is a noble and deceptive intention to be wise and help humankind.

JWB: It opens up a problem of the division between art and the life of an artist.

AZ: Yes. I was just reading Benedetto Croce. He says that everything claimed by an artist in his formulations outside poetry belongs to a slightly different personality. This can involve either political or other theories. Poetry is autonomous in itself.

JWB: Let me ask an entirely different question before we finish our conversation. What is your definition of America? You write that America lacks in magic, but you also admire a great painting by Vermeer in the New York City museum. Isn’t it a little ironic?

AZ: I see not one but many Americas. There is a big difference between the America of mass culture and the other America. The America of the TV culture is terrifying in itself. Fortunately, there is the America of academic campuses and the American poets. Of course, I have some problems with American poetry too. The other America is a land of the intellect. Years ago I was at Stanford. Four of five specialists on Dante were in the room. It was such an incredible occurrence in a country viewed by many European intellectuals as “kitschy.” Very serious intellectual work is going on here. Many wonderful academic books have been published in America. I think Americans dominate now in academic production in terms of books and research. It is very strange because these two Americas do not communicate with each other. This “schizophrenia” is less visible in Europe. The enormous discrepancy between the “thoughtful” and “thoughtless” America is a byproduct of this country.

JWB: This is interesting. You conclude that many Americas exist in America. Let us stay with the America of good universities. What is your favorite campus? Is it Duke?

AZ: I have never been to Duke University. In terms of physical style, I like Berkeley. Once I spent a few days in a little hotel on the Berkeley campus. The snow, the flowers, and just living there in a jungle-like atmosphere was very beautiful. It provided an ideal synthesis between nature and culture of the academic center. It was very impressive.

JWB: What do you think of Stanford?

AZ: The Berkeley campus is stronger in terms of physical landscape. Stanford looks like it has been built. For sure Berkeley has been built too, but it gives the impression of being cut from a mountain. Berkeley lies on a slope and creates the illusion of being part of nature. This is not an academic value judgment, of course.

JWB: Is it possible to define the American soul? Does jazz, especially in its early form, depict it?

AZ: It is an interesting question. I do not know the American soul. That is already a metaphysical statement. I like jazz by Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis, and sometimes Gerry Mulligan. As a teenager I was completely enchanted by jazz. Later I developed a fascination with classical music and its enormous richness of styles and personalities of composers.

JWB: You often write about two musicians, Yehudi Menuhin, who grew up in San Francisco, and Leonard Bernstein.

AZ: I admire Bernstein as a conductor, not as a composer. Once in the late 1970s I went to his concert in Berlin. He was conducting Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. It is one of my absolutely favorite musical pieces. This was such a noble experience.

JWB: Houston is good for your writing. You have said so. Before we go, let us find joy through your poetic lines about the city: “Houston, 6 PM” (Mysticism for Beginners, 1997):

“It is early evening here, the lamp is lit/ and the dark sun swiftly fades. / I am alone, I read a little, think a little, listen to music a little. / I’m where there’s friendship, / but no friends, where enchantment grows without magic, / where the dead laugh. . . . / Poetry summons us to life, to courage/ in the face of the growing shadow.

JWB: It was a delight to talk with you. Thank you.


1. Bożena Shallcross, Through the Poet’s Eye: The Travels of Zagajewski, Herbert, and Brodsky (Evanston, IL: Northwestern Univ. Press, 2000), 23.

2. Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: the Books and Schools of the Ages (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994), 558.

3. Przemysław Czapliński, Piotr Śliwiński, and Ewa Wiegandt, editors, Czytanie Herberta [Reading Herbert] (Poznań: Wydawnictwo WiS, 1995), passim.

4. Zbigniew Herbert, Still Life with a Bridle, 1st ed. (New York: Ecco Press, 1991); Martwa natura z wędzidłem, 1st ed. (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie, 1993).

Back to the January 2006 Issue
The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 1/20/06