How poetic are you

"Tell the truth. That’s what you’re there for »- with the death of Adam Zagajewski, an era in Polish poetry comes to an end

Between seriousness and cheerfulness and irony, the Polish poet was inspired by a belief in the power of art. But politics was also inherent in the displaced person.

Adam Zagajewski was the last representative of the generation of poets shaped by war and dictatorship who secured an eminent place for Polish poetry in world literature. Czeslaw Milosz (1911–2004) and Wislawa Szymborska (1923–2012) received the Nobel Prize for Literature at the end of the 20th century. Tadeusz Rozewicz (1921–2014), Zbigniew Herbert (1924–1998) and Adam Zagajewski have long been considered contenders for the prestigious award.

A few weeks after the end of World War II, Zagajewski was born in Lwów. The Galician capital later appears in the poet's work as a mystical place of longing. In 1985, Zagajewski dedicated the long poem “To Lwów Drive” to his parents, in which poetry and prose merge. The boundaries between dream and reality are also blurring: "There was always too much Lwów, nobody could / understand all the quarters, hear the whispers / all the sun-burned stones / the church was silent at night in a very different way from the cathedral."

Calling things by their name

Zagajewski grew up as a displaced person in the Silesian town of Gliwice, which, however, always remained a «post-German» place for him. All the more strongly, however, he connected himself with the old royal city of Krakow, where he studied philosophy and psychology and made his literary debut. In the first volume of poetry with the sober title "Announcement" (1972), Zagajewski rejected the romanticizing tradition and programmatically called things by their names.

The most famous poem from this volume is entitled «Truth» and demands an upright posture from the poet: «Stand up, dry the tampon of language / and slowly think about the rules of syntax / tell the truth. You are there in your left hand / you hold love and in the right the hate. " With this, Zagajewski anticipates the rhetorical gesture that Michel Foucault characterized as "parrhesia" shortly before his death - courageously telling the truth to the mighty. It is no coincidence that the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, Adam Michnik, who had courageously opposed the communist system himself, took leave of Zagajewski personally with this quote from a poem.

Towards the end of the 1960s Tacheles had to be talked about in Poland: in 1968 there was a state-orchestrated anti-Semitic campaign, critical intellectuals were persecuted, and in 1970 security forces brutally suppressed a workers' uprising in the Gdańsk shipyard. In 1974, together with Julian Kornhauser, Zagajewski published the collection of essays "The world not represented", in which literature appears as an important medium of social self-enlightenment. The two authors turned the spotlight on the bare reality and criticized the communist propaganda that built a cloud castle: «Literature has to hit the tune, call up images that are familiar to the reader. Otherwise it is nothing more than reading material, journalism, social realism, a course book on history, political economy, at best a draft of an ethic. "

Kornhauser is now the father-in-law of the incumbent President Duda. The fact that Zagajewski and his poet friend had a connection to the highest floor of the conservative ruling party is more of a caper of history. In recent years, Zagajewski has repeatedly expressed himself very polemically about the current political system in Poland. He called Jaroslaw Kaczynski a hysteric and denounced the lies of the ruling politicians and "regime television". He was worried as a citizen, but not as an author. After all, there is still no decree from the Minister of Culture on the writing of poetry. In 2016, in his sarcastic poem "Some Advice for the New Government", he recommended that all constitutional law professors be interned for life, while the poets could be left alone because no one would read them. Accordingly, President Duda's expression of condolence on Zagajewski's death was meager: “Sad news and a great loss for Polish literature. R. I. P. »

Paris, politics and love

In 1979 Zagajewski left for a two-year stay in Berlin. The President of the University of Göttingen had provided him with the necessary invitation to leave the country. However, the main driving force behind this exile was not politics, but love. After martial law was imposed in December 1981, Zagajewski moved to Paris, where he stayed for two decades. This choice did not come about by chance: after the Second World War, the French capital was the most important center of Polish emigration literature. Zagajewski, however, criticized the “Machiavellian” policy of the Parisian milieu: for Giedroyc, editor-in-chief of the magazine “Kultura”, literature was only the continuation of the Polish statehood by other means.

Absolute role model Rilke

Zagajewski himself walked a tightrope on this issue. He considered Rainer Maria Rilke to be an absolute poetic role model, who sometimes spent years waiting for inspiration for a poem while writing letters. For Zagajewski, poetry seemed "of course purposeless, like a motley bird that would like to please". However, this bird is sometimes on the road as a carrier pigeon with a message, so you have to know to whom and how it is delivering its message.

In 2002 Zagajewski returned to Poland and settled in Krakow with his wife. There he continued the existence he had already practiced in Paris as a wide-awake observer. In addition to other volumes of poetry, he also presented memoirs, which, however, refuse to follow a chronological narrative order. Sensory impressions, fantasies and reading impressions combine with Zagajewski to form a literary reality that transforms what happens into a meaningful event.

The end of life, however, threatens this creation of meaning radically: “The first moment of mourning when we receive the news of the death of someone close to us is terrible. It is like opening a hole in existence. Later this gap gradually closes and a long process of mourning begins. Over time, the scar changes color and almost blends in with healthy skin. There are, however, deaths that cannot be reconciled. "

Adam Zagajewski died in Krakow on March 21st.