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Adam Zagajewski

Author Biography
Poem Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


Adam Zagajewski came to prominence in his native Poland during the 1960s as his country was suffering under the oppression of the Communist-controlled government. He and other Polish poets spoke out against the totalitarian system through their work, which was eventually censored, forcing many of them to emigrate to the West. As he and other Polish artists worked at a distance to free their country from political oppression, Zagajewski declared that art should focus on social realities rather than lyrical abstractions. Poetry then would be an informative vehicle that could engender change. After Zagajewski immigrated to the West in the late 1970s, however, his artistic attitudes shifted. He no longer believed that poetry should be subordinated to a political agenda and argued that it should instead reflect the individuality of the poet. The finely crafted poem "Self-Portrait," which appears in Mysticism for Beginners (1997), reveals the poet's shift in aesthetics in its focus on artistic expression at odds with historical experience. One of the most personal poems in the 1997 collection, "Self-Portrait" shows the difficulties inherent in the struggle to find a clear sense of individuality separate from the external world of experience. As he details the objects in his world and his response to them, the speaker presents a moving portrait of loss and a stubborn insistence on his own distinct voice.

Author Biography

Adam Zagajewski was born to Ludwika and Tadeusz Zagajewski on June 21, 1945, in Lwów, Ukraine, a city that was occupied by and integrated that year into the Soviet Union. The family was forced, along with many others in Lwów, to relocate to Gliwice, a Silesian city that had become part of Poland. Zagajewski's father became a professor at a technical university. In 1963, after Zagajewski graduated from high school, he moved to Kraków, where he studied philosophy and psychology at the Jagiellonian University. In 1968, he was offered a position as a teaching assistant in philosophy at the Academy of Mining and Metallurgy.

In Eastern Europe, Zagajewski encountered much political turmoil, including the Polish student protests against restrictions on free speech in March 1968, the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet army in August 1968, the anti-Jewish purge of universities in Soviet-controlled countries in 1967, and the suppression of Polish workers' protests over restrictive labor laws in December 1970. Witnessing these events had a profound effect on Zagajewski and on other writers of his generation, who strongly supported the overthrow of the Communist-controlled government in Poland.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, Zagajewski became part of the New Wave poets, or Generation of 1968 poets, who promoted realistic language in their poetry and explored Communist philosophy and its politics in their work. Zagajewski was soon recognized for his involvement in a group called Teraz (Now) in Kraków. Zagajewski's participation in the New Wave movement is illustrated in his first poetry collections, Komunikat (The Communiqué, 1972), and Sklepy mięsne (Meat Shops, 1975).

Influenced by Czeslaw Milosz, an anti-Communist Polish poet who immigrated to California, Zagajewski became more political in his writings. In 1974, his critical manifesto Świat nie przedstawiony (The Unrepresented World) stated that contemporary poetry should have a political focus. During the 1970s, the Polish government censored the New Wave poets under accusations that their works inspired rebelliousness. This criticism and pressure caused Zagajewski and several other poets of his generation to become involved in politically defiant activities, such as protests and underground publications. Zagajewski had his works printed in one such publication, Zapis (Record), which first appeared in Warsaw in 1977. In 1978, Zagajewski's poetry collection List (A Letter) was published, also by the underground press.

In the late 1970s, Zagajewski's poetic focus shifted from politics to cultural and metaphysical themes. His Solidarność i samotność (1986), translated into English as Solidarity, Solitude (1990), was a warning against the type of political manifesto that Zagajewski had earlier written. In 1979, Zagajewski moved to Berlin, where he was offered a fellowship by the Internationale Künstlerpro-gramm. In 1981, he was offered another fellowship, by the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. In 1982, Zagajewski immigrated to Paris, where he worked for the journal Zeszyty Literackie (Literary Notebooks) and eventually became a member of the editorial board. In 1988, he began teaching a creative writing program one semester a year at the University of Houston, Texas. In 1992, he accepted a fellowship for poetry from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Zagajewski's collection of poems Mysticism for Beginners, which includes "Self-Portrait," was published in 1997 and has become one of his most celebrated works.

Zagajewski's work has been published in English, French, German, Swedish, Norwegian, Italian, Serbo-Croatian, Slovak, Slovenian, Russian, Dutch, and Hungarian. He has received numerous awards and accolades, including the Kurt Tucholsky Prize of the Swedish PEN Club in 1985, the Echoing Green Foundation prize in 1987, the Alfred Jurzykowski Foundation Award in 1989, the Jean Malrieu Prize in 1990, the Vilenica International Literary Prize in 1996, and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 2004.

Poem Summary

Lines 1-4

The title of Zagajewski's "Self-Portrait" suggests that the focus of the poem is the speaker's attempt to define himself. In line 1, the speaker identifies himself as a writer, as someone who spends half of his day writing with "a computer, a pencil, and a typewriter." In line 2, he makes a vague reference to time, when he notes, "One day it will be half a century." He does not say whether he means that one day he will be fifty years old, suggesting that he is approaching that milestone, or whether the half a century will mark the period of time that has passed since a particular important event. The event might be the date the speaker left his home and traveled to the first in the series of "strange cities" to which he refers in line 3. The repetition of the word "strange" in lines 3 and 4 implies that the speaker feels alienated in the places in which he now lives, among "strangers" with whom he discusses "matters strange" to him.

Lines 5-11

The speaker listens to music "a lot," and his preference is for classical composers—Bach, Mahler, Chopin, and Shostakovich. Still, the music does not seem to soothe him. The speaker finds weakness, power, and pain to be the main elements of the music. He declares that a fourth element of music is unnamable and turns to his interest in poetry and philosophy. The speaker gains more from poets, from whom he learns "tenacity, faith, and pride." He admits that he has a difficult time understanding the "precious thoughts" of "the great philosophers."

Lines 12-20

In lines 12-20, the speaker moves from descriptions of his personal tastes to descriptions of objects he sees during his walks. Paris is presumably one of the strange cities in which the speaker lives, and he declares that he likes to take long walks on the city's streets. He observes his "fellow creatures" there and determines that they are driven by the emotions of "envy, anger, desire." In lines 14-16, the speaker suggests that these emotions are inspired by materialism as his focus shifts to a "silver coin / passing from hand to hand." He refers to the fading emperor on a silver coin, which may imply that loyalty to country is often supplanted by greed.

In lines 17 and 18, the speaker recognizes the perfection of nature in the form of green trees but suggests that he cannot articulate his relationship to it, because the trees are expressionless and "indifferent." The darker tone of nature emerges in lines 19 and 20, in which the speaker describes black birds pacing "like Spanish widows" waiting for something, possibly death. Zagajewski may be referring to the image of Spanish widows, "waiting patiently" for their sailors to come home from the sea.

Lines 21-30

In lines 21-30, the speaker shifts the focus back to himself. Perhaps thinking of his own death, the speaker notes that he is "no longer young" but then states that others are closer to death than he is. The image of death is carried over into line 22, in which the speaker admits that he enjoys "deep sleep, when I cease to exist." This sense of disconnection from the world is reinforced in lines 23 and 24, in which the speaker expresses fondness for "fast bike rides" on which objects around him disappear "like cumuli [clouds] on sunny days."

The speaker enjoys art, as he does music, poetry, and philosophy, when he feels a connection to it. He notes his love for "gazing at [his] wife's face." In lines 28-30, the speaker expresses loyalty to his father and his friends, although he does not appear to gain pleasure through his contact with them.

Lines 31-39

In the poem's final section, the speaker writes of his feelings about his country. He is probably referring to Poland, Zagajewski's homeland, Communism being the "evil" from which it "freed itself." The speaker hopes for another liberation, without identifying the type, and wonders what his role may be in this process. Refusing to make any commitment, the speaker insists that he is "not a child of the ocean," as Antonio Machado defined himself to be. (Antonio Machado y Ruiz was a Spanish poet and a member of the Generation of 1898 in Spain, a literary group that encouraged a link between politics and poetry, much as the Generation of 1968 had done in Poland.) Zagajewski's later poetry pulled away from the political themes of his earlier works, unlike that of Machado, whose focus was more consistently political. The metaphor of the ocean suggests this consistency. The speaker sees himself as separate from "the ways of the high world" to which Machado belonged. He is instead a combination of "air, mint and cello," objects that reflect a more personal taste. The poem ends with the assertion of the importance of the speaker's sense of individuality.


Mysticism for Beginners

Mysticism for Beginners, the title of the collection that contains "Self-Portrait," denotes one of the main themes of the poem. As he strives to characterize his relationship with his world, the speaker admits that his immigrant status results in a sense of disconnection and alienation from his adopted, "strange" city. This sense, however, is occasionally alleviated during moments when he is able to connect with the world through art. Music and literature offer him the promise of sublime moments of clarity, during which he can understand the power of pain and faith. His artistic sensibility also enables the speaker to see the "green … perfection" of trees, but he has difficulty expressing the true nature of these mystical moments.

The speaker in "Self-Portrait" is able to express articulately a yearning for and lack of mystical connection, as when he notes that there is a fourth element in music that "has no name." Similarly, the green trees impart "nothing" to him but indifference. In this sense, then, the speaker is a beginner in the study of mysticism, focusing on the difficult process of gaining brief moments of transcendent clarity rather than ultimate enlightenment.


The speaker's sense of exile permeates "Self-Portrait." Throughout most of the poem, he does not identify his homeland or the reason for his emigration. The focus is on his feelings of rootlessness and alienation. The external world is "strange" to him, peopled with "strangers" with whom he fails to connect. His conversations with these people do not help him form new alliances, because what they talk about is "strange" to him.

As he walks the streets of Paris, he observes passersby not as human beings with whom he may eventually feel a sense of solidarity but as "fellow creatures," filled with their own passions. In this state of disconnection, he likens black birds to "Spanish widows" waiting for death, a state the speaker tries to mimic by falling into a "deep sleep" and ceasing to live. Or else he bikes so fast that the images of houses and trees around him "dissolve like cumuli on sunny days."

At the end of the poem, the speaker hints at the reason for his exile and suggests that he will never return home. Perhaps he has left his country to escape artistic censorship, before the country "freed itself from one evil." The speaker says that he does not know whether he will go home to help liberate his country, fearing the loss of his own individuality in the process. As a result, he commits himself to a permanent state of exile, living the life that belongs only to him.

Topics For Further Study

  • Read another of Zagajewski's poems from Mysticism for Beginners and lead a class discussion comparing and contrasting the poem's focus on mysticism to that of "Self-Portrait."
  • Choose two New Wave poets and read a poem by each of them. Prepare a computerized slide presentation on their political themes. Give background information on the political topics addressed in the poems.
  • Write a poem or short story that could be considered a self-portrait of you.
  • Zagajewski outlined his attitude toward individual artistic expression in his collection of essays Solidarity, Solitude (1990). Read at least one of these essays and write your own essay summarizing Zagajewski's attitude about artistic expression and relating your conclusions to "Self-Portrait."


Setting: Public and Private Space

The poem contrasts public and private space to illustrate the details that the speaker considers in creating his self-portrait. He first describes a private space, possibly a home or office, identifying personal objects like "a computer, a pencil, and a typewriter," the necessary tools of his artistic expression. He immediately contrasts this interior world with a more public space when he notes that he lives in "strange cities," suggesting that the external world will also have an impact on how he defines himself. That impact becomes clear in his descriptions of his interaction with the public world. He characterizes himself as an exile, which has produced a sense of disconnection with this public world. His detachment becomes evident when he characterizes those who pass by as "fellow creatures" and admits that he enjoys "dissolving" his surroundings in fast bike rides. He returns to his private space as he listens to music or gazes at his wife's face, which can offer him moments of clarity. By the end of the poem, the speaker appears to have decided that he is defined by interior spaces, not the country that he has left or the new city where he now resides. He has not let the life that "belongs" to him "cross paths" with "the ways of the high world."

Historical Context

Polish New Wave Poets

In the early 1970s, Polish writers who were influenced by the political events in their country in the late 1960s formed a movement called the New Wave. This group was made up of several diverse literary groups, among them, the Poznań group Attempts, which included Stanislaw Barańczak and Ryszard Krynicki; the Cracow group Now, which included Zagajewski, Julian Kornhauser, Jerzy Kronhold, and Stanislaw Stabro; and the Warsaw and Lódź group Hybrids, which included Krzysztof Karasek, Jaroslaw Markiewicz, Jacek Bierezin, Zdzislaw Jaskula, and Witold Sulkowski.

The disparate groups came together in a spirit of rebellion against artistic tradition. Tadeusz Witkowski, in the Slavic and East European Journal, notes that these poets, who also became known as the Generation of 1968, "rejected the concept of universal poetry, devoid of the concrete 'here and now,' poetry speaking in a highly literary language, exclusively utilizing allusion, metaphors, and abstract symbols." They discarded, according to Witkowski, "the concept of the poet isolated from social realities, the poet escaping from everyday life into a world of myth or even pure metaphysics … bypassing in silence the falsity present in the language of mass media." These poets also were united by their anti-Communist sympathies.

The New Wave poets initially had difficulty finding publishers in Communist-ruled Poland and had to turn to underground quarterlies such as Zapis and Puls, both of which were reprinted in the United States and the United Kingdom. The new poetic theories first appeared in a series of articles that later became collected in Zagajewski's Świat nie przedstawiony (Unrepresented World, 1974), written with Julian Kornhauser.

Most of the poets in the New Wave eventually emigrated because of the artistic restrictions they experienced in Poland. As a result, the subject of emigration began to appear in their poetry as they explored themes of alienation and dislocation, loyalty and abandonment. Zagajewski immigrated to Paris and eventually turned away from his previous insistence that contemporary poetry should address political issues. His new attitude toward individual artistic expression is outlined in his collection of essays, Solidarność i samotność (Solidarity, Solitude, 1990).

Poland and World War II

The world experienced a decade of aggression in the 1930s that culminated in World War II, a war that resulted from the rise of totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy, and Japan. These powers gained control as a result of the Great Depression of the early 1930s and from the conditions created by the peace settlements that followed World War I. The dictatorships established in each country encouraged expansion into neighboring countries. In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria and in March 1939 occupied Czechoslovakia. On September 1, 1939, one week after Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (also called the Treaty of Nonaggression), Germany invaded Poland, and World War II began.

The Polish people suffered greatly during the war. A large part of the population was massacred, starved, or placed in concentration camps. Approximately six million Poles were killed, and 2.5 million were deported to German camps. Polish Jews were almost eliminated from the country.

Political Turmoil in Postwar Poland

German troops completed their withdrawal from Poland in early 1945, and the socialization of Poland soon began. In 1947, Boleslaw Beirut, a Communist Pole and citizen of the Soviet Union, was elected president by the Polish parliament. Soviet Marshall Konstantin Rokossovsky became minister of defense and commander in chief of the Polish army. In 1952, the constitution made Poland a model Soviet republic with a foreign policy identical to that of the Soviet Union. The government subsequently cut off relations with the Vatican, and religious leaders became the chief targets of persecution.

In June 1956, having become increasingly discontent with the Communist-controlled government, students and workers organized mass demonstrations and riots, which forced the government to abandon its more rigid policies. That same year, Wladyslaw Gomulka was elected leader of the Polish United Workers Party and led a revolt against Soviet control of the country. Gomulka eased restrictions on personal freedoms and reestablished ties with the Catholic Church and the West. In the early 1960s, however, Gomulka strengthened his ties with Moscow and began a campaign to return to the restrictive policies of Communism. The student and worker demonstrations and riots that followed again influenced politics in Poland, as Gomulka was ousted and replaced by Edward Gierek, who brought back some of the freedoms enjoyed by the Poles under the early days of Gomulka's rule.

In the late 1970s, poor economic conditions in Poland prompted a series of antigovernment protests, which resulted in the establishment of small independent trade unions that organized strikes throughout the country. One such union, Solidarity, led by Lech Walesa, grew in membership to more than nine million, gaining so much support that the Polish government in 1980 agreed to all of the group's demands. In December 1981, however, the Polish leader Wojciech Jaruzelski reasserted government authority by declaring marshal law and imprisoning Walesa and thousands of other union members, sending Solidarity underground.

By the mid-1980s, after facing the continued passive resistance of the Polish people, the government eased its Communist mandates and started to release members of Solidarity from prison. The last Solidarity members were freed in 1989. Later that year, Solidarity candidates began to win elections for government positions. By the end of 1990, the Communist regime in Poland had crumbled, and Walesa was elected president.

Critical Overview

Adam Kirsch writes in his review of Mysticism for Beginners that "the central problem of [Zagajewski's] poetry" is that "the mystical experience is not loquacious" because it is characterized by a "stillness." Kirsch argues, "What yearns to be expressed, rather, is the experience of waiting for the sudden heightening of consciousness; waiting for it, or remembering it, or lacking it." Kirsch determines that Zagajewski's goal is to write poetry "that is a concrete avenue to an invisible reality," requiring him to experiment with "poetic strategies and … poetic evasions," which "reveal a great deal about the possibilities of poetry today."

Kirsch concludes that Zagajewski begins to answer the question "how can a poet—an intelligent, serious poet—write mystical verse now," in a modern age when "the presumption, even the suggestion, of a mystical dimension to life can seem anachronistic, an evasion of the real and secular responsibilities of the time?" Kirsch praises the "quick and memorable absurdities" that "temper the darkness" of the poems and Zagajewski's "sophisticated and witty" voice, which expresses "deep feeling lying just beneath the surface." Kirsch concludes that because "the mystic moment is indescribable, incommensurable," Zagajewski, in his search for this moment in his poetry, "is condemned to a kind of eternal recurrence of the same poem."

Jacqueline Osherow, in her assessment of the collection for Antioch Review, writes that "it would be impossible to praise this book too highly" and that "the poems seem effortlessly to arrive at the marrow of everything," from "living" to "the intensely experienced present instant." As she reads the poems, Osherow reports that she thinks to herself "so this is what it is to be alive" and "so this is how a person writes a poem." She concludes, "There are no tricks, no gimmicks, no fussiness, no elaborations. The authority of these poems arises from their exquisite accuracy."

John Taylor, in his review for Poetry, praises "the engaging movement of these meditative poems, which meander gently toward moments of enlightenment" and concludes that "our lives can briefly crystallize, [Zagajewski] movingly shows, in unexpected plenitude." Taylor finds Zagajewski "a subtle craftsman" who "avoids ostentatious effects," as he "focuses on the deepest meanings." Taylor states that "the path to understanding necessarily remains untrodden; but its first turnings have been glimpsed by the attentive, self-effacing poet."

A reviewer for Publishers Weekly writes that the poems in Mysticism for Beginners are "mature" and "accessible, written as much for the common reader as for other poets, and treat poetry as a savior, not as a tradition to struggle against." The reviewer finds "most poignant … Zagajewski's criticism of his own art and his distrust of its authority" in the poems as well as their expression of a "long[ing] for a speech that can recoup something of the old anxiety and power, the gravity of wholehearted rebellion." In the concluding paragraph, the reviewer states that "this collection reconfirms the international status of a vigorous, ever-questioning voice."


Wendy Perkins

Perkins is a professor of American and English literature and film. In this essay, she examines the tensions between private and public, individuality and collectivism in "Self-Portrait."

Zagajewski first gained fame as one of the leading poets of the New Wave movement, established by a group of Polish poets in the late 1960s. Tadeusz Witkowski, in the Slavic and East European Journal, notes that these poets were drawn together by a belief that poetry should be written in plain language but, more important, that it should "teach and stimulate thinking" about contemporary "social realities." Zagajewski was one of the most vocal proponents of this poetic manifesto, as outlined in his collection of essays, Świat nie przedstawiony (Unrepresented World, 1974) and illustrated in his first collections of poetry, Komunikat (The Communiqué, 1972) and Sklepy mięsne (Meat Shops, 1975).

After immigrating to Paris, Zagajewski began to question his earlier position on the promotion of poetic didacticism, or poetry that aims to teach a moral, religious, political, or practical lesson. He began to focus instead on the troubling relationship between public and private worlds, between individual experience and history. His later poetry, including the celebrated "Self-Portrait," examines the sense of disconnection between the individual and the collective worlds. In "Self-Portrait," that sense of disconnection is revealed through the speaker's attempts to define and locate himself in relation to the here and now as well as to history.

The speaker identifies himself as a writer in the poem's first lines and focuses on the sense of time passing, suggesting that he feels a sense of creative urgency as he attempts to compose a self-portrait that will delineate his relationship to his world. This relationship is first mapped out in an external sense as the speaker defines himself as an exile who lives "in strange cities" where he "sometimes talk[s] / with strangers about matters strange" to him. The repetition of the word "strange" denotes the speaker's feelings of disconnection and, as a result, a sense of alienation from the place and people with whom he is now in contact.

As he describes his interior space, the speaker suggests that he finds a sense of connection there that he has not been able to establish in his public world. Yet he struggles for a more complete understanding of the things that he values. He listens to music, specifically to Bach, Mahler, Chopin, and Shostakovich. The smooth assonance of the names suggests that the speaker gains comfort from these composers' works, yet he finds contrasting elements of weakness and power along with pain and a fourth element that he cannot name. If he could identify this final element, the speaker could experience the absolute connection, a mystical union between himself and the music. Ultimately unsatisfied, he moves on to poets, who teach him "tenacity, faith, and pride." The speaker finds more connection with poets than with philosophers, whose "precious thoughts" he can only catch in "scraps."

In line 12, the speaker moves back to the exterior world and his relation to it in more specific terms. He identifies Paris as the strange city in which he now finds himself, and his description of Paris embodies the polarities he experiences as he struggles to define himself. An ironic appreciation of Paris emerges as the speaker takes long walks on the streets and watches other inhabitants of the city. He regards them as "fellow creatures" [italics added], noting their "envy, /anger, desire" and greed.

The speaker's walks take him past the green perfection of trees. He longs to establish a sympathetic connection with the natural world in all of its multiplicity, as he tries to do with the music he listens to, but ultimately the trees express "nothing." Black birds become "Spanish widows" waiting patiently for news of their drowned husbands, the striking metaphor suggesting the speaker's recognition of nature's more destructive aspect. He links himself to this image of death in line 21 when he admits that he is "no longer young" but finds hope in the realization that "someone else is always older."

In lines 22 to 24, the speaker suggests a world-weariness, almost a death wish that links to the images in the previous lines. He declares that he enjoys sleep so deep that he loses all sense of himself. "Fast bike rides on country roads" allow him to lose a sense of his surroundings as well, when all objects "dissolve like cumuli on sunny days."

The speaker's apparent desire for disconnection from a strange world is interrupted periodically by his visits to museums, where he can occasionally find inspiration from paintings. The paintings "speak to me," he declares, suggesting the possibility of intense moments of clarity, insight into the nature of existence and his relation to it. In these moments, the irony that complicates the speaker's creative vision with its insistent polarities "vanishes," and he can appreciate the beauty of his wife's face. These moments of transcendence are ephemeral, for soon he must return to the present, where he dutifully calls his father and meets with friends, "proving [his] fidelity" more so than following any natural inclination for solidarity.

In his review of Mysticism for Beginners, Adam Kirsch finds Zagajewski "strangely inexplicit" in these intense, transcendent moments that appear through his poetry. Kirsch argues that "we find a longing toward the mystical as the natural consummation of the private, the ahistorical" in his work, but his speakers rarely achieve that state. Zagajewski "remains at the point of hoping that perhaps there is such a truth, though he will probably never comprehend it" or be able to articulate it. Commenting on Zagajewski's focus on the relation between the public and the private, Kirsch writes, "when the collective no longer cares to direct the spirit … the individual is thrown back on his own resources, which very often turn out to be inadequate. Zagajewski is the poet of this situation."

In the closing lines of the poem, the speaker reveals that history is the source of his sense of disconnection and his dark vision of the external world. He notes that his home country "freed itself from one evil" but suggests that it is still experiencing another situation from which it must gain "liberation." The speaker never identifies the first evil, but readers can assume, given Zagajewski's own experience, that it is a reference to the totalitarian takeover of Poland after World War II. The second situation is not identified as evil, but it is serious enough to require intervention. Refusing to allow politics to infiltrate his artistic vision, the speaker, and Zagajewski, will not name the evil.

The speaker's sense of dislocation becomes clearer in lines 31 to 39. He suffers the rootlessness of exile as well as of the patriot who refuses to return to his home. While recognizing that at home further liberation is necessary, liberation that must be generated by active supporters of freedom, the speaker questions his devotion to the cause. After asking "Could I help in this?" he expresses doubt, admitting that he does not give his work a sense of activism, as others, such as the Spanish poet Antonio Machado, have done. Machado is a "child of the ocean" who has established a political continuity in his work. The speaker is a "child of air, mint, and cello," refusing to devote himself exclusively to any cause. He instead insists on his individuality, his need to follow his own path, which does not cross with "the ways of the high world."

Zagajewski's insistence on the individuality of creative expression generates a complex and often troubling universe for his speaker in "Self-Portrait." As he struggles to understand and express himself in his relation to the external present and historical experience, the speaker faces the inevitable tensions between private and public, individuality and collectivism. Within the darker specter generated by these polarities, the speaker sometimes experiences moments of clarity when he discovers a transcendent connection to his world. Through the voice of his speaker, Zagajewski expresses his belief in the transforming power of artistic vision.

Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on "Self-Portrait," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.

Magdalena Kay

In the following essay, Kay discusses the idea of journeying in Zagajewski's work and the poet's ability to lift a specific place from the confines of its location and history, investing it with imaginative overtones drawn from imagination.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Zagajewski expresses his thoughts on politics and art and the tensions between them in his collection of essays Solidarity, Solitude (1990), translated by Lillian Vallee.
  • Like Mysticism for Beginners, Zagajewski's 1985 collection of poetry, Tremor, translated by Renata Gorczynski, focuses on the intersection of public and private worlds.
  • Timothy Garton Ash's The Polish Revolution: Solidarity (2002) presents an absorbing, eyewitness chronicle of the 1980 Polish workers' rebellion against the Communist-controlled government and of the development of the Solidarity movement.
  • The Walls Came Tumbling Down: The Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe (1993), by Gale Stokes, is a comparative study of the pressures that led to the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
  • Many of the poems in Czeslaw Milosz's New and Collected Poems: 1931–2001 (2003) focus on themes similar to those in Zagajewski's poetry, including exile and alienation. Milosz, a Nobel Prize winner, is one of Zagajewski's literary heroes.

The poetic masterpiece "Jechac do Lwowa" (To Go to Lvov) occupies a central place in Adam Zagajewski's oeuvre, as it demonstrates the power of the imagination to create its own home and to reveal the nature of the author's feelings of belonging and otherness. A central concern of Zagajewski's poetry is how to keep the historical at bay, how to keep it from establishing sovereignty over one's private world." History is an imperialist force. It is manipulative because it uses ethics to pull the individual into a historical interpretation of events. How can one establish a personal space separate from history? Such a space must be atemporal. "To Go to Lvov" enacts this marvelous feat: it lifts the speaker out of his threatening surroundings and sets him down in a place of rejuvenation. Lvov is both insubstantial, an ethereal vision, and a solid bedrock, the base of artistic creation. It is both a city with a network of streets and a movement, a process of transformation and alliance.

Time is neatly conflated with space in the beginning of the poem: "To go to Lvov. Which station / for Lvov, if not in a dream, at dawn, when dew / gleams on a suitcase, when express trains and bullet trains are being born." The spurious question of which station is immediately confused by talk of dreams and dawn, an in-between time; such confusion lifts the place-name of Lvov out of its literal context into a symbolic realm, where time inevitably influences space. Dawn is the time of birth, when objects are born fresh, coated with a baptismal dew. Dream is a time of separation from the literal world, an unclassifiable realm where the literal and the symbolic elide. They may both be conceived of as temporal "stations," passageways to the imaginary.

If we accept the idea that a journey to a heightened realm is possible, then the title of the poem becomes a question of logistics—how to reach Lvov—instead of ontology—if a journey to Lvov is possible. The poem's breathless hurry compresses time and space into the crowded instant of description. The speaker chooses a moment before he was bore as the temporal center of this poem. Escape from the time span of the speaker's lifetime lifts him out of a stale, processed time into a fresh one. The accumulation of infinitives in the poem sets up an abstract, postulated world, neither proven to exist nor decisively experienced. It contrasts with the detail of the imagery. The infinitive looks forward to what could happen, to the future. These infinitives serve as reminders of the theoretical basis of the poem's actions, but their abstract quality becomes drowned in the exuberant reality of the descriptions. We suspend our doubt that the actions may not be "real." The facts of ontology become divorced from desire.

Desire is a force central to Zagajewski's work. It is the motive for knowledge and for imagination. The desirability of this poem's images makes us assent to them and to our involvement in the world of the poem. We reach its conclusion with a certain shock, though it is the logical endpoint of the journey to Lvov. The poem states, "Lvov is everywhere." It can be conjured every day, at any time and place, because it is a figment. Or rather, the city is a psychological state. It is an imaginative ability, which keeps its peace and purity because of its separation from the actual city of Lvov, which we may have assumed was the subject of the poem.

Our everyday and out dream lives certainly overlap, and the speaker plays with our understanding of the "real" by describing details that could come from memory, only we are told that he wasn't yet born at the "time" the poem describes. This poem shows the prehistory of the self. The boy eyeing a full bucket of raspberries is not a presence but, rather, a center of desire. Just as our desire for the poem's images makes us assent to their reality, so the speaker's desire for Lvov leads him to insert his hunger into the poem as a trace of himself.

The speaker's emotional participation in a constructed world invites us to radically reconsider what is "home." "To Go to Lvov" serves as a beautiful example of the way in which home can be seen as an imaginative (but not wholly imaginary!) construct rather than a material structure. The construct of home answers a deep psychological need. It is both the speaker's origin and the endpoint toward which he travels. The movement of Zagajewski's poem carries us toward this goal. Even if we cannot say that Lvov is Zagajewski's literal home, it is certainly an imaginative one.

We may say that Lvov is an ideal, but ideals are dynamic in Zagajewski's work. "To Go to Lvov" establishes fluidity as a characteristic of the speaker's goal. "Lvov is everywhere." Every location may be part of his ideal. As the speaker constantly gives us fresh images, Lvov becomes dynamic and various. Vision becomes the ability to see the ideal in any available place. This poem shows the imagination's capacity to interact with perception to create an emotional reality. The speaker's insistence on Lvov's actuality puts him in a slightly defensive posture—"after all it exists," he asserts at the end of the poem.

Why does he need to defend something he has just celebrated? Much of the poem seems written as if from a child's perspective, and we can hear a childlike persistence in opposition to an imagined adult skepticism. This concluding gesture ("after all") also reveals a split between the reasoning mind (focused on what we call the "real world") and imagination (which creates images based on desire). This split creates a fissure below the structure of the poem. Nevertheless, it doesn't weaken the import of the poem; on the contrary, it is the emotive and intellectual fissures cross-cutting Zagajewski's work that make him such a serious, compelling, and human poet.

The word przeciez, translated as "after all," is a gesture of opposition, but it has a slight quaver of the voice in it; the quaver shows fear that the construction of Lvov isn't sound enough, and the city of dreams may be felled by the axe of reason. It also highlights the fragility of the speaking voice itself. Not only is the speaker's physical situation unstable, but he is himself unstable, uncertain, not a strong presence. The personal self enters this poem as a center of desire, not as someone who possesses this reality. He cannot dominate even his own imaginative space, as history intrudes on the present and the quotidian intrudes on the exalted. The poem's two final images of threatened realities are a jungle and a cathedral: "trees / fell soundlessly, as in a jungle, / and the cathedral trembled." Our belief in these images, in their strength and potency, depends on our belief that natural and human beauty does have spiritual value. We must believe that the human spirit can give meaning to a natural or architectural space. This is a leap of faith. Our acceptance of the poem's imagistic vocabulary depends upon our belief in the potency of spirit, of the imaginative effort. We need to believe that the aesthetic and the spiritual can connect, that desire is a constructive force that leads beyond the sensual at the same time as it celebrates the sensual. The poem reveals an aesthetic program that joins sensual pleasure with a spiritual quest.

The speaker's insistence that Lvov can be found everywhere allows the city to be both transient and eternal. It is the site of momentary delight and it dwells in the realm of eternal ideals. "To Go to Lvov" is a rare case when Zagajewski allows these two worlds to coincide. In his other meditations on the transient and the eternal, the two worlds are opposed. The extraordinary poem "The Gothic" shows us a speaker feeling self-loss and disorientation inside a cathedral. "Who am I, interred in this slim vault, / where is my name, / who's trying to snatch and hurt it away / like wind stealing a cap?" The wind is a force that cannot be situated. The speaker's disorientation becomes stronger when he can't pinpoint who or what is stripping away his identity. The cathedral is not described with the detail in which Lvov is described; perhaps the lack of humanizing detail creates this sense of disorientation.

Zagajewski is a master of the precise image. He often lets us watch him chisel a few perfect strokes, turning a shapeless entity into an evocative sculpture. Sometimes the shapes are multiple, and we see a whole gallery of sculptures come into being before our eyes. Such is the case in "To Go to Lvov." Zagajewski is also adept at evoking disorientation or formlessness, however. If a poem such as "To Go to Lvov" is essentially constructive, presenting a bank of sensual experiences, then a poem such as "The Gothic" is deconstructive, revealing the emptiness that threatens human constructs of place and identity. If a name is like a hat, then it isn't a necessary part of one's identity. However, the threat of removing it creates fear: the speaker repeats the question "Who am I?" with increasing urgency in the first stanza.

A name may be unnecessary, but it is essential for a social existence. The speaker needs a social framework, with its inessential details, to form his sense of self. He instructs himself to reenter a recognizable world: "Go find the height again, and the dark, / where longing, pain, and joy live / and faith in the good God who does / and undoes." Zagajewski establishes the social realm as a place of oppositions, where good and evil exist side by side. The state of not-knowing, of darkness and mystery, is also essential. Someone who is part of the social world can have faith in the presence of others even while he is alone. "The Gothic" ends with the speaker reclaiming the darkness and silence: "I hear / languages, voices, sighs, / the hopeful laments of those who loved / and those who preferred hatred, those who betrayed / and those betrayed…. / I feel you, I listen / to your silence."

Silence is no longer absence at the end of the poem, but a cloak thrown over a chorus of other voices. Stillness is a carefully created artifice. I have chosen to set this poem alongside "To Go to Lvov" because of the seeming discrepancy in style and voice between the two poems. In fact, they form a remarkable pair. The speaker of "The Gothic" realizes that human community is necessary for giving the self a shape, a name, and a place. Total abstraction is an unlivable state; that is why the ideal must also be linked to the real. Lvov must be given a name, and it must respond to change, if it is to serve as a workable ideal for the speaker.

The concept of eternity is attractive to most idealists, but Zagajewski counters it with an insistence on the richness of transience. Formlessness and flux are basic human states. There are always elements, in the self and in the world, that one cannot fit into an ordered scheme. Zagajewski has been described by his reviewers as a poet of excess. I would rather describe him as a poet of potentiality, one who does not rest in ready-made formulas but constantly shows us new images and new states of being. If we consider an artist to be someone who takes the raw material of experience and expresses it in a form, then we also assume that experience is capable of being formalized. In other words, we think there must be patterns in experience, and ways of containing it. Zagajewski asks us to reconsider these assumptions. There is always too much for us to have the certitude that we can understand it, much less encompass and formalize it. "To Go to Lvov" is filled with movement. The syntax is breathless. The speaker's restless eye cannot be taken away from its context—the self clings to events and is one with its surroundings. The speaker rarely stands apart from his subject matter in Zagajewski's work but is part of the perceived scene. The self is not always private; a question about the exterior becomes a question about our interior. We are not looking at a solitary, accursed artist figure here but at a speaker who is a specimen of humanity. He is not fully aware of his own potential; the self that becomes visible in these poems is something unfinished—to use Zagajewski's own words, without form. Because it is in flux, its imaginary life is also in flux; this is why every place is capable of being—or, I should say—becoming, home.

Imaginative, social, intellectual, and personal worlds are not opposed in this poetry. Despite Zagajewski's fondness for thinking in oppositions, I believe his poetry is based on unification. Shades of similarity and difference can be hard to perceive: we must accept an idea of "home" that is between belonging and nonbelonging, with no fixed position. The speaker's fight against the domination of history is a fight against forced and inflexible interpretation. Although history has more than one voice, the speaker of these poems feels its pressure as a unified force. We may recall Wallace Stevens's famous definition of the imagination as a force that pushes back against the pressure of external reality. We must see Zagajewski's poetic speaker as one who can bring the imaginary into real life, who can see his mythic Lvov everywhere as a way of defending the strength of the imagination.

Zagajewski is not a thinker who summarily rejects the non-ideal. Rather, he wishes to accept his present state and to create workable ideals that can be realized on this earth. We need to accept a form of idealism that does not crystallize an ideal in a single image but allows for movement and change. A fixed form is as oppressive as a single interpretation. Zagajewski is interested in potentiality, desire, and intention. By means of attentiveness to the present moment, one can arrive at a deep state of awareness, but without imaginative flexibility, one cannot see the full potential of the present moment. Zagajewski allows us to explore this aesthetic in poems that are richly sensual as well as imaginatively original.

Source: Magdalena Kay, "Place and Imagination in the Poetry of Adam Zagajewski," in World Literature Today, Vol. 79, No. 2, May-August 2005, pp. 20-22.

Adam Kirsch

In the following review, Kirsch points to the difficulties of writing mystical poetry in the contemporary world and with modern sensibilities. Zagajewski, he says, does not seek another, higher world; he seeks hints of that higher world peeking through the things of this one.

A poetry of mysticism, now? For a mystic of the seventeenth century, for Vaughan or Traherne, the object of mysticism was the old one, the obvious one: God, or Christ. For a Romantic neo-Platonist such as Shelley, the object was less clear, but still plausible: the Idea, the great pattern hidden from human sight. But if Romanticism was spilt religion, today the spill has just about been sopped up; and the presumption, or even the suggestion, of a mystical dimension to life can seem anachronistic, an evasion of the real and secular responsibilities of the time. So how can a poet—an intelligent, serious poet—write mystical verse now? The poetry of Adam Zagajewski provides the beginning of an answer to this question.

Zagajewski is the preeminent Polish poet of his generation. He is a thoroughly contemporary man who aspires, without embarrassment, to a verse that is a concrete avenue to an invisible reality. And the peculiar forms into which this situation forces him, the poetic strategies and the poetic evasions that it requires, reveal a great deal about the possibilities of poetry today.

Zagajewski was born in Lvov, in eastern Poland, in 1945. Within the year his family was transplanted to the western city of Gliwice, victims of the postwar redrawing of Poland's borders. As a student he moved to Cracow, and after several clashes with the authorities emigrated to Paris in 1982. Zagajewski emerged as a prominent poet and polemicist in 1974 with the publication of The Unrepresented World, a critical manifesto which, as Stanislaw Baranczak wrote in these pages, "stirred up one of the greatest controversies in postwar Polish culture [by attacking] the noncommittal literature of the previous decades." As Zagajewski ruefully wrote years later, "I took my place among the Catos of this world for a while, among those who know what literature should be and ruthlessly exact these standards from others." Of this phase of his career, English-readers have nothing—his first book published in English, Tremor, dates from 1985, well into his Paris period. Yet it is crucial for understanding his later development, since the poet whom we know from his five American books is in full flight from this politically engaged view of poetry. Indeed, the antinomy between politics and poetry—or between history and art, or between the collective and the private—is the main argument of his mature work.

This flight from history was a product of history, specifically the history of Communism in Poland. After the Solidarity movement rose to prominence in 1980, Zagajewski sensed that Communism in Poland was in retreat. Not defeated, of course—Solidarity was driven underground by the proclamation of martial law in 1981—but beginning its decline; within ten years it would be dead. Zagajewski's poems and essays of the 1980s—collected in Tremor and Solidarity, Solitude—look forward quite consciously to a life after totalitarianism, in which "antitotalitarianism" will no longer be a sufficient worldview. Zagajewski in this phase is preparing the ground for post-Communist Polish intellectual life. He points insistently to a world beyond the old definitions of good and evil, a world in which a truly private mental existence, unfettered but also unenergized by the struggle with communism, will have to find other reasons for being.

These concerns are announced in the title of Solidarity, Solitude, the remarkable collection of essays that appeared in 1990. As he writes in the preface to that book: "The word 'Solidarity' on the jacket of this book stands mostly for the Solidarity, a dynamic, robust, political and social movement in Poland…. Solitude stands for literature, art, meditation, for immobility." Zagajewski is not for solitude and against Solidarity, or solidarity; a concern for public justice is rather a kind of precondition, a given, for men of good will. But neither is he for solidarity at the expense of solitude, which gives access to another realm: the world of art, beauty, epiphanous experience. As he writes in the title essay of Two Cities:

The piercing sense of community, intimacy, of possessing something elusive—that half-legendary country of Poland…. An even more important ingredient of this philosophy was a thesis I knew well … that all is social, common, and collective.

I did not know how to formulate my opposition, I did not have the appropriate arguments at my disposal; but I did feel that not everything belonged to everybody. We are different and we also experience things which social groups will never know.

Zagajewski's difficulty, as a poet in a time of national crisis, was that these two realms are, strictly speaking, incommensurable: art (that is, art which is truly and only art) does not get the tanks off the streets, and mass movements do not write poems.

The dilemma of solidarity and solitude is unfamiliar to an American, and it may be difficult for an American to enter into it fully. Here poetry is such a minor, sidelined pursuit that its practitioners by and large never even think of using their art to serve a larger cause. (The few writers who do make poems into polemics, such as Adrienne Rich or Audre Lorde, generally fail at both.) For some critics—George Steiner most egregiously—this amounts to a complacency that diminishes American art. On this view, the moral crisis of Eastern Europe gives poetry an urgency and a public stature that it can never have in the United States, where it is largely a hobby confined to writing workshops.

Zagajewski's work is important for its rejection of this view. His writing, in poetry and in prose, is in part an attempt to diagnose the deformities of a poetry under too much public pressure, a poetry that feels a duty to participate in politics. As a poet who feels poetry to be a calling in an older, more Romantic sense, Zagajewski knows well that there is a zone of solitude, of "immobility," which is necessary for writing perfectly achieved poetry. Indeed, Zagajewski parodies the Steiner view quite devastatingly in "Central Europe," a short sketch from Two Cities:

He was an unremarkable, tiny man with dark greasy hair combed flat across his head who, without waiting for permission, joined my table. It was clear he was dying to talk. He would have exchanged half his life for a moment of conversation. "Where are you from?" he asked. "From Poland," I said. "Ah, how lucky, how lucky you are!" he exclaimed, overcome by genuine Mediterranean enthusiasm. "Mourning! Long live mourning!… You are a lucky man." "Why lucky?" "Force. Force of conviction. Categorical feelings. Moral integrity. A literature that is not alienated from the polis. You have not experienced that alarming split…. I always felt in you the desire for unity, the Greek dream of combining emotion and courage…."

This Westerner is using Poland just as generations of modern Westerners have used Greece, or the Renaissance, or the Middle Ages: as an imagined ideal, an instrument of vicarious living, a name for a condition of spiritual wholeness. He values the mournful country for its solidarity. He even envies it.

In Zagajewski's view, however, solidarity is not a mode in which the poet—or, indeed, any reflective person—can come to rest. Rather, he sees solidarity as the antithesis that arises in opposition to the thesis of totalitarianism: "Totalitarians have their own primitive seal, which they stamp onto the wax of reality. Antitotalitarians have fashioned their own seal. And it, too, shapes the wax…. Poor wax, lashed by seals!" Solidarity is something with which Zagajewski would like to dispense, in the way that one puts away a tool that has served its purpose. Scorn, hatred, loathing for totalitarianism is everywhere in his work; but so is a distrust of antitotalitarianism, the other seal that disfigures the wax of reality.

Solidarity, Solitude, then, is a manifesto, but not of the kind that Zagajewski produced in The Unrepresented World. It is a manifesto against manifestos, a warning against too much solidarity, written at a time when solidarity was both a necessary stance and a kind of moral intoxicant. Zagajewski reminds his countrymen that "we have to conquer totalitarianism in passing, on our way to greater things, in the direction of this or that reality, even though we may be unable to say exactly what reality is." When one considers how tempting solidarity can be, and how difficult and lonely a private definition of reality is, the real nobility of such a statement begins to emerge. At a time when collective thought and collective identity came under the seductive sign of liberation, Zagajewski was self-possessed enough to remain wary of history.

But once Zagajewski has made his choice for privacy, for the inner life, he is faced with a more difficult problem, and one which is less specific to Poland. To write against the public and historical life, and in favor of the private and individual life, is still to be conditioned by the public, even if one's response to it is a negative one. In Solidarity, Solitude Zagajewski turns his back on one definition of life and of its purpose, but it is not yet clear what he has turned toward. What is the inner life? And it is here that Zagajewski becomes, not only a Polish poet, but to a great extent a representative poet of our time.

When Zagajewski begins to write about things not conditioned by history—and, in his books, this is clearly the role set aside for poetry, as opposed to prose—we find him strangely inexplicit. Zagajewski is, in some sense, a mystic; the title of his new book is Mysticism for Beginners, and throughout his poetry we find a longing toward the mystical as the natural consummation of the private, the ahistorical. But he is certainly not a mystic in the sense that Yeats was a mystic. He doesn't have a doctrine or a system or a single truth; he remains at the point of hoping that perhaps there is such a truth, though he will probably never comprehend it.

In this paradoxical way, Zagajewski is representative: he is a mystical poet of the liberal imagination. He cannot abide oppression of the spirit, even when it comes wearing the friendly face of the Solidarity movement; he insists on solitude, on the freedom to go where his thoughts lead him. But then he finds that they lead him to no place in particular. One (admittedly narrow) definition of liberalism is neutrality; but what happens when the collective no longer cares to direct the spirit? The individual is thrown back on his own resources, which very often turn out to be inadequate. Zagajewski is the poet of this situation, which is responsible both for the universality of his appeal and for the important restrictions of his poetry.

One of those restrictions, of course, lies not in the poems, but in ourselves: almost no American reader will be able to read these poems in the original. How much is really lost in translation is a constant question; but it is likely to be closer to everything than to nothing. And the difficulty with Zagajewski's poetry is the greater because he is, in Schiller's sense, a sentimental poet: he writes about a feeling rather than from within a feeling, and writing about delicate emotions is perhaps the most difficult thing to do in poetry without sounding ridiculous. It is much easier successfully to write a clever line, or a sounding line, than a tender line. And the margin between the touching and the maudlin is inevitably blurred in translation.

Typically, Zagajewski reaches sentiment through the maze of irony, thus justifying the reward by the difficulty of the quest. His characteristic voice is sophisticated and witty, with deep feeling lying just beneath the surface. But occasionally he will write a poem, usually a short one, that is pure sentiment:

  Anecdote of Rain
  I was strolling under the tents of trees and raindrops occasionally reached me as though asking: Is your desire to suffer, to sob?
  Soft air, wet leaves;—the scent was spring, the scent sorrow.

This poem is like one of those sweet, sad lyrics of Eichendorff or Heine that Schumann set to music—not just because of the concision and the directness of the sentiment, but also because of the English speaker's sense that something is missing. It is a beautiful poem, but beautiful in a way that no one writing in English could manage without embarrassment. Reading Zagajewski is, in part, a continual negotiation with this embarrassment, an attempt to recognize that what's missing is just what could redeem the poems from excess of sentiment.

But this is a technical problem, which most likely arises from our ignorance of Polish. There is also a deeper sentiment here, which is not accidental but essential. It is attached to the subject of mystical experience, which for Zagajewski is a constant, tantalizing possibility, if one which is seldom attained. In Solidarity, Solitude, the poet insisted that the most important events are private, not public; and in his poetry, we see that these important events are often mystical, which is privacy carried to the point of incommunicability.

In fact, they become more explicitly mystical as Zagajewski's work progresses. In Tremor, his first American book, we already see that what matters most to Zagajewski is the transitory feeling of completion, of clarity, which is the hallmark of mystical experience. This feeling comes up in poem after poem, sometimes tinged with wit, sometimes given directly:

Don't allow the lucid moment to dissolve Let the radiant thought last in stillness though the page is almost filled and the flame flickers….

At night, an invisible bonfire blazes, the fire which, burning, doesn't destroy but creates, as if it wanted to restore in one moment all that was ravished by flames on various continents….

The quest for perfection will find fulfillment casually, it will bypass all obstacles just as the Germans learned how to bypass the Maginot Line….

… there was so much of the world that it had to do encores over and over, the audience was in frenzy and didn't want to leave the house.

These are all descriptions of a single feeling, in various manifestations. And it is characteristic of this mystical feeling that it is transitory and incomplete:

The earth won't open up, a thunderbolt won't burn fiery letters on the sky's pelt. Did we deserve a sign so distinct, we who talk too loudly and can't listen? A train pulls out when the stationmaster raises his arm, but a waterfall doesn't wait for a signal. A leaf will sway, a drop of water will glisten.

Or again:

Clear moments are so short. There is much more darkness. More ocean than firm land. More shadow than form.

Such "clear moments" become more common in his later books of poetry, Canvas (1991) and now Mysticism for Beginners. In these later books, there is a growing sense that the instant of rapt attention to the world is the center of life, and the proper subject for poetry. These poems are shot through with intimations of immortality:

So what if Pharaoh's armies pursue you, when eternity is woven through the days of the week like moss in the chinks of a cabin?

Turn off the glaring sun, listen to the tale of the seed of a poppy. A fence. Chestnut trees. Bindweed. God.

A moment of quiet covenant in the Egyptian museum in Turin…. Here the mysticism is reminiscent of Rilke, at a lower pitch. Zagajewski's litany ("A fence. Chestnut trees. Bindweed. God.") recalls the litany in the Duino Elegies:

Maybe we're here only to say: house, bridge, well, gate, jug, olive tree, window—at most: pillar, tower …

Like Rilke, Zagajewski is overcome at times by a powerful sense that the singular being of objects conceals some higher truth. For him, too, things are the sites of illumination.

But for Zagajewski these intimations remain intimations, not explanations or descriptions. And here we are faced with the central problem of his poetry, which is the problem of poetry in the face of the mystical: the mystical experience is not loquacious. The poet may seek "the still point of the turning world," but stillness writes no poetry. What yearns to be expressed, rather, is the experience of waiting for the sudden heightening of consciousness; waiting for it, or remembering it, or lacking it. These are situations of pathos; and the main colors in Zagajewski's palette are loss, longing, and awe, lightened from time to time with shades of wit.

And there is a further problem with mysticism as a subject for poetry: it does not admit of much variation. Poetry thrives on themes that are at the same time simple and fertile: thus Shakespeare can write 154 sonnets about love, and Tennyson can write hundreds of stanzas on mourning, because the subject is at the same time universal enough to compel our interest and general enough to admit of new situations, new shadings. But the mystic moment is indescribable, incommensurable: that is why it is so longed for. Thus Zagajewski, as a poet of the mystical, is condemned to a kind of eternal recurrence of the same poem. To look at the ends of the poems in Mysticism for Beginners is to see his predicament: I've taken long walks, craving one thing only: lightning, transformation, you.

I don't know how—the palm trees opened up my greedy heart.

… take me to Tierra del Fuego, take me where the rivers flow straight up, horizontal rivers flowing up and down.

This moment, mortal as you or I, was full of boundless, senseless, silly joy, as if it knew something we didn't. The destination of these poems is usually the same: the moment of opening out to the insensible object of the soul's yearning, whether it is described as "silly joy" or allegorized as "Tierra del Fuego." The poem wants to get to this point, and whatever it describes is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Zagajewski himself describes this phenomenon in one of the aphoristic essays in Two Cities, "The Untold Cynicism of Poetry": "The inner world, which is the absolute kingdom of poetry, is characterized by its inexpressibility…. What then does this inner world accomplish if in spite of its inexpressibility it wants more than anything to express itself? It uses cunning. It pretends that it is interested, oh yes, very interested, in external reality." What we have here, perhaps, is the natural evolution of Zagajewski's praise of solitude. In his earlier work, solitude stood in opposition to the collective and the public; and it was good. But now solitude and inwardness are considered in themselves, and they are difficult things. They verge on inexpressibility. As Zagajewski writes in "Lecture on Mystery":

We do not know what poetry is. We do not know what suffering is. We do not know what death is. We do know what mystery is. Even if we allow that this is true, it still leaves two possibilities for poetry. One is to make poetry describe its subject as attentively as possible: thus Shakespeare's sonnets do not tell us "what love is," but they bring us closer to such an understanding. The other possibility is to stand scrupulously back from the subject, honoring its inexpressibility. In this case, the ostensible subject of the poem—love, death, suffering—is no longer the real subject; rather, the subject is the author's consciousness in the face of this ultimate limitation.

This is the kind of poetry Zagajewski writes. It is poetry that threatens to lead to silence.

But Zagajewski is in no danger of falling silent. He is not an otherworldly or ascetic mystic, who feels driven from this world by hints of another. His alienation is not radical, it is occasional. And in this, too, he is a poet of the liberal imagination: his vision of the mystical does not put everything at stake. Not for him wagers or leaps; he is content to see the lineaments of something higher peeking through the things of this world, without forcing it to reveal itself as a coherent structure.

The clearest sign of Zagajewski's attachment to the world is his wit. Mysticism and humor do not usually go together. But quick and memorable absurdities temper the darkness of much of Zagajewski's poetry: Practicing elocution like a timid Demosthenes, the Danube flows over flat stones.

What are baroque churches? Deluxe health clubs for athletic saints.

Now rain dictates a long, tedious lecture….

Sometimes Zagajewski is simply funny, as in the title of one poem: "Franz Schubert: A Press Conference." ("No, I'm not familiar with Wagner's music") But more often his wit is employed to intimate a darkness without stating it, as in this miniature theodicy:

At the Orthodox church in Paris, the last White gray-haired Russians pray to God, who is centuries younger than they and equally helpless.

Or this, about Stalinism:

One day apes made their grab for power. Gold sealrings, starched shirts, aromatic Havanas, feet squashed into patent leather.

Wit is even more evident in Zagajewski's prose. His most important achievement in prose is the development of a kind of very short essay, occasionally shrinking to aphorism, in which wit and irony can flourish. This is the style of "The Little Larousse," from Solidarity, Solitude and "The New Little Larousse," from Two Cities. Here Zagajewski is very often brilliant:

[The Poles] write books as if they were to be documents considered during a future peace conference that will decide the fate of Europe.

Territorial conquests are not just changes in boundaries and the imposition of an unwanted government. They are also detectable when we cease to see the earth.

The adjective is the indispensable guarantor of the individuality of people and things. I see a pile of melons at a fruit stand. For an opponent of adjectives, this matter presents no difficulty: "Melons are piled on the fruit stand." Meanwhile, one melon is as sallow as Talleyrand's complexion when he addressed the Congress of Vienna … another has sunken cheeks, and is lost in a deep, mournful silence, as if it could not bear to part with the fields of Provence. This side of Zagajewski's sensibility seems far removed from the yearning mystic. Indeed, it is what can make him attractive even to those readers who have little patience for epiphany; it gives evidence of an unconstrained, undogmatic intelligence. With its rapid and unlikely juxtapositions, wit tends to undermine certainty. When you begin to see God as an old Russian exile, or commissars as cigar-smoking apes, you have stolen their old authority; a doubleness of perspective has set in.

In this respect, wit is intimately bound up with the liberal imagination, and with sentimental poetry. In Solidarity, Solitude, Zagajewski writes that "one must think against oneself … otherwise one is not free." But what is implied by this is that freedom of thought is more important than thinking rightly. Once the thinker becomes more devoted to his thinking than to his thought, dogma is impossible. And clearly the importance of thinking against oneself was brought home to Zagajewski living in a totalitarian state, where the stupidity and cruelty of the prevailing dogmas was plain.

What is left, then, is not correctness of thought, but nimbleness of thought. The Danube is not the Danube but Demosthenes; the rain is not the rain but a tedious professor. And the mystical is, perhaps, not the mystical at all, but merely a moment of contentment, a feeling, a shadow. This possibility hovers around the title poem of Mysticism for Beginners, itself a fine example of Zagajewski's philosophical wit:

The day was mild, the light was generous. The German on the cafe terrace held a small book on his lap. I caught sight of the title: Mysticism for Beginners. Suddenly I understood that the swallows patrolling the streets of Montepulciano with their shrill whistles … and the dusk, slow and systematic, erasing the outlines of medieval houses, and olive trees on little hills … and any journey, any kind of trip, are only mysticism for beginners, the elementary course, prelude to a test that's been postponed.

Zagajewski does not disavow mysticism in this poem, but he makes it the subject of a melancholy lightness, and thus puts it at an immense remove from belief. It is the same thing that happens when Donne begins a poem about the Judgment Day with "At the round earth's imagined corners, blow/Your trumpets, angels": since we know that there are no corners, we start to question whether there are angels. Similarly, in Zagajewski, the unlikeliness of mysticism "for beginners," as if it were a hobby like woodworking, makes us wonder about mysticism itself. The test has been postponed. Or has it been cancelled? Perhaps the test was never scheduled at all.

And so the mystical for Zagajewski is never free from doubt. The last poem in his new book is a touching example of this:

I walked through the medieval town in the evening or at dawn, I was very young or rather old. I didn't have a watch or a calendar, only my stubborn blood measured the endless expanse. I could begin life, mine or not mine, over, everything seemed easy, apartment windows were partway open, other fates ajar. It was spring or early summer, warm walls, air soft as an orange rind; I was very young or rather old, I could choose, I could live.

This is the emotional ground out of which mysticism grows; but here the poet sticks to what is empirical and indisputable, to the emotion itself. The ability of the man who aspires to certainty to stop short of certainty: this is the hallmark of the liberal intelligence. The "thinking against oneself" which gives rise to wit also gives rise to hesitancy in the face of the absolute and the infinite, even when they are devoutly desired. And for this reason, Zagajewski's verse is unsettled and unsettling. He puts the matter perfectly:

Two contradictory elements meet in poetry: ecstasy and irony. The ecstatic element is tied to an unconditional acceptance of the world, including even what is cruel and absurd. Irony, in contrast, is the artistic representation of thought, criticism, doubt. Ecstasy is ready to accept the entire world; irony, following in the steps of thought, questions everything, asks tendentious questions, doubts the meaning of poetry and even of itself. Irony knows that the world is tragic and sad.

That two such vastly different elements shape poetry is astounding and even compromising. No wonder almost no one reads poems.

Source: Adam Kirsch, Review of Mysticism for Beginners, in New Republic, Vol. 218, No. 12, March 23, 1998, pp. 36-40.

John Taylor

In the following review, Taylor speaks of the uprooted and nomadic nature of Zagajewski's own life as a Polish exile and how it has influenced these meditative poems, which seek a spiritual security and illumination.

"Suddenly you see the world lit differently," writes the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski in Mysticism for Beginners, his third translated collection. This declaration sums up well the engaging movement of these meditative poems, which meander gently toward moments of enlightenment. Informed by exile and travel (Zagajewski divides his time between Paris and Houston), as well as by respect for everyday life, his longer poems especially search not so much for severed Polish roots as for insight and wisdom—wherever he is. In "Letter from a Reader," which seemingly defines his own aims, he tells himself to attend to "the endless patience / of the light." Metaphors involving light and darkness (or shadow) indeed appear frequently, with the hope tendered that this miraculous light can sometimes—as he remarks apropos of Vermeer's "Little Girl"—inhabit a work of art.

Contemporary lives, suggests Zagajewski, are only rarely rooted, stable, spiritually secure, let alone illuminated. We experience "travel instead of remembrance"; we write "quick poem[s]" instead of "hymn[s]." Yet for all its sad tonalities, his verse shows that an existence marked by mobility and ontological doubt need not eventually bog down into anguish—the paralyzing predicament of many modern writers. Despair can depend on our view of our earliest years—from which we may be brutally separated. Yet "why is childhood," asks the poet, "our only origin, our only longing?"

Zagajewski grapples with this key question. Typically, he studies the present and looks forward, though elegiac images do arise and give pause. "It was a gray landscape," he solemnly recalls, "houses small / as Tartar ponies, concrete high-rises, / massive, stillborn; uniforms everywhere, rain, / drowsy rivers not knowing where to flow, / dust, Soviet gods with swollen eyelids." Another compelling poem likewise mourns his mother and meditates on memory. Yet moving away from the post-war Poland in which he grew up, he more often readies himself for encounters with uplifting transcendence (amidst the flat dehumanizing drabness of modern societies, little matter the political regime). Near-prayers can result, such as is expressed by his wish to see "Tierra del Fuego, / … where the rivers / flow straight up."

Our lives can briefly crystalize, he movingly shows, in unexpected plenitude. After leaving a Romanesque church, for example, he marvels at how a mere moment miraculously enters "the timid grass," inhabits "stems and genes, / the pupils of our eyes" and conveys its "boundless, senseless, / silly joy." Tellingly, however, these moments "know something" we cannot grasp. Aspiring to such mysteries, Zagajewski realizes that he must eschew irony, become completely sincere, turn poetry into a means of exploration, not an end in itself. Some poems reflect his struggles to do so. A subtle craftsman, he avoids ostentatious effects, focuses on the deepest meanings. The title poem revealingly equates even our finest perceptions with only an "elementary course" in mysticism. The path to understanding necessarily remains untrodden; but its first turnings have been glimpsed by the attentive, self-effacing poet.

Source: John Taylor, Review of Mysticism for Beginners, in Poetry, Vol. 173, No. 2, December 1998, p. 185.


Kirsch, Adam, "The Lucid Moment," in the New Republic, March 23, 1998, pp. 36, 38-40.

Osherow, Jacqueline, "Books: Poetry Collections," in Antioch Review, Vol. 56, No. 4, Fall 1998, p. 500.

Review of Mysticism for Beginners, in Publishers Weekly, December 22, 1997, pp. 55-56.

Taylor, John, "Short Reviews," in Poetry, Vol. 173, No. 2, December 1998, pp. 185-86.

Witkowski, Tadeusz, "The Poets of the New Wave in Exile," in the Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 33, No. 2, Summer 1989, pp. 204-205.

Zagajewski, Adam, "Self-Portrait," in Mysticism for Beginners, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999, pp. 35-36.

Further Reading

Hawkins, Gary, "Between the Quotidian and the Transcendent," in World Literature Today, Vol. 79, No. 2, August 2005, pp. 23-26.

In this essay, Hawkins applies Zagajewski's literary theories to his poetry, specifically his thoughts on irony.

Hong, Anna Maria, "Adam Zagajewski on the Power to Restore Beauty and Advice for Beginning Mystics," in Poets and Writers, August 13, 2004, available online at

In this interview, Zagajewski discusses his views of the relationship between poetry and the world.

Shallcross, Bozena, "The Divining Moment: Adam Zagajewski's Aesthetics of Epiphany," in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 44, No. 2, Summer 2000, pp. 234-52.

Shallcross examines the sudden, intense experiences sparked by art in Zagajewski's poetry.

Witkowski, Tadeusz, "Between Poetry and Politics: Two Generations," in Periphery: Journal of Polish Affairs, Vol. 2, 1996, pp. 38-43, available online at∼zbigniew/Periphery/No2/witkowski.html.

Witkowski traces the development of Zagajewski's poetics, from his early days in the New Wave to his later years as an exile.