Adam Zagajewski is dead.

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No one can replace him. No one will.

Adam Zagajewski is dead. Poland’s leading poet, who achieved worldwide renown, was 75. He died in his beloved Kraków “after serious illness,” says the Polish press. That’s it. Few of my Polish acquaintance seem to know he was ill. They are universally shocked.

He is perhaps best known for the poem that was tacked to office bulletin boards and pinned to refrigerators with magnets after the 2001 World Trade Center attacks –”Try to Praise the Crippled World” translated by Claire Cavanagh. But that poem’s deserved reputation almost did a disservice to his corpus by overwhelming a fine and enduring legacy of poems and essays over many volumes and many years.

I’ve written about him here and here and here and here, among other places. And I wrote a profile of him for the Poetry Foundation here.

I last saw him a few years ago. We had a short rendezvous over espresso at the lovely Bona Street bookstore and café on Kanonicza. It was a tumultuous and confusing trip for a number of reasons, but meeting with Adam was a point of sanity and stillness. Well, because he always was.

According to Gazeta Wyborcza: “The only thing missing from all the awards, titles and distinctions he received throughout his life was the Nobel Prize for Literature. His name has appeared among the candidates for this award every year. In 2013, he was awarded the Zhongkun Chinese Literary Award, commonly known as the Chinese Nobel Prize. He was also a laureate of such awards as the Neustadt Prize for Literature (2004), the Heinrich Mann Prize (2015), the Griffin Prize (2016) and the Princess of Asturias Award (2017). He has been a finalist of the Nike Awards several times. He was awarded the Gold Medal for Merit to Culture – Gloria Artis and the Order of the Legion of Honor.”

He should have gotten the Nobel. I could not think of anyone more deserving. But two Poles had already won Nobels in the previous half-century – Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska – and he was passed over. Now there will be no chance to make amends.

Unassuming grace

In recent years, he has been active in the cause for a truly free Poland. But always with a sense of proportion and insight. Zagajewski wanted to “avoid the reduction of freedom to the political dimension.” He continued: “Perhaps it is worth remembering that in every community that has not yet been dominated by illiterate people, there is also a different conversation, much calmer, quieter, attracting less attention, but not necessarily less important: about God, about the meaning of life, about art, about literature, music, the nature of civilization, the relationship between modernity and tradition, and death. And also about Miłosz, about Stanisław Brzozowski, about Plato and Wagner, about Bacon the philosopher and about Bacon the painter, about Chopin and Lutosławski.”

He is survived by his wife, actress and psychologist Maja Wodecka.

This is a major blow. Yet how fitting that this quiet unassuming man should die so quietly, without fanfare. He was a class act … but so much more than that. So much more. No one can replace him. No one will.

More soon.

Postscript: a few words from Ukrainian poet Ilya Kaminsky (we’ve written about him here):

Kaminsky at book signing

One of the most beautiful things about Adam Zagajewski is that he didn’t have any of Bloomian anxiety-of-influence. He would pour the drink and welcome the conversation about poems he was influenced by, or poets he echoed, or how other poets echoed other poets (from the likes of Montale to Gottfried Benn to Vladimir Holan, lesser known Wiktor Woroszylski etc). He loved poets, chuckled (in that wonderful wry chuckle) with and about poets, recited lines (he recited some Russian poems by heart to me), told stories about them, smiled and shared the lines that influenced him, without any hesitation, or false reticence, and one time he wore a jacket that he proudly told me was the jacket that Joseph Brodsky gave him. He said “on my first trip to America, I was a skinny man who complimented Joseph on a jacket, and Joseph took this jacket off and simply gave it to me.” Adam was generous like that, too. Somewhere in my notes I have lists of poets and essayists he would recommend when we met once a month in Chicago. And then he would email next day and recommend some more.

He has many students, from Houston and Chicago, who will probably say much more about his teaching. I wasn’t one of them. I was just someone who benefited from his kindness and the generosity of his conversation. I will miss him, and miss the wide world of poetry he carried with him—a kind of person who could agree to drop you off at your hotel after a poetry reading, and then stop the car, midway, on the side of the road, and just keep talking about poetry. None of this was done with the over the top exuberance: he was a very shy person, gracious, precise. And he always told the truth about poetry. He believed in the soul; the soul must live in lyric poems. That, most of all.

His poem, “To Go To Lvov”– an elegy to the gone world but also a kind of a hymn to life — became password for many immigrants and refugee poets of my generation. If you love that poem, you are one of us. I love it for all those reasons, yes, but also because it allowed–in the last two decades of a bloody century–a kind of reprieve. It allowed a way for praise to enter poetry long after “Deathfugue” or “Howl” were written; it had all the force of those monumental works, and yet it allowed tenderness in.That is how I will always remember you, Adam. A poet who allowed tenderness in.

Postscript on 3/22, from poet Dan Rifenburgh (I’ve written about him here and here): I first met Adam when the poet Ed Hirsch arranged for Adam to come teach with him at the University of Houston, where I was a grad student.  Adam was a seemingly shy person, very calm and very gentle, yet there was no doubt he could lead a troupe of would-be poets through the labors of exegesis, critique and theory, as well as deal with all the interpersonal scrimmages that tend to break out under the pressures of the workshop setting. In fact, he was an excellent writing workshop leader, always keeping us out of the muck of competitive jealousies and personal digs. His commentaries on the poems under discussion showed the depth and breadth of his reading, his life experiences and his humanity. I recall I had submitted a rather bleak, dirge-like lyric on the loneliness of divorce that ended with a scene including the lines, “Across the street is a cafe/Still open at this hour./ A woman sits there, nibbling pastry.” Adam’s response was simply, “Edward Hopper?” and I had to laugh. He was deadly accurate that way. In fact, one wonders how so smart an individual could be so gracious and seemingly, well, good. Or was it all an act? What was behind this gentleness, his air of quietude, which could sometimes mimic a mystical complacency? Adam came naturally to his role of a cat lover. He was more feline than canine and he appeared to have nine lives. Certainly he had navigated through vast political upheavals. He witnessed the residue of fascism, the bleakness of totalitarian communism, the rise of Solidarity and then, after the fall of the Soviets, a Polish kind of populist revanchism. In such situations perhaps reticence is a survival skill? You can search his work for political comments and you’ll come up quite empty. Was he a gentle tabby or a sphinx? The answer lies in his rejection of rhetoric, that is to say, public speech designed to persuade, or move the polis to action. The 20th century tied rhetoric to propaganda to ideology to various forms of centralized power, and always to war, suffering and death. Adam was scampering away from all this on cat’s feet. What he found was not philosophy, science nor religion, but a way of being in the moment, a way of beholding the world as transitory and eternal all at once, even as it is both brutal and beautiful. In this he saw the arts and artists as his surest guides: the painters, musicians, poets, novelists and even diarists. He would sooner salute a kettle drummer than a commissar, or bow to a painter than a pope. He joined the ranks of artists by presenting his own unique relationship with this mysterious place where we all live. He refused to categorize or analyze it, yet by his gentle notations, and through his humility, he holds the world before us in its luminous, shimmering mystery.


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