“The rhetoric of tranquility is stronger”: My Q&A with the late great Adam Zagajewski at the “Los Angeles Review of Books”


My Q&A with the late great Polish poet is now up over at the Los Angeles Review of Books here. The title: “’Poetry Has to Defend Itself’: A Conversation with Adam Zagajewski.”

An excerpt from the long-ago interview (circa 2006, I think):

What is this disease that you have identified – this relaxing into irony, if not cynicism – and how do we cure it?  And why have two prominent Polish poets struggle with it so consciously and conspicuously?  I ask because so many are completely oblivious to it – and it is a noticeable feature in both your writing and Milosz’s. 

I recall your comments about the influence of Nietzsche:  Noting his minting of such terms as “superman,” “will to power,” “beyond good and evil” – and adding that “someone once rightly observed that beyond good and evil lies only evil” – you suggested that without these influences, “the spiritual atmosphere of our century might have been purer and perhaps even prouder.” 

Well, the disease of irony seems to be well identified. I adore irony as a part of our rich rhetorical and mental apparatus but not when it assumes the position of a spiritual guidance. How to cure it? I wish I knew. The danger is that we live in a world where there’s irony on one side and fundamentalism (religious, political) on the other. Between them the space is rather small but it’s my space.

You wrote: “We need to go on, paying the price, sometimes, of being not only imperfect but even, who knows, arrogant and ridiculous.”

My temperament is different. Sometimes I wish I were an arrogant prophet, an aggressive guy. But my force – if I have any – is different, it lives more in nuances, in tranquility of my voice. Somehow I hope that the rhetoric of tranquility is after all stronger and more long-term than the one of a furious attack.


The future of poetry.  I know this sounds trite – the lamenting of poetry as an “endangered species.” But as someone who writes about poetry for a living, I know what a tough sell it is.  Despite the national drumbeating for “Poetry Month,” we live in a world where long, slow thoughts are disappearing.

What do you think?  What is the future for us who like to spend our days chewing the end of a pen and having long thoughts?

We’ll be living in small ghettos, far from where celebrities dwell, and yet in every generation there will be a new delivery of minds that will love long and slow thoughts and books and poetry and music, so that these rather pleasant ghettos will never perish–and one day may even stir more excitement than we’re used to now.

You wrote that Erbarme Dich is the heart of civilization. Comment?

Bach represents the center and the synthesis of the western music. To say, as I did, that this particular aria is the center of western music is a leap of faith, of course. I couldn’t prove it. I love this aria.

Read the rest at the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

And for Adam … the “Erbarme Dich.


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