Adam Zagajewski reads from his poems “Now That You’ve Lost Your Memory” and “Piano Lesson.”
“Adam Zagajewski’s poems are fun to read—his mind has dance moves that whirl or glide between the tender and the ironic, outrage and laughter,” says three-time U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky. “His sense of actual, ordinary human life in its large, historical setting is unmatched.”
The internationally renowned Polish poet joins award-winning poet David Ferry, the Sophie Chantal Hart Professor Emeritus of English at Wellesley College and a College of Arts & Sciences lecturer in creative writing, and Valerie Duff (GRS’96) (right) for a reading and book signing at the University’s Robert Lowell Memorial Lecture tonight, September 15, at 7:30 p.m. at the School of Management building.
Zagajewski’s recent books include Eternal Enemies and Without End: New and Selected Poems. A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, he teaches at the University of Chicago.
The semiannual lecture, which traditionally includes a faculty member and an alum of the GRS Creative Writing Program, honors American poet Robert Lowell, who taught such luminaries as Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath here in the 1950s.
Pinsky, a CAS English professor, describes Ferry’s poems as “essential parts of an evolving, lifelong work of imagination, at the highest level.” And he calls Valerie Duff’s recently published collection of poems To the New World “a first book of musicality, candor, and invention.”
Zagajewski is perhaps best known to American audiences for his poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” which appeared in the New Yorker in the aftermath of 9/11. The poem begins:
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
BU Today recently spoke with Zagajewski about his work.
BU Today: You are one of Poland’s most famous poets, but you’ve lived in exile much of your life. How has that shaped your work?
Zagajewski: It’s hard to say. The obvious answer would that living abroad somehow makes you consider a more contemplative kind of writing. Because there is less immediacy in your new place, you observe the empirical life of your new country as if through a thick glass—voices are muffled, you tend to contemplate what’s more universal.
Some have called you a ‘confessional’ poet, in the tradition of Robert Lowell. Do you agree?
I don’t think I can be called a confessional poet, though certainly I gingerly move in this direction—if only by virtue of having written several self-portraits. But even these self-portraits are not, in my view, completely confessional. They play with the idea of “I’ll tell you everything,” and never really do. I’m too discreet to be confessional.
Many of your poems involve themes of history, time, the past. What about those subjects interests you as a poet?
These themes have, for a long time, penetrated my life, simply as a result of living in a rather hot corner of Europe—in a totalitarian country—and also as a consequence of reading Polish poets of the generation above me. I think I try to meditate on these things to take away from them the painful sting of history, to make them innocent (which they never were), to humanize them, to teach them how to sing, to make them livable, to survive.
You write in Polish, your work then translated into other languages. Are there subtleties lost in the process?
Yes, there are. Luckily, I can’t say exactly which ones. I rarely understand all the subtleties in the translation…almost automatically, a good translator…creates new subtleties in the new language. Also, it seems to me that my poems operate mostly through movement of images. Images are translatable, not perfectly so, but to a large extent.
Was “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” published in the aftermath of 9/11, inspired by the events of that day?
No, this poem was written more than a year and a half before September 11. I recall having written the first line while traveling on a train somewhere in Poland or in Germany. And the mutilated world was, for me, the world of my childhood. I thought, if I remember correctly, of the paradox: my childhood presents itself in my memory (any shrink would contest it, of course) as rather idyllic, and yet the world in which I grew up wasn’t very happy, to say the least.
The Robert Lowell Memorial Lecture is tonight, September 15, at 7:30 p.m. at the SMG building, 595 Commonwealth Ave., fourth floor; it is free and open to the public. A reception and book signing follow.
The Robert Lowell Memorial Lectures are funded by Nancy Livingston (COM’69) and her husband, Fred M. Levin, through the Shenson Foundation, in memory of Ben and A. Jess Shenson.
John O’Rourke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.