Adam Zagajewski: The Poet of 9/11

People spray-paint stencil signs on the ground in memory of those lost in the September 11 attack. Larry Towell / Magnum

A week after the collapse of the Twin Towers, The New Yorker ran Polish poet Adam Zagajewski's "Try to Praise the Mutilated World" on the final page of its special 9/11 issue. Written a year and a half before the attacks, the poem nevertheless quickly became the most memorable verse statement on the tragedy, and arguably the best-known poem of the last 10 years. "You've seen the refugees going nowhere," Zagajewski wrote. "You've heard the executioners sing joyfully./ You should praise the mutilated world." A critic, writing in The New York Times Book Review in December 2001, lightly mocked its appeal, "as if America were entering the nightmare of history for the first time and only a Polish poet could show us the way."

Now 66, Zagajewski is the leading poet of the Polish generation that followed Zbigniew Herbert, Czeslaw Milosz, and Wislawa Szymborska. Milosz called his cohorts "the poets of ruin," forced to grapple with Poland's bloody 20th century. Zagajewski fits this description as well. He was an infant when his family was loaded onto cattle cars and deported from their home in Lwów, to be relocated by Stalin to the Soviet Union. "There was too much of Lwów, and now there isn't any," Zagajewski wrote in one of his signature poems from the 1980s, "To Go to Lwów." Zagajewski today lives in Kraków, home to Nobel laureates Szymborska and, until his death in 2004, Milosz. Zagajewski himself figures in Nobel speculation most years.

Polish poets have long thought of themselves as national bards, called to engage with the harsh world around them. "Polish poetry is one of the marvels of 20th-century literature," wrote former U.S. poet laureate Charles Simic, who cited its "one rare virtue: it is very readable in a time when modernist experiments made a lot of poetry written elsewhere difficult." Zagajewski says some critics see "something barbarian" in Polish poetry's emphasis on meaning over syntax or style. "I've heard some French poets say Polish poetry is just journalism, because you can understand it."

Zagajewski, who often purrs his words and speaks slowly, rejects any suggestion that trauma ennobles Poland or any society. Yet thinking of 9/11 and further back, he notes a change in our response to trauma. In "the past in general and not only in Europe," he says, "the rule was to forget, to move on. There's a relatively new idea that you have to work on it—that you have to keep everything in our memory. Which I like. It's changing us. I don't think people in the mid–19th century were going back to the Napoleonic wars and thinking, 'We have to work on it.'?"

The horrors foremost in the poet's memory are the Holocaust and Stalin's purges and Gulag Archipelago—more so than 9/11, which he says didn't fundamentally change his worldview. Zagajewski often harks back to Europe's haunted past. To walk through Kraków, as he writes in his newest collection, Unseen Hand, is "to hear footsteps in the evening—and see no one"—a reference to the 3 million Polish Jews killed in the Second World War.

"Try to Praise the Mutilated World" recalls a trip Zagajewski took with his father through Ukrainian villages in Poland forcibly abandoned in the population transfers of the post-Yalta years. "This was one of the strongest impressions I ever had," he says. "There were these empty villages with some apple trees going wild. And I saw the villages became prey to nettles; nettles were everywhere. There were these broken houses. It became in my memory this mutilated world, these villages, and at the same time they were beautiful. It was in the summer, beautiful weather. It's something that I reacted to, this contest between beauty and disaster."

In Zagajewski's poetry, cruelty mingles with humor, optimism, and a keen appreciation of nature. "Well, why not," he says. "You write a poem. You are alive. You don't want to be a humorless person. I think that when you write poems you aspire to something whole that's bigger than simply lament. In poetry I think you try to reconstruct what's humanity. Humanity is always a mix of crying and laughing."

Since the late '80s, Zagajewski has split his time between Europe and America. These days he teaches literature at the University of Chicago. He sounds pessimistic about Europe and finds the vibrancy of American life, literary and otherwise, alluring. "I would still rather live in Europe, but I feel this lack of energy," he says. "Here [in the U.S.] people have a fuller life, in terms of being ready to take risks. Even the fact that America is waging wars. It's not a political [statement], but anthropologically speaking, there's a fullness of life. In Europe you have a feeling that history is over. Europe is this wonderful museum."

In his recent work, Zagajewski has turned noticeably inward. Perhaps that's a symptom of age, or a response to the rise of a boring, almost normal Poland. This shift hasn't been fertile ground for artists who in the communist years had grown accustomed to being, in Zagajewski's words, "a special antigovernment force." Many of his friends, he says, found the "move from a freedom fighter to a marginal figure of an artist" difficult. For his part, Zagajewski notes wryly that "I cherish the free democratic country so much that I agree to pay this price."

The poet continues to publish prolifically, including Unseen Hand, which came out in translation this summer. The collection strikes wistful notes for the passage of time and the death of his father and mother. In "About My Mother," Zagajewski writes, "I could never say anything about my mother:/ how she repeated, you'll regret it one day,/ when I'm not around anymore, and how I didn't believe/ in either 'I'm not' or 'anymore,' ... how she forgave it all/ and how I remember that, and how I flew from Houston/ to her funeral and couldn't say anything/ and still can't." Zagajewski says he finds "something new, more tenderness" in his response to personal trauma. "These are typical subjects for American poets," he says. "I am becoming, in a way, a more American poet."