Polish poet and essayist Adam Zagajewski to read today

BY BRIAN DAU | APRIL 16, 2009 7:38 AM

Polish poet and essayist Adam Zagajewski isn’t afraid to tackle the big issues. His work encompasses a variety of complex topics, including vast landscapes, long passages of time, and the meaning of life. It’s ambitious, certainly, but he believes these are issues that can be approached in small, more easily understood increments.

“I think that the main subject for many poets, not just for myself, is a kind of probing of the meaning of our life,” Zagajewski, 63, wrote in an e-mail. “It doesn’t mean that you have to ask this question directly, no, but you do it in many oblique ways.”

He will read at 8 p.m. today in the Frank Conroy Reading Room of the Dey House. Admission is free. He said he will read from his latest collection of poetry, 2008’s Eternal Enemies, as well as “a little” from 2002’s Without End: New and Selected Poems and some of his unpublished poems.

Born in 1945 in Lviv, Poland — a city now in Ukraine — Zagajewski has lived in Berlin, Paris, and Houston, among other cities. Although he has lived in lands of various languages, he continues to write almost exclusively in Polish.

“I don’t write poems in English,” he said. “I do sometimes write essays in English. As far as poems are concerned, I never quit my native language. It would be very difficult for me to write poems in English; I’d lack the absolute certainty of the linguistic gesture.”

Five books of his poetry have been translated into English, beginning with 1985’s Canvas and continuing through Eternal Enemies, as well as three collections of his essays. He has considerably more writings in Polish, going back to 1972’s Komunikat. Although in his native land he is counted among the popular “New Wave” of Polish writers, he is perhaps best known in the United States for his poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” which appeared in The New Yorker just weeks after the 9/11 attacks.

Zagajewski said he is working on a new collection of poems and continuing to write a collection of essays that are to function as a “poet’s journal.”

He doesn’t seem to find any overarching themes in his work; instead, he believes in the power of the poet’s voice to string together the various ideas and images explored in the work.

“I don’t think there’s any particular theme binding all these poems together,” he said. “It seems to me that the “I” of the poet and the “eye” of the poet are like a lens that keeps all the different themes and motifs of the poems together.”

And poetry’s function in society? Zagajewski’s reverence for the medium is clear.

“I think poetry appeals to our sense of mystery, to the irrational part of our self,” he said. “No amount of science would ever fill the precipice of amazement we carry with us. We have so many questions, so few answers. What compels me to write? Moments of astonishment, moments of joy, the need to clarify and record these experiences.”

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