Of the poets who have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature during the last quarter century or so, almost all of them are primarily concerned with history and the individual’s place within the historical swirl. Of these poets, a disproportionate number have been from Eastern Europe. This should come as no great surprise; the countries of Eastern Europe have both a long literary tradition and a more recent history of totalitarian oppression. It’s a place where the power and significance of words cannot be denied, ignored, or turned into some kind of ironic aside.
Adam Zagajewski has not (yet) won the Nobel. A Pole born at the end of World War II, he came of age before the collapse of the Wall and to maturity during the rebellions in Poland during the 1980s. Since the early 1990s he has split his time among Krakow, Paris, and various places in the United States where he has held teaching posts, usually for half a year. He writes about great cities where history and myth often clash with the concerns of daily life. Willing to confront large themes, he also has a keen eye for the tiny, luminous detail.
His most recent book in English takes its title, Eternal Enemies, from a poem written to celebrate marriage—”Only in marriage do love and time,/eternal enemies, join forces.” It’s hard to imagine an American poet comfortable with that emotion, that kind of statement, or that level of abstraction. Another poem, “The Greeks,” starts with a large historical and literary allusion, moves into the poet’s personal history of childhood under the dour and fearful presence of Stalin, and then ends on an ecstatic moment that sounds a little bit like William Carlos Williams at his most exuberant:
I would have liked to live among the Greeks,
talk with Sophocles’ disciples,
learn the rites of secret mysteries,
but when I was born the pockmarked
Georgian still lived and reigned,
with his grim henchmen and theories.
Those were years of memory and grief,
of sober talks and silence;
there was little joy—
although a few birds didn’t know this,
a few children and trees.
To wit, the apple tree on our street
blithely opened its white blooms
each April and burst
into ecstatic laughter.
We get very few chances to hear a poet who has this kind of energy, this range, and this courage before the ultimate questions. Adam Zagajewski reads at the U-M’s Rackham Amphitheater on Thursday, December 4.