21 December 2012 Adam Zagajewski about poetry

We encourage you to read the text of the speech delivered by Adam Zagajewski on the occasion of receiving the title of doctor honoris causa of Jagiellonian University on the 14th of December 2012.

Adam Zagajewski

Like a prodigal son

(A speech delivered during the honoris causa doctorate awarding ceremony)

Honours shouldn’t be bestowed upon poets. Not because their heads will become too large for their hats – I think they are generally too reasonable for this – but because a poet, even if he is a quite educated man and lives a peaceful and orderly middle-class life, should remain a simple ordinary man who is not protected by cases of titles and distinctions, should be open to the inconveniences of life, to the dangers, discomfort or even slanders (which will not be spared him by the youngest poets, who are always satisfied whenever an opportunity to attack arises). He must remain an Everyman, an ordinary mortal – he must not turn into a VIP. VIP’s do not write poems. There is no poetry inside limousines. Cyclists and walkers see and feel the world much better than passengers of luxury cars do.

But since my university has decided to confer the title of doctor honoris causa upon me, protesting is not the right thing to do, so please let me express my warmest thanks to His Magnificence the Rector, the Jagiellonian University Senate, the Council of the Faculty of Polish Philology, the author of the beautiful laudation – Professor Anna Czabanowska-Wróbel and wonderful reviewers – Professor Anna Legeżyńska and Professor Jacek Łukasiewicz.

When I arrived in Krakow almost half a century ago as an unfledged youth in a graduation suit, shy and arrogant at the same time, Jagiellonian University was about to celebrate the 600th anniversary of its existence. At that time, I considered big numbers to be something unimaginable and, as a matter of fact, not very interesting. The arrival in Krakow meant something different to me: it was supposed to be a liberation from the provinciality of the Silesian town in which I grew up, the beginning of a new life among humanistic treasures, in the vicinity of theatres, galleries, philharmonics and bookshops, among houses and palaces marked by history.

I passed the entrance exam for psychology studies, but my dreams were different: I wanted to write, and my choice of psychology as a field of studies was a trick, because I assumed that I would find nothing useful for a poet or writer in academic textbooks. I did not want to study Polish philology – even though I considered myself to be a writer in spe, I preferred to engage in literature as a source of pleasure and freedom rather than a subject to be crammed during night pre-examination sessions. I had to pay a certain price for this: in those times (the 1960s) books on psychology were received from two different parts of the world, and there were both tedious Soviet speculations on the transformation of quantity into quality and definitely belated information concerning the American behaviourism or the Vienna Apocalypse by Freud. But the Krakow philosophy, which was topographically close to psychology (they were divided only by one floor and one ceiling), was influenced more heavily by the European tradition of phenomenology than by the omnipresent Marxism, which was a completely unique phenomenon in the Eastern bloc of those times.

So the whole story began with a trick; now, thanks to the generosity of the Faculty of Polish Philology and the Senate, I am returning to my Alma Mater, feeling slightly like a prodigal son.

A prodigal son, because I wandered across the world: I lived for some time in West Berlin and for quite a long time in Paris (although I always liked emphasising in the notes attached to my publications in Zeszyty Literackie – a quarterly which has existed for thirty years – that I was not living, but staying near Paris, because I felt it was a temporary address and that I belonged to the lucky generation that would return from emigration to their homeland). After some time, I also started lecturing at American universities, where, assuming the attitude which I today perceive as quite arrogant, I immediately took the position of someone who was to advise young American poets how to write poems and where I was always struck by the anthropological similarity of American students to the students I remembered from Krakow, as if Malopolska did not differ from California or Texas at all.

Let’s return to the Krakow of those years for a moment.

I met a few rather humorous persons there, such as this unbrilliant professor of psychology who already during his first lecture told us, the freshmen who had just arrived to Krakow, that there is no soul and God is a middle-class superstition; after proving his point, he closed his thick case and left the auditorium with a quick step, like a surgeon after a successful operation. And another lecturer, who specialised in a very deceptive field of the official political economy of capitalism and socialism, was famous for his relentless passion for collecting paintings by avant-garde Krakow artists... This did not conform to the interpretation of the supreme normative policy in those times, but proved that personal caprice and individualism do not vanish even in the dull context of the state system.

In those years, Krakow was a strange place, where you could meet both protagonists of the farce and protagonists of the drama; on the one hand, there were crowds of conformists ready to confirm everything that the party liked at a given moment, on the other hand, just two steps away from the place where we are now, there was Tygodnik Powszechny and its chief editor Jerzy Turowicz – one of the most unusual persons I have ever met. He was, indeed, unusual and brilliantly consistent. How much consistence and courage, calm or even phlegmatic courage, did he have to have to have to run the only independent newspaper in the Eastern empire for over fifty years? And he was helped by other outstanding persons, such as Jacek Woźniakowski – a great intellectualist and a hugely charming man, who died two weeks ago.

In the corridors of Collegium Novum, freshly promoted assistant professors met outstanding personages of Polish culture: Professor Roman Ingarden had already retired, but he still gave lectures in the Polish Philosophical Society from time to time, Kazimierz Wyka worked on new books and Jan Błoński charmed students with his lectures and his loud laughter. The persons I recollect with huge gratitude include: Antoni Kępiński, a famous psychiatrist, whom I did not know well, but other students of psychology and I liked attending his interesting lectures. I also recollect Danuta Gierulanka – a less famous, but extremely reliable person with a solid pre-war background. She conducted philosophy classes with students of psychology and seemed to be slightly lost in the communist reality. I also feel heavily indebted to Professor Władysław Stróżewski, who showed me what a university seminar could be – for example, a slow and laborious study of one sentence by Aristotle, which was so rich that during its analysis you forgot about the clock, the communist party, assistant professors and the seasons of the year.

Another person who has a fond place in my memory is Professor Jan Leszczyński. This reticent and radically introverted man always wore a green loden coat and passed stealthily like a shadow among the more athletic passers-by through the Old Town streets, but people knew that he had been a good friend and correspondent of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz and the splendour of this friendship lightened the small figure of the old philosopher.

The old age and the continuity of tradition was a huge advantage of the university. Universities are like trees – the older they are, the more beautiful they become. That’s why even in the lean years we were warmed in a certain way by the resources of ideas and emotions that had been accumulated during past epochs in books, in memories, in models of gentle behaviours and in faces looking at us from old portraits. And it was also the reason why in March 1968, when the party showed its disgusting anti-Semitic attitude, the rage of students, unlike at Nanterre or at Berkeley, was directed not at the university, but on the false authority of the all-powerful state.

The university was not separated from other fields of culture by any fireproof barrier. And those lean years, the years of the People’s Republic of Poland and vicious totalitarianism, years of economic disasters and belt-tightening and a period of moral bankruptcy of a certain leftist idea were not so lean for poetry, the essay, music, theatre, film and painting. What happened, was completely opposite – due to the creative breath of the unique paradox of artistry, which often feeds on obstacles and prohibitions and destroys or weakens them, the same years that were so difficult for all institutions, for the economy and for people trying to think and act independently, became a period of the unusual flourishing of art in its various forms.

I knew something about that even as a secondary school student: One morning in my secondary school in Gliwice, I was lucky to listen to the then young Zbigniew Herbert during his meeting with students, when he read his poems and fragments of his recently published work The Barbarian in the Garden. His texts and his manner of speaking enchanted me, the young barbarian who had read T. S. Eliot and Rilke rather than Polish contemporary authors until then. Wisława Szymborska was the first editor of poetry (in the Życie Literackie magazine) across whom I came as a nervous beginner holding a bunch of typescripts in his hand – this is how our long acquaintance and friendship began. And Czesław Miłosz, who was carefully hidden from the Polish audience (so carefully that he actually thought that he had only five readers in the whole world)? As soon as I understood who this mysterious author was, I went to the dean of my faculty (“These words are addressed to you, my dean...”) and I lied that I was preparing a paper about a Californian poet. Actually, this wasn’t really a lie, because I wrote many papers on his works in later years, but I couldn’t know this at that time. Thanks to the permission from the Dean, I could read books by Miłosz marked with the meaningful symbol “Res” (reserve) in the professor’s reading room in the Jagiellonian Library. I wasn’t allowed to carry them out of the library building, but that didn’t matter to me. I read them without any reservation. I took this opportunity to gain preliminary knowledge of the thought and language of the great poet. (“I will try, my dean”). The University helped me to do so – and my little and actually quite innocent trick was a useful contribution, as well.

I don’t know if I realised the importance of this shadow cabinet which was actually formed by poets in the communist state, even though they didn’t want to take power over from the coarse dignitaries. This Norwid-like contrast between the actual political system, which had a seemingly endless number of means of coercion at its disposal, and a group of neurotic poets (here I recall the favourite thin yellow pens of Zbigniew Herbert and his delicate handwriting, or the equally delicate, lacelike handwriting of Wisława Szymborska, which decorated envelopes in which she sent her collages to friends) should have actually destroyed any hope of change. And hardly anyone believed in rapid changes in those times. But, after all those years, it turned out that the power of the powerless had finally overcome the power of the powerful. I’m not saying that it was the poets who defeated that system; this would be ridiculous. However, they ultimately helped to create a symbolic and intellectual alternative to the oppressive system of total and inefficient power.

I often think about it when I’m in the United States and I admire the fact that this huge and pragmatic country attaches such great importance to the medieval idea of liberal education or artes liberals –humanistic education focused on liberated arts that are to liberate a free man within us and to help us gain an understanding of the world. Whenever I’m in Hyde Park – the district of Chicago in which the University of Chicago is located, I note the omnipresence of The Republic by Plato – this Socratic dialogue in which all of the most important matters are discussed. I think that The Republic is the most conspicuous book there... I see it on tables of cafes and on stands in the Regenstein Library. And the Great Books program is still alive there. Infantile struggles for the change of the elementary reading list seem to have ended, and old huge books are still engaged in a dialogue with very young people.

And this happens at the same university where Enrico Fermi built the first nuclear reactor in the underground laboratory located under the football stadium. Socrates and Fermi: it is, indeed, an interesting combination of humanistic knowledge and the freedom of asking basic, even naive questions (without expecting to find a satisfactory answer) on the one hand and modern physics on the other hand. (At this moment, let me put the reflection on complicated and tragic consequences of Fermi’s discoveries aside ...)

That’s why I’m worried about the tendency that I’m observing in all of Europe: the tendency to educate professionals as quickly as possible, so that they could put on their overalls and start working immediately after passing the last exam, without knowing anything about Plato, music or poetry. Consequently, in view of the weakness of a secondary general education, the new intellectuals lack points of reference, the intellectual space and imagination and may become an easy target for demagogy. And they may also prefer TV series to liberated arts.

By contrast, in the USA we can sometimes hear about young magnates of the computer industry, inhabitants of the Silicon Valley, who translate poems by Sappho from Greek for entertainment during the evenings, because they obtained a solid classical education in college. Of course, I realise that not everybody may spend time like that, I don’t want to paint an excessively idyllic picture...

I grew up in a house with lots of books, even though few of them survived the general removal from Lviv to Silesia (a week-long journey by cargo train along the route that a good fast train would cover within seven hours, not days): among them there were scientific technical dissertations, in which my father specialised as an engineer and professor, and huge quantities of Polish novels and novels translated from other languages. There were also collected works of our 19th-century prophets, which seemed to be present in all intellectual’s houses, although they may not have been studied carefully there. What the book collection of my parents lacked, were small poetry volumes; there were some thick volumes of selected poems by Gałczyński or Tuwim – the prophets of the 1950s who were selectively favoured by the contemporary cultural policy, but works such as Rescue by Czesław Miłosz or poets such as Różewicz, Szymborska, Białoszewski, Herbert, Grochowiak, Świrszczyńska or Poświatowska were absent. There were no small poetry volumes at all – those poor thin little books, impoverished cousins of sizeable volumes of novels or memoirs. Those thick volumes were used for very practical purposes: not only were they a source of knowledge about the history of families and nations and about nights and days of our compatriots, but they could also be used for supporting a swaying table or as a base for an insecure lamp. Small poetry volumes couldn’t support a table or a lamp; they could serve only one purpose: it was in them, or at least in some of them, that the Polish language lived more intensely than elsewhere; it thought, experimented, found new words, new lands and new metaphors and opened unexpected perspectives.

When we’re very young, we often experience the Faustian desire (after all, Faust was said to be a student of the Krakow Academy!) to know everything. Later we moderate our appetites and slowly begin to understand that this legendary “everything”, which we will never manage to grasp in its majestic entirety, resides in a separate partial field of knowledge rather than in some global absorption of knowledge or desire for knowledge. We also begin to understand that this limitation does not mean impoverishment; to put it metaphorically, each of the liberated arts can offer us access to a larger whole, as in the case of a distant star at which we can look through different telescopes.

For me, it was poetry – the same poetry with which the old Plato argued – that became such a telescope. Again, even here, there were divisions and evolutions inside poetry perceived as a field of art and as a perception of the actual nature of reality. At the beginning, I was a true follower of the New Wave movement – the critical and angry idea which understood that someone who was born in a state of falsehood and oppression must start with an intelligent rebellion – at least in order to regain self-confidence and confidence in the language being used. And the aim was also to provide even the smallest support to our fellows, co-prisoners of deceit. Writing “New Wave” poetry, I had an opportunity to meet and establish lifetime friendships with a number of excellent poets, such as: Stanisław Barańczak, Ryszard Krynicki, Ewa Lipska, Julian Kornhauser or Jerzy Kronhold. However, after some time – like a wanderer who gradually discovers new views and summits when walking through a mountain range – the poet begins to understand that the essence of poetry lies not in rebellion, but in the love of the world and people, and its task is to look for brightness and to show everlasting respect for the mystery which is stronger than we are, which dictates words to us and which does not shine for one generation only – like a star that never goes out.

Pic. Michał Sosna