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Poets and Writers Have Power to Effect Change

Poets and Writers Have Power to Effect Change
Polish writer Adam Zagajewski (AP)

By Friday, 09 April 2021 09:53 AM Current | Bio | Archive

The death of Adam Zagajewski (1945-2021) has made me reflect anew on the power of poets and writers. America's most eminent 20th century conservative philosopher Russell Kirk called it "the sword of imagination." And what a mighty weapon it is.

Upon Zagajewski's demise, the U.S. corporate media pretty much repeated the standard encomia that their Polish liberal (am I being oxymoronic?) counterparts disseminated. To put things in their proper perspective, he was a very promising young poet in Poland.

In the 1970s Zagajewski became involved with the budding dissident movement; he even published an underground magazine. Persecuted, he emigrated to France. In Paris Poland's anti-Communist struggle remained his muse but he largely soared on his earlier reputation.

In the early 21st century Zagajewski relocated back to the Old Country. To escape irrelevance, he embraced the liberal and post-Communist powers-that-be who controlled the media and wielded their merciless dictatorship over culture.

In his last years, Zagajewski reduced himself largely to being their attack dog, in particular against the populist, center-left Law and Justice (PiS) government.

In that department he predictably matched other literary figures. Admittedly, he never sang peans to Stalin, the way that Nobel prize-winning Wisława Szymborska had — along with a hefty bevy of Polish men and women of letters. Very few refused to succumb and prostitute themselves in the 1940s and 1950s.

The most sublime of them, arguably, was Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998). A staunch anti-Communist, the poet preferred manual labor over bastardizing his pen to praise the Soviet dictator, or his native mignons ruling in Warsaw. We used to laugh that Herbert's Nobel Prize went to Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004), who was a lefty.

In the interwar period Miłosz attended high school and college in Wilno (now Vilnius) with my grandmother's eldest brother. They remained friendly until 1939 despite their political differences. I met the Nobel laureate at Berkeley (he even helped in our work with political prisoners via Amnesty International); but my younger sister, a literature student, dealt with him more directly.

Alas, the bard did not wish to revisit the old days. In particular, he did not appreciate the fact that most Polish emigres remembered his having joined the Communist diplomatic corps following the conquest of Poland by the Red Army in 1945.

He would defect later and, poignantly, write a book about poets and writers who collaborated with the Communists: The Captive Mind. At any rate, after the Cold War, Miłosz relocated to Cracow and, I'm happy to report, he read my books, in particular about the Wilno region.

Where would Zagajewski, Herbert, Miłosz, or any other be without literary scholars, translators, and popularizers? They would be among Poland's best kept secrets.

We used to joke that Slavic Departments in American universities were Soviet embassies. Russian literature's golden age was the 19th century, and its greatness served as a springboard for both Soviet propaganda and leftist fantasies that eventually erupted in the putrid cesspool of post-modernism, deconstruction, feminism, and social justice theory.

Yet if we ignore the purveyors of academic correctness in Slavic studies, we can still enjoy the great literature in its original, unadulterated form. Just ignore the lit-crit. Enjoy the books.

No matter what evil spirit of the times may afflict our academia, the likes of Pushkin, Chekhov, Gogol, and Dostoyevsky are universal. They forever belong in the Pantheon of poets and writers. Same goes for any other poets and writers, including Polish ones.

And the reason why North America knows about Polish poets and writers is chiefly because of a decentralized team of formidable ladies, inter alia, the brilliant Ewa Thompson of Rice University, who used to put out a cutting edge journal, The Sarmatian Review; the incisive Tamara Trojanowska of the University of Toronto; the intrepid Joanna Rostropowicz Clark of Princeton, and some others, like translator Clare Cavanaugh, for example. The ladies have carried the torch on their own largely; but there were also earlier giants before.

I would be amiss if I did not beat the drum of my late Columbia University Polish literature guru, Harold Segel (1930-2016). No one sang sweeter praise of Polish Renaissance poets and writers than he. And Harold did so in Polish, Latin, and English. Likewise, chapeau bas to late Professor of Polish Literature at Harvard, Wiktor Weintraub (1908-1988). We should also recall Columbia's Polish literary scholar Manfred Kridl (1882-1957), earlier at the Stefan Batory University of Wilno, who taught my grandparents there.

Everything passes, along with human folly, but great literature remains. Let's hope that Zagajewski will be remembered for his brooding "Try to Praise the Mutilated World."

You've seen the refugees going nowhere,/you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.

You should praise the mutilated world/Remember the moments when we were together

in a white room and the curtain fluttered.

Some relate to it through the prism of 9/11, but Zagajewski wrote the poem long before the tragedy. I sense homage to T.S. Elliot's "Wasteland." Non omnis moriar. RIP.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of statecraft in Washington D.C.; expert on East-Central Europe's Three Seas region; author, among others, of "Intermarium: The Land Between The Baltic and Black Seas." Read Marek Jan Chodakiewicz's Reports — More Here.

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MarekJanChodakiewicz
The death of Adam Zagajewski (1945-2021) has made me reflect anew on the power of poets and writers.
poets, writers
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2021-53-09
Friday, 09 April 2021 09:53 AM
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