on Slight Exaggeration, an essay by Adam Zagajewski, tr. by Clare Cavanaugh (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

One day in the late 1990’s while teaching in Houston, Adam Zagajewski received a call from his friend Czeslaw Milosz in Berkeley. Milosz was then in his mid-80’s. Zagajewski remembers, “I heard sorrow, deep melancholy in his voice … Finally he asked me, Adam, please tell me honestly, have I ever in my life written a single good poem?” This recollection appears toward the end of Zagajewski’s extended essay Slight Exaggeration many pages after he has voiced several doubts of his own such as, “I don’t know how my fellow poets live but I know perfectly well that I don’t usually believe in my own poems.”

Zag_Color.jpegBut with Zagajewski, there is usually a countervailing point he asks us to consider. “Talking about one’s flaws is a highly risky literary venture,” he wrote in an earlier essay, “because we begin to try to exploit it for ourselves and brag about this or that weakness.”

Alternating perspectives and persistent worries are undertaken as part of “the struggle to maintain the tension of the inner life” – that is, not just the enhancement of one’s sensibilities but the inciting of tension between conflicting urges, notions, demands and preferences. He has written continuously through the years about this essential agitation. In A Defense of Ardor he said, “A strong poetic talent produces two contradictory phenomena. It suggests, on the one hand, intense participation in the life of your age, plunging into it up top your neck, an obsessive experiencing of actuality. It leads, on the other hand, to a certain kind of alienation, distance, absence. It is ceaseless interplay of proximity and distance” (“Beginning to Remember”).

In Zagajewski’s work, distance from the intrusions of history usually entails the consideration of mystery, astonishment, and ineffability. Style is shaped by the swing between the seen and the desired, “a ceaseless dialogue between two spheres, the spiritual realm whose guardians and creators are the dead (like Virgil in The Divine Comedy) and the domain of eternal praesens, our single, precious moment” (“The Shabby and the Sublime”).

Zag_Cover.jpgFirst published in Poland in 2011, Slight Exaggeration returns to many of his most ardor- and angst-inducing topics featuring his unmistakable preoccupation with the “doubleness in the world’s nature” – clarity versus confusion, freedom encountering constraint, history challenged by eternity, music floating above artillery, confidence corroded by doubt, dreams overcoming the world, then the world’s resurgence. Eastern European writers have been particularly effective in showing the rest of us how the enigma of our lives hides behind political and moral certainty. What is required of a poet to stand between resonating opposites? To withstand and/or accommodate certain pressures? These are classic questions, especially pertinent for poets who traffic almost exclusively in displaying the purity of their values.

The memoirish segments of Slight Exaggeration touch on his family and their forced removal to Gliwice during his childhood. Although he doesn't self-identify as a refugee, Zagajewski draws on the story of his family's demise in a way that connects directly to the new poems of exile and refuge by American poets. He recalls the "pauperization hastened by failed uprisings, and the subsequent confiscations, which meant that they lost everything and joined the ranks of the intelligentsia, of underpaid teachers, clerks, judges, doctors. Displaced for so long that no one could track down the beginnings. Displaced from displacement, always nostalgically looking back to the most recent incarnation of their perpetual displacement."

He says, “A Gestapo officer no doubt occupied the room in which I now write,” a room in Krakow. He learned from Cavafy that “being conquered is better than conquering. He spoils the victors’ pleasure, ruins their mood … Cavafy was a poet of defeat; he discovered many shades of pleasurable melancholy in painting the psychology of failure and the relativization of loss.” Zagajewski cites more than two dozen writers along the way, from Valéry, Proust, Pound, and Mann to Benn, Gombrowicz, Seferis and Brodsky. In Mandelstam he finds a model: “{T}he Acmeists succeeded in fusing precise – sometimes even affectionate – attention to modernity with a patient search for the spiritual vitamins that the new reality lacked. Mandelstam’s chosen perspective and place still retain their value today.”

Zag_Window.jpgThere are also humor and elation in this essay – recalling the sudden pleasure taken in looking out at the world through a window in an art museum, a poem by Gilbert Lely with its indelible phrase “the unexpressed requires long resistance,” the sky over Paris and the reading of novels in the Metro’s darkness, and the effect of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. Perhaps I have given too much emphasis to Zagajewski’s contraries: this book is full of affectionately drawn scenes, all pulsing with need and tinted by the aftermath of rapture.

“A person is a poet if his imagination is stimulated by the difficulties in his art,” said Paul Valéry, “and not if his imagination dulled by them.” Zagajewski is such a poet by long practice and Slight Exaggeration is mainly his book of vocational ordeal. He argues with and then accepts Kafka’s belief that “in the duel with the world you should always take the world’s part.” He offers much guidance to younger poets:

The silence that precedes the poem may be intoxicating, it may seize the world’s wholeness more completely than the poem that emerges later. But it can be a moment of great despair. Writing a poem (if only a few lines – a whole poem seldom comes of a single séance) is linked with a certain loss, and also grief, since the well of silence must be abandoned. And that’s the great problem facing anyone who writes, who tries to write poems. Only when the sad weeks of true, mute silence begin, when you can’t write, do you begin to understand that only this first silence, which fosters poems, is happiness, while the other, empty silence can be a curse.

ZagArrow.jpgIt was his father, a professor of engineering and a voracious reader of memoirs, who “expressed his views on poetry so perfectly, so completely, really, his views on the whole strange world that had swallowed up his son. A slight exaggeration. That’s what engineers think of poetry.” But even the son, in his self-assessments, asks each time he writes a poem if the outcome is no more than “deft pretense” in light of the demands of his profession:

“Every quest for clarity, radiance, must proceed through full consciousness of what constrains us … Precisely the endless battle between heaviness, suffering, and illumination, elevation, forms art’s essence.”

[Published April 4, 2017. 285 pages, $26.00 hardcover]