WARSAW – Adam Zagajewski, the celebrated Polish poet whose melancholy reflections on the erosion of the world came to express an unfathomable moment of shock and loss after the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., has died in Krakow. He was 75.
Zagajewski’s death on Sunday, which was UNESCO’s World Poetry Day, was confirmed by publisher Krystyna Krynicka of the a5 publishing house. No cause of death was given.
Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” was written well before the attacks, but took on new and historic meaning because of them. Translated into English by Clare Cavanaugh and published in The New Yorker just days after the 2001 tragedy, the poem was a tender look back at happier moments and an acknowledgement of the world’s ongoing cruelties.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Zagajewski used to say that what interested him the most was the intertwining of the “historic world with the cosmic world that is static, or rather moves in a totally different rhythm.”
“These worlds fight but also complete each other — and that is really worthy of deep reflection,” he said in an interview.
He taught poetry workshops at Krakow’s Jagiellonian University, as well as creative writing at the University of Houston. He was also a faculty member at the University of Chicago.
Media in Sweden said he was repeatedly mentioned among candidates for the Nobel Prize in literature.
Writers worldwide praised Zagajewski.
The Pulitzer Prize winning poet Jorie Graham tweeted “Dear voyager & voice for the ages. We will not stop listening to you. You are forever here.”
Salman Rushdie tweeted “Rest, poet. Your work will live.”
In Poland, Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk said that students “adored him because he was especially gifted for poetry, he knew how to talk about it.” She said he would read verse with “special, ceremonial intonation that is due only to poetry.”
Zagajewski was a leading figure in Poland’s New Wave, or Generation ’68, literary movement of the late 1960s that called for a simple language to relate directly to reality. It was a reaction to pompous poetry praising life under the communist system.
Zagajewski and fellow-poet Julian Kornhauser authored a book that became the movement’s manifesto. Kornahuser’s daughter, Agata Kornhauser-Duda, is now Poland’s first lady.
Zagajewski’s works were banned in 1975 by Poland’s communist authorities of the time after he signed a protest by 59 intellectuals against ideological changes to the Polish Constitution that pledged unbreakable alliance with the Soviet Union and the leading role of the Communist Party. He emigrated to Paris in 1982, but returned to Poland in 2002 and lived in Krakow.
Zagajewski was born in June 1945 in Lwow, now Lviv in Ukraine. That same year his family had to move west, to central Poland, as borders were shifted following World War II and the city became part of the Soviet Union. A reflection on the family’s loss of homeland can be found in his works. He studied psychology and philosophy at Jagiellonian University.
His poetry collections included “Unseen Hand,” “Mysticism for Beginners” and “Asymmetry.” He won many literary awards, including the 2004 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, considered a forerunner to the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the 2017 Princess of Asturias Award, the Spanish-speaking world’s top humanities award.
He was awarded a number of Polish state distinctions and France’s Legion of Honor in 2016.
Hillel Italie contributed to this report from New York.