Adam Zagajewski: Poland's unassuming 'poet of 9/11'

·3-min read
Polish poet Adam Zagajewski was known for his work focused on the September 11 terrorist attack on the US

Poland's Adam Zagajewski, who died aged 75 in the southern Polish city of Krakow on Sunday, was known for poems and essays laced with history and humour and for his shyness.

With bushy eyebrows and warm eyes, he was a man of few words despite being well-versed in English, French, German and his native Polish.

Henryk Wozniakowski, head of Poland's respected Znak publishing house, once described him as a man of "subtle" intelligence and humour who was "also shy, just like the late Wislawa Szymborska, another Krakow poet and the 1996 Nobel literature laureate."

Zagajewski divided his time between Poland and the United States, where he taught literature at the University of Chicago and is known as "the poet of 9/11".

He earned the moniker after the New Yorker magazine selected one of his poems -- "Try to Praise the Mutilated World" -- for the final page of its special issue on the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

"You've seen the refugees going nowhere,/ you've heard the executioners sing joyfully," reads the poem he wrote months before the Twin Towers fell.

"You should praise the mutilated world."

- Strange cities and strangers -

Zagajewski was born on June 21, 1945 in Lviv, not long before the Polish city became a part of Ukraine and his family was forced to relocate to Poland's Silesia region.

He later moved to Krakow, Poland's southern cultural capital, where he studied psychology and philosophy at Jagiellonian University.

He was a prominent member of the Polish New Wave literary movement, inspired by the post-war communist regime's brutal suppression of a wave of student protests across Poland in March 1968.

The communists encouraged writers to give readings to blue-collar workers and Zagajewski dutifully complied at the start of his career.

But by 1975, he had joined fellow intellectuals to protest against the regime's decision to inscribe Poland's "eternal alliance" with the Soviet Union in the country's constitution. That got him blacklisted.

Yet it did not stop him from writing.

He composed unrhymed poems that spanned topics from human emotions to urban landscapes and called to mind the works of Hegel or Kierkegaard.

His popularity grew.

"He fought against communism but is mainly a philosopher," his French translator Laurence Dyevre told AFP.

Zagajewski moved to Paris in 1982, soon after Poland's last communist leader, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, tried to strangle Solidarity, the Soviet bloc's first free trade union with a brutal military crackdown.

"I live in strange cities and sometimes talk/ with strangers about matters strange to me," Zagajewski wrote in "Self-Portrait", a poem published while he was living in France.

"I like to take long walks on Paris streets/ and watch my fellow creatures, quickened by envy,/ anger, desire."

By the time he returned to Krakow in 2002, he had earned several awards and honours, including the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Prix de la Liberte and a Guggenheim Fellowship.


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