In his 1942 poem “Of Modern Poetry,” Wallace Stevens offers seemingly contradictory claims about what modern poetry should or, in Stevens’s stronger phrasing, “has to” do. First, Stevens asserts that modern poetry “has to be living, to learn the speech of the place. / It has to face the men of the time and to meet / The women of the time.” Karl Barth is supposed to have said that the Christian must preach with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Stevens appears to be making a similar claim here on behalf of poetry: modern poetry must come from, and speak to, the time. It must concern itself with historical particularity, with the concrete and the contingent.
Later in the poem, though, Stevens tacks in a new direction, describing the modern poet as “a metaphysician in the dark.” What a lovely, resonant phrase. The poet is “in the dark” because the old ways of understanding existence—including, for Stevens, orthodox Christianity—no longer seem viable. And yet, despite this, the modern poet must continue to explore fundamental questions—groping in the dark, perhaps tripping herself up, but trying nonetheless. If modern poetry has to face history, then it also has to face that which exceeds history. If it has to be living, then it also has to explore the very conditions—temporality, materiality, being as such—that enable life.
Few recent poets have more perfectly fulfilled these twin demands than the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski. On September 24, 2001, mere weeks after 9/11, he published a poem in the New Yorker titled “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.” In it, he acknowledges the pain and violence of the moment (“You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere, / you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully”) while also exhorting the reader to “[r]emember June’s long days, / and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.” Indeed, in his four-decade-long career, Zagajewski’s poems have regularly addressed history. “Referendum,” for instance, takes as its starting point Ukraine’s 1991 vote on independence, while “To Go to Lvov” concerns the loss experienced by the Zagajewski family—and an entire generation—after the Soviets forcibly relocated them to central Poland in 1946. (Zagajewski was born in 1945 and so has no memory of the move from Lvov, though it has shaped much of his life.)
Yet Zagajewski’s poems just as regularly pivot from the historical to the metaphysical—to what simultaneously emerges from and transcends the particular moment. In one poem, the Catholic Zagajewski defiantly addresses that antiquated figure, the soul: “We know—or at least we’ve been told—that you do not exist at all, anywhere. / And yet we still keep hearing your weary voice / —in an echo, a complaint, in the letters we receive / from Antigone in the Greek desert.” In another poem, titled “A Flame,” he implores God, “Give us astonishment / and a flame, high, bright.” In his poem “From Memory,” Zagajewski describes how he “lived in two idioms”—a perfect distillation of the balancing of the profane and the sacred, the historical and the metaphysical, that his poems everywhere exhibit.