Concerning The Accessibility of Adam Zagajewski’s Poetry

One of the many compliments regarding Adam Zagajewski’s poems is that they are accessible. Accessible means “able to be reached or entered,” according to the dictionary. While my fellow editors and I like this quality of/in Zagajewski’s poems, perhaps too much has been made of it by well-meaning critics/essayists, because surely there’s more to these poems than accessibility – in my opinion (ours, in fact): much more.

Here’s a piece easy to enter: “Roses are red/Violets are blue/Sugar is sweet/And so are you.” Fine. Nothing wrong with that. It leaves no room for misunderstanding or misinterpretation – but likewise, flipping the proverbial coin, no room for anything else – like extrapolation, rumination, doubt, whimsy, subtle exploration, evocation, insight or – the deepest of insights: epiphany. It also has nothing universal in it (that holy grail, the merits of which can be and have been, hotly argued, but not here, not now).

Of course, from a logician’s point of view, the fact that an utterly accessible poem MAY say little (actually, this ditty says something, I think), doesn’t mean that an inaccessible poem is profound. But this seems to be the trend these days (pardon that redundancy); ie, the nuttier the piece, the more likely it is to be hailed as genius. By “nutty,” I mean tossing words all over the place, with no regard (that I can fathom) to enjambment, no regard to justification. It’s as though many poets reason in this fashion: let’s funk (sic) things up with wild spacing, inverted syntax, let’s invent words (and I adore poetic license sparingly used), use obscure and sometimes very BIG words no one really knows (beyond an elite few), let’s write about the scent of apples and suddenly about aliens or a llama fallen down a large well, let’s use nothing but abstractions, tethering to anything real/tangible whatsoever, let’s run words together or artificially split them – let’s have no theme, no message – and voila! superior work, award-winning, in fact. (Yes, I know this sounds like sour grapes, or apples, but bear with me.) This is all in the name of , say, experimental poetry, in the name of trail-blazing, of contemporary foray, of experimentation or surrealism (and I do love surrealism) – finally – in the name of imagination. Seriously?

I don’t want to err in logic. Going backwards,… just because this “new” all-the-rage “poetry” is impenetrable to me, which means I can’t fish out a morsel of message, does NOT mean that a message necessarily lies in the accessible – that’s not axiomatic – a message beyond “You’re sweet. Just like sugar.” That needed saying, or perhaps not. My argument, obviously, is that the accessible CAN say something, say it well, say it beautifully, as in the case of Zagajewski’s poems.

It may be that my age is showing, but I don’t think that’s the case. Poetry – all writing – all art – is about communication, is it not? Even a painting of a humble flower or still life of fruit communicates, if not its beauty alone, something about the environment, the times. A photograph of a bird in flight conveys the beauty of the world, conveys, perhaps, a sense of freedom. A piece of music moves us (or should) to feel something. Why put pen to paper, (or, let’s say, tool to medium) only to confound? Of course, this implies that the maker of these works intends such, and that is an unfair leap. (Hard to believe, probably, but I am nothing if not a devil’s advocate.) Let’s say intent is not involved. Still, might it be fair to ask, even demand, that some sense be derived from what’s read – or to put it globally – perceived? I am not the most astute reader of poetry, but am also not a dolt. (Sure, this is self-assessment.)

The above diatribe is enough about what Zagajewski does NOT do. His work assiduously avoids the aforementioned pitfalls, as I see them – and him (his poetry). Two things, then: first, Zagajewski’s language is quotidian, simple; he doesn’t over-arch for impressing-sounding words (although the geographical names will be unfamiliar and exotic to us who have not been to cities and other places mentioned). The poems flow like fine, delicate, easy conversation. But, in my opinion, they actually SAY something (which includes implying, hinting, and other things), as opposed to nothing. One reads a phrase that sounds simple enough, but the whole line involves some gravitas – some meat, if you will – and then, a whole stanza, even moreso: an entire animal. And there is irony, subtlety, epiphany. There is a journey. And we enter the journey, walk it. This last is important, because there’s that word from the definition of accessible: enter.

We are extended a hand, invited into a world that is full of nuance, of, at times, strangeness, quirkiness, contradiction, a wrestle with the very nature of being human. As this is overly-long, I’ll simply close with a poem. You will see: Owls sing. Very simple, right? Refugees tread………rustling ……..not leaves. You will see. (There is a curious lack of question marks, perhaps intentional.) What really grabs me about this poem can be called only “perspective,” due to the last phrase. I especially like poems that question. This poem evinces Zagajewski’s usual detachment, but which springs from melancholy nicely rendered/tendered/controlled. One last thing: I believe in poetic device. In the poem, you will see a lot of off- (or slant-) rhyme and some true rhyme, and other device. I hope you enjoy this piece, and welcome comments.

Night Is a Cistern
– Adam Zagajewski

Owls sing. Refugees tread meadow roads
with the loud rustling of endless grief.
Who are you, walking in this worried crowd.
And who will you become, who will you be
when day returns, and ordinary greetings circle round.

Night is a cistern. The last pair dances at a country ball.
High waves cry from the sea, the wind rocks pines.
An unknown hand draws the dawn’s first stroke.
Lamps fade, a motor chokes.
Before us, life’s path, and instants of astronomy.

– Julie Kim Shavin


Jozef Czapski, The Forest Opera in Sopot

Jozef Czapski, The Forest Opera in Sopot, 1937

2 thoughts on “Concerning The Accessibility of Adam Zagajewski’s Poetry

  1. Hello Julie, I smile at your wit. 🙂 You mention “perspective.” Here, the writer delineates a delicate empathetic glimpse of life’s refugees all gathered within the grief-filled “cistern” of night, which the dawn is about to take into even higher gear. I’ve noticed that Zagajewski often references the night, and also barometers or other orienting devices in his poems. Here, he asks the question, who are you, and answers it indirectly with “instants of astronomy”: basically indicating the place of identity is marked by one’s placement along life’s path, although the image is not strictly linear, it’s more akin to floating at sea, looking for a guiding star.


  2. Hello Jillian,
    Thank you for your reply. It occurs to me that I didn’t even get into the business of cistern – that it holds water – and how that relates to the poem! But one can imagine: perhaps tears. Unstated: the dew of dawn. At first one doesn’t notice any water imagery. But perhaps it is FELT. Also felt would be – confinement. An entrapment. And yet the poem does not weep or wallow. Yes, he often references night – don’t you find it interesting that he asks, but as a statement? Instants of astronomy – you are right – but what gets me about this is that instants of astronomy – the big big picture – the universe – is …. minimized – in favor of the important thing: human life, within the astronomical nature of things – maybe there are two ways of reading this. I mean, instants – that’s so … to me, ironic. And he doesn’t say path, (comma), instants….he says path AND instants. I think that’s important. But I agree with what you’ve said. His imagination shows here – orienting oneself in this manner – but, again, as I read it – the human story/comedy at times/tragedy at others – is thrown into relief by what seems to me, a relegating of an enormous entity – the universe as we know it thus far, to the very human journey/story. And I think that both things we’ve said are possibly the intent of the poem, and not hard to flesh out – ie, the poem is accessible.


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