There are some poets who, no matter how many great poems they write, are always associated with one particular work. That work becomes their signature, the poem that even non-poetry readers know them for. For Seamus Heaney, it was “Digging,” for Gwendolyn Brooks, it was “We Real Cool” (which is actually a work of virtuosic genius, but I digress), and for the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, it appears to be “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.”
Of course, “Try to Praise” did get more attention in the press than most poems do: following the September 11th attacks, The New Yorker printed this poem on the back cover of its next issue. The poem was then picked up by several other media outlets, all of them feeling, like The New Yorker, that it spoke to what America was feeling at the moment.
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
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.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
[Translated by Clare Cavanagh]
A few writers have commented on what appears to be a trend in Americans’ taste in poetry: after any major political shift or national disaster, Polish poetry becomes very popular. I won’t speculate on what others see in this nation’s poetry, but for me, one of the main things that draws me to Polish poets is their willingness to be dead serious about things that many people generally do not take seriously. Begin with the title of the poem: though some choose to believe that the world is pointlessly cruel and devoid of meaning, Zagajewski goes against that nihilistic grain by describing the world as “mutilated.” It’s a disturbing word, but in a way, it expresses hope too: a thing can’t be “mutilated” if it was not once whole, and if it was whole once, maybe it can be made whole again.
In addition to wholeness, another thing this poem wants is immutability. It seems poets are often distressed by the indifference of nature, wondering how there can be an ultimate good when their cries of pain are met by a planet that simply keeps turning. This speaker, on the other hand, turns that problem on its head: he tries to find solace in a world that is indifferent to human woes, and therefore unchanging: “The nettles that methodically overgrow / the abandoned homesteads of exiles.” Nettles, of course, don’t care about exiles or their homes. They exist only to keep growing, and grow they do. There is an order to their behavior and that behavior remains constant, no matter what happens to the speaker. Like the word “mutilated,” it’s a depressing scenario, but not entirely hopeless: whatever tragedies may befall mankind, at least they can’t keep the world from spinning or the plants from growing. Life can still go on.
One of Zagajewski’s great strengths as a poet is the incredible subtlety of his work, and there’s perfect example of it in this poem. While the speaker is encouraging his listener to think back to happier times, he tells the person to “Remember the moments when we were together / in a white room and the curtain fluttered.” Such a vague reference, and yet, so evocative of the sort of comfort that this speaker is hoping to get from the world.
It’s impossible to be sure what went on in that room. It appears that only the speaker and his listener really know. Maybe the speaker and listener are lovers and this was their bedroom? Or maybe it’s a dark, dreary sickroom brightened by the sudden intrusion of sunlight? In either case, the result is the same: these two people are suddenly reminded that there is a world outside of them. For the lovers, they get to wake up beside each other and find that their happiness will continue. For the sick person and his/her companion, the sun provides a brief distraction from their worries and fears. The sun causes a break in the private universes constructed by these people—whether those are universes of pleasure or of pain—and pushes the couple out toward a world that is even bigger than the two of them.
And ultimately, I think that’s what this poem wants us to do: to think outside of our own heads for a change. To realize that there is more in heaven and earth than we can dream of. I think all good poetry exists to make us think outside of ourselves and the vision of the world that we’ve come to accept. For me, Polish poets in general and Zagajewski in particular are especially good at doing that.