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The Folger Spotlight

ENCORES: Poetry in Translation with Adam Zagajewski (2015)

Folger ENCORES, red theater seats fading into darkness
Folger ENCORES, red theater seats fading into darkness

Folger Public Programs is pleased to present ENCORES, a weekly online series highlighting past performances and recalling the rich history of programming on the historic Folger stage. As many arts and cultural institutions remain closed during this time, these ENCORES provide a way to connect and revisit the breadth of Folger offerings with a wider audience.

ENCORES presents

O.B. Hardison Poetry Series
Mother Tongue: Poetry in Translation: Adam Zagajewski, Clare Cavanagh, Edward Hirsch
March 2015
Learn more about this reading on Folgerpedia

Adam Zagajewski and Clare Cavanagh read his poems

  • From Mysticism for Beginners, 1997
    • Mysticism for Beginners
    • Dutch Painters
  • From Without End, 2002
    • Senza Flash
    • Try to Praise the Mutilated World
  • From Asymmetry, 2014
    • My Favorite Poets
    • We Know What Art Is

All published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Read the introduction by his collaborator and translator Claire Cavanaugh:

Hello and welcome to Folger ENCORES. I’m Claire Cavanaugh, the Frances Hooper Professor of Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University, and I’m delighted to be here speaking with you today. The Folger has been sharing selections from their plays, music, and talks and readings with you in this ENCORES series. Go online and look—it’s a feast.

And I’m honored that this week we’re going to be presenting the poetry and legacy of Adam Zagajewski, who passed away in March of this year. I was Adam’s translator for 26 years, and we, meaning me, Ed Hirsch, who also participated, his dear friend, and a lot of other people are mourning his absence. He and Ed and I collaborated on a reading for the O.B. Hardison Poetry Series—the next two are about botanical readings, I’m going to be checking in for those—and this one was entitled, “Mother Tongue: Poetry in Translation.”

Adam, in a lot of the obituaries and memorials was called “the poet of 9/11,” and he’s going to be reading, in this excerpt you’ll be getting, his most famous poem, so I won’t read it all for you here, but I wanted to just call your attention to a few things. The poem became known as “the poem of 9/11,” not because it was written for that event. It wasn’t. It was written, I think in 2000. And it was about a personal journey into the past, he and his father traveling back through what is now Ukraine to visit what had been the formerly Polish city of Lviv, Lwów—however, you pronounce it—in which he was born. And out of that experience came this poem that does something, it somehow spoke to people across disasters, across tragedies, across individual and public experiences. It generates, I periodically check, it generates hundreds of thousands of hits online for all kinds of events; personal, public, private, collective. But the poem is typical Adam, I think you’ll get a sense of why as you listen to the reading. It’s called “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.” It speaks to everybody, but in fact it’s the poet speaking to himself, and you’ll see that when you get to that in the reading, telling himself he must praise the world in spite of the suffering, the evidence of which we see around us every day,

“You must praise the mutilated world.
The nettles methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.

You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.”

He’s saying: it’s really hard to praise it, but praise it is his job. Praising the world is his job. How do we praise it, and how do we recuperate from the kind of suffering? And again, this speaks to us very much in our present moment. What he does in the poem is he remembers personal, private, intimate moments, and ends it with the following phrase:

“Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.”

They really are words to live by and I’m not the only one who thinks so. It’s been one of the joys of my life to have translated, not just this poem, but all of Adam’s poetry. And I’m just going to mention one really specific one from this this reading. I was going over some of the poems that were going to be appearing and one of them has a really personal meaning to me that also involves me, Adam and reading. The poem “Senza Flash,” which is about going to art museums in Italy and getting told not to use your flash when taking—”no flash photography permitted.” Basically, Adam and I were at a reading together in Rome, in. 2010, 2011, I think. And every time I recognize something from one of Adam’s poems, I get, in the real world, I get so excited. So I was in a museum trying to take a picture of a gorgeous Caravaggio—which is perfect for Adam, he loves Caravaggio—and an old lady came up at me and yelled “senza flash!” ’cause it accidentally flashed. I rushed back to the place we were staying, I said, “Adam, I just got told ‘senza flash!'” So his poetry intersects with our lives in all kinds of funny and unexpected ways, as I hope you’ll find in the course of the reading.

And please be sure to join us again for these weekly episodes of ENCORES, highlighting the very wide range of things the Folger has to offer. I’m going to be signing on for that too. Thank you.

Encores LogoCheck back each Friday for a new “from the archives” performance, introduced by some of our favorite artists, showcasing the best of Folger TheatreFolger ConsortO.B. Hardison Poetry, and lectures.