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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Zagajewski: Minimalism vs. drama

In "Self-Portrait, Not Without Doubts," you mention "those writers who sometimes bother you: some so modest, minimal, and underread, that you want to call out--hey, friends, courage, life is beautiful, the world is rich and full of history." Is this something you feel vis-à-vis other writers?

Yes, though I won't give you any names. What I have in mind here is minimalism in literature. Unlike minimalism in music, which can be fascinating, minimalism is boring in literature. The fact that you can write poetry--it's an incredible chance that's given to you, the chance to formulate what you think about the world, God, dying. When I read through many poetry journals, I see a strange modesty. So many poets are just saying something minimal. Poetry is not about defending poetry; poetry is about defending life.

. . . Almost all poets these days are jesters. There are so many younger American poets. They've very talented. They're typical jesters. They indulge in wonderful play, but there's some poverty in it; it's not interesting as an intellectual question. What's interesting is always drama, conflict, debate. In playfulness there's no debate, no drama. It doesn't amount to a statement. It's a kind of very safe diversion for people who say they are rebels but don't risk anything.

--from "This Strange Ambition to Want to Say Something: A conversation with Adam Zagajewski." Interview by Agnieszka Tennant. "Books & Culture," July/August 2010.


  1. Is this minimalism he is talking about strictly a characteristic only of "younger" poets, or has it always been with us? And is it, do you think, true of fiction as well? I guess it depends how you define "minimalism." Maybe he's just talking about technically perfect lines, whether poetry or fiction, without substance.

  2. I think he's talking about poems that are only navel-gazing or about themselves, poems that don't seem to embrace life and thought, poems that are whimsical rather than serious.

  3. There's a place for whimsical. I don't know about you. My poems have moods--because I do--and sometimes, I am less than serious. But I hope I always "embrace life and thought."

  4. By the way, your daughter might like to know that Mizazaki's new film (2006 actually) has finally been released in the U.S. However, it is playing in only a very very few places. I'd have to go up to L.A. to see it, and that isn't going to happen. I'll wait for it to come here. It's a retelling of a LeGuin work.

  5. Hah, you can't get ahead of her on Studio Ghibli news! The "Tales from Earthsea" is not Hayao but Goro Miyazaki, and that has been the cause of some controversy:

  6. Yes, there is a place for whimsical. But I think he was thinking about a way of making poems that deliberately excludes many other modes.

  7. he tendency toward what you neatly describe as 'jesting' in contemporary American poetry, applies equally to the visual arts in the UK. It's to do with a jaded attitude I think. An ennui that drifts toward a tone of irony, the presiding factor of contemporary British Art. Now Irony is all very well in moderation, but can be pretty boring when it's all you get.

  8. Yes, I thought he did capture that well... and if you're in that mode, it's hard to truly understand works that have a fresher approach to meaning.

  9. I was drawn to a poetry book recently - Derek Walcott's 'White Egrets', which I liked well enough - when I read a review which began

    'Modern poetry seems all too often to be associated with coy, small-minded ironists; teasing, finicky word players who often write in disappointingly short lines and seem to lack the ambition, the emotional force, the rhetorical reach, and even the range of subject matter of great poets of the past. Where to go these days to find the real thing?' (Economist)

    Evidently others feel similarly dissatisfied. A lot poems I read now - and I don't know how recent a condition this is, or how it applies to other arts - leave me feeling toyed with and craving richer fare. I don't see that to provide it need preclude playfulness and whimsy, or even irony or spareness, or that it requires unnecessary verbosity or grandiosity or pomposity, (or any other 'osity!), but I think perhaps there is a fearfulness and a corrosive self-consciousness around which is impoverishing.

    And now I will cease my own 'osities and be off with me!

  10. Hi Lucy--

    Just got home last night from a long trip and am glad to see you and your always-interesting thoughts. (By the by, this reminded me of something from Paglia's latest bomb tossed into the "Chronicle of Higher Education": "I see glib, cynical, neurotic elite-school graduates roiling everywhere in journalism and the media. They have been ill-served by their trendy, word-centered educations.")

    Yes, I think that many of us often go craving something that seems larger in every possible way when it comes to current poetry. On the other hand, there are probably people I am missing, just as I missed Charles Causley and Kathleen Raine for many years.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.