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Goodbye to a career in engineering

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Zbigniew Herbert makes a lasting impression
Adam Zagajewski Poet
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Towards the end of my time at my secondary school, Zbigniew Herbert visited us for a 'morning with the author'. Well, it wasn't exactly morning – I think it was around 1:00 in the afternoon, but it was still during school hours which made us all happy as it meant we had two hours of lessons cancelled. Interestingly, Różewicz, who lived right next to the school, never came to see us whereas Herbert did, and it was a deeply memorable experience for me. Something struck me. Namely, just as I had no teachers who could tell me something about the world, so by contrast that one-and-a-half hours spent with Herbert shine in my memory as something hugely significant. When I realised this, I wondered what made it so. It's hard to say – I think that was the first time I saw a person who was devoted to humanities, a poet whose every word was carefully chosen. He spoke seriously, he treated us seriously, we could tell that he wanted to tell us something which he himself... constituted the fabric of his own life.  This was soon after Barbarzyńca w ogrodzie [The Barbarian in the Garden] was published. I bought a copy of that book then, and I still have it, signed by Herbert on the day that I met him. He read one, two – not many of the poems, but he spoke mostly about Barbarzyńca.

Very recently, literally a couple of weeks ago, there was an evening dedicated to Julian Konhauser, who is my friend. And someone read a fragment of one of his stories from the '90s where he is the main protagonist of that story, the narrator is a very faithful rendition of the author, and it is an account of this meeting with Herbert from a different perspective, when the young Julian Konhauser says, 'God, this is boring all this stuff Herbert is saying about Greece, the Acropolis – I really couldn't care less.' I found this difference fascinating. I, of course, didn't know for a long time although I'd read about but had since forgotten, that that moment which for me had proved to be such a revelation had for him been boring. He was more... right from the start, he was more focused on the avant-garde, novelty, the thrill of the new. The Paris of Picasso, Apollinaire – of course by then all of that was in the past, it was history, but for him it still had the thrill of the new.

Pod koniec liceum Zbigniew Herbert przyszedł do naszego liceum z porankiem autorskim. Poranek jak poranek – już była chyba pierwsza po południu, ale... ale w każdym razie jeszcze w ramach godzin lekcyjnych, co zawsze wywoływało pewną radość, że się straci dwie godziny lekcyjne. I to ciekawe, że Różewicz, który mieszkał tuż obok szkoły nigdy do nas nie przyszedł, a Herbert przyszedł i to bardzo przeżyłem – coś mnie zafrapowało. Właśnie to jak nie było tych nauczycieli, którzy by mi mogli coś powiedzieć o świecie, tak te półtorej godziny z Herbertem to lśnią w mojej pamięci jako coś ważnego. Kiedy zobaczyłem, to się zastanawiałem co to było. Trudno powiedzieć – wydaje mi się, że po raz pierwszy widziałem humanistę, poetę w całej poApadze mówienia. To znaczy on mówił poważnie, traktował nas poważnie, widać było, że chce nam opowiedzieć coś, co on sam... na czym... co było treścią jego życia. To było tuż po ukazaniu się Barbarzyńcy w ogrodzie. Ja wtedy sobie kupiłem tę książkę i mam do tej pory podpis Herberta właśniez tego dnia spotkania. I przeczytał jeden, dwa – bardzo niewiele wierszy, ale głównie mówił o Barbarzyńcy. I niedawno, dosłownie parę tygodni temu, był wieczór poświęcony Julianowi Kornhauserowi, mojemu przyjacielowi. I tam ktoś odczytał fragment z jego powieści z lat 90., gdzie pod... to znaczy tam bohater tej powieści to jest on, narrator bardzo wiernie odzwierciedla autora, i jest odpowiedziane to spotkanie z Herbertem, z innej perspektywy, kiedy ten młody Julian Konhauser mówi: ‘Boże, jakie to nudne, co Herbert opowiada o jakiejś Grecji, o Akropolu – cóż mnie to obchodzi’. To było dla mnie fascynujące – ta różnica. Ja oczywiście długi czas nie wiedziałem, kiedyś czytałem, ale już zapomniałem o tym, a tu nagle wróciło – że właśnie, że ten moment, który dla mnie miał coś rewelacyjnego, dla niego był nudny. Bo on był bardziej... on od początku był nastawiony na takie fale awangardowości, na nowość, na dreszcz nowości. Ten Paryż Picassa, Apollinera – to oczywiście wtedy już bardzo dawny, bardzo historyczny, ale dla niego wciąż to były... to był ten dreszcz, właśnie, nowości.

Adam Zagajewski (b. 1945 in Lwów) is a Polish poet, novelist, translator and essayist. He was awarded the 2004 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize Lifetime Recognition Award and the 2017 Princess of Asturias Award for Literature. He is considered as one of the leading poets of the Generation of '68 or the Polish New Wave (Polish: Nowa fala) and is one of Poland's most prominent contemporary poets.

Listeners: Andrzej Wolski

Film director and documentary maker, Andrzej Wolski has made around 40 films since 1982 for French television, the BBC, TVP and other TV networks. He specializes in portraits and in historical films. Films that he has directed or written the screenplay for include Kultura, which he co-directed with Agnieszka Holland, and KOR which presents the history of the Worker’s Defence Committee as told by its members. Andrzej Wolski has received many awards for his work, including the UNESCO Grand Prix at the Festival du Film d’Art.

Tags: Barbarzyńca w ogrodzie, Zbigniew Herbert, Julian Konhauser

Duration: 3 minutes, 18 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2018

Date story went live: 25 April 2019