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Adam Zagajewski

Princess of Asturias Award for Literature 2017

Your Majesties,
Dear Laureates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Poetry is the least technical of the arts. It does not arise from the workshop or from theory. It does not arise from science (although, we might add, having an education does no-one any harm, not even a poet), but rather it arises from the emotion of the mind and heart, which can neither foresee nor plan, as Leonard Cohen so beautifully expressed some years ago in this very place. That is why poets do not know themselves, often living in a state of insecurity, patiently awaiting the opening of the gates of language.

We do not know what poetry is, even though people have written about it in thousands of books which can be found in all the major libraries. Each generation creates their own vision of poetry, while at the same time remaining faithful to traditional forms, without interrupting the continuity of a process that had begun even before Homer and that continues to this day, through Antonio Machado and Zbigniew Herbert, and onwards.

Ovid wrote his most beautiful poems in exile, in a small town, a fishing village, on the shores of the Black Sea, in Tomis. He did not understand the local language and it was only when he gazed at the endless surface of the water that the dark waves reminded him of the colour of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Wisława Szymborska, a profoundly honest person, wrote poems in the second half of the 1950s in a state of desperation stemming from her betrayal of the truth of poetry and for having allied herself with a sombre political system when she was young.

In today’s world, all everyone wants to talk about is the community and politics, and it is true that these are important. But there are also individual souls, with their preoccupations, their joy, their rituals, their hope, their faith, with the illumination we sometimes experience. We debate about classes and social strata; yet, on a day-to-day basis, we do not live within the collective, but in solitude. We do not know what to do with a moment of epiphany; we are unable to preserve it.

Societies are rapidly secularized, and those who today defend religion sometimes resort to detestable socio-political practices; religion all too often allies with the extreme right. Czesław Miłosz, a fervently religious poet, a Catholic, while at the same time a supporter of an open, democratic society, is contemptuously repudiated today by reactionary Catholic groups.

It is not difficult to realize that we find ourselves at a time which is hardly auspicious for poetry. Anyone who occasionally participates in any of the numerous poetry festivals held in Europe, regardless of which country, cannot fail to notice that the public at poetry gatherings is systematically on the decrease.

Poetry is not in fashion; crime fiction, the biographies of tyrants, American movies and British television series are in fashion. Politics is in fashion. Fashion is in fashion. Relationships are in fashion. Substance is not in fashion. Skinny pants, flower print dresses, pearls on clothes, red sweaters, plaid coats, silver boots and appliqué jeans are all in fashion.

Bicycles and scooters are in fashion, as are marathons and half marathons and Nordic walking; to pause in the middle of a spring meadow is not in fashion, neither is reflection. Doctors tell us that lack of physical activity is harmful to health. A moment of reflection is hazardous to health; you have to run, you have to escape from yourself.

When I was just over twenty, I was fascinated by critical poetry in the face of the totalitarian system that governed my country. At that time, a stormy, impetuous period, friendships and alliances arose that endure to this day. But almost all the poets who were brought together in that period by their opposition to injustice followed a different path; they also discovered other artistic continents.

We discovered the duality of the world: on the one hand, imagination; on the other, the obstinate reality of a November morning when the leaves had already fallen from the trees. For a long time, I did not know which was more important: what exists or what does not exist. People who go to work early in the morning, the sleepy men who read the main headlines in sports newspapers and follow the defeats and victories of their favourite soccer clubs and the women who doze on the bus. Or rather hidden things, music and the moon, cities that no longer exist, paintings in museums by the great masters, both current and past. And it took me many years to understand that we have to take into account both sides of this unequal dualism; because we live in an eternal state of ambivalence, we cannot forget the suffering of people and animals, or forget evil, which is much more tenacious and cunning than the dreams we pursue.

We cannot forget evil, injustice which continually changes shape, the things that perish, but neither can we forget happiness, the ecstatic experiences that the thick handbooks of political theory or sociology have not managed to predict.

When I was a child, Spain seemed a distant and wonderful country to me, a place straight out of legend, where the sun shone more and where the shadows were darker; the country of Don Quixote, knights and princesses. Later, I got to know the real, modern Spain, one of the pillars of the European Union. And here I am today, in Asturias, and I am the guest of a princess –I cannot get over my amazement–. As you can see, everything changes, but nothing changes.

It turns out that I have faithful and attentive readers in Spain. This is the best thing that can happen to a writer of books, regardless of whether these are collections of poems or novels. Thank you so much for this very special award.

Translated by Paul Barnes.

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