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Itzik Manger meets Adam Zagajewski

June 2020

Today we are examining Itzik Manger’s “לאָמיר־זשע זינגען” (“Let Us Sing Simply,”) alongside contemporary Polish poet Adam Zagajewski’s “Spróbuj opiewać okaleczony świat” (“Try to Praise the Mutilated World.”) Each poem by these two Galician-born poets is a reflection on the poet’s dilemma of subject matter, and particularly how to address the world’s suffering, in the face of which poetry and art can seem trite or even pointless.

Let Us Sing Simply

Let us sing simply, directly, and plain
Of all that’s familiar, beloved, and dear:
Of aged beggars who curse the frost
And of mothers blessing the fire.

Of poor brides who stand by candlelight,
At sightless mirrors, late at night,
And each searches for the beloved face,
Which made fun of their love-embrace.

Of fortune tellers who speak in riddles,
And steal the last pennies from
Deserted wives who curse the world,
And exit through the back doors.

Of maids, who toil bitterly,
And hide the best morsels
For the soldiers who visit them at night,
So the masters will not find out.

Let us sing simply, directly, and plain
Of all that’s familiar and dear:
Of poor mothers who curse the frost
And of beggars blessing the fire.

Of young girls, who each summer drop
Their bastards at a stranger’s door,
And tremble at the sight of a uniformed cop
Who could put them in jail therefore.

Of organ grinders that lament in tact,
On Fridays in the backyards of the poor.
And of the thieves caught in the act,
Who flee over roofs and into the sewer.

Of rag pickers who search in a trashcan
Hoping a treasure there to find.
Of poets who trusted the stars in vain,
And then went out of their mind.

Let us sing simply, directly, and plain
Of all that’s familiar, beloved, and dear:
Of old people who curse the frost
And of children blessing the fire.

— Translated by Meinhard Mayer

לאָמיר־זשע זינגען

Listen to Itzik Manger read his poem

לאָמיר־זשע זינגען פּשוט און פּראָסט
פון אַלץ, וואָס איז היימיש, ליב און טייַער
פון אַלטע בעטלער, וואָס שעלטן דעם פראָסט
און פון מאַמעס, וואָס בענטשן דאָס פייַער.

פון אָרעמע כּלות, וואָס שטייען מיט ליכט
פאַר בלינדע שפּיגלען שפּעט בייַ נאַכט
און יעדע זוכט דאָס נאָענטע געזיכט
וואָס האָט איר ליבע אויסגעלאַכט.

פון גורל־וואַרפער, וואָס רעדן פאַרשטעלט
און נאַרן די לעצטע גראָשנס אויס
בייַ עגונות וואָס שעלטן די וועלט
און גייען דורך הינטער־טירן אַרויס

פון דינסטן, וואָס האָרעווען ביטער־שווער
און באַהאַלטן דעם בעסטן ביסן
פאַר די זעלנער, וואָס קומען בייַ נאַכט
די באַלעבאַטים זאָלן נישט וויסן

לאָמיר־זשע זינגען פּשוט און פּראָסט
פון אַלץ, וואָס איז היימיש, ליב און טייַער
פון אָרעמע מאַמעס, וואָס שעלטן דעם פראָסט
און פון בעטלערס, וואָס בענטשן דאָס פייַער

פון מיידלעך, וואָס וואַרפן זומער־צייַט
ממזרים הינטער פרעמדע טירן
און ציטערן פאַר מונדירטע לייַט
וואָס קענען דערפאַר אין תּפיסה פירן.

פון קאַטערינקעס, וואָס סקריפּן שווער
פרייַטיק בייַ טאָג אין אָרעמע הויפן
פון גנבֿים, װאָס האָבן פאַרפאַסט
און מוזן איבער די דעכער אַנטלויפן.

פון שמאַטע־קלויבער, װאָס גראַבלען אין מיסט
און מיינען זײ וועלן אַן אוצר געפינען
פון דיכטער, וואָס האָבן געלויבט אומזיסט
די שטערן – און זייַנען אַראָפּ פון זינען.

לאָמיר־זשע זינגען פּשוט און פּראָסט
פון אַלץ, וואָס איז היימיש, ליב און טייַער
פון אַלטע לייט, וואָס שעלטן דעם פראָסט
און פון קינדער, וואָס בענטשן דאָס פייַער.

In “Let Us Sing Simply” (as translated by Meinhard E. Mayer), Itzik Manger (1901–1969) seems to be satirizing the critic who might insist that poets should write “simply” and only about what is “familiar, beloved and dear.” His rhyme scheme, easily singable, does indeed produce the illusion of a trite, nostalgic folk song.

But in classic Manger fashion, his poetic subjects take a turn from “mothers blessing the fire,” and towards images that are more macabre, but just as vivid and worthy of empathy. Manger “simply” depicts figures of traditional Eastern European Jewish life, who otherwise might be scorned or hidden from “high” literature altogether: indigent brides, criminals, swindling fortune tellers, deserted wives (agunes), abused domestic laborers, ragpickers, mothers of illegitimate children, menacing police. With amusing self-deprecation, he includes in his list “poets who trusted the stars in vain, / And then went out of their mind…” Of course, as Manger surely knew, such taboo subjects have long been present in Yiddish folk songs, but in his poem he implores fellow readers and poets to raise them to a higher literary, and thus human, regard.

The last stanza features a hopeful inversion of the first: now it is “old people who curse the frost,” and the “children [are] blessing the fire.” That is, the new generation has inherited a literary/cultural tradition, but are poised to make something new and radiant out of it.

Adam Zagajewski, born in Lwów/Lviv in 1945 and expelled with his family to contemporary Poland the following year, similarly begins his poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” with an exhortation to literary creation. However, Zagajewski’s challenge is the sense that the world is “mutilated,” and filled with images and subjects that inevitably conceal injustice and atrocity.

A reflection on “June’s long days” ultimately leads one to think of “the nettles that methodically overgrow / The abandoned homesteads of exiles.” Some “stylish yachts and ships” are doomed to “salty oblivion.” Even executioners “sing joyfully.” That is simply the way of the mutilated world that we have inherited and which we continue to mutilate in similar and novel ways.

At the same time, it is the only world we have, and it is filled with undeniable fleeting beauty, “moments when we were together / in a white room and the curtain fluttered.” Zagajewski (in Clare Cavanagh’s translation) addresses the reader-poet with different rhetorical strategies: in different situations, poetry and art may be a coping mechanism (“try to praise…”), a duty (“You must praise…”), or a compulsion (simply “Praise…”).

We may not be able to fully “repair” the world, but instead of giving in to this despair, we can and must practice creative ways to live in it, and engage with all that is bitter and painful and unsightly.

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

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
and returns.

— Translated by Clare Cavanagh

Spróbuj opiewać okaleczony świat

Listen to Adam Zagajewski read his poem

Spróbuj opiewać okaleczony świat.
Pamiętaj o długich dniach czerwca
i o poziomkach, kroplach wina rosé.
O pokrzywach, które metodycznie zarastały
opuszczone domostwa wygnanych.
Musisz opiewać okaleczony świat.
Patrzyłeś na eleganckie jachty i okręty;
jeden z nich miał przed sobą długą podróż,
na inny czekała tylko słona nicość.
Widziałeś uchodźców, którzy szli donikąd,
słyszałeś oprawców, którzy radośnie śpiewali.
Powinieneś opiewać okaleczony świat.
Pamiętaj o chwilach, kiedy byliście razem
w białym pokoju i firanka poruszyła się.
Wróć myślą do koncertu, kiedy wybuchła muzyka.
Jesienią zbierałeś żołędzie w parku
a liście wirowały nad bliznami ziemi.
Opiewaj okaleczony świat
i szare piórko, zgubione przez drozda,
i delikatne światło, które błądzi i znika
i powraca.

JUXTAPOETRY curator and writer: Ben Kline
“Let Us Sing,” translated by Meinhard Mayer,’
Adam Zagajewski, “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” from Without End: New and Selected Poems
Top Image: Ben Shahn, Reconstruction, 1945, Whitney Museum of American Art
Bottom Image: Ben Shahn, Italian Landscape, 1943–1944, Walker Art Center