Elizabeth Gilbert Reads “The Early Hours” by Adam Zagajewski
By Maria Popova
“The most regretful people on earth,” Mary Oliver wrote in her beautiful reflection on the central commitment of the creative life, “are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” There is something lovely about this notion of giving time — a generous counterpoint to our culture of taking time, snatching it from the river of being with the fist of disciplined demand, only to see it slip through. The discipline of showing up is an absolutely necessary condition for all creative work, yes, but it is not a sufficient one. Sometimes — often — we show up, only to find nothing happens. Whatever it is we are showing up for — art, love — cannot be willed, cannot be wrested from the hour or the soul. We learn then that the work is the work, but the work is also the waiting — the exasperation, the surrender to despair, and the swell of joy on the other side of the surrender.
That is what the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski explores with great subtlety and great warmth in his poem “The Early Hours,” found in his collection Without End: New & Selected Poems (public library), translated by Clare Cavanagh (also the translator one of my favorite poets, the Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska, who lauded Cavanagh’s work as “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes… a second original.”)
THE EARLY HOURS
by Adam Zagajewski
The early hours of morning; you still aren’t writing
(rather you aren’t even trying), you just read lazily.
Everything is idle, quiet, full, as if
it were a gift from the muse of sluggishness,
just as earlier, in childhood, on vacations, when a colored
map was slowly scrutinized before a trip, a map
promising so much, deep ponds in the forest
like glittering butterfly eyes, mountain meadows drowning
or the moment before sleep, when no dreams have appeared,
but they whisper their approach from all parts of the world,
their march, their pilgrimage, their vigil at the sickbed
(grown sick of wakefulness), and the quickening among medieval
compressed in endless stasis over the cathedral;
the early hours of morning silence
— you still aren’t writing,
you still understand so much.
Joy is close.
Complement with Gilbert’s profoundly moving reflection on love and loss, then savor more great artists reading great poems: Amanda Palmer reading “Possibilities” and “Life While-You-Wait” by Wisława Szymborska and “Humanity i love you” by E.E. Cummings, James Gleick reading “At the Fishhouses” by Elizabeth Bishop, Terrance Hayes reading “cutting greens” by Lucille Clifton, Rosanne Cash reading “Power” by Adrienne Rich, and Janna Levin reading “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou, then revisit Rilke on inspiration and the nature of creativity.
Published November 4, 2018