Wednesday, January 21, 2009

`Sovereign and Fearless'

While my wife watched the inauguration in the living room – professional obligation: she’s a journalist – I was in the office listening to Seamus Heaney read the poems of Zbigniew Herbert. She called me out to hear Aretha Franklin sing “My Country ’Tis of Thee” (badly, I’m afraid) and I fled before I had to hear the prose banalities of Elizabeth Alexander, the inaugural poet, and returned to Herbert, a real poet.

Heaney reads from Collected Poems: 1956-1998, translated by Allisa Valles. His selection spans much of Herbert’s career, from “To Apollo” in the first book, Chord of Light (1956), to “I Gave My Word” in the last, Epilogue to a Storm (1998). Heaney notes that Herbert accepted the Horatian duty to “delight and instruct,” and suggests that many of his poems are oblique elegies for the youth he lost to the savagery of the 20th century. That’s clearly the case with “I Gave My Word,” one of Herbert’s final poems:

“I was very young
and common sense told me
not to give my word

“I could easily say
I’ll give it some thought
what’s the big hurry
it’s not a train schedule

“I’ll give my word
after graduation
after military service
after I make a home

“but time exploded
there was no before
there was no after
in the blinding present
you had to choose
so I gave my word

“a word –
a noose round my neck
an ultimate word

“in the rare moments
when everything is light
and becomes transparent
I think to myself:
`my word
how I’d like
to take my word back’

“it doesn’t last for long
the world’s axis screeches
people pass away
as do landscapes
colored rings of time
but the word I gave
is stuck in my throat”

By “time exploded” Herbert means the tag-team assault on Poland by Hitler and Stalin, when the poet was not yet 15 years old. In comparison, the political posturing of many American poets is a national embarrassment. In the November/December issue of Boston Review, Alissa Valles published “The Testament of Mr. Cogito,” a useful tool in coming to understand Herbert, his politics and the misuse of his politics by others:

“In a time when the language of American public life is shamefully inaccurate and inexpressive, and its poetry too often narcissistic and unambitious, Herbert is a powerful tonic, a reminder that poetry can be sovereign and fearless. His life was accompanied by great personal and intellectual risk, and his work demands similar risk from us.”

ADDENDUM: A reader notes, regarding Elizabeth Alexander: "She would have been better off reading `The Charge of the Light Brigade.'" “Was there a man dismay'd?” You bet. Thanks to Dave Lull for passing along Adam Kirsch's assessment of the inaugural poet.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It would be instructive if you clarified why you regard the words of Alexander's poem as "prose banalities." What distinguishes her poem from Herbert's "I Gave My Word?"

Perhaps you might not have been so quick to criticize had listened carefully to the Inaugural address?