Friday, March 12, 2010

`Like All the Other Poetries'

“Zagajewski was seventeen when he met his first famous poet, Zbigniew Herbert, who paid a visit to his school. A fellow native of Lvov, Herbert lived in Warsaw and spent much time abroad. `Now I tend to mythologize it, but I was deeply impressed,’ Zagajewski told me. Herbert autographed the book that the youth brought him, signing it to his `colleague A.Z.’ Flattered as he was, Zagajewski says he knew he `was hopelessly underequipped in terms of writing.’ But he did now have a poet to model himself on.”

This is from a profile by Arthur Lubow of the Polish poet and essayist Adam Zagajewski, “The Last of His Kind,” in the spring issue of The Threepenny Review. It confirms what I know of the decency and generosity of Herbert, who inhabited an indecent and ungenerous time and place, and among whose poetic peers are Eliot, Auden and Cavafy. Lubow’s essay, as its title suggests, is valedictory in tone. He admires Zagajewski’s poetry and the politics forced on him and his nation by decades of Stalinism. In part, I dissent: I find much of his verse formless and sentimental, and draw more sustenance from his prose, but I admire his engagement with the world and reverence for the poetic tradition (Polish, European, Western) in which he works.

What’s disturbing in Lubow’s essay is the news that young Polish poets, like many in the West, have renounced tradition and given up the will to write well. Instead, they ape the fashionably self-indulgent, easy-to-write non-poetry of Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, among others. Lubow quotes one of Zagajewski’s friends, the American poet Edward Hirsch:

“`I think Adam is the end of the line,’ Hirsch says. `The thing that I first found exciting about Polish poetry doesn’t interest these younger poets. They don’t like its seriousness, its commitment, its engagement with the world. They prefer a poetry that courts meaninglessness, that plays with language, that denies significance, that upsets consciousness. Polish poetry is now like all the other poetries.’”

How sad that Western-style poetic mediocrity has helped undo what decades of enforced Zhdanovian mediocrity could not. It takes a gift to write well but it also takes audacity, which today means dedication to truth and the glories of creation. I'm reading Emerson again and find in “Europe and European Books,” an essay published in 1843, an image that serves as a prescient profile of rare poets like Zbigniew Herbert:

“The poet, like the electric rod, must reach from a point nearer to the sky than all surrounding objects down to the earth, and down to the dark wet soil, or neither is of use. The poet must not only converse with pure thought, but he must demonstrate it almost to the senses. His words must be pictures, his verses must be spheres and cubes, to be seen, and smelled and handled. His fable must be a good story, and its meaning must hold as pure truth.”

In an untitled poem collected in Inscription (1969) Herbert writes (in Alissa Valles’ translation):

“what will poems become
when the breath departs
and the grace of speaking
is rejected”

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

Lubow's article is a fantastic read—it runs the gamut from how to be a flaneur in exile to modern-day Jewish festivals in Poland necessarily attended only by Christians.

The trajectory of Zagajewski's Polish experience reminds me of the portrayal of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in the film “Before Night Falls.” Poets who “rage against the dying of” memory and history found solidarity and purpose in the East, derision and obscurity in the West, so much cleverer were the methods of liberal societies.

But a lot of that is (to my mind) Zagajewski's own guilt trip. There's always been a healthy conflict between the West and East in Polish poetry, between the Skamanders and the Vanguard, the Surrealists and the Realists, the salonistas and the peasants. The winner in any skirmish was the side that allowed that famous Polish sense of irony to flourish. In the gray days of Stalin, “depictions of authentic experience” were richly subversive. Today, the arch resistances of the New York Schools and the impenetrable radiances of Simic et al. speak to the dislocated nature of a reality ripped completely away from history and tradition.

What makes Herbert so great –- beyond the lofty but ultimately superficial qualities Emerson espouses (using the aptly anachronistic metaphor of a lightning rod) -- is his ability to travel freely the extremes of mimesis and semiosis (word measured) in pursuit of that moment of pathos, or less precisely that flash of poetic beauty, and let it glow, a la Chekov, without a hand or gesture seemingly attached:

“She whom I deprived of a voice stares at me with big eyes and waits for a word.

Yet I don't know which tongue to use when speaking to her – the stolen one of the one which melts in my mouth from an excess of heavy goodness.”

(from The Tongue)