Christopher Middleton: “It was the alcohol, of course. I don’t know if he ever wrote under the influence or just let it go, but his poetry is wonderful to me because, by and large, it has a strict sobriety about it.”
The poet in question is Zbigniew Herbert. The exchange comes in Palavers and a Nocturnal Journal (Shearsman Books, 2004), which includes conversations between Kociejowski and Middleton recorded in 2002 and 2003. Marius has sent me copies of Palavers and two of his poetry collections, Doctor Honoris Causa (Anvil, 1993) and Music’s Bride (Anvil, 1999). I won’t pretend to accurately describe the flavor of these volumes, as they arrived only on Friday, but will note the recurrence of Herbert throughout Kociejowski’s work. Both men befriended the Pole, who died in 1998. Through the grapevine I knew Herbert had a reputation for hard drinking. In some poets, alcohol suffuses their lines. Consider Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas and John Berryman. But in others – Herbert and Auden, foremost – the booze is hardly a shadow on the work. Most of Herbert’s poems are notably sober-minded. The best of them, however fanciful, fractured or funny they seem, usually suggest a certain gravitas. As Chesterton noted, the opposite of “funny” is not “serious” but “not funny.” Herbert deftly balances “funny” (or witty, or jokey, or amusing) and “serious,” as in the Mr. Cogito poems.
In Labyrinth on the Sea (The Collected Prose 1948-1998, Ecco, 2010), Herbert tells us he explores a Minoan sarcophagus and experiences a “happy moment of illuminating knowledge and inspired sobriety.” “Happy” is not a word often encountered in Herbert’s poetry and prose. “Inspired sobriety” is an inspired coinage. Customarily, sobriety is associated with stony dullness, a literal-minded plodding. In a 1984 interview, Herbert makes even grander claims for the importance of sobriety:
“Writing—and in this I disagree with everybody—must teach men soberness: to be awake. [Spoken in English.] To make people sober. It does not mean, not to try. But with a small internal correction. I reject optimism despite all the theologians. Despair is a fruitful feeling. It is a cleanser, from desire, from hope. `Hope is the mother of the stupid.’ [This is a Polish proverb.] I don’t like hope.”
Herbert the provocateur is at work here, of course, but so is Herbert the cool, stoical, classical-minded veteran of the twentieth century and its horrors. In Doctor Honoris Causa, in a poem he dedicates to Herbert, “The Stag,” Kociejowski writes:
“How to say that once again darkness falls,
That plainness of speech ripens into song,
A nightjar swooping through its silences.
We are smuggled home to our sleek places,
The malevolent wasp its empty comb.”