Sunday, September 27, 2015

`Their Courage, Their Disinterestedness'

A reader has alerted me to an English-language website dedicated to Zbigniew Herbert. You’ll find translations of his work, and poems written in homage of Herbert. The effort is worthy of praise, especially if the site introduces new readers to one of the last century’s leading poets, but the writing, though heartfelt, is middling at best (I can’t judge the quality of the translations).

This is yet another reminder that sincerity and good intentions have nothing to do with good writing. An artist’s earnestness counts for nothing and, in fact, may compromise the quality of his work. Massive herds of poets are sincere in their expression – think: Mary Oliver or Philip Levine – but remain incapable of writing an interesting poem. Herbert implicitly favors detachment, discipline, aesthetic distance, even coldness and harshness, virtues manifest in his best poems. There are places where the moral and aesthetic at least touch if not merge. The writer’s job is not to please or seduce his readers. In a dialogue between two voices, A. and B., titled “Conversation on Writing Poetry” (The Collected Prose 1948-1998, 2010), he has his stand in, B., say:
“Talent is a valuable thing, but it goes to waste without character. What do I mean without character? I mean without a conscious moral attitude toward reality, without a stubborn, uncompromising borderline between what is good and what is evil. For that reason writers are valued not only for their skill but for being uncompromising, for their courage, their disinterestedness—which are extra-aesthetic qualities.”

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