Saturday, June 03, 2017

`To Extract Meaning Is Our Primary Task'

For once, sane, commonsensical words from a poet:

“The languages of politics and literature are entirely different and so are the mentalities. Politicians are concerned with `far-reaching’ goals, personal games, gangster-style tricks. What interests me is human fate. What does me good is bad for politicians; what suits them I find indigestible. We use two separate styles. I have tried to use the conditional. I hesitate. I appeal to conscience . . . I don’t like imperatives, exclamation marks, black-and-white divisions. I just don’t.”

The speaker is Zbigniew Herbert in a conversation with the journalist Marek Oramus that was published as “A Poet of Exact Meaning” in the PN Review in 1982. I found the entire interview reprinted in The Poetry of Survival: Post-War Poets of Central and Eastern Europe (Anvil Press Poetry, 1991), edited by Daniel Weissbort. It’s always amusing when writers, poets in particular, presume to sound off about politics, a subject they know less well than your average gathering of millwrights or Methodist ministers. A veteran of the worst the twentieth century could dish out, Herbert reached the only logical conclusion. How many contemporary poets can honestly say: “I don’t like imperatives”? He even likes America (“for their way of living”), which is blasphemy punishable by internal exile, as is religious faith. Speaking of a conversation he had with Julian Przyboś, who asked if he was a believer, Herbert says:

“I did not quite believe then. I had enormous doubts and yet I answered `Yes, I do.’ It was then that I started to believe. Przyboś was puzzled. `You are so intellectual,’ he said. `Do you really believe in that crucified slave? You of all people, an aesthete, a lover of Greek gods.’ The more he blasphemed and disparaged, the stronger my faith grew. I think Pascal was right when he said that by assuming the existence of God we have more possibilities than if we supposed that there was no God at all. One does not lose by believing, but one misses a lot if one does not . . .”

Herbert is often judged not a romantic but a classical poet, a useful distinction. Asked whether such abstractions as “honour, loyalty, constancy” can be used in poetry, he replies:

“They can, but it requires great talent. It can be done indirectly, this is, without actually mentioning the word `honour’ whose concept, incidentally, matters greatly to me. Other words can be bypassed, too. They belong to a smashed table of values.”

Herbert can sound like an Oakeshott conservative: “A man who changes too often does not arouse my friendly feelings. The transformations are usually planned in advance. We may have many gifts but we ought to strive for continuity and consistency in our activities. Whatever we do – write, paint, or compose – we each build up our own personality.”

Herbert concludes his poem “Why the Classics” (trans. Peter Dale Scott and Czesław Miłosz) with these lines:

“if art for its subject
will have a broken jar
a small broken soul
with a great self-pity

“what will remain after us
 will it be lovers' weeping
 in a small dirty hotel
 when wall-paper dawns”

Herbert says in the interview: “By means of such a funny thing as writing poetry, I am trying to defend the matters that are significant to me. . . .To extract meaning is our primary task.”          

[Tangentially related to the first passage quoted above is something Yvor Winters writes in his pamphlet The Poetry of W.B. Yeats (Alan Swallow, 1960): “. . . Yeats’s power of self-assertion, his bardic tone, overwhelmed his readers. The bardic tone is common in romantic poetry: it sometimes occurs in talented (but confused) poets such as Wordsworth, Blake and Yeats; more often it appears in poets of little or no talent, such as Shelley, Whitman, and Robinson Jeffers.” Like Herbert, Winters had a gift for reminding us of obvious but readily ignored truths.]

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