Sunday, April 26, 2015

`The Art of the Word Made Me Yawn'

A reader asks if I know “Why the Classics,” written by Zbigniew Herbert in the nineteen-sixties, when his native Poland was hobbled by communism and few could imagine it would ever be otherwise. Here are the poem’s final stanzas in the translation by Alissa Valles (The Collected Poems 1956-1998, 2007): 

“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 was a bookish poet, but his work seldom calls for annotations. Among modern poets he most admired T.S. Eliot (and Auden), but his lines are never so thick with allusions as the American’s. Rather, his work is suffused with Western civilization, with its poetry, history and philosophy. When he writes of the ancient world, as here, of Thucydides, one need not recall in detail the Peloponnesian War. In fact, some knowledge of World War II and the fate of Poland, in a vise worked by Hitler and Stalin, might be more useful. In a brief commentary on the poem, included in The Collected Prose 1948-1998 (2010), Herbert outlines the poem’s three-part structure in surprisingly explicit terms (reminding us that Herbert was never a specialist in mystification): 

“In the first part, it speaks of an event taken from the work of a classical author. It is, as it were, a note on my reading. In the second part I transfer the event to contemporary times to elicit a tension, a clash, to reveal an essential difference in attitude and behavior. Finally the conclusion contains a conclusion or moral, and also transposes the problem from the sphere of history to the sphere of art.” 

Self-explications tend to be insulting to readers or self-congratulatory. Herbert’s is crisp and sane. He’s not buying the era’s fashionable taste for glib absurdity. He is refreshingly hopeful, given his subject and the fate of his country: 

“I don’t mean to subject pessimism to easy ridicule if it is a response to evil in the world. However, I think that the black tone of contemporary literature has its source in the attitude its writers take to reality. And that is what I tried to attack in my poem.” 

He adds, winningly: “Writing as a stylistic exercise seemed barren to me. Poetry as the art of the word made me yawn.”

1 comment:

Marly Youmans said...

A healthful sort of post. "Hopeful" is so good. Like joy and fire.