Monday, January 23, 2017

`He Wants to Be True to Uncertain Clarity'

Marius Kociejowski has rightly described Zbigniew Herbert’s “The Envoy of Mr. Cogito”as one of the best poems of our time. Seldom are good poems rah-rah boosters of morale or of our ever-precious self-esteem. Good poems tend to encourage skepticism about such things. As a veteran of the twentieth-century’s abattoir, Herbert convinces us: “be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous / in the final account only this is important.”

A friend is enduring a rough spell, one of life’s periodic bouts of unearned misery. His wife is painfully ill. Relatives in recent months have died unexpectedly. His long-time depression has flared, if that’s the appropriate verb. One associates depression not with flaring or any sort of illumination but with unrelieved darkness. My friend uses the phrase favored by Fulke Greville, Winston Churchill and Les Murray – The Black Dog. He’s a retired English teacher and an industrious reader. In an email on Friday he noted works by fourteen writers he has been reading – novels, essays, poems. “I try to keep my mind occupied,” he writes. “If I can’t chase the dog away, I can distract it. The ploy works. In my old age I am becoming a pragmatist.”

Permit me to add to the reading list: Herbert. I have never asked my friend if he knows the Pole’s poems and essays. Try, among others, “Mr Cogito and the Imagination” (trans. Alissa Valles, The Collected Poems 1956-1998, 2007):

“Mr Cogito’s imagination
moves like a pendulum

“it runs with great precision
from suffering to suffering

“there is no place in it
for poetry’s artificial fires

“he wants to be true
to uncertain clarity”

That’s typical Herbert (I’m tempted to say Polish) wisdom. No sop, just “uncertain clarity.” I can’t think of another writer who so valued clarity. 

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