Sunday, February 21, 2021

'A Moment Rarely Captured in Paint'

The twentieth-century’s essential poets form an exclusive club with strictly limited membership – Yeats, Mandelstam, Valéry, Auden, Cavafy, Montale, perhaps Geoffrey Hill, certainly Zbigniew Herbert. Sorry, no Americans, though Eliot comes close. There are plenty of good and even great poets, of course, but the essential ones are more than artful arrangers of words. They are preservers and enhancers of culture. Through them flows civilization. They carry on the work of their predecessors and perpetuate the tradition. In Almost Nothing: The 20th-Century Life of Józef Czapski (New York Review Books, 2018), Eric Karpeles quotes a passage about prehistoric cave paintings from “Lascaux,” an essay in Herbert’s Barbarian in the Garden (trans. Michael March and Jarosław Anders, 1985): 

“Though I had stared into the ‘abyss’ of history, I did not emerge from an alien world. Never before had I felt a stronger or more reassuring conviction: I am a citizen of the earth, an inheritor not only of the Greeks and Romans but almost the whole of infinity.”


The words of a deeply civilized man. In 1958, with the aid of a Ministry of Culture grant from the Polish People’s Republic, Herbert visited England, France and Italy. The resulting essays were published in Barbarian, in Polish, in 1962. While in Paris, Herbert, then twenty-six, befriended Czapski, who painted his portrait in oils. Karpeles writes of it:


“He is shown seated, and we see the upper half of his body only, the fingers of both hands actively attached to a miniature volume laid out on the desk before him, a pen lying just within reach. Flipping distractedly through the book’s pages, perhaps thinking before reaching for the pen, he might be poised to write something, or he may simply be reading. These two activities are only tenuously separated for writers. . . . The poet’s complex gaze . . . is here averted, turned down and away from the viewer but intensely concentrated as he grapples with whatever image is forming in his mind. His brow is slightly furrowed. Czapski’s portrait suggests distraction and focus, the mental activity of a writer preparing  to write, a moment rarely captured in paint.”


Karpeles quotes lines from “In the Studio” (trans. Alissa Valles), a poem from his third collection, Study of the Object (1961):


“When God built the world

he wrinkled his forehead

calculated and calculated

hence the world is perfect

and impossible to live in


“on the other hand

a painter’s world

is good

and full of error”


As I wrote of Herbert’s poem in 2009: “A world of divine perfection is inhuman, uninhabitable. We were not made to dwell in utopia – whether Eden or a Worker’s Paradise. In contrast, ‘a painter’s world / is good / and full of error.’”

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