Saturday, January 28, 2023

'I Had to Go Out From Myself and Literature'

In 1966, when Zbigniew Herbert was asked to submit a poem to a symposium in Berlin, for subsequent publication in an anthology, he chose “Why the Classics” (trans. Peter Dale Scott and Czesław Miłosz), which concludes: 

“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 recalls Thucydides, who in 423 B.C. was an Athenian general during the Second Peloponnesian War. The Greek arrived too late to prevent the capture of Amphipolis by the Spartans, and later admitted his failure in his history of that war. In contrast, Herbert claims, more recent generals “whine on their knees before posterity” and blame others for their failures. In a brief commentary on the poem written in 1966 and included in his Collected Prose 1948-1998 (trans. Alissa Valles, Ecco, 2010), Herbert outlines the poem’s three-part structure in refreshingly explicit terms:


“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.”


Herbert is crisp and matter-of-fact, not indulging in woozy mystification or self-congratulation, as we might expect in other poets. As to the “sphere of art,” he writes:


“You don’t have to be a great expert on contemporary literature to notice its characteristic feature—the eruption of despair and unbelief. All the fundamental values of European culture have been drawn into  question. Thousands of novels, plays, and epic poems speak of an inevitable annihilation, of life’s meaninglessness, the absurdity of human existence.”


Herbert tells us that what he “tried to attack in my poem” is the defeatist, inward-turning attitude, the “black  tone,” of so many writers (and generals). “Beyond the artist’s reach,” he writes, “a world unfolds—difficult, dark, but real. One should not lose the faith that it can be captured in words, that justice can be rendered it.” So much contemporary poetry and fiction has lost its nerve and collapsed into narcissism. Herbert continues, rather stirringly:


“Very early on, near the beginning of my writing life, I came to believe that I had to seize on some object outside of literature. Writing as a stylistic exercise seemed barren to me. Poetry as the art of the word made me yawn. I also understood that I couldn’t sustain myself very long on the poems of others. I had to go out from myself and literature, look around in the world and lay hold of other spheres of reality.”

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