Thursday, March 23, 2023

'Create Quietly Remarkable Wares'

“The cooking, woodcutting, and reading were equal elements of an integral life. We wanted books to have the passion and texture of clear-eyed originality. The notion of a book as a holiday from reality or touted ‘good read’ didn’t do much for us. We wanted to encounter something that would move and surprise us.” 

As a commendation, “good read” has never held much attraction, any more than “beach book” does. It’s marketing talk, aimed at selling books as analgesics, which is perfectly acceptable if you’re in the market for aspirin. I’m reminded of the customers at the book store where I worked in the 70’s who clutched scraps of paper covered with long lists of numbers. They shopped for Harlequin romances by number, not title or author, because the former were generic and the latter pseudonymous. Some of us want more. Baron Wormser,  a poet in Maine, is writing in the January 2017 issue of Sarmatian Review, an essay titled “The Polish Poets.” He goes on:


“When I started to read the Polish poets -- especially Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert and Wisława Szymborska – in translation, I felt, ‘Ah, this is what I have been waiting for. This is it.’ ‘It’ meant the depth of history grounded in individual art so scrupulous it could take the measure of the monstrosities of the twentieth century.”


I shared some of Wormser’s sense of arrival when I discovered the Polish Big Three, Herbert long before Miłosz and Szymborska. I recognized what he calls their “deliberate, nervy joy.” My paternal grandparents left Poland for the U.S. early in the twentieth century. Our neighborhood was almost uniformly Slavic so I can remember when the first Italian family moved in. I grew up hearing those Eastern European languages and heavily accented English. More idealistically, I felt the tug of a nation, Poland, forever conquered and divvied up by its neighbors, never deemed worthy of autonomy. I feel a similar admiration, for similar reasons, for Israel. As Wormser writes of Poland’s history:  


“Geography is fate, and though it wasn’t a seat many people would have chosen, it was a remarkable one if a person wished to be disabused––admittedly an uncommon predilection. Opinion and dogma, to say nothing of fear and loathing, are much more vivifying and distracting. To the participant shouting at a Nazi rally or the timeserver who has made his or her peace with the gray grief of communism, the attentiveness, honesty, and various splinters of renunciation that are bound to lodge in a lucid soul seem matters of an arcane and hopeless conscience. The beauty of the poets was that a conscience can be both compelling and piquant as it testifies to how imagination can set up shop in the dreariest and most indifferent of circumstances and create quietly remarkable wares.”


“Compelling and piquant” sums up Herbert’s attraction. His world is Western civilization and his poems often have a classical edge. He namedrops Thucydides, Marcus Aurelius and Spinoza. Best of all, he possesses what Seamus Heaney called Herbert’s “worldly irony.” That quality is indelible in his voice, even in translation. There’s a distance, a slyness, a withheld judgment coupled with Jeremiah-like prickliness. Here’s how he addresses Poland’s former Soviet masters in “The Power of Taste”:

“It didn’t require great character at all

our refusal disagreement and resistance

we had a shred of necessary courage

but fundamentally it was a matter of taste”


Of this poem Heaney writes: “There’s no reason why a poet shouldn’t be upfront and explicit in a poem about any political position or issue. [Perhaps, Seamus, perhaps.] All that’s required is that the position or issue should suffer some little bit of a sea change. A poem like . . . ‘The Power of Taste’ is a case in point. It is explicitly against the Soviet way of life and language, yet its rhetorical stance keeps it equidistant from rant and whimper.”


Wormser notes how seldom he encounters the word “conscience” in connection with contemporary American poetry. Not so with the Poles who, somehow, managed to remain un-self-righteous. Here are the lines from “The  Power of Taste” immediately following the ones quoted above: “Yes taste / in which there are fibers of soul the cartilage of conscience.” Wormser writes:


 “One of the startling traits of the Polish poets was how un-sanctimonious they were. They invited no awed hushes as they entered the precincts of art. They did not preen themselves or proffer a false, winning heartiness. They rejected cleverness out of hand. Rather, they evinced various degrees of the confusion and bemusement that are natural to human beings but that poems, in reaching for some imagist aperçu, frequently swept aside."


[The Heaney quotes are from Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney (ed. Dennis O’Driscoll, 2008).]

1 comment:

Busyantine said...

"the gray grief of communism...". A simple and wonderfully telling observation.