Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Why The Classics?

Now and again I read a poem which compels me to think about what poetry can achieve and, from there, to think about what any artistic endeavour can achieve. It easy to make grand claims for poetry (and enough people have done and continue to make such claims) or to suggest that, given its tiny readership, it doesn’t really matter at all.

The poem I have in mind doesn’t allow such simple answers. It’s a terrific poem in itself. Why the Classics? by Zbigniew Herbert (originally from his 1969 collection, Inscription, and translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott) isn’t arguing that we should only read the classics. It’s asking what’s important about art, about what really matters in life. The final stanza at the link (it’s the second poem down) is misquoted. That section of the poem should read:

3.

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 be like lovers’ weeping
in a small dirty hotel
when wallpaper dawns

Herbert is contrasting this with Thucydides whose military endeavours failed to save his city. He paid for his mistake with exile from the city. Modern day generals would whine instead, says Herbert. So full of self-pity, they would blame others. Thucydides, in his fourth book on the Peloponnesian war, offers no such excuses. Then come the final stanzas, quoted above.

They are completely devastating, I think. They call so much of modern literature into question. I reflect on some poems I have written too… On the other hand, they also suggest that art doesn’t have to have broken souls full of self-pity as subject, that we can all learn something from Thucydides, and that artistic endeavour, including poetry, can find real vitality and importance. The key is not so much even about subject-matter, more an approach to writing a poem, an authenticity. Self-pity is usually a disguise for self-aggrandizement, in any case a step away from how things really are.

8 comments:

Roddy said...

Rob, sorry but it does nothing for me at all. Like so much poetry in translation, I feel like I'm reading a restaurant review rather than eating. And that sort of lofty rhetoric that is in so many Euro 'major poet' poems: 'among long speeches of chiefs / battles sieges plague / dense net of intrigues of diplomatic endeavours' - no thanks!

deemikay said...

I'm not going to argue with that last sentence. Woe-ist-me = Look-at-me.

Rob said...

I don't know whether this criticism of the Milosz/Dale Scott translations is accurate, of course, as I know no Polish, but I've heard it said that the lofty rhetorical passages are more Milosz than Herbert.

On the other hand, I've also read criticism which claims the Carpenters' translations are too plain style.

And criticism that says the Valles translations are too hysterically lyrical.

Hard to know, of course. But ZH is one of my favourites, in whatever translation. I don't think this is one of his greatest poems, mind you, but it made me think hard about issues concerning writing poetry. I love the one below it at the link, 'The Envoi of Mr Cogito', but he's maybe just not for you, Roddy.

BarbaraS said...

This post and the stanzas you quote remind me of old Oscar's quote: 'All art is useless.'

And I know there's a whole debate that still rages about that, but thanks for the lines and the thoughts about them.

Rob said...

I had to switch my moderatorial censor powers on comments for a short time, by the way, due to an over-enthusiastic Taiwanese spammer.

Back to normal now, I hope...

Anonymous said...

Reacting in blind extemporised response, to only the eight lines, not familiar with Polish or the poetry of Milosz, or knowing if Herbert improves, de-proves or delivers equal poetic probity - the first thing to affect the eye is

a small broken soul
with *a* great self-pity

...thinking, why is the indefinate article there, one raggy letter sticking out and stopping my eye, causing the initial instictive response which led to its removal and discovering there is no compelling reason for it to be there and indeed its removal causes an elevation of the metrical and grammatical grace, the acoustic flow improves.

The score at this point in a game-with-self exercise for the purpose of Creation - in the sense that this is from whence i came and will return, in the most fundamental aspect of being a miniscule irrelevance in the fabric, rubric and workings of the observable and unobservable universe and beyond to eternal space and time where Lir and the primordial force of Chaos link to their beings, the lyric practitoners who are the polysemic we and they both at once, and thinking, why, why does that one letter prime placed vowel in both latin and ogham orthographies affect one so?

Then, reading the scene, and being struck by an opaque paucity of startling pictures the narrator makes and asking, why does H and/or M not move one so Dizzer lah, howz it fink, do those eight lines conduct an amazing fidelity and back-look reflecting a veracity of those ancient gods, or not?

And i thought the first two lines are very promising, the opportunity to take us from an already elevated space, to outer space and then static till we reach a descending second stanza and end up at a Larkin departure-point of curtains and hotels.

My imagination carried off into visions of spank mag and wallpaper dawns?

Curtains aloft
Tables behave
Art is a stolen
Visitor grove
oaken plumes of burnished
mauve, two nymphs
bent asking,

can you see them
talking out of there
hole...

or is it just me bein fick?

coz

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 be like lovers weeping
in a small dirty hotel
when wallpaper dawns

ya bro, a Bosch CB8 520
interrogating oranges
Cuban general, oh oh oh
oh what a lovely bored

soldier loosening off
spank mags and My Guy

Jackie and Cosmo, Loaded
whatever happened to lads

did s/he wear chaps, Erato

utter the magic haloo?

deemikay said...

Quite. :|

Ethan said...

It's the question readers ask instinctively, and writers avoid by pretending it's gauche: are you telling anything I don't already know?

I quite liked the poem, I think the translators did their job, and I feel the same way, Rob.