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:
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.