As I’m working through this stack from the essay class I took at Sarah Lawrence College in the 1990s there is no order to them. Over a year ago I just pulled the stack out of a box in my garage and have been pulling essays off the top of it. Occasionally I’ll come across something that’s more research than essay and I’ll stick that stuff back to the bottom of the stack to figure out what to do with later.
So it’s always incredible to get an essay during a timely moment. And this week’s pick was eerily apropos in light of the horrible news continually coming out of Ukraine.
The packet is chapter 5 from the book The Witness of Poetry by Czeslaw Milosz, a book I own and read so long ago I didn’t recognize this re-reading it again now, or maybe it just didn’t resonate back then before such an event as Ukraine or the political crack-up we've been witnessing worldwide over the last 10 years.
The chapter, called “Ruins and Poetry,” talks about the ways in which Polish poets once dealt with the hellish devastation they experienced between 1939-1945, examining “what happens to modern poetry in certain historical conditions,” how certain luxuries of thought become meaningless.
Milosz starts by saying,
“a hierarchy of needs is built into the very fabric of reality and is revealed when a misfortune touches a human collective, whether that be war, the rule of terror, or natural catastrophe. Then to satisfy hunger is more important than finding food that suits one’s taste; the simplest act of human kindness toward a fellow being acquires more importance than any refinement of the mind. The fate of a city, of a country, becomes the center of everyone’s attention, and there is a sudden drop in the number of suicides committed because of disappointed love or psychological problems. A great simplification of everything occurs and an individual asks himself why he took to heart matters that now seem to have no weight.”
This immediately reminds me of the luxury of experimental and avant garde poetries and how this luxury is not available to poets in communities experiencing peril, but is more often a poetry project chosen by white, middle-class writers and artists. But I was ahead of myself. Milosz continues,
“And, evidently, people’s attitude toward the language also changes. It recovers its simplest function and is again an instrument serving a purpose; no one doubts that the language must name reality, which exists objectively, massive, tangible, and terrifying in its consequences.”
Which is exactly where we find ourselves now, not only with language theory but in the reality that is in contention on the Internet and in the news.
Milosz talks about the underground Polish poetry written under German occupation, it’s “documentary value” more than its “artistic rank.” It’s only after the war, an “exceptionally trying collective experience,” that poets are able to try to define the disintegration they experienced and explore a language that poorly served as “a façade to hide the genocide under way” and how even the language of “religion, philosophy, and art became suspect as accomplices in deceiving man with lofty ideas, in order to veil the truth of existence.”
First, we look at the poetry of Tadeusz Różewicz, “Nothing in Prospero’s Cloak” and how the poem is an “accusation at human speech, history, and even the very fabric of life in society, instead of a poem pointing out the concrete reasons for the anger and disgust. That probably happens," Milosz says, "because as was the case in Poland during war, reality eludes the means of language and is the source of deep traumas, including the natural trauma of a country betrayed by its Allies.”
And after such devastations, all writers and artists suffer an existential crisis of confidence. Later Milosz even invokes the famous Theodor Adorno adage, paraphrasing that “after the Holocaust, poetry is impossible.”
“Next to the atrocious facts, the very idea of literature seems indecent, and one doubts whether certain zones of reality can ever be the subject of poems or novels…On the other hand…documentary poems belong to literature and one may ask, out of respect for those who perished, whether a more perfect poetry would not be a more appropriate monument than poetry on the level of facts.”
We then look at Anna Świrszczyńska and how she witnessed the atrocities of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 and how it was only “many years later” (30 years in fact) that she could “reconstruct that tragedy” with a “style of miniatures scenes," very short poems or micro reports, single incidents in her book Building the Barricade.
These poets search for “equilibrium amid chaos” and often “take refuge in the world of objects” as “human affairs are uncertain and unspeakably painful, but objects represent a stable reality, do not alter with reflexes of fear, love, or hate and always ‘behave’ logically."
“Objects in [Zbigniew Herbert’s] poetry seem to follow this reasoning: European culture entered a phase where the neat criteria of good and evil, of truth and falsity, disappeared; at the same time, man became a plaything of powerful collective movements expert in reversing values, so that from one day to the next black would become white, a crime a praiseworthy deed, and an obvious lie an obligatory dogma.”
“Moreover, language was appropriated by the people in power who monopolized the mass media and were able to change the meaning of words to suit themselves. The individual is exposed to a double attack. On the one hand, he must think of himself as the product of determinants which are social, economic, and psychological. On the other hand, his loss of autonomy is confined by the totalitarian nature of political power. Such circumstances make every pronouncement on human values uncertain. In one of Huber’s poems the narrator hears the voice of conscience but is unable to decipher what the voice is trying to say.”
The poem “The Pebble,” Milosz says, is polemical, especially the last three lines.
“Pebbles cannot be tamed, but people can, if the rulers are sufficiently crafty and apply the stick-and-carrot method successfully. Tamed people are full of anxiety because of their hidden remorse; they do not look us straight in the face. Pebbles will look at us ‘with a calm and very clear eye’ to the end. To the end of what? We may ask. Probably to the end of the world.”
“events burdening a whole community are perceived by the poet as touching him in a most personal manner. Then poetry is no longer alienated….if we must choose the poetry of such an unfortunate country as Poland to learn that the great schism in poetry is curable, then that knowledge brings no comfort. Nevertheless, the example that poetry give us perspective on some ritual of poets when they are separated from ‘the great human family.’”
He then talks about Mallarme’s sonnet “Le Tombeau d’Edgar Allan Poe" and says
“it was Poe’s use of English and his form of versification that contributed to this marginal place in the history of American poetry...From romanticism, of course, comes the idealization of the lonely, misunderstood individual charged with a mission in society, and thus French symbolism emerges as a specific mutation of the romantic heritage…Society appears as given, like trees and rocks, endowed with the firm, settled existence typical of nineteenth century bourgeois France. It is precisely that aspect of poetry in isolation as depicted in this sonnet which strikes us as incompatible with what we have learned in the twentieth century. Social structures are not stable, they display great flexibility, and the place of the artist has not been determined once and for all...Polish poets found out that the hydra so ominously present for the symbolists is in reality quite weak, in other words, that the established order, which provides the framework for the quarrel between the poet and the crowd can cease to exist from one day to the next.”
And finally, Milosz leaves us with this very conclusion about how we choose (or are forced) to write:
“Polish poets may reproach their Western colleagues who generally repeat the thought patterns proper to the isolated poet. That would be a reproach for lacking realism. In colloquial speech, the word ‘unrealistic’ indicates an erroneous presentation of facts and implies a confusion of the important and unimportant, a disturbance of the hierarchy. All reality is hierarchical simply because human needs and the dangers threatening people are arranged on a scale. No easy agreement can be reached as to what should occupy first place. It is not always bread; often it is the word. And death is not always the greatest menace; often slavery is. Nevertheless, anyone who accepts the existence of such a scale behaves differently from someone who denies it. The poetic act changes with the amount of background reality embraced by the poet’s consciousness. In our century that background is, in my opinion, related to the fragility of those things we call civilization or culture. What surrounds us, here and now, is not guaranteed. It could just as well not exist—and so man constructs poetry out of the remnants found in ruins."
Recently (as part of a Katharine Hepburn project) I’ve been reading the poems of H. Phelps Putnam, the famous poet Hepburn failed to bed despite many attempts. (Her father threatened to shoot Putnam during a visit to Fenwick).
Putnam was very famous as poets go, as famous as Hemmingway, Fitzgerald and Edna St. Vincent Millay at the time they say. Notoriously low opinion of women, except for the great Kate herself who surfaces very well in his poem "Daughters of the Sun." These days you’ll never see his name referenced in any poetry anthologies nor are you able to find any decent pictures of him online (just tried).
But his poem below seems a very American response to the devastating news of war, but one that exists far away and requires a less dramatic reprioritization of the hierarchy of one's needs, a war that gives the poet the luxury to experience anxiety but not devastation. His priorities are challenged but to a lesser degree (at least where love and laughter become prioritized). This is a valid response in its context, albeit far luckier. In this case, the poet is dealing with the news of World War I.
H. Phelps Putnam
Our days are clamorous, and all about
All men say this and that, and crack their throats:
Of shame some bawl, and some of honor shout,
And still the nerve-wracked crowd upon them dotes.
Alas, my love, I know not what they mean—
Would that I did, life is much gentler so—
For it is merely something heard and seen,
The shadowed stir of a galanty show.
One thing I know, one unhowled truth for us!
I love you and you me—it is enough!
It is the point of flame round which the world
Of misty clamor turns, and turning thus,
Is but an irony, our mirthful stuff,
Of laughter born, and into laughter whirled.