The Poetry of Containment: On Zbigniew Herbert

In his fictionalised biography of Henry James, The Master, Colm Toibin describes James’ English house in the following way: “In its detail and its dialogue, its slow movements and its mystery, it stood against abstraction, against the greyness and foolishness of large concepts. But it stood singly and small and unprotected, barely present.”

In his poem, Journey, the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert writes: “Discover the meanness of speech the kingly power of gesture/ The uselessness of concepts…” 

The “uselessness” or “foolishness” of concepts is a thread that runs through Zbigniew Herbert’s The Collected Poems: 1956 – 1998This is an anthology that spans forty-two years – a lifetime of writing – and the rise and fall of Stalinist communism in Poland, a political event that Herbert resisted in different ways throughout his life, and paid a heavy price for. As you might expect, the poems in the volume cover a vast field – from the overtly political (“To the Hungarians” and The Power of Taste“), to the indirectly political  (“Elegy of Fortinbras“), to the politics of aesthetics (“To Ryszard Krynicki“),  to invocations of myth (“Damastes Nicknamed Procrustes Speaks and “Apollo and Marysas“), to the naturalistic (“The Pebble“) and to the intimate and the personal (“Request“).

Poets, of course, evolve over the course of their life. The poems excerpted from Chord of Light (1956) and the selection from Rovigo (1992) or Epilogue to a Storm (1998) are very different from each other. However, what I found interesting was not the change, but the constancy: at all times, Herbert maintains his view about “the uselessness of concepts“. That phrase, however, might be impressionistic enough to be misleading. To take a longer shot at it: Herbert’s is a poetry of containment. By this I mean the following: Herbert is aware of the human impulse to seek transcendence, as a way of imposing meaning upon an otherwise bleak life. He is deeply distrustful of this impulse, because of how it can serve as a mask and a justification for the unjustifiable. However, his response is not to deny its existence, or to stifle it entirely, but to contain it. As a poet – and through his principal poetic construction, Mr Cogito – Herbert is engaged in a constant process of resisting the impulse to transcendence, and creating meaning in life out of this resistance, without taking refuge in nihilism or cynicism. And this applies across the spheres of existence: politics, art, language, and life.

It is important to distinguish the poetry of containment from other aesthetic visions that might overlap in some respects, but are actually quite different. A reading of the early Herbert might fuel the confusion. For instance, in I Would Like to Describe, he writes:

 

I would like to describe courage

without dragging behind me a dusty lion

and also anxiety

without shaking a glass full of water

 

to put it another way

I would give all metaphors

in return for one word

drawn out of my breast like a rib

for one word

contained within the boundaries

of my skin

but apparently this is not possible

 

One can, of course, read this as a standard lament about the gap between language and the world (in a later poem, Herbert makes the also-familiar move of bringing in music to fill the gap: “Mr Cogito/ doomed to stony speech/ to hoary syllables/ secretly worships/ transient lightness“), and how metaphors only take everything further away (we would be familiar with this argument, for instance, from Auden). In Never of YouHerbert expresses a similar sentiment, when he writes:

 

In fact I want to write of the house’s gate latch

of its rough handshake and its friendly creaks 

but although I know so much about it

I use only a cruelly common litany of words

So many feelings fit between two heartbeats

so many objects can be held in our two hands 

 

Don’t be surprised we can’t describe the world 

and just address things tenderly by name. 

 

It would, however, be too simplistic a reading of Herbert to limit him to merely expressing the inadequacy of language. A hint that there is something more subtle afoot comes from the untitled poem beginning with the lines “we fall asleep on words/ and wake up with words” (a poem that is similar in some respects – yet powerfully different – from Nazik al-Malaika’s Love Song for Words), and where the word “like” is described as “a little pricking pin/ holding together/ the most beautiful lost/ metaphor in the world” – lines that are acutely aware of the possibility of metaphor, a possibility that is even achievable, where Herbert wants missing words to enter “crippled sentences“, so that “the certainty we are waiting for/ casts anchor.” This poem is best placed in juxtaposition with one of Herbert’s later poems, titled “Mr. Cogito. Ars Longa“:

… in every generation

there are those who

with stubbornness worthy of a better cause

wish to rip poetry

from the claws

of the everyday 

 

at an early age

they enter the order 

of the Most Holy Subtlety

and Ascension

 

they strain minds and bodies 

to express that which is

beyond – 

that which is 

above – 

 

they don’t even feel 

how much promise

charm

surprise

lies hidden in the language

everyone

gabs in 

hoodlums and Horace. 

Here we have moved unambiguously to the critique of transcendence. If we read back this into the first two poems, we can understand them not so much as a confessional about the inadequacy of language, but about the failure of metaphors to do justice to existence – and that this is a claim that is not merely descriptive, but is borderline normative.

I think such a reading back makes sense, because it fits with Herbert’s other poems, that are not directly on the theme of language (although metaphor remains a common, binding thread). Consider, for instance, Elegy of Fortinbrasa poem that lies in that ambiguous borderland of the political, the personal, and the aesthetic. Fortinbras, musing over the recently-dead Hamlet’s corpse, says:

Now that we’re alone we can talk prince man to man 

though you lie on the stairs and see more than a dead ant 
nothing but black sun with broken rays 
I could never think of your hands without smiling 
and now that they lie on the stone like fallen nests 
they are as defenceless as before The end is exactly this 
The hands lie apart The sword lies apart The head apart 
and the knight’s feet in soft slippers

 

You will have a soldier’s funeral without having been a soldier 
they only ritual I am acquainted with a little 
There will be no candles no singing only cannon-fuses and bursts 
crepe dragged on the pavement helmets boots artillery horses drums 
drums I know nothing exquisite 
those will be my manoeuvres before I start to rule 
one has to take the city by the neck and shake it a bit

 

Anyhow you had to perish Hamlet you were not for life 
you believed in crystal notions not in human clay 
always twitching as if asleep you hunted chimeras 
wolfishly you crunched the air only to vomit 
you knew no human thing you did not know even how to breathe

 

Now you have peace Hamlet you accomplished what you had to 
and you have peace The rest is not silence but belongs to me 
you chose the easier part an elegant thrust 
but what is heroic death compared with eternal watching 
with a cold apple in one’s hand on a narrow chair 
with a view on the ant-ill and clock’ dial

 

Adieu prince I have tasks a sewer project 
and a decree on prostitutes and beggars 
I must also elaborate a better system of prisons 
since as you justly said Denmark is a prison 
I go to my affairs This night is born 
a star named Hamlet We shall never meet 
what I shall leave will not be worth a tragedy

 

It is not for us to greet each other or bid farewell we live on archipelagos 
and that water these words what can they do what can they do prince

I choose this poem for a segue from Herbert’s poetry about language, because its also not entirely clear which side he’s on. His dogged, prosaic Fortinbras is not exactly the most inspiring character in all of poetry. That said, the very act of choosing Fortinbras’ as the narrative voice is not entirely irrelevant, and even if not inspiring, there is a world-weary wisdom to this Fortinbras that makes him an oddly sympathetic voice (“… what I shall leave will not be worth a tragedy.”) And paying close attention to what Fortinbras says, we find a (somewhat submerged) critique of transcendence: “you believed in crystal notions, not human clay” is his indictment of Hamlet, and he then goes on to accuse the Prince of Denmark of having chosen “the easier part“, by dying a heroic death. Fortinbras’ own task – of governing – is much more prosaic, and, as he confesses at the end, between him and Hamlet there lies an unbridgeable gulf – of communication (and language?).

The fact that Herbert makes Fortinbras sympathetic and persuasive, but not entirely convincing, speaks – I think – to his awareness that the will to transcendence cannot be entirely suppressed; in fact, it must be acknowledged, without passing judgment. At best, it can be contained, along with the continuing awareness that it is always pressing down upon us from all sides.

This sense of containment is expressed particularly vividly in Herbert’s series of poems that feature his most famous poetic creation, Mr. Cogito. At first glance, Mr. Cogito – with his hesitations and faintly ridiculous classical manner – may seem quite Prufrockian, but this would be a mistake. Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe Mr Cogito as an honorary member of the Frankfurt School: he is a man who has seen through the hollowness and illusions of contemporary society, but whose response to that is withdrawal, refusal, and a quest for personal philosophical clarity over active political engagement.

This makes things a little difficult, because Herbert himself was not merely a passive refuser: he did play an active (although not a fighter’s) role in resistance to Stalinism. So does Mr Cogito speak for Herbert when, for instance, in About Mr Cogito’s Two Legs“:

 

The left leg normal
one could say optimistic
a little too short
boyish
with exuberant muscles
and a well-shaped calf

 

the right leg
God help us–
thin
with two scars
one along the Achilles tendon
the other oval
pale pink
shameful reminder of an escape

 

the left
inclined to leap
ready to dance
loving life too much
to expose itself

 

the right
nobly rigid
sneering at danger

 

in this way
on two legs
the left which can be compared to Sancho Panza
and the right
recalling the wandering knight
Mr Cogito
goes
through the world
staggering slightly

 

Suspended in the ambiguous zone between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza seems to me to be an accurate image of Herbert’s philosophy of containment: neither the fantasy-obsessed errant knight, nor the incurable skeptic. And it’s not only transcendence in its fantastical sense: Herbert is equally wary of other forms of exhibitionism. In Mr Cogito Meditates on Suffering, he dispenses with Mr Cogito as an intermediary, and directly urges the reader to “make use of the suffering gently moderately/ like an artificial limb/ without false shame/ but also without unnecessary pride/ drink the essence of bitter herbs/ but not to the dregs / leave carefully/ a few sips for the future…” In a still later poem, To Henryk Elzenburg on the Centennial of his Birth“, even the formal device of Mr Cogito is abandoned, and Herbert directly speaks to his former teacher (and through him, to the world):

 

“… the times we lived in were truly a tale told by an idiot

Full of sound and cruelty

Your severe gentleness delicate strength

Taught me to weather the world like a thinking stone

Patient indifferent and tender all at once

 

A thinking stone” is a very defamiliarising expression, although the adjectives that follow – “patient“, “indifferent“, and “tender” – clarify the paradox and bring it into a pattern. To be simultaneously indifferent and tender – to be a stone (remember Yeats’ “too long a sacrifice/ can make a stone of the heart“) and to think – is to feel, but to feel within limits. Perhaps, in this respect, Herbert and Mr Cogito are in consensus.

The same Mr Cogito, however, also bemoans “the pettiness of dreams”, longing for the time of his grandparents, when “their terror was great as a horde of Tartars/ and happiness in a dream like golden rain“, instead of dreams in which “a collector hands me the bill for the gas and electricity.” Once again, the pull of transcendence – even if it is only through the medium of dreams – is acknowledged without judgment, even with sympathy.

If, in the domain of language, of the personal and of the aesthetic, Herbert never quite reveals his hand entirely, it is in the political realm that his poetry of containment is at its sharpest, starkest, and least ambiguous. “Mr Cogito’s Game“, that begins with “Mr Cogito’s/ favourite entertainment/ is the Kropotkin game…“, in its second part, makes this powerful statement:

 

so many years

so many years now

Mr Cogito has been playing

 

but never has he

been tempted

by the role of the fugitive hero

 

not because of any dislike

for the blue blood

of the prince of anarchists

nor distaste for the theory

of mutual aid

 

it isn’t due to cowardice either

Zofia Niklaevna

the fiddler in the little gray house

Doctor Orestes

all put their heads on the line

 

but with them

Mr Cogito

Identifies almost completely

 

if the need arose

he would even be a horse

for the fugitive’s carriage

 

Mr Cogito

would like to be freedom’s intermediary

 

hold the escape rope

smuggle the message

give the sign

 

trust the heart

the pure impulse of sympathy

 

but he doesn’t want to answer for what

is written in the monthly Freedom

by bearded men

of feeble imagination

 

he accepts a supporting role

he will not dwell in history

There is, of course, a sense of Prufrock’s “I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be”, but that similarity is only superficial. The reason why Mr Cogito doesn’t want to be Hamlet – “but he doesn’t want to answer for what/ is written in the monthly Freedom/ by bearded men/ of feeble imagination” – is because that would require him to make transcendental arguments (in this case, about freedom). This impulse is presented in an even sharper form in Mr Cogito and the Imagination”:

 

… he would rarely soar
on the wings of a metaphor
and then he fell like Icarus
into the embrace of the Great Mother

he adored tautologies
explanations
idem per idem

that a bird is a bird
slavery means slavery
a knife is a knife
death remains death

 

In the Introduction to the Herbert’s Collected Prose, the last four lines are extracted as evidence of Herbert’s determination to seek clarity in language as a way of opposing totalitarianism, in a manner that George Orwell advocates in his essay, Politics and the English Language or – as Marx wrote about the 1848 revolution – to ensure that “phrases have given place to the real thing.”

While I think this reading is largely correct – there is no doubt that Herbert was preoccupied by how totalitarian politics used image and metaphor to justify its crimes (this is reflected vividly in one of his most political poems, Damastes Nicknamed Procrustes Speaks, where Herbert’s Procrustes says that “… in fact I was a scholar a social reformer/ my true passion was anthropometry/ I designed a bed to the size of the perfect man/ I measured captured travelers against that bed/ it was hard to avoid – I admit – stretching limbs/ trimming extremeties/ the patients died but the more of them perished/ the surer I became that my research was correct/ the end was sublime progress requires sacrifice), at least in this poem, he infuses doubt right at the end:

 

Mr Cogito’s imagination
has the motion of a pendulum

it crosses with precision
from suffering to suffering

there is no place in it
for the artificial fires of poetry

he would like to remain faithful
to uncertain clarity

 

If uncertain clarity, then, is the best we can achieve, than can one really be faulted for falling prey to the temptation of certain clarity – the clarity offered by metaphor and image?

Well, perhaps yes. The last poem that I want to discuss is one that brings together the political, the aesthetic, and the personal, into one comprehensive indictment of totalitarianism. This is “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

                                    Yes taste

in which there are fibers of soul the cartilage of conscience

 

Who knows if we had been better and more attractively tempted

sent rose-skinned women thin as a wafer

or fantastic creatures from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch

but what kind of hell was there at this time

a wet pit the murderers’ alley the barrack

called a palace of justice

a home-brewed Mephisto in a Lenin jacket

sent Aurora’s grandchildren out into the field

boys with potato faces

very ugly girls with red hands

 

Verily their rhetoric was made of cheap sacking

(Marcus Tullius kept turning in his grave)

chains of tautologies a couple of concepts like flails

the dialectics of slaughterers no distinctions in reasoning

syntax deprived of beauty of the subjunctive

 

So aesthetics can be helpful in life

one should not neglect the study of beauty

 

Before we declare our consent we must carefully examine

the shape of the architecture the rhythm of the drums and pipes

official colors the despicable ritual of funerals

 

              Our eyes and ears refused obedience

              the princes of our senses proudly chose exile

 

It did not require great character at all

we had a shred of necessary courage

but fundamentally it was a matter of taste

                                Yes taste

that commands us to get out to make a wry face draw out a sneer

even if for this the precious capital of the body the head

                                                    must fall

 

The poem, of course, is self-explanatory: Herbert attributes his resistance to totalitarianism not to great personal courage, or to strength of political conviction, but to its kitsch aesthetic. But that, of course, raises the disturbing possibility of a totalitarianism whose aesthetic succeeded in offering the “certain clarity” that the artificial fires of poetry can’t. Would Herbert have succumbed? He himself cannot tell us: “Who knows if we had been better and more attractively tempted?” Who knows indeed.

This, then, is what the poetry of containment leaves us with: emotion, language, metaphor and image, art, and politics are always just on the cusp of spilling over from the contained borders within which Herbert’s poetry attempts to place them, into a space where they can become masks and reasons for horror. Herbert recognises and acknowledges that as a fundamental aspect of the human condition. With that – somewhat bleak – realization always around the edges of his poetry, never to be completely consigned to oblivion, he attempts to create meaning – and a certain kind of beauty – within the borders of containment. The result is poetry that has all the force of “uncertain clarity.”

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Filed under European Writing, Poland, Zbigniew Herbert

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