The New York Review Of Books

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Andy Zebrowitz


In The New York Review Of Books, Alvarez writes, “[Zbigniew] Herbert is the only contemporary poet I know who can talk about nobility...without sounding false. It is a note that is rare in the arts of any period.”
Alvarez is gravely mistaken in his assessment of Herbert, poetry, and the arts in general. Art in its high form is an attempt at expression, a desire to communicate, and poetry is simutaneously the least capable art form of acheiving this goal and the most pretentious of all expressions. It shrouds meaning in a veil of obscurity, distracts from coherency for the sake of pomposity, and with very few exceptions is a self-indulgant method of expressing ideas and thoughts that are better suited to, and would be better expressed by, any number of other mediums.
Herbet is not one of the exceptions. His every poem drips with desperation, but it is not the desperation of the anguished visages he is describing. No, the desperation is that of a man furiously, urgently trying to convince his audience that he has ascended to some new level of understanding by refusing -- as most poets do -- to convey his meaning clearly and without pretense, instead opting for hopelessly tedious prose with line breaks, which evidently is supposed to have some sort of artistic merit but actually defeats any attempt at communication.
Gaze upon me, mortals,” Herbert seems to say with each mind-numbingly laborious stanza, “gaze upon my glory, for I am an artiste, feeling the same pain that you feel, but in a much moreprofound manner. Truly I have been touched by the hand of God!”
The validity of this criticism stems directly from the authors' choice of medium: poetry, as noted, is pretentious by its very nature -- essentially normal narrative prose, but essays simply aren't artistic enough for the I Want To Believe crowd of holier-than-thou pseudo-intellectuals. What to do, then? The answer seems obvious: Write your narrative, and then insert random line breaks, odd punctuation, and refuse to capitalize words properly. With this simple trick of formatting, the once-banal narrative becomes a sublime meditation, a thing to be revered, and the poet lauded as an offbeat-yet-acceptable counter-culture revolutionary. Gentlemen, start your acceptance speeches.
Allow me to demonstrate the ease with which any prose may be turned into such an exquisite pearl of accomplished poetry. Here, I have taken an utterly random news story from Google news, and formatted the first paragraph of the article. Observe:
In a scene eerily similar to the ongoing hostage-takings

in Baghdad

three kidnapped United Nations election workers appeared

in a new videotape

aired Sunday

on the al-Jazeera Arabic television station.

Their kidnappers threatened to execute them

in 72 hours

(unless the U.N.

and foreign troops

withdraw from Afghanistan)

and Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners are freed from American military jails.

Oh, the anguish. Oh, the despair. The haunting image of martial law, of incarceration and life being carelessly used as a bargaining chip. The rhythmic tone sublimates through the words to counterpoint the surrealism of the underlying metaphor. Can we, but simple men, ever hope to truly comprehend the vastness of the intellect that produced such a wonderous and melodic piece?
This demonstration shows that poetry as a means of expression is chosen not for its ability to express, but to give off airs; to cultivate in the minds of the audience that the poet has something more to say than meets the eye. In this example, the message is clearly the same as it was before the format was changed, but with the introduction of oh-so-clever unjustified margins we are invited to search for some hidden gem of meaning -- meaning we know isn't there.
What may we say of a man who writes? He is driven, somehow, to write, and to articulate the ideas and notions he generates. The writing may be exquisite, or it may be terrible, but we judge the writing based on content. What, then, is the poet's motivation? He is doing the same thing as the writer, but by choosing to format his writing in unconventional ways, he is now forcing the reader to judge not on content, but on other, much more inconsequential criteria -- the layout, the meter, the length of each line or the use of reptition. It is not actually conveying anything that could not be conveyed more succinctly, more concisely, and with more impact in other, more prosaic forms -- but those other forms do not carry the lofty, high-minded image of the tortured, quietly weeping poet.
While some may be more technically adept at such contrivances, the ability to do such things well is not something to be praised -- it is similar to the trick shooter who can pick the pips out of playing cards at twenty paces while blindfolded. Impressive, yes, but wholly unnecessary, and it is the result of artificially contrived restrictions that serve no useful purpose, asthetic or otherwise. At best it is a silly parlor trick, and at worst, a desperate attempt to garner attention where none is legitimately due.
Therefore, when I say that poetry is a pretentious form of art, this statement is not one borne merely of a man tired of the empty rhetoric, but of one who demands a higher level of competence from his mental excercise than this. To poets I say: You are not fooling me.
With that out of the way, let us examine in detail some of Herbert's poems, tiny treasure troves of mindless self-congratulation and navel-gazing flamboyancy.

What I Saw

Absolutely terrible. I have sat in this chair reading this tripe for a full ten minutes and have been unable to glean any meaningful message from this. The reader gets a vague, ambiguous impression about one unspecified group of people being mean to another unspecified group, or perhaps it's just a general commentary on the ease with which people adopt roles. As a general rule, if the audience cannot gain meaning from a piece of art, then the artist has failed.
Herbert attempts to insert some sort of rhythm into his tired, meaningless poem through use of repetition: “I saw I saw”, he writes, as though we didn't get it the first time. While the rhythm of any prose is important, one must take into consideration, in all things, whether or not the technique being used adds any value to the conveyence of the idea. In Herbert's case, it does not; it's simply thrown in to appear impressive. GRADE: D-
From the Top of the Stairs

Laughable at best, downright ridiculous at worst, this poem is another tribute to the fact that Herbert, like so many other poets, thinks he can get away with refusing to capitalize words properly and that this “technique” will somehow, in some way, add artistic merit. In actuality it turns me off in the extreme. If he can't be bothered to capitalize properly then I can't be bothered to read this drivel. As before, Herbert fails to consider the impact of technique on meaning, preferring to just wander off in his delusional artsy little world and do whatever he damn well pleases, whether it helps his expression or not.
This piece appears to be, near as any sane man can determine, some sort of rah-rah, fist-pumping call to arms -- about what, no one can say, probably not even Herbert himself. The entire poem is spent flagrantly trying to convince the reader that the poet is just one of the commoners, angry and ready to storm the castle gates by “dashing at their stairs” and “capturing them by storm”. I have absolutely no idea who he's angry at, who the rest of his comarades-in-arms are, nor why he insists that “we are different” as though any other human would not be equally distraught in the face of whatever adversity he's facing here. Another vague poem which is “open to interpretation”, artspeak for “meaningless”. GRADE: F
Mr. Cogito's Soul

I would rather be pulled backwards through a combine harvester than read this again. I am assuming, though this is just a guess since Herbert never actually bothers clarifying anything, that the mysterious “Mr Cogito” is meant to symbolize thought. Armed with that knowledge I am no more able to make sense of this hackneyed nonsense than I could without such knowledge. Some would say this is my problem, but I say it's the poet's faut for not expressing himself clearly. If you have something to say, spit it out, man.
The best I can do is that Herbert is trying to talk about some absurd Platonic notion of duality, the distinction between body and soul, or mind and thought, or some other asinine rhetoric that most people stop thinking is deep by the time they're seventeen. In any event, this poem is crap. GRADE: F
To the River

Spare me. Spare me, spare me, spare me! “o cool torch rustling column”? What in the name of the gods is this lunatic talking about? This doesn't mean anything. Full of empty pretense and vapid metaphors that never go anywhere, this poem is evidently meant to express Herbert's desire to be ever-changing yet steadfast, learning the ways of a river. “bedrock of my faith and my despair,” continues Herbert. Is this man a serious poet, or is he a high-school coffeehouse wannabe, scrawling lackluster and formulaic tripe into a mottled black-and-white Mead notebook with pen drawings of wilting roses on the cover? I'm guessing the latter. GRADE: C, as in C me after class.
Prayer of Mr. Cogito - Traveler

Mr Cogito makes a surprise return in this spellbinding sequel to “Mr Cogito”. Apparently Herbert didn't feel he'd gotten his insipid message across the first time (which is true), and so here we have another hopeless attempt. Herbert yet again tries to use fanciful methods in place of actual coherency, this time opting for the ever-popular random dashes that appear before some stanzas but not others, with no discernable reason behind it.
The best interpretation I can muster for this cliched, pedestrian garbage is that Herbert is filled with regret -- over what, it cannot be determined. “I was lazy absent-minded too careful in labyrinths and grottos,” he writes, and one can almost hear the self-satisfied sigh as he leans back in his oversized easy chair and takes a large, thoughtful drag on a corncob pipe. Lines like this are, as noted, empty pretense -- they sound impressive at first glance, but a milliseconds' worth of further observation yields the inevitable fact that it doesn't say anything.
a forest was a forest the sea was the sea rock was rock”, according to Herbert. How true. How true indeed. GRADE: F-
Mr. Cogito - the Return

For chrissake, Herbert. Have you not done this theme to death already? Using a character named Mr Cogito to represent concious deliberation was not all that clever the first time, and by the third iteration it begins to grate like Johnny One-Note playing the kazoo. Herbert is showing himself to be the one-trick pony that we all suspected him of being, blithering about Mr Cogito's return to his homeland, which is surely meant to symbolize something but I have no idea what, as usual, because Herbert has yet to master, or even be an apprentice to, the concept of letting function dictate form.
This is a two-part poem, although, try as I might, I am completely at a loss to figure out what distinction there is between parts one and two. Once again we also have the random pre-narrative hyphens or dashes, which once again add nothing but distraction from the meaning of the words, but in the final analysis, I suppose it makes no difference, since no meaning exists. GRADE: F
Mr. Cogito and the Imagination

I'll dispense with the expected mockery. One thing Herbert excels at is using paradoxes to cultivate the impression that he is saying something impressive and profound, and this poem is a sterling example of this weak, transparent system. “he would like to remain faithful to uncertain clarity,” claims Herbert of his worn-out character. “Uncertain clarity” indeed. How deliciously ironic.
Our Mr Cogito here wishes for nothing but understanding. See how his soul burns with inner passion as he seeks to comprehend such lofty, august concepts such as “Pascal's night” and “the madness of those who kill”. Pascal was a fundamentalist idiot who used threats in place of logic, and this I can say with uncertain clarity: if Herbert wishes to understand the madness of those who kill, he need only read his own poems for some insight into deep psychosis. GRADE: D

Having skipped about fifty-eight more explorations of Mr. Cogito's uninspired journeys, we come to “Babylon”. The best I can say about this poem is that it is tolerable, but just barely. A dull meditation on a would-be erudite's sudden revelation that cities evolve like everything else, Herbert discovers that the place he left years ago is no longer quite what he remembers. Launching headfirst into an unnecessarily tedious monologue, replete with the standard-issue lack of puncutation and an atrocious disrespect for grammatical conventions (again without consideration for any valid artistic legitimacy), Herbert takes us on a walk through the city, checking out paintings, watching drunks, and finally concluding that the city is dead. Would that Herbert was not living in an old man's fantasy of better times in epochs past, but the idea has some merit even if the execution is vile. GRADE: C

All in all, Herbert's primary motivation seems to stem from a malfunctioning nonsense detector. He does not have, in his intellectual toolkit, the means by which to say, when a wet steaming pile of nonsense falls on his head: “My goodness, this appears to be nonsense.” Fortunately for those who appreciate clarity of thought and artistic expression, there exist people who are not suckered in by feeble posturing and overblown facades of desperate pretexts and who will not pretend that significance abounds when it is conspicuously absent. Rigorous examination of Herbert's poetry reveals that most of it is little more than a dim and pale characature of truly great poems, as he recklessly allows appearance and form to obliterate purpose. Frank Lloyd Wright would be appalled, and so am I.
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