Busy Work 3
Adam Zagajewski is a wonderful poet. I also admire his essays. I don't have any answers for him tonight, but Zagajeski does have some interesting (if somewhat dispiriting) questions to ask.
"How do poets live?" someone might ask. "Do they really toss and turn between faith and reflection?" I suspect that they usually live differently. They live defending poetry. Poets live like the defenders of a beseiged citadel, checking to see whether the enemy is approaching and where he is coming from. This isn't a healthy way of life; it often makes for lack of generosity and self-criticism. It may render poets incapable of thinking against themselves and against the age, which is generally mistaken.
Do they seek truth? Don't they too easily fall prey to frivolous prophets, chaotic philosophers, whom they can neither understand nor renounce? Poetry's poverty lies precisely in the excessive faith it places in the day's reigning thinkers--and politicians. That is what happened, after all, in the middle of the last century, whose heavy lid still presses down on us. Poets possessed by great emotion, subservient to the energies of talent, no longer perceive reality. Why did Brecht serve Stalin? Why did Neruda adore him? Why did Gottfreid Benn place his faith in Hitler for several months? Why did the French poets believe in the structualists? Why do young American poets pay so much attention to their immediate family and neglect a deeper reality? Why are there so many mediocre poets, whose triteness drives us to despair? Why do contemporary poets--those hundreds and thousands of poets--agree to spiritual tepidity, to those small, well-crafted, ironic jokes, to elegant, at times rather pleasant nihilism?
...I must confess (as the reader has already guessed) that I am not entirely opposed to a free, wise, splendid poetry that manages to link near and far, high and low, the earthly and the divine, a poetry that manages to transcribe the soul's motions, lovers' quarrels, the scene on a city street, and can, at the same time, attend to history's footsteps, a tyrant's lies, that won't fail in the hour of trial. I'm angered only by small poetry, meanspirited, unintelligent, a lacky poetry, slavishly intent on the promptings of the spirits of the age, that lazy bureaucrat flitting just above the earth in a dirty cloud of illusion.
From "Against Poetry" in A Defense of Ardor: Essays by Adam Zagajewski (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004) pp. 141-142