04. 18. 2008. 09:25

The plucking of poetry

— all the way to the goose flesh

Written poetry is aristocratic by nature, yet it is customary (it behooves us) to call the world we live in democratic. On what authority do I call myself an Odysseus, a king, a priest, a leader, and—well, yes—a poet?

When Odysseus decided to subject himself to the singing of the Sirens, a fair bit was put at stake. His own life for one thing, and those of his sailors as well. All the same, his chances of coming through it were fairly strong since he was a king, and orders are orders, after all, and in trust is truth. He was able to trust his sailors, then, even though he had himself bound to the mast and gave the order that they were not to untie him, however hard he screamed and shouted, whereas the sailors themselves must not immediately dig out the wax plugs from their ears and take wild flying dives into the waves, leaving their king high and dry, tied to the mast, effing and blinding while the Sirens’ song warbled much as in a video promotion clip.
 
Once upon a time that was how things were. A king was not chosen merely to rule, to lead his troops into battle and, preferably, lead them back home (in fact Odysseus failed on that score…), but a king was chosen in order to mediate certain experiences between his people and the divine world. To recount to them what the Sirens’ song was like, for instance. Alongside his roles as leader, judge and priest, on occasion he also assumed that of poet. Until the latter function was entrusted to poets.
 
Poetry is nothing more than telling the tale of the Sirens’ song. Someone listens to it and then attempts to pass it on to others. It is a huge undertaking and a hopeless one at that, because even the greatest poets are only capable of passing on but a faint echo of the Sirens’ song. Even so, it is a sacred duty.
 
Poetry—at least ever since it has been written (that is, ever since the king entrusted it to poets)—is aristocratic in character.
 
Now, being an aristocrat does not simply imply toffee-nosed elitist arrogance; that is a mistake. Being an aristocrat stands for remembering what it was (which fief, for instance) the king entrusted to one. Being an aristocrat stands for being responsible for the fief that has been entrusted to one—what particular bit of the world, the beasts, mankind, the planet, and so forth. A poet is not an aristocrat at the very times he is accused of being one (ivory tower, elitism, etcetera); those are the times when he is not an aristocrat, just a coward and stuck-up: he is hiding from what is entrusted to him. Sándor Petofi, a born democrat if ever there was, lived like an aristocrat because, until the day he died, he was serious about his own gift, his mission, and what had been entrusted to him: the people, the Hungarian language, his poems, indeed poetry itself. His fief.
 
Ladies and gentlemen, the basic reason why I was so reluctant to accept the flattering invitation to assume this magnificent role of giving you a talk on the subject of the art of poetry is that I feel there are irresolvable contradictions between the state of written poetry today, the general state of poetry today, and my current mental state. In plain language, written poetry is aristocratic by nature, yet it is customary (it behooves us) to call the world we live in democratic. On what authority do I call myself an Odysseus, a king, a priest, a leader, and—well, yes—a poet? Nowadays everyone has the right to listen to the Sirens’ song. At least they do in principle. In practice, however, that goes with a near-certainty the boat will strike the rocks, as is shown all too alarmingly by the ship of Western civilisation as it drifts aimlessly in its culture of round-the-clock entertainment, partying and consumerism, but that does nothing to alter the uncomfortable, conscience-stricken sensation that if I were to start talking about my own poetry, that could only be presumptuous, purblind conceit on my part, nothing else, because as the years go by I am increasingly assailed by doubts.
 
In an objective talk on the art of poetry—or in its place—I feel it is only honest to admit to my own puzzlement. When I sit down to write a poem—that is, when I resolve to sit down, in spite of everything—then for many years my first task has been to grapple with that puzzlement and even incredulity. That is an objective art of poetry.
 
I belong to the hapless generation that turned forty around the millennium. Around that age one gets to wondering what one has achieved in life. A forty-year-old poet who has made no impression cuts a laughable figure. Hundreds upon hundreds of millions ready themselves for decades for centennial and millennial celebrations, so it is hardly surprising—being a self-fulfilling prophecy—that these regularly mark the beginning of some sort of new era. In an intellectual as well as a historical sense. The crisis of the forty-year-olds of my generation happens to have coincided with the turn of the century and the millennium. We are now starting to approach old age. If, therefore, I use this occasion to list my doubts, it may be that these are all just my own personal problems: perhaps they simply stem from my own ageing and weariness. Grousing and grumping.
 
The way I see it, the kind of reading-public that was still in evidence in Hungary when I was a young man is now, slowly but surely, dying out. For the generations that are succeeding them written poetry is no more important than, let’s say, the history of the twentieth century. Hardly at all. For decades on end, people have been ringing the alarm bells that kids don’t read enough books. Willy-nilly, those kids and the kids’ kids are grown-ups now, and they constitute the fabric of society. It turns out that life is possible without reading.
 
I am no longer able to believe that if I write a fine verse couplet and I read it out in a suitable forum on a suitably festive occasion to a suitably select (educated, cultivated) audience, then that couplet will start working and, purely by force of gravity, will trickle down (and I do mean down) the social hierarchy to exert an effect on the multitude, making the world a nicer place. (Yes indeed, nicer and not nastier: I owe the multitude that much if I’m going to picture them being down below.) Literature, and written poetry above all, has withdrawn from the world; it has deconstructed (destroyed) itself. The reign of written poetry is over.
 
In its place is sung poetry. (For the time being, that is.)
 
Why am I a poet when thousands can quote the words of singer-songwriters like Jeno Menyhárt, András Lovasi or Tibi Kiss?
 
I ought to be hiding rather than strutting in public. Fair point, but all the same I do feel that I know something only few others know. I know that written poetry is one of human culture’s supreme achievements. I also know that this is not just one opinion among many. I love reading great poetry, and I love it when it gives my flesh goose bumps; I even love it when it makes me weep. It also seems to me that if I resign myself to the age of written poetry being at an end, I shall only be helping it towards that end. And I also know that there is no person alive who does not carry his or her own potential poem. Maybe more than one, but they need to gain access to at least one.
 
When it comes to my own poems I am shy of using big words like creation, creative process, lyric poem, significant, major. It strikes me as a touch farcical. May I stress: that’s with my own poems, not those of others, because they are someone else’s. If someone else writes a poem from which I get goose bumps, I couldn’t care less what words they use in talking about their own poems.
 
Just two things interest me: rescuing written poetry, and the goose bumps. Unless I can give a clear-cut response to these, I cannot move a step further forward.
 
One way that written poetry needs to be looked after, for example, is by arranging conferences about the craft of contemporary Hungarian poetry. That would ensure that at least there were a discussion about written poetry for one whole day at a serious academic institution. Or in other words, something had been done in the interest of written poetry—something official in nature, but never mind, that’s very much as it should be. Serious people would be able to see that poetry has a place in a serious institution. What would be very important, though, is if the subject of such a conference were to be goose flesh.
 
I know nothing more objective to say about the art of poetry than that. No doubt I am not clever enough; I have no special theory. For me the only things that exist are the practical nuts and bolts of writing poetry. The core is inspiration; the method—perseverance; the goal—goose bumps.
 
As for methodology, however, so far I have said nothing, I have not lifted the veil surrounding the secret of how I personally write poems. I have offered no example of my own. But then there is only one question to which I could give an answer using an example of my own, and that is: How does a dopey poet work?
 
Let me tell you how I put this talk together. I put it together in the same way as I do a poem. I began with a highly emotional splurge, because I realised that I should have refused to take the job on. That was less than honourable on my part. That gets me worked up. So let me admit that. I admit it. A bit of Odyssey-zing to begin, with grand, fervent words about poetry, aristocracy, hopelessness, and I see that bit is almost right: at least it has a spot of zing and candour about it. I ought to go on, but I can’t. I am unable to get a grip on what I am writing, what this talk is driving at. I am stubborn, and therefore I am angry with myself, and this text is driving me crazy. On top of which it is now evening.  So, I switch off the computer with the intention of reading through, tomorrow morning, what I have written in the hope that some way of carrying on will occur to me. If it doesn’t, I’ll delete the whole lot.
 
I did switch off, and meanwhile it is now tomorrow and I’m sitting in front of the computer screen again. I haven’t deleted what I wrote yesterday; I’m carrying on. It occurs to me that I’m a dopey poet, and I ought to admit it; that’s what the logic of this big-mouthed talk, with its Odysseus and all the rest demands: that I have no mercy on myself. So, that’s that done and dusted. That is how the talk has taken shape. I’ve even written my own obituary, I haven’t evaded the task, I have plucked poetry down to its essentials; there was a dash of inspiration, perseverance too, and although there may have been no goose bumps, this is only a talk, not a poem. At least I have mentioned the goose bumps as a goal, and that in itself is something. Behold “my method”. And this is also how I write poems: for want of a better method, going stubbornly forward, head down and just hoping I hit no wall.
 
So what does the dopey poet feel while this is going on? Miffed, I can tell you.
 
We are sitting in the boat and approaching the Sirens’ rocky coast. If we do not start heading in another direction pronto, we shall hear their song and that will be the end of us. What should we do? Odysseus shrugs his shoulders: that’s for you to know, boys (and girls). You’d like to hear them, wouldn’t you? Well, I have a suggestion: I’ll block my ears, bind all of you to the thwarts and hide the oars. Then hey presto! you can listen to the Sirens’ song. That will give you something to tell tales about.
 
In the meantime I’ll sit here with my ears nicely plugged with wax and make notes. So I won’t untie you, however hard you scream and shout at me to do so. I shall study how Homo sapiens behaves while listening to the Sirens, and from that I shall try and deduce what their song might be like. I shall become a poet notwithstanding, and that is how.
 
The translation of this text was commissioned by the Hungarian Cultural Center in London, and read by the poet at an evening organized by the Center as part of the London Festival of Europe (see our news).
 
 

Translated by: Tim Wilkinson

Tags: István Kemény