Have you thought at all about the new year? I have. Every year, around this time, it occupies my thoughts, though I doubt I'm distinct in this regard; sort of a Pavlovian response to Christmas lights and frigid nights.
For six years, I have spent each New Year's Eve alone, hoping against probability in the weeks leading up to it that somehow it would be different. Firecrackers sputter in the streets, couples kiss and dance, and when everyone's eyes turn to the dropping apple, chanting in unison, I could never be bothered even to turn on the television and partake -- my experience was always limited to watching the numbers flick by on a cold and lifeless computer screen, or standing on my balcony, wine in hand, congratulating no one in particular, for no one was ever there.
Last year I felt it was time to do something about it, and in desperation, I ventured to a nightclub, fighting for parking, paying outlandish cover charges, tosssing back overpriced beer, just in the hopes that someone, somewhere, would be as lonely as I was, and we'd find solace together. The people chanted, the clock struck twelve, champagne was uncorked, and Aud Lang Syne boomed from the speakers. I raised a bottle of beer, trying to keep in the revelry spirit, drained it, and eventually went home, feeling no better than in previous years. Maybe a bit worse, for having tried, and failed.
There's a photo I took afterwards, five in the morning. Out of focus, eyes downcast, mirrorball in one hand and face in shadow. "Here's to a better 2005," reads the caption -- sort of my personal prayer that life would stop letting me down.
But the cosmos don't recognize prayer, nor the arbitrary point in a planet's orbit where we mark one year over and another's beginning, and things didn't change. I was operating as an automaton: work, school, home. The one thing I had to look forward to being one night a week of dancing and drinking, but even that had limits on the enjoyment it could bring. Sort of futile, I always thought, inducing an endorphin high but still coming home to a dark empty apartment, week after week.
I'd almost given up, that wish for a patient ear, a loving heart, a loyal smile, an embrace that says "I won't let go." Or, to be more accurate, I'd become complacent with my lot. But I never stopped hoping, and it carried me through.
And then: a fateful call, a movie cast, a bottle of whisky, a kiss.
"Here's to a better 2005," the caption still reads, and looking back on it, it was. A better year than I've had in a lifetime, thanks in large part to you being a part of my life, and me a part of yours, and that look when your eyes meet mine that casts all doubt away. Life, it would seem, has a strange way of sidelining -- just when I'd stopped looking for someone like you, you stepped into my life, and as best I could, my love, I breathed you in. And will continue to do so, for as long as you'll have me.
A better year it was, and so, for perhaps the first time, I'll look back on past twelve months with a smile. This is to you, and us, and to twenty aught six. Let's love big in the new year.
Yours, with love,
In The New York Review Of Books, editor 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 simultaneously the least capable art form of achieving 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-indulgent 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 more profound manner. Truly I have been touched by the hand of God!
The validity of this criticism stems directly from a poets' 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
three kidnapped United Nations election workers appeared
in a new videotape
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.
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 repetition. 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, aesthetic 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 exercise than this. To poets I say: You are not fooling me.