A Conversation with Robert Pinsky
Jim Knowles: There's an essay by Seamus Heaney called "The Impact of Translation" in which he starts out with a translation by you. He talks about the problem a poet writing in English might have when he realizes that the kind of poem he is struggling to write has been written already in some other part of the world.
RP: The poem is "Incantation," by Czeslaw Milosz, with whom I worked on various translations. Not long after Czeslaw and I had done the translation, Seamus was over to the house and I read it to him. He was struck by the same quality in it that I was. The poem is very explicit and quite, one might say, moralistic or idealistic. Could a poet in English, I thought, particularly an American poet, write such a poem? It's quite short; I'll read it to you:
Human reason is beautiful and invincible. No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books, No sentence of banishment can prevail against it. It establishes the universal ideas in language, And guides our hand so we write Truth and Justice With capital letters, lie and oppression with small. It puts what should be above things as they are, Is an enemy of despair and a friend of hope. It does not know Jew from Greek or slave from master, Giving us the estate of the world to manage. It saves austere and transparent phrases From the filthy discord of tortured words. It says that everything is new under the sun, Opens the congealed fist of the past. Beautiful and very young are Philo-Sophia And poetry, her ally in the service of the good. As late as yesterday Nature celebrated their birth, The news was brought to the mountains by a unicorn and an echo. Their friendship will be glorious, their time has no limit. Their enemies have delivered themselves to destruction.
Seamus has quite complex things to say about this poem. First, he admires it rather eloquently, and then he says something like, on the other hand, this is a poem that one can imagine being written by a prelate or somebody at the seminary on the hill, some literate and bromidic Catholic: someone of intelligence and good will who isn't really hip to poetry.
Instead, "Incantation" is, somehow, a truly wonderful poem. In a way, you can say that the most difficult thing to do in a poem is to present ideas, abstract ideas of this kind, this explicitly, and attain strong emotion. And perhaps the implication is that parts of the world that have experienced totalitarian regimes are fertile ground for this kind of direct approach, while our own good fortune in not having experienced war on our terrain for over a hundred years, nor having experienced a totalitarian regime or a police state, makes us less capable of such writing.
I don't think Seamus says that, in fact, although he takes up the idea. Milosz's own opinion of that idea is interesting - he says this is like envying a hunchback his hump. He considers it a very silly sentimentality on the part of Western writers, romanticizing or idealizing the situation of the artist in extremely oppressive political circumstances. Certainly, if there is a kind of writing we admire and would like to emulate in relation to our own woes and desires, that is up to us. A lot of American poets were disappointed, as I was, that the first poet to read at a presidential inauguration since Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, read something that lacked exactly the kind of cogency or depth or impact or precision that distinguishes the abstractions and noble sentiments of "Incantation" from the cliches of journalism or from what Seamus's imaginary seminarian might write. Ms. Angelou's poem was on the side of goodness, but lacked the passion of art; considered as a work of art it had the vagueness and figurative muddle of plausible journalism at some times and the awkwardness of mere public speaking at others. But that doesn't mean it can't be done - who knows, by Ms. Angelou next time out, or by the poet laureate Mona Van Duyn, or whoever. …