Poetry, Prayer, and Memory (6)

This is the sixth in a series of posts. 

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By serendipity or synchronicity, I happened to read just last spring a book that explores six such places of remembrance of the Holocaust as Paul Celan (as I read him) calls for, although at none of the six is the Holocaust even mentioned. The book at issue addresses the poems of six different poets not a single one of whom wrote poems that were “about” the Holocaust in the trivial sense of drawing images and the like from it. The book is Praise and Dispraises: Poetry and Politics in the 20th Century (Penguin, 1988), by American author Terrence Des Pres.

Des Pres did not live through the Holocaust himself, at least in the sense that such other writers as Jean Améry, Primo Levi, and Paul Celan did. However, he was born in 1939, the same year the Second World War began in Europe, and he went on to win fame as a Holocaust scholar and writer. He is, in fact, most widely known for his book The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps (Oxford University Press, 1976). Once published, The Survivor received considerable attention (including, it would be remiss of me not to mention, strong criticism from the psychiatrist Bruno Bettleheim, who himself did live through the Holocaust, and did important work of his own pertaining very directly to it).

I read The Survivor not long after its first appearance, then assigned and discussed it in more than one philosophy class I taught after that, before I retired in the spring of 2013. However, I never read anything else by Des Pres, most especially not his later book Praises and Dispraises, until by chance last spring I read a reference to that latter work in some other book (I’ve forgotten which).  Since I so long thought so highly of The Survivor, I decided to read Praises and Dispraises too.

I’m glad I did. I think it is a wonderful analysis of at least some of the issues raised by “poetry and politics in the 20th century,” as the book’s subtitle has it.  

The six 20th century poets on whose work Des Pres concentrates in Praises and Dispraises include one Irish poet (William Butler Yeats), one German poet (Berthold Brecht), one South African poet (Breyten Breytenbach), and three American poets (Wallace Stevens, Thomas McGrath, and Adrienne Rich). Along the way, Des Pres also devotes some pages to another 20th century poet, this time from Egypt, but who wrote all his poetry in Greek: C. P. Cavafy.  First of all, however, to set the “scene” of the poetry that interests him, as it were, Des Pres devotes a fine chapter to an ancient Greek poet, namely Sophocles, and his tragedy Antigone

Praises and Dispraises was published only posthumously, in 1988, not long after Des Pres own death on November 12, 1987, apparently by suicide. If that is what it was, then at least in that act of taking his own life, Des Pres, who did not live through the Holocaust (at least in any ordinary sense of “living through” it), joined many others who did, but who at some subsequent point killed themselves.

That includes, of course, Jean Améry, Primo Levi, and Paul Celan, all three of whom committed what Améry insisted on calling “free death” or “voluntary death”: Freitodt, the German title of his own book on that very topic. Furthermore, it would be remiss of me at this point not to mention that, at least in the cases of Améry, Levi, and Celan—I am less sure in the case of Des Pres, though I think that in a least some sense it is probably true in his case as well—their suicides continue to be acts wherein those writers speak to us, address us, question us, and demand of us precisely that we do indeed remember the Holocaust.

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In his “Prolog” to Praises and Dispraises, Terrance Des Pres writes (p. xvi):

The miracles of modern communication—the instant replay of events on TV, the surfeit of images provided by photojournalists, the detailed accounts of inhumanity given by survivors of all kind, and then too the documentation from organizations like Amnesty International and Americas Watch, every page of it open to those who would know what can be known—all these sources combine with the cold-war [which, of course, was still very much with us in 1987-1988, when Des Pres’s book was being written and published] order of things to make a uniquely twentieth-century sense of reality, a consciousness that began in the wake of World War Two with the film footage [most especially, Des Pres means the footage from the then newly liberated Nazi concentration and death camps], miles of it, that gave us our first window on “the world.” That shock of recognition, that climate of atrocity, is now our daily fare.

Des Pres then refers (on pp. xvi-xvii) to William Butler Yeats whose “revival of bardic practice,” he says, “illustrates ‘the scene of poetry’ as I observe it in these pages—namely, as the poet in tribal relation to his or her audience through the force of the poem’s occasion.” Des Pres writes that such a notion of “bardic practice,” which he soon (p. xviii) goes on to describe as “the poet summoning his or her tribe,” “helps make sense of relations between poetry and politics.” It also, he says, provides us with “an outside vantage on the situation of poetry in America, much of it still Emersonian in spirit, still enamored of self, nature, and escape to worlds elsewhere”—still art in the artificial, grandiloquent sense that both Büchner and Celan critique, we might note, which is to say art that lets us forget ourselves in the negative sense.

“Insofar as poets stay shut in those imperatives, the results,” Des Pres adds dryly, “are less than sufficient to hard times.” The poetry of such poets “affords no happy fortitude, no language to live by, gifts that have always been the poet’s job,” the job of poetry to provide.

Poets who do not forget themselves negatively by lapsing fully into such an artificiality that is “still Emersonian in spirit,” but who instead continue to do their real, proper “job,” as Des Pres describes it, rely upon what Des Pres later calls (p. 27) “the odd carnality of words.” That “odd carnality” lies, according to him, in the fact that words

arise ex nihilo, become incarnate in their saying, then instantly depart while at the same time they leave an imprint that resounds. Poetry activates memory through its soundings—through rhyme, alliteration, etc., but also tone, inflection, and finally the entire ensemble of “voice,” which is the earthly shape of sound in motion. Language of this memorable kind is capable of persisting through a void or, on the other hand, through the dense chaos of language in the world. Poetry—any set of lines we prize—sorts itself out from the infinitude of babble and allows us moments of coherence, of lucidity and self-possession as close to unity of being as most of us shall come [. . .].

In our ever more commercialized culture, what all too often takes the place of poetry as Des Pres (or Celan, following Büchner, for that matter) describes it, is the clamor of catchy, showy lines and slogans that bombard us constantly through our contemporary media. That especially includes all our so-called “social media,” such as Facebook, Twitter, and the like (which I in fact think it would far more accurate to call the “anti-social media,” by the way). Advertising slogans and the like are, of course, expressly designed to catch one’s attention and then to stay in the mind, returning again and again to one’s thoughts—and returning those thoughts time after time back to the store, or its online equivalent, where we are encouraged to go to buy whatever we are being enticed to buy by such catchy lines, jingles, and other “hooks.”

However, such stuff really is just that: “stuff,” or, even better, “junk,” since what it does is just junks up our minds and clutters our thoughts—and gets us "hooked," for that matter, just like heroin, long called "junk" in slang. Such mere junk-art dis-focuses our attention, drawing it away from what we want to keep it focused upon. Time after time it finds its way back into our thoughts, causing us to forget ourselves in a shameful, enchaining, bonding way. It thereby does the very opposite of what true poetry does, at least in the sense of the “bardic” tradition at issue in Yeats and the other poets Des Pres studies. It makes us forget ourselves by losing what such genuine poetry gives us, losing those “moments of coherence, of lucidity and self-possession,” as Des Pres puts it, that bring us back “as close to unity of being as most of us shall come.”

That, I would add, is also as close as any of us should come, or finally even would want to come, if we weren’t distracted from knowing ourselves—distracted by all the ever more junky junk thrown up by our commercial society all around us, seducing us into forgetting ourselves and what we really want.

I cannot dispel from my memory even to this day many of the old, worthless advertising slogans from my own childhood, which was during the period of the transition from the ubiquity of radios in households throughout the United States to the ubiquity of television sets. I cannot finally and without remainder expel from my mind all that old junk, hawking old products many of which were not only worthless from the beginning, but even dangerous or demonstrably harmful, such as cigarettes. (“LSMFT: Lucky Strikes means fine tobacco!” is one instance, one that soon got twisted for certain political purposes into standing for "Lord, save me from Truman!")

That’s just the sort of junk Des Pres is talking about, and which he wants to distinguish from that “scene of poetry” that interests him in Yeats and the other poets with whom he concerns himself in Praises and Dispraises

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To be continued.