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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




In “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism” Martha Nussbaum argues that patriotism causes moral blindness and should be supplanted by cosmopolitanism. Nussbaum's cosmopolitanism emphasizes rights and universal reason over loyalty to country or attachment to local cultures. The cosmopolitan must not let her attachments to country or local community blind her to her obligations as a citizen of the world. As a world citizen, she must strive — often a lonely and difficult process that leads to something like exile — to break down the prejudices that cause her to see humans from other countries or other communities as foreign, and hence beyond the purview of her ethical concern. Her cosmopolitan worldview is not determined by the country or the community that she is born into. Her worldview is ever-expanding and ever-growing. The goal of this process is that none of the varieties of human experience will be alien to her. Patriotism, for Nussbaum, hinders the development of this expansive worldview.
    Nussbaum's cosmopolitanism is as inspiring as it is problematic. Reading the responses to her essay collected in For Love Of Country? one begins to see just how contentious an issue the cosmopolitan is. Reflecting on these responses, Jeremy Waldron writes “it is as though the critics always know exactly what to say, and what ancient terms of abuse to dust off and wheel out, whenever claims in behalf of humanity are put forward in opposition to traditional allegiances to blood, kin, and nation.” (1) This blow is meant to glance many of the respondents, but its real force is thrown at Robert Pinsky. I find this disappointing. Far from wheeling out old defenses, in “Eros Against Esperanto” Pinsky offers an alternative — though also a potentially complementary — framework for thinking about cosmopolitanism.
    Rather than pitting patriotism against the cosmopolitan, Pinsky suggests that the patriotic impulse is founded on an eros of the local. Patriotism is not necessarily an infantile passion that adults blindly hang onto for fear of facing difference. Instead of looking at patriotism from the outside, Pinsky shows that when one seriously thinks about what it means to live as member of a country or a community, the meaning of patriotism changes. It is a complex passion that is as alluring as it is terrifying; near at hand and at the same time alien. To illustrate this point, Pinsky describes his experience of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Dodgers are domesticated; an American institution; the object of simple passions. And yet when one looks closer, the Dodgers resemble the city they play in. Brooklyn is “historic and raw, vulgar and urbane, many-tongued and idiosyncratic, a borough of Hispanic blacks and Swedish carpenters, provincial enough to have its own newspaper yet worldly beyond measure.” (2) This insight into the dual-nature of the local teaches Pinsky that patriotism, far from being a simplistic passion that leads to blindness, is teaming with contradictory powers that are always in process. Because of its richness and complexity, Pinsky argues that one can do better than substituting an abstract concept of the cosmopolitan in its place. The eros of patriotism needs to be counterbalanced by an eros of the cosmopolitan.
    Though Pinsky does not fully develop this counterbalancing eros, he creates a framework for its development by establishing two things. First, the cosmopolitan is an appealing concept, capable of generating its own eros. Rather than leading to the state of exile described by Nussbaum, cosmopolitanism may lead one to something like membership in a new yet unapproachable Brooklyn. Pinsky’s Brooklyn is premised on Emerson’s idea of America; a country taken by the romance of change and enamored with — and hence also afraid of — the possibility of drawing a new circle around the limited horizon of each accomplishment and each achieved idea. Second, though the cosmopolitan gains in appeal by becoming less abstract, it also gains complexity. A love relationship, though proximally close, always retains the distance of difference. The relationship teaches “how extreme an act of imagination paying attention to the other must be, in order to succeed even a little” (p. 88).
    In this essay I will read Zbigniew Herbert’s poetry within Pinsky’s framework so as to begin developing an eros of the cosmopolitan. Though imposing an alien framework onto Herbert’s poetry may initially appear disquieting, I hope to dispel this feeling at the outset by showing how Herbert develops a similar framework for the cosmopolitan in his prose work. Thus instead of proving an arbitrary limitation to Herbert’s work, Pinsky’s framework will illumine cosmopolitan eros, while leading to an appreciation of unexplored aspects of Herbert’s poetry.


    In the first chapter of Barbarian in the Garden, Herbert describes his experience at the caves of Lascaux. Weaving together historical and anthropological accounts of the cave dwellers with reflections on the history of art and the development of Western European culture, Herbert evokes a world utterly different from the world that he — and by extension the reader — inhabits. And yet, even though he “had stared into the ‘abyss’ of history” at Lascaux, he writes, “I did not emerge from an alien world. Never before had I felt a stronger or more reassuring conviction: I am a citizen of the earth, an inheritor not only of the Greeks and Romans but of almost the whole of infinity.” (3) In the remaining chapters of the book, Herbert visits other places in Europe — Arles, Orvieto, Siena — and continues to reflect upon the tension between foreignness and the possibility of inheritance. Even though the art and culture of other times and other nations do not offer Herbert a promise of smooth integration within his current worldview — in fact, Herbert’s often detailed depictions of war and strife seem both lessons in history as well as metaphors for his psyche as it confronts these different worlds — Herbert is nonetheless compelled to seek otherness with a vague intimation that nothing will prove utterly foreign to him. Herbert’s compulsion towards otherness is something like the first aspect of Pinsky’s cosmopolitan framework; the attraction that the cosmopolitan is capable of generating.
    The intimation that otherness may not prove foreign is given shape in Still Life with a Bridle. In this work, Herbert takes on the challenge of understanding another country. Like the second aspect of Pinsky’s framework, this act of knowing is humbling. It is complex, difficult, and entails an extreme act of imagination. Upon his arrival in the Netherlands Herbert realizes the importance of recognizing his “limitations, because clearly the ideal traveler knows how to enter into contact with nature, with people and their history as well as their art. Only familiarity with these three overlapping elements can be the starting point of knowledge about a country.” (4) Becoming even moderately more cosmopolitan is not an accomplishment easily gained. A cosmopolitan education implies a serious risk that cuts two ways. On one hand, when learning about other cultures one always runs the risks of remaining a mere tourist; an American who sees only America though she may be in Dinan. On the other, disabusing oneself of prejudices may lead one to the wrong conclusion: Everything is a mere prejudice, there are no grounds for moral judgments. Becoming cosmopolitan requires that one avoid both of these risks. It implies a faith to act on the belief that embracing the tension between foreignness and inheritance will lead to growth and not fragmentation. One must persist in one’s personal development even as one learns how fragile every moral judgment is.
    Hoping will not of itself lead to this growth. In an interview Herbert said, “I turn to history not for lessons in hope, but to confront my experience with the experience of others and to win for myself something which I should call universal compassion, but also a sense of responsibility, a sense of responsibility for the state of human conscience.” (5) Although this may sound grandiose, the act of becoming responsible through compassion is only gained by submitting oneself to the stringent though near at hand demands of coming to love something through learning about the “overlapping elements” that form its background. This process of attempting to claim responsibility forms the foundation for the moral framework that undergirds many of Herbert’s poems.
    This too differentiates Herbert from Nussbaum. For Nussbaum, a cosmopolitan education is premised on a rational decision. One decides that it is best for one to become cosmopolitan given all that one knows about the limitations of one’s local culture and what one learns about rights as disclosed by reason. One most know something with relative certainty before one acts. In Herbert’s case it is different. A cosmopolitan education is premised on something like a cosmopolitan epistemology. An act of knowing is premised on a strange tautology: That Dutch painting exists is enough reason for Herbert to undergo an education in understanding Dutch painting. It is not that one becomes convinced that one’s local knowledge is limiting and in need of revision in the face of universal values. Herbert’s way of knowing is not built upon that type of foundation. Rather, he feels an attraction; he has an intimation that Dutch painting holds a promise for him that nonetheless resists his current understanding. Feeling this attraction, he can’t help but give himself over to it. He becomes responsive by taking responsibility for his limitations. In so doing he stands in a position to listen. He waits, desiring to become an inheritor of that which has evaded understanding. Herbert as cosmopolitan does not lose his community; he gains responsiveness to aspects of things that — though they evade understanding — offer intimations of inheritance.


    Before approaching Herbert’s poetry, it is worth recalling what Seamus Heaney has already written. “Admittedly, in all that follows here, it is an English translation rather than the Polish original that is being praised or pondered, but what convinces one of the universal resource of Herbert’s writing is just this ability which it possesses to lean, without toppling, well beyond the plumb of its native language.” (6)
    Despite reading this work in translation, one can feel the urgency and strength of Herbert’s ethical standpoint. This standpoint can be brought out quickly when placed in contrast to the poetry of D.H. Lawrence. Lawrence writes poems that share Herbert’s fascination with simple objects. They both give overlooked aspects in the background of life — armchairs, wooden birds, figs and grapes — the opportunity to address the reader. Reflecting on a peach, Lawrence writes, “Why was not my peach round and finished like a billiard ball? / It would have been if man had made it.” (7) And when thinking about a lizard, “If men were as much men as lizards are lizards / they’d be worth looking at” (p. 193). Many of Lawrence’s poems express a belief in the power of the natural. In them a longing is expressed for simplicity and the potential irrationality that comes about when one is close to nature. Lawrence is nostalgic for a world that is not corrupted by rationality. Having felt the destructive power of irrationality in the form of Nazi and communist totalitarian violence, Herbert is far from convinced that the natural leads to salvation. In “Voice” Herbert writes, “either the world is dumb / or I am deaf // but perhaps / we are both / doomed to our afflictions.” (8) The inability to rely on or speak for nature does not then make the poet mute. Instead, it leads him to reassert his affliction; trusting the fragility of making even in the face of a non-responsive natural world.
    Just as Herbert rejects the redemptive potential of the natural world, he also profoundly distrusts other forms of utopianism. His poetry rejects the utopianism of mysticism as well as the utopianism of rationality. In Study of the Object, poems reveal the seductive power of silence, of perfection, of godliness. “The most beautiful is the object / which does not exist” (p. 193) threatens the poet, urging him to renege on his responsibility as a maker and to embrace the mystical perfection of silence. Despite being deeply threatened by this seductive force, Herbert nonetheless re-asserts his cultural agency, knowing that it is better “to be the creaking of a floor than shrilly transparent perfection” (p. 214).
    The movement against this form of seductive perfection is not merely a reactionary impulse. It is also founded on a deeply held belief that utopias “start with someone inventing an island and a marvelous social system but they end with concentration camps.” (9) This belief then generates a difficult realization.

        The trench where a turbid river runs
        I call the Vistula. Hard to confess:
        this is the love that we are doomed to
        this is the homeland that pierces us (p. 224)

Unlike utopian hopes that drive one away from this humiliating though humanizing confession of love, Herbert’s poetry remains faithful to this love knowing that it promises nothing like the solace of perfection. Far from offering perfection, this love flourishes in despair, in besieged cities where “the rats dance amid debris” (p. 223) and it is a struggle to maintain the fires that make civilization possible. Though one may wish to found an ideal city one must confront the fact: I live in a ruined city on the banks of the horrid Vistula. There is no escaping this condition, and yet one must remain faithful to the semblances of civilization that do remain, while hoping that these pieces can still serve the builder; “faithfulness or fidelity must do without an external authority” and hope is “hope without guarantee — no philosophy, no ideology, no vision of social system will assure us paradise on earth” (FFU, p. 134). Without these types of guarantees, Herbert is forced to rely on nothing more — though nothing less — than the imperfect human community that he is a part of.
    To understand something of the community that Herbert was a part of: his studies were interrupted by the invasion of the Nazis in 1939; he was fifteen. It wasn’t until after the thaw of 1956 that his first book of poetry was published. Between those years he held menial jobs, he fought in the resistance, and he experienced the destruction of his country. “To understand modern Polish poetry it is necessary to understand also something of what the country went through during the Nazi occupation: 6 million killed out of a population of 30 million; dozens of villages destroyed and their inhabitants massacred, in the style of Lidice and Oradour; Warsaw razed and emptied of its million inhabitants.” (10) Given the atrocities that he lived through, and given the common response to these atrocities is that “magic and gnosis / flourish as never before // fake paradises / fake infernos / are for sale on every corner” (p. 304) it is hard to have faith in one’s neighbors.
    Though he never offers a fully developed theory of human nature, in “Fortune Telling” he writes,

        Here is the life line Look it races like an arrow
        …and nothing is more beautiful more powerful
        than this striving forward

        How helpless compared to it is the line of fidelity
        like a cry in the night a river in the desert (p. 50)

The will to continue living can overpower acts of fidelity. Instead of remaining faithful to even a modicum of the moral, individuals fly forward into violence hoping — even if vaguely — that this will lead to survival. In the face of this acknowledgment Herbert persists. Although individuals capitulate, there are still those who cry out in the night; there are still sources of life in the desert. Because of this, he decides to become a poet who “builds a world / not from atoms / but from remnants” (p. 159). Unlike the utopian who needs to raze the ground and accumulate the perfect building materials before undergoing a project, Herbert starts with what is at hand. Though this may only be a turbid river and a cowed people, this must be enough. And though

        cemeteries are growing the number of defenders shrinking
        …the defense continues and it will continue to the end

        and if the City falls and one man survives
        he will carry the City inside him on the paths of exile
        he will be the City (p. 417)

In the face of almost certain devastation, Herbert believes that so long as one individual survives, that individual will somehow manage to keep the City. Having survived, Herbert takes it upon himself to become a member of this City — a city not dissimilar to one Osip Mandelstam imagines in his nostalgia for a world culture (11) — and takes responsibility for its future.


    Herbert’s difficult realization about his homeland leads to his assumption of responsibility for the City. This involves the difficult task of remembrance and creation. Herbert must use the remnants of the past to build a world that can stand in the present and into the future. As Herbert rejects the utopian visions of futurists, he too rejects the idea that the Golden Age occurred in the past. Remembrance is not synonymous with conservatism. Rather, the work of remembrance and creation should be described as remaining “true / to uncertain clarity” (p. 354). Although the moral imperative itself is clear, how it is to be realized remains uncertain. It is deeply troubling to know what one should do while also knowing that one does not know how to achieve it. Denied the buttresses of idealism, conservatism and utopianism one is left with little support.
    But the clarity — though uncertain — remains. Almost despairing, one can still call up the resources of the past. Though they cannot be relied upon as one relies upon a “fake paradise,” they continue to serve as muted outposts of civilization. In “The Envoy of Mr. Cogito” a messenger declares, “repeat humanity’s old incantations fairy tales and legends / for that is how you will attain the good you will not attain / repeat great words repeat them stubbornly” (p. 334). In this message there is no guarantee — in fact there is a clear disavowal — that the listener will ever achieve the good. Yet, the process of repeating great words keeps the good as something attainable. Though not actual, the good remains a possibility.
    In some respect the enemy of remembrance is the negation of uncertain clarity. Given mass destruction it makes sense to retreat into personal responsibility, coming to a certainty that one can at best only look out for one’s own self. But this self enclosing is a pernicious act of forgetting that leads to compounded loss. Though it is difficult to maintain a community with neighbors whom one can’t place complete faith in, and though memories are difficult to trust, “we are our brothers’ keepers // ignorance about those who are lost / undermines the reality of the world” (p. 408). Remembrance of the lost and repeating great words lead one out of the self’s enclosure and into the eros of the cosmopolitan. It is from out of this love that many of Herbert’s poems are written; it is from this love that Herbert takes “responsibility for the state of human conscience.”
    The “Prayer of the Traveler Mr. Cogito” expresses this love in the following way:

        let me understand other people other languages other sufferings
        and above all let me be humble that is to say one who longs for the source

        I thank You Lord for creating the world beautiful and various and if this is Your
        seduction I am seduced for good and past all forgiveness (p. 348).

Despite the difficult acknowledgements that lead to this prayer, Herbert’s Cogito is not left an exile in the way that Nussbaum’s cosmopolitan is. Though the act of becoming cosmopolitan is humbling, it is also erotic. Herbert’s poetry stands as a testament to the impotence of despair and the possibility of praise that manages to spring forth even from the remnants of cultures and languages, and that a source of hope can be cultivated from remembrance of suffering and loss.


   1. Jeremy Waldron, “Teaching Cosmopolitan Right,” in Education and Citizenship is Liberal-Democratic Societies: Teaching for Cosmopolitan Values and Collective Identities, eds. Kevin McDonough and Walter Feinberg (New York: Oxford UP, 2003), p. 45, n9.

   2. Robert Pinsky, “Eros Against Esperanto,” in For Love of Country?, ed. Martha C. Nussbaum (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), p. 90.

   3. Zbigniew Herbert, Barbarian in the Garden, trans. Michael March and Jaroslaw Anders (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1986), p. 16.

   4. Zbigniew Herbert, Still Life with a Bridle, trans. John and Bogdana Carpenter (Hopewell, NJ: The Ecco Press, 1991), p. 4.

   5. John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter, “Zbigniew Herbert: The Poet as Conscience,” The Slavic and East European Journal 24 (Spring, 1980): 39.

   6. Seamus Heaney, The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose, 1978-1987 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995), pp. 54-55.

   7. D.H. Lawrence, Selected Poetry (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 93.

   8. Zbigniew Herbert, The Collected Poems: 1956-1998, trans. Alissa Valles (Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press, 2007), p. 68.

   9. Stanislaw Baranczak, A Fugitive from Utopia: The Poetry of Zbigniew Herbert (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1987), 134; hereafter abbreviated FFU.

   10. A. Alvarez, “Noble Poet,” New York Review of Books (July 18, 1985).

   11. Joseph Brodsky, “The Child of Civilization” in Less Than One (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1987).

© by Jeffrey Frank


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