Monday, May 3, 2010

IRONY AND BELIEF (workshop notes)


(Oriana's workshop handout, October 24, 2009)

In his celebrated essay, Two Cities (not Athens and Jerusalem, but the lost paradise of Lvov and the grimy coal-mining town of Gliwice, the city of reality), Adam Zagajewski writes:

"Two contradictory elements meet in poetry: ecstasy and irony. The ecstatic element is tied to an unconditional acceptance of the world, including what is cruel and absurd. Irony, in contrast, is the artistic representation of thought, criticism, doubt."

First, let us take a look at poems that seem to confirm the view that ours is the Age of Irony.


Our mother knew our worth –
not much. To her, success
was not being noticed at all.
“If we can stay out of jail,”
she said, “God will be proud of us.”

“Not worth a row of pins,”
she said, when we looked at the album:
“Grandpa? – ridiculous.”
Her hearing was bad, and that
was good: “None of us ever says much.”

She sent us forth equipped
for our kind of world, a world of
our betters, in a nation so strong
its greatest claim is no boast,
its leaders telling us all, “Be proud” –

But over their shoulders, God and
our mother, signaling, “Ridiculous.”

  ~ William Stafford


This is a dark poem, showing an interweave of humor and seriousness.

Below is a lighter-tone poem by one of the best, but little known, American poets, Robert Cording:


It's the voice I hear, the one that comes
When my talk suddenly becomes preachy,
And my class of freshmen begin to nod
Their heads in assent as I'm delivering
Some grand moral claim for Wordsworth's
Leech-gatherer, or declaring there is a way
To live out our lives hopeful and happy.

Or it comes when my wife, stepping
From a bath, her neck and belly and legs
Diamonded in the bathroom light, stands
Before me like some St. Agnes Eve vision,
And I believe that, yes, our bodies are
For climbing that ladder from pleasure
To pleasure upwards to the sublime.

Or when I see on the late night news
How a whole town, businesses included,
Turns out to re-erect a block of
Tornado-tossed houses and think we could
Learn to live in just that state of love,
The beginning of what could be
Endlessly multiplying loaves and fish.

Or even when late at night, alone,
Reading a good book and listening to
Vivaldi's oboes, a cup of tea warming
My hands, I suddenly think, then and there,
That everything in my life has only had
The illusion of significance, that
The truth is absolute meaninglessness.

At all those times and more, I hear
The point-blank voice of my uncle's parrot
Say, bullshit, the only word he could
Ever teach it, though the parrot possessed
An unerring sense of timing,
A pitch-perfect ear for the exact moment

In the conversation when its shrill trumpet
Was required: bullshit, it blared again
And again with the authority of a god
Who knew, as Pascal said, how to keep faith
And doubt off balance as he went on
Balancing both sides of every equation.

 ~ Robert Cording


Sense of humor keeps us from experiencing the absolute. ~ Emile Cioran

When did the modern Age of Irony start? WWI.

In his memoir Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves tells how he showed his new poems to Siegfried Sasson:

“He frowned and said that war should not be written about in such a realistic way. In return, he showed me some of his poems. One of them began:

Return to me, colours that were my joy,
Not in the woeful crimson of men slain . . .

Siegried had not yet been in the trenches. I told him, in my old soldier manner, that he would soon change his style.”


While irony may be seen as "sophisticated," basically we do not turn to poetry for irony. From poetry, we want poetry. In a world with so many reasons to despair, we want to be inspired and uplifted. Yet we don't want any cheap, false, conventional "inspirational poetry." Real poetry does not lie, and yet it is "to life."

The antidote to constant irony is not so much belief as the “wisdom of uncertainty.” We see this in another of Cording's poems.


Rain for days and rain again tonight,
But the Rabbi’s followers have taken to heart
a moment three days back when the Rabbi
emerged for his daily exercise and the rain halted
and the sun, as stories already have it, blazed again.
Kafka has tagged along, invited by a fried
who has told him how, when the Rabbi speaks,
everyday objects take on subtler forms.

By the swollen river, the Rabbi stares
so intently at the moving water, Kafka’s friend
feels the Rabbi is transferring the world unto himself
Kafka watches a swan that never once turns
its head, the bird utterly complete in itself,
incontrovertible. It glitters in a circle of lamplight
than disappears under a stone bridge, an interval
passing so quickly it might never have been.

Gusts of wind make the flames in the gaslights
spurt and sputter as if any one of them, or all,
might break into speech. Piles of dead leaves stir
and are lifted up, weightless and figured
for a moment, before dropping to the rain-pocked
street. Above, the tress gesture mutely. The Rabbi
invokes Ezekiel, God’s breath entering the bones
of the dead so that they stand up, alive again.

Kafka tells his friend the leaves are just leaves,
and this is quite enough for him.
On the walk back, Kafka sickens himself
with thoughts of work he should be doing,
has not done. When he looks down
the empty streets smeared with rain, the city
appears, as if through the wrong end
of a telescope, to be shrunken and abandoned.

A few days later, to his friend’s bewilderment
and surprise, Kafka returns to follow behind
the Rabbi and his students. As they walk,
the sun dissolving over the city grants
the streets and buildings another, brighter life,
every edge gleaming. The Rabbi is talking
of what is sacred in every human being–
the sense, despite all odds, that life itself is good.

Kafka finds himself recalling a single paragraph
he wrote over and over, how it shone
unexpectedly with what he could not say,
the words enlarged, it seemed, by what was
uninterpretable, defiantly other, yet
requiring words. When his friend asks why
he has come, Kafka shakes his head and says,
There is always something unaccounted for.

 ~ Robert Cording


“Hamlet is a master ironist, which means he’s funny in a way that we, in this Age of Irony, are well suited to appreciate. But unlike the prevailing tone today, Hamlet’s irony isn’t mere knowingness, a tool for cutting people down to dismissible size. In Elsinore, some mysteries remain. In fact, a large part of the play’s fun lies in working on the same puzzle that obsesses all the characters: figuring out why he’s acting the way he’s acting. Even Hamlet doesn’t know what Hamlet’s problem is.” ~ Jeremy McCarter, “Today’s Man,” theater review, Newsweek, October 12 2009, p. 56

After 9/11, Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, declared it was “the end of the age of irony.”

At this point we've been force-fed so much irony, that we seek poetry that dares to be poetry, that "seeks to praise the mutilated world" -- and affirm that kindness can still be a supreme value in spite of having been brutalized. The poem by John Guzlowski is a beautiful example of this hard-won affirmation.


He didn’t know about the Rock of Ages
or bringing in the sheaves or Jacob’s ladder
or gathering at the beautiful river
that flows beneath the throne of God.
He’d never heard of the Baltimore Catechism
either, and didn’t know the purpose of life
was to love and honor and serve God.

He’d been to the village church as a boy
in Poland, and knew he was Catholic
because his mother and father were buried
in a cemetery under wooden crosses.
His sister Catherine was buried there too.

The day their mother died Catherine took
to the kitchen corner where the stove sat,
and cried. She wouldn’t eat or drink, just cried
until she died there, died of a broken heart.
She was three or four years old, he was five.

What he knew about the nature of God
and religion came from the sermons
the priests told at mass, and this got mixed up
with his own life. He knew living was hard,
and that even children are meant to suffer.
Sometimes, when he was drinking he’d ask,
“Didn’t God send his own son here to suffer?”

My father believed we are here to lift logs
that can’t be lifted, to hammer steel nails
so bent they crack when we hit them.
In the slave labor camps in Germany,
he’d seen men try the impossible and fail.

He believed life is hard, and we should
help each other. If you see someone
on a cross, his weight pulling him down
and breaking his muscles, you should try
to lift him, even if only for a minute,
even though you know lifting won’t save him.

~ John Guzlowski


The wisdom of love is more important than the love of wisdom. ~ Emmanuel Levinas

so what if it’s a dream

I write on water
I write on sand
from a few simple phrases
like the prose of carpenters
I build an ark
to save something from the flood
that takes us by surprise
and wipes us from the face of the earth.

~ Tadeusz Różewicz


In the worst hour of the worst season
of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking – they were both walking – north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.
Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and a woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.

 ~ Eavan Boland


Doubt is narcissistic; we look at everything critically, including ourselves, and perhaps that comforts us. Poetry . . .  trusts the world, and rips us from the deep-sea diving suits of our “I”; it believes in the possibility of beauty and its tragedy. Doubt is death’s plenipotentiary, its longest and wittiest shadow; poetry runs toward an unknown goal.” ~ Adam Zagajewski

Jungian view: We live “beyond reason” – reason accepts only what is known.

“Tenderness toward existence.” ~ Adrienne Rich

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