Gombrowicz and Melville: Twilight

I’ve written about the twilight world being the liminal space where poetry flourishes in relation to the poetry of John Ashbery and Alfred Corn and to the novels of Michael Brodsky. Today I’d like to give another example, this time from the poem Clarel by Herman Melville.

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Gombrowicz on “Interhumanity”

Once I was explaining to someone that in order to feel the real cosmic significance of man for man, he should imagine the following: I am completely alone in a desert. I have never seen people nor do I imagine that another man is even possible. At that very moment an analogous creature appears in my field of vision, which, while not being me, is nevertheless the same principle in an alien body. Someone identical but alien nevertheless. And suddenly I experience, at precisely the same moment, a wondrous fulfillment and a painful division. Yet one revelation stands out above all the rest: I have become boundless, unpredictable to myself, multiple in possibilities through this alien, fresh but identical power, which approaches me as if I were approaching myself from the outside…. Man through man. Man in relation to man. Man created by man. Man strengthened by man.
Witold Gombrowicz, Diary Volume One, Northwestern University Press, p 20

You can’t read Gombrowicz for long until you come across the concept of the “interhuman”, that it is impossible to speak of a human being in isolation, that every human being is born into a human network, meaning that together we form a system of forces such that each individual forms and is formed by others. And once you encounter the idea, it keeps coming up again and again, for it is imbued into everything Gombrowicz wrote. Because it is throughout all of his writing it is difficult to summarize, but I will attempt a first sketch of such a summary, based on Volume One of the Diary.

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Gombrowicz on Poets (the good)

Today’s poet ought to be a child, but a cunning, sober, and careful child. Let him write poetry, yet let him be capable of realizing its limitations at all times. Let him be a poet, but a poet prepared at all times to revise the relationship of poetry to life and reality. Let him, while being a poet, not stop being a man even for an instant. Let the man refuse to subordinate himself to the “poet.” …. O that awful, that constricting “I am a poet,” said with the solemnity of a holy initiation…. The artist who realizes himself inside art will never be creative. He must remain on its peripheries where art meets life….
—Witold Gombrowicz, p 54, Diary Volume One

What good’s a disease that won’t hurt you?
—Lou Reed

Since I first read these words in Gombrowicz’s Diary I have held them very close, so close that over the years they have become part of me, of how I think of myself as a person who writes poems. Life comes first. But poetry is not secondary, it is parallel, connected to life but separate. Poetry helps me see the world, helps me live my life. But life is not somehow funneled into poetry; poetry goes out to meet life.

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Gombrowicz on Poets (the bad)

One suspects that Gombrowicz could be a pain in the ass in mixed company. Not only did he want to strip away illusions when it came to presenting himself, but he was compelled to find ways to strip away what he perceived to be illusions in others. He had a genius for finding humorous, or at least palatable, ways of doing this. But of course whenever you expose yourself or others there are likely to be elements of ugliness. We see this happen in his attitude to the fine arts in general and to poetry in particular. I have retained, for my purposes, the best part of what he had to say, but I’ll save that for another day. Today let’s talk about the ugly.

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Reading the Gombrowicz Diary: an introduction and a warning

One must play with uncovered cards…. Other diaries should be to this one what the words “I am like this” are to “I want to be like this”…. One cannot be nothingness all week and then suddenly expect to exist on Sunday…. I am tumbling into publicism along with you….

Witold Gombrowicz, Diary Volume One, pp 34-5

For a long time I have wanted to reread Gombrowicz’s Diary. I first read it many years ago, long before I had a blog. Now seemed a good enough time to read it again, when so many of us, due to COVID-19, are exiled into our own homes. Exiled into one’s own home: that phrase wouldn’t seem so out of place in the mouth of a man who became a new voice for his people while in exile from his homeland. The collection of writings that make up the Diary is a work that, like Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, I cannot read without taking notes. And so I thought I’d leave them here, the way I did during my reading of Pessoa. This should be the place to say what reading means to me but I feel that every entry itself will address that question. Let me say only by way of introduction that it would be not only dishonest but impossible to leave myself and my world out of these readings. If that doesn’t suit the reader they can easily go elsewhere. A few blog entries or a dozen I can’t say, we’ll just have to find out. They’ll appear under the category “Reading Gombrowicz”.

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the thing with feathers

Feathered Egg, Mark Kerstetter

Easter 2020


A colander dripping away essentials
no one knew to miss
before ladders propped into empty pockets
prompt memories of mountaineers
at the peak nostalgic for valleys
where workers pine for the break
in six foot segments
boxed in or end to end.

Meanwhile spring’s
cheerful painting of bones
with its glaring blank spot in the center
of the picture’s X composition
waits for finger or flower.

Our thousand-pronged fork,
our best of possible worlds
hovers over the egg:
a yolk a thing
not yet feathers.

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Reading Clarel During the Pandemic

Reading Herman Melville’s Clarel, the longest poem written by an American, was a beautiful meditation for me, and did not take long. Melville’s prose is better than his poetry, although one could argue his prose is poetry. But the curious thing about Clarel is that its scaffold is more solid and much more beautiful than that of the novel Pierre, which I’ve also read and written about recently. Robert Penn Warren cites its architectonics as one of its most impressive features while complaining that the poem is far too long and too “static”. He writes this in the introduction to the Selected Poems published by Barnes & Noble which devotes almost a third of its pages to selections from Clarel. Before going on I strongly encourage the reader not to read Clarel in bits and pieces. No, the poem must be read entire, each measured word, from first to last.

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