Thursday, 19 March 2009

Third lecture and reading

I gave the third lecture yesterday and it went far better than I dared hope. It was an important third part, since I had spent considerable time trying to make the three parts into one whole, so there should be one sustaining, comprehensible, humane argument.

The third began with the notion of the individual and the community, the relationship of a poet to his / her 'people', voicing some unease about the demanding aspects of community and the songs community sings about itself. Derek Mahon took me there as also to the artist as privileged witness to the brutalities of history, possibly an agent in them, then it was 1989 and the Eastern European poet's sense of change and response to loss of community, which was also a loss of specific local history. We end up with Bishop's story, 'In the Village'.

Put like that it sounds very telescoped and somewhat improbable but it did work at its proper length. Here is a passage:

The Budapest equivalent of Belfast’ bombs and bricked-up windows were fallen buildings, bullet holes and shell marks, several score of cracked stucco angels, a few hundred allegorical figures with missing limbs and heads, a pile of smashed statues and broken glass, all bearing vivid witness to history of ghettos and transportations, ineffective barricades, burned-out tanks, Molotov cocktails, bodies covered in white powder, executions in quiet courtyards, and bones in unmarked graves. The conflation of the events of two world wars and a failed revolution has produced a contemporary brew that is part historical consciousness, part ironic quietism; part nostalgia, part patriotism; part song and part pure poison. The poison is in the waste and, as William Empson wrote in Missing Dates, the waste remains and kills. And goes on killing. The terrible butcheries and barbarities of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia are evidence of it. The fervid anti-Semitism of Budapest, Sofia and Bucharest are an aspect of it.

The poison remains but the human psyche has a wonderful, life-saving talent for forgetting too when it is not useful to remember. Sometimes forgetting is good. Sometimes it is the only thing to do. One might, occasionally, want to celebrate forgetting too. It might be useful to remember that remembering comprehends an element of forgetting. It is the balance that is so hard to strike.


Myth is a form of remembering while forgetting. It is a historical process. Illyés’s Sentence on Tyranny and Herbert’s Elegy of Fortinbras for instance, both of which I discussed in the last lecture, have undergone a historical and geographical voyage from clear and present danger into the beginnings of the myth where Adrian Mitchell’s secret policemen have long been at home. By myth I do not mean a lie of course, or anything specifically untrue, I simply mean history’s way of turning from event to account, to enquiry, to overview, to evaluation and revaluation, to imagination, to fiction, to meta-fiction, to movie, and finally to a universal pattern composed of what used to be known as Chinese Whispers: another way remembering while forgetting. Myth can revert to clear and present danger at the drop of a bloody hat because that is the way myth works. It re-enters the food chain and informs a wholly new passage through another generation’s guts.

And tonight the reading. More on that maybe tomorrow and some retrospective general thoughts and memories.

1 comment:

Poet in Residence said...

Your tale gathers interest. In England there is unfortunately a kind of "human-psyche" that "has a wonderful talent" for rose-tinted trivia; a kind of Betjemanesque self-satisfaction which comes from lover-leaned-on-stiles, church, farm and mill, the homely Avon, the haughty* Severn, the Bank of England, the old school tie, triumph, Tewkesbury, meadows which the youthful Shakespeare knew, the narrow boat, the blackbird's note and peaceful inland waterways, which probably comes from being surrounded by long miles of fog grey sea.
*presumably haughty because the Taffs are down there.