In the end what can I do with you—tenderness / tenderness for birds and for people for a stone / you should sleep in a palm in the eye’s depths / that’s your place may you be woken by no one // You spoil everything you get it back to front / you contract a tragedy into a pocket romance / you change the high-toned flight of a thought / into sobbing and exclamations into moaning // To describe is to murder because it’s your role / to sit in the darkness of a cold and empty hall / to sit solitary where reason blithely rattles on / with mist in a marble eye tears running down
Trans Alissa Valles The Collected Poems 1956-1998 (Ecco, 2007)
FRAME of REFERENCE This poetry is about the pain of the twentieth century, about accepting the cruelty of an inhuman age, about an extraordinary sense of reality. And the fact that at the same time the poet loses none of his lyricism or his sense of humor—this is the unfathomable secret of a great artist. ADAM ZAGAJEWSKI, from the Introduction
Herbert’s complexity of tone has been teased out by Zagajewski as a proportion with undefined quantities of realism, lyricism, and humor. This bit of applied poetics however vague is worth pursuing given the importance of Herbert to our reception of lyric. Herbert’s poetry challenges our assumptions about the relative value of lyric to modernity.
“Tenderness” is a late lyric it would be tempting to overlook. It opens with a Personification, a figure typical of Romantic lyric, an address to a “universal” or abstraction; one thinks of Keats. It is not one of the big names but it names a human quality that is central to our outworn picture of humanity as such. “Tenderness” has been in short supply in modernity: it is irrelevant to the capitalist march of progress as we subdue the earth for our utopian purposes. (Trump’s strategy of sacrificing a certain number to the virus so “we” can attain herd immunity is a current example.)
Personifying abstractions fits the lyric program and has been roundly discouraged by our masters. No wonder Herbert’s “Tenderness” has low self esteem. The poem opens characterizing it as misplaced concern for beings like birds, people, and stones.
That random list alerts our well-honed expectation of irony. The prominence given to Tenderness as the theme of a poem can’t be serious. Tenderness should be reduced to the recesses of human being. But the language used in this rather banal proposition is too interesting. You should sleep in a palm or in the depths of the eye. Tenderness is flesh. It has a place in our bodies. Like other aspects of the human self, it is best left alone. It’s like other passions, anger or lust.
So the opening neatly and powerfully sketches the situation. That prepares us for further description of qualities: after the initial naming and touching on the interesting aspects—the equivocations that cling to the word “Tenderness”—we are prepared for a more robust dialectical description of the sides of this dangerous aspect of our being. The ad hominem attack, the trial (Herbert grew up under Nazi and Soviet regimes), continue. In short, tenderness transvalues our values. We say tragedy, you find the makings of romance; we say our soaring thinking, our spiritual exclamations, you transform them to eruptions of ungovernable grief.
You debase our inner life; you drag us down. We’ve seen how lyric often reframed basic themes, how it reconfigures culturally accepted narratives by the power of its own narrative. Its narrative submits socially accepted schemes to verbal and dialectical analysis, concluding with the deconstruction of the social “I” constructed by these schemes in light of what is other to thought, the finite (not abstract) Other, the Intimate not the determinative Universal.
The final stanza is devoted to a description of the role of Tenderness. Pushing off from the axiomatic “to describe is to murder” (a reconfiguration of Wordsworth’s “we murder to dissect”?), Tenderness is pictured as it witnesses the drama of reason’s self-presentation. The description is itself hyperbolic: the suppressed response of Tenderness is compared to weeping marble. The exaggeration is the point, the too-muchness of Tenderness was always the point.
So in this minor-looking lyric we find the elements Zagajewski singled out for praise, the balance of qualities, descriptive, analytical, lyrical, that taken together explain Herbert’s position in our rogues gallery of 20-th century poets. As we rediscover the integrity of the lyric in its narrative we can more fully appreciate the finesse and elegance of the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert.