When I was much younger, I thought writing poetry would give me a place in the world. I was good at it, after all. Maybe as good at it as a middle level pro athlete is good at his sport. I think that’s an honest claim. But if there’s pro tour for poets in the US, I’m not part of it, even with my books & chapbooks & magazine publications. This is part of the reason I no longer go to the annual AWP meeting — nearby in NYC this year, it’s going on right now. I used to go religiously every year, like the Haj (to shift metaphors from sports to religion), but starting six or seven years ago — after I came back from a year in Hanoi on a Fulbright — I just couldn’t take the anguish & posing anymore. Mine & others’. I hadn’t actually thought of it until just now, but in Vietnam poets are honored & wide-circulation newspapers & magazines carry literary essays & poems. For a while at least, I had more readers in Vietnam than in the US. I was even on television there, reading a poem. In the US, though, if you’re a poet, you had better write out of your own deep enjoyment of language, or out of a neurotic need to put things into language, or because you simply love the practice of the art, because nobody is going to pay the least bit of attention to you as a poet. Out of love, then. Even poems of hatred have to originate in love.

Zbigniew Herbert: “Preliminary Investigation of an Angel” (1969)

Preliminary Investigation of an Angel

When he stands before them
in the shadow of a suspicion
he is still all
composed of light
the aeons of his hair
are pinned up in a bun
of innocence

the blood is helped on
with instruments and interrogations

with an iron ferrule
a slow fire
the limits of his body
are defined

a blow on his back
fixes his spine
between cloud and mudpuddle

after a few nights
the job is finished
the leather throat of the angel
is full of gluey agreement

how beautiful is the moment
when he falls on his knees
incarnate into guilt
saturated with contents

his tongue hesitates
between knocked-out teeth
and confusion

they hang him head downwards

from the hair of the angel
drops of wax run down
and shape on the floor
a simple prophecy

[trans. Alissa Valles]

This seems to me to be the way to write a political poem. Tangential, even cagey. Drawing on cultural symbols with deep emotional roots. A quiet voice speaking matter-of-factly about horrifying realities. In this poem, Herbert performs poetic jujitsu from stanza to stanza, keeping the reader off balance even as the lines themselves are phrase-based and do not disrupt the syntax of the poem.

Later: There is an optical phenomenon, or quality of the human eye, so that when you look just beside a faint object, you see it more clearly. I think poetry often operates like that. Herbert was writing during the Soviet domination of Poland, of course, so he had life/death reasons for being cagey; still, looking beside the thing, giving it an old, deep name instead of a modern one — especially when combined with a kind of deadpan voice — you get a poem that insinuates itself into the reader’s mind.