(Instead of a Preface)


"...when there are so many big truths left to be said."
Leo Tolstoy


          In the beginning, as we all know, there was doubt. As soon as Adam and Eve tasted from the Tree of Knowledge, they were overcome with disillusionment. They hardly suspected that their glorious surroundings and the “miracle-sower” himself would disappoint them so bitterly. If before the “ultimate seduction” they resorted to boredom as the most acute feeling of dissatisfaction, now, having been exposed to knowledge, they started to engage in rebellion. And that is why they were exiled into our world.
           Five thousand plus years later, this incident continues to raise a question, which, I believe, has yet not been given the attention that it deserves. Who, after all, is a sinner: Adam and Eve or their Creator who sentenced them to the bliss of ignorance? And: is ignorance really bliss as the convenient cliché suggests? The answers to these questions matter less than the very fact of asking them itself. In other words, the answers lie within the questions themselves which, like the act of tasting the forbidden fruit, are nothing but examples of the ultimate form of rebellion. 
I would have done what Eve did: succumbed to the seduction, for I am convinced that ignorance of or subservience to the existing order is not what bliss is all about. Any noteworthy development throughout the history of civilization was a result of an intellectual uprising against the status-quo. Anyone who believes that wisdom consists of being “in the dark” about the nature of things or oneself is a superfluous being. One that can be of no help to another. 
          Today, this axiom, alas, still requires just as “bloody” proofs as twenty one centuries ago, when we were informed that we are saved and all that’s required of us from now is to stay on the righteous path. Despite the monumental progress in the realm of knowledge, mankind had hardly experienced any moral growth from the day when Cain “calculated” that he is not his brother’s keeper. Christ, Abel’s true follower, it turns out, spilled his blood in vain: the world in which we live is the same as in the days of Cain. And just as in Cain’s days, those who have acquired redemption for free are too busy to be “keepers of their brothers”. 
          The latter circumstance is of utmost importance to those of us who allocate themselves to the ranks of poets. Because modern poetry must take as its starting point the realization of ethical-metaphysical disaster which has befallen upon mankind … in the beginning of its days. Incidentally, this – the attempt to decipher the drama of existence confined to any space and time – is what occupied poets since... the beginning of days.
           So, what is it then that makes modern poetry modern?
           The above question is just as old: time or space always, everywhere and only manifests itself in a concrete facet; and people are always and everywhere convinced that only the current one is… modern, i.e. - different from any other facet. People have the right to be convinced of this, even though the Bible does state that it is not “from wisdom” that questions about the difference between the present and the past (the eternal), usually arise. Incidentally, the phrase “eternal question” has itself corroded with time and, often sounds like - “trivial question”. Therefore, having reminded that “eternal question” is a question that is... eternal, and not just obnoxious, a question that doesn’t disappear from any time or space, I am returning to the above-mentioned: what is, then, modern poetry?


          Let me begin with a digression, where, as in the “main text”, convictions and doubts are often interchangeable. 
          In my understanding, just as schematic as anyone else’s, the history of human thought is constantly being renovated along two “main roads”. The first road leads to the jungle where salvation is seen in returning to the original state of ignorant “bliss”, while the second leads to a region where the Tree of Knowledge stands in the middle. And where people “who know what they do” are filled with doubts about the fruits of their labor and constantly urge themselves to seek out better alternatives. In these searches they just as constantly look back at the above mentioned tree, since knowledge, reason , is to them not only a means of settling any dilemma but also its integral part. In other words, a part of the solution. Mozart and Dostoevsky, Rousseau and Pushkin, for instance, “labored” upon the first road. Goethe and Nietszche, Tolstoy and Brodsky, also for instance, “hustled” upon the second.
          Due to the ironic twist of notions, the first are regarded as the more innocent and less “categorical” than the second. But I think that if we were attempt the impossible, i.e. “forget” the genius of the first and “overcome” the brilliance of the world that they created, we can conclude the following: they, “the first ones”, lead us into the dark and dense caves, the likes of which are found in the mountains of Kandahar. I believe that Dostoevsky’s philosophical choice - the return to the purity and simplicity of faith as the ultimate solace - is not too much unlike a despotic command to obey that something the nature of which no one is familiar with. If Dostoevsky were not a writer but, let’s say, a ruler of a country, I, for one, would emigrate.
           I would feel much more comfortable in a Tolstoyan, universe, the clarity of which is promised by the freedom to think and doubt. Holland, with its Spinoza, the studious polisher of spectacles, is much more pleasant to my taste than Afghanistan with its Omar, the one-eyed mulla. My favorite character of Dostoevsky’s novels, Ivan Karamazov, argued for an intellectual kind of faith, one that doesn’t require a single drop of innocent blood. Until humanity comes up, with such a religion, I prefer to be an atheist. The kind that doesn’t forget that words and thoughts, like spectacles, blur everything which they do not make clear and distinct.
          Recently, in one of the regions upon the map of the… brain, scientists discovered cells that periodically feel “hunger”. Apparently, that hunger is satiated by things that are not held responsible before reason. Their favorite “food” is blind faith, religion. That’s how, the scientists, argue, faith came to be in the world: something akin to that which is the pride of ants - blind faith in the Leader and - through him - in the Almighty.
          Many were delighted by this finding, for, they figured, blind faith is just as “inevitable” as, for example, vision. I, nevertheless, believe those “scientists” who insist that there could be cancerous cells in any region. Arthur Koestler, a philosopher, a writer, and a scientist, who was very well versed in all sorts of regions, said that it is impossible to comprehend the ever-bloody, tragic history of man without knowing his “schizo-physiology”. And this knowledge can be acquired only through the study of our brain. Or, to be more precise - its structure. Unlike animals, with whom we have a “reptile brain” in common, we’ve been given a chance to cover it with a layer of a “cerebral” brain. Reason. Throughout history, the first layer draws us in the very same direction as the animals. There where all kinds of instincts, like “blind faith”, are to be found. The second layer, a more recent and more evolved one, draws us in an opposite direction. Towards which Spinoza was drawn. 


          I am returning to the statement that if Dostoevsky were a ruler, I would run away from his empire. Such statements are, usually, ridiculed by means of an argument, which is believed to be a sort of an “apparent truth”: poetry and everyday life are “two different things” with different principles and goals. 
This “truth” is false for two reasons, simultaneously.
         One: art is created only by human beings and only for human beings. I am not too keen on pseudo-mystical theories according to which “artistic revelations” are whispered by the heavens and that a poet is simply a blissful messenger from the above. 
Two: since art is a man-made phenomenon, it must ask and attempt to answer clear questions which concern the direction and the fate of men. Since this notion is “as simple as mooing”, any artist’s attempt, even if he happens to be blessed with a genius-like skill, to suggest the opposite is, at best copping out, and, at worst, betrayal of the idea of art itself. 
         In this vain, Pushkin’s announcement that “poetry must be empty” (stikhi dolzhni bit’pustimi) strikes me as… irresponsible. Had Einstein expressed complete indifference when he learned that his theory enabled the creation of the atomic bomb, he would have added yet another disappointment to the list of disappointments. Just as he would have included his name in the list of those, indubitably great names that, nevertheless, fall short of evoking respect, had he said the following: “My task is to deal with great discoveries; as for the results that they might entail, well, that is entirely the business of the not-so-great of this world!” Einstein, of course, did not say this not only out of humility: in his case the intellectual genius was equivalent to that of the moral. In other words, he did not hold that genius gives a man the right to be anything more or less than he is: a man. 
          As for Pushkin’s formula of a poet versus the crowd, it is a badly thought-out one and can hardly be considered great. It was Pushkin’s duty to “surmise” that if the poet is misunderstood by the “lowly members” of the crowd, those members of the crowd misunderstand not only him but each other as well. Everyone, in fact. In other words, he should have understood, as Einstein and Tolstoy did, that even he, Pushkin is, first and foremost, just another man. Just another member of that very crowd. And the only thing that makes him stand apart from that crowd in the eyes of Time is his skill of composing verse.
 If, however, he meant the rivalry of the poetic and the base within each and every one of us, then, why is it that “poetry should be empty”? On the contrary, it should be filled to the rim with questions, doubts and suggestions that would make the baseness and the ugliness within us so obviously base and ugly, that even the basest and the ugliest among us will doubt our ways.
         To reiterate then: upon the first of the two “main roads” of the development of thought, we find thinkers who have grown weary of thinking. Just as one grows weary of sitting in one position for a long time. Even if the original position seemed as comfortable as the one assumed by Rodin’s Thinker, who, even though made out of marble, seems ridiculous to those “weary of thinking” precisely because he sits, as they say it in Russia, “in the same old position upon the stone”. And as for the sensitive and un-stone-like, well, they have long grown tired of voicing and hearing the same old un-answered - abstract and metaphysical - questions. They, unlike the statue, do move around: they urge all of us, the still moving, to either join their ranks and revert back to the soothing and blind faith, or to simply relax and imitating the cool, summer breeze, let out a laugh at everything under the sun. They call, so to speak, for the union with the innocent nature. Which, incidentally, knows no doubts.


         Far more innocent than the thirty-some year Pushkin is Tolstoy - the eighty-some year-old man who constantly doubted everything. Far more brave and despairing than Pushkin’s duel is Tolstoy’s escape from his own life, his much more complex self. Tolstoy’s last act of exodus is the unthinkably courageous admission of failure in the attempt to comprehend reality, but also a “much more” unthinkably courageous announcement that the search for answers to the eternal questions… must go on. 
        Tolstoy’s Confession deals with more important and less easily resolved dilemmas then Puskin’s Eugene Onegin who resolved his with a single bullet. Tolstoy’s impasse is huge compared to the petty tribulations of Onegin. The latter’s tribulations might seem “refined” to many, but I would avoid arguments over the essence of this or similar “epithets” until the following Tolstoyan saying still holds weight: "Why utter the refined trivialities when there are so many big truths left to be said?"
         Indeed, there is no reason.
         Hardly anyone in the 21-st century would take Tatyana’s and Eugene’s “tragedy” as tragedy. Both of these characters, could be of relevance only to each other. Today, their behavior as well as the words that they use would, first and foremost, cause embarrassment. At least, in that spatial-temporal part of the universe which is called the Western Civilization. The hero of the Confession, on the other hand, is as timely and relevant today as when he was alive. At any spatial point of the universe which is occupied by civilized two-legged animals. As much as before, he evokes either compassion or rejection (depending on who the reader is), respect or fear, insult or praise. His problems are our problems and the problems of those that will follow us or preceded him. He is the ever-modern phenomenon. He is ageless and timeless. In other words -inexhaustibly modern.
          Everything that resembles him under the sun is what I mean by modern.
          Including poetry.


         Modern poetry, is not necessarily that poetry which is created today, that point in time which happens to coincide with mine and your existence, dear reader.  
         For, you and I, are merely tiny specks upon the vast canvass of space. Mere passing dots on the spectrum of Time, which, indeed, does stay still. And has no intention of moving. So, the term modern, dear reader, as it is applied to poetry has nothing to do with chronological time or stylistic fancy and fashion of a given generation. To me, Marcus Aurelius is as modern as Dylan Thomas, Rembrandt is a contemporary of Chagall, and Beethoven is a spiritual comrade of Bob Dylan. All of the above are timeless and ever-relevant in my believe-system because all of the above take as their starting point the existential trials and tribulations of humanity and, until the latter exists, all of the above will continue to matter. 
          Any stylistic or “epochal” differences between poets are of secondary importance. They have to do more with an individual poet’s biography or taste. There is, however, one common motto which the adherents of the metaphysical (the eternally questioning) school of poetry follow: to be as clear and understandable as possible in one’s verse. This is a corollary of the fact that each one of those adherents writes in order to be heard or read by a reader here and now, and not one of them wishes to impress upon the reader that the verses which the latter has just read or heard were first uttered by the Almighty.
The banal becomes banal only after it has turned into something indubitable: poetic style is a means to express a thought, a notion, a feeling. It is not the end in itself. There are plenty of critics and poets, and there always were (we just no longer remember their names), who assert that what makes poetry modern is its style, the outer package so to speak. More often than not, when you break open that very outer package which such heads construct, you end up with emptiness inside.
         As one philosopher noted people lose their minds quickly and in herds, whereas they regain it slowly and in solitude. Each one in his/her own way. Poets, no matter how much they try to “ring” in their own way, are also just “bells on top of God’s nightcap”. They are also just people: they regain their minds if not always slowly, then always - each in his/her own way. But the fact of this regaining, the fact that they enter into their minds each in his/her own way is hardly the only condition required for the overall entry. It is hardly enough to “sing in your own way, even as a toad” in order to make a song. As Esenin pointed out, one must first have the words to put to the melody. Otherwise, the sing-song might fall into quacking and the one that quacks - into a swamp. 


          That’s precisely what the above-mentioned Tolstoy meant: if you can help it not to write, then don’t write! Even in your very own way. So, for example, when a younger poet accuses Bella Akhmadulina of being stylistically an old-fashioned poet and instead offers verse that is drenched in provincial arrogance and cheap self-derogatory cynicism, he should be reminded, that if he makes a bit more effort he will be able not to write at all. And therefore regain some free time necessary to go over the eternal wisdom which he seems to have overlooked. The eternal wisdom according to which the beautiful strives not towards the cynical but towards the exalted, no matter how old-fashioned the latter might be mistaken for. The banal, on the other hand, usually takes pleasure in its own mediocrity. And no matter how “significant” that mediocrity might seem to itself, it is still not a good reason for writing poetry.
           The truly modern poets, or poets who serve all stretches of time, are more preoccupied with the question of what then of how on that one condition that each of the two is the indelible part of the other. As a ranking member of the poets’ workshop, which is the only truly democratic realm so far encountered, I would urge the above-mentioned, unnamed colleague and those that share similar views to abstain from open manifestation of their own complexes which camouflage intellectual impotence. So, if they find themselves unable to follow Tolstoy’s precept not to write, if they must scribble down their petty grievances, why humiliate themselves further and like that fly, climb on the backs of “old-fashioned” elephants and helplessly flutter their tiny wings in protest? Why not simply march into that bliss called "ignorance" without making a nuisance of themselves?
           It is my firm believe that these stylistic dandies realize very well that they are not looking for a fresh way to look at our world. What they are looking for is a way to forget their main thought which terrifies them with the implication that they do not have a main thought whatsoever. In the best scenario, what they might have is information about it. And, therefore, they are simply terrified of repeating someone else simply because they fear that their rendition of the theme is not going to be as eloquent. Thus they limit poetry to solely linguistic functions and operate from the cheap intention to temporarily shock the reader who, nevertheless, ultimately is not fooled. 
           “In any age,” wrote Derek Walcott, “a common genius almost indistinguishably will show itself, and the perpetuity of this genius is the only valid tradition, not the tradition which categorizes poetry by epochs and by schools. We know that the great poets have no wish to be different, no time to be original, that their originality emerges only when they have absorbed all, that it is only the academicians and the frightened poets who talk of Becket’s debt to Joyce.” (The Muse of History)


          There are different kinds of fear. 
          When Socrates declared at the end of his life that he knows nothing, he was confessing his metaphysical despair against the background of existence. Existence that frightens us both with its indifference towards us and the damned questions which it evokes. 
          Plato, his student, nevertheless, decided that the philosophically, i.e. ethically and esthetically, right thing for him to do is not to simply repeat the conclusions of his intellectual mentor but tackle the very same problem once again. Plato did not decide that the best course of action from now on is to delve into his own universe, ignoring the vastness outside it. The very same questions that tortured the teacher, were posed by the student as well. All over again. That is why he chose intellectual giants like Parmenides and Heraclites as his imaginary conversation partners. Even if he had to conclude by repeating the words of Socrates, the only reason that we believe him is because Plato chose to take the hard road. He decided to relive the agony of brooding over the same old, eternal questions. 
The history of art, the history of human thought, is the labor of Sisyphus. But according to Camus’ correct axiom, even though we know that our labors are futile and senseless, we have the moral obligation to keep pushing the rock to the top of the mountain. In this way all great artists are helpless. Poets, in fact, are unified by the feeling of existential despair. Just knowing about the existence of such a state is not enough. The state must be suffered through. And the work of the truly “metaphysical” poets, even if it is futile, is muteness trying to overcome its own condition with the aid of words. 
           Poetry, as any form of art, is an attempt to modernize the metaphysical; to decipher the irrational reality and make some order out of it. To offer an alternative. And this is precisely what makes art a form of rebellion. Not some cheap trick meant to sound original and shock a handful of contemporaries but to shock and rattle the origins and foundations of our indifferently silent existence itself. It is the only revolution worth fighting for because it is the only revolution that, like that dream of Ivan Karamazov, does not require your life as payment for justice and beauty. The only sacrifice that art requires is giving up existential pettiness and selfishness. 
           Poetry is a civilized leap towards the impossible harmony and its nobility lies in the violence and rebelliousness of that inward leap which is the only thing that could protect us from the violence from without. It is the imaginary and the wishful pressing back against the flattening pressure of reality. And this imaginary pressure could only come as a result of thorough and entirely painful, surgical examination of the objective reality. Only then is it effective and only then it becomes memorable. 


          That is why it is important not to grow weary of the “marble pose”, to ask the very same existential questions and push on the rock with all one’s might. The general instinctive desire of reality and its fanatical servants is simplification. It is enough to think of the vast majority of politicians and religious leaders of any epoch. Poetry adds subtlety and complexity to the everyday blandness; its’ domain is not the despotic black and white, it recognizes multiplicity of colors and hues and exposes the impotence or tyranny of mediocre thought. That is why the very same Plato recognized the dangers that poetry or music might pose for political leaders who usually demand obedience to their laws. 
         Poetry, metaphysical poetry, is the opposite of prayer which requires shutting down of thinking faculties and therefore makes less of a man than he really is. Perhaps, both religion and the state are right: human beings are dumb and lowly and the less of themselves they retain, the better off they are. Perhaps that is so, but poetry uplifts the individual’s rights to reach for things higher, kinder, better. It does not tolerate ignorance or blind subordination to any authority because poetry is a keen and critical tool that is not driven by blurry, unexplained emotions. The freedom to challenge the existing order, including the petrified order within the soul of mankind itself, and the freedom to deny the unanimity in thought and action is precisely the freedom that poetry, infused with genuine intellectual and spiritual suffering, offers. 
         And now, dear reader, in light of everything said above, I would like to conclude with the following question: what seems to be a weightier sin to you - obedience to the force of gravity or taking a big bite from the forbidden fruit of Knowledge?

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