Last week I joined several friends of the late Edwin Honig, along with his sister, Lila, in a memorial tribute to him sponsored by the Brown Univ. writing program (which he was largely responsible for establishing back in the 1960s).
I read the last poem in Edwin's collection Time & Again : poems 1940-1997, a poem titled "Hymn to Her." & I prefaced the poem with some off-the-cuff remarks, things I had been thinking over in preparation for the event. Will try to summarize them here.
I met Edwin in the spring of 1971, when he was a visiting poet in my freshman 'writing" class, held at a young prof's apartment on Medway St. in Providence (I met the late Michael Gizzi in the same class). So I knew Edwin for just 40 years.
One of my favorite poets, Osip Mandelstam, had a talent for pithy aphorisms. When asked by an interviewer for a definition of the "school" of poetry from which he emerged (Acmeism), he said : "nostalgia for world culture." I think this applies very well to Edwin Honig. But with Edwin it wasn't just a matter of longing : he was busy making world culture, contributing to it, as multilingual poet and translator, as learned literary scholar. His cosmopolitanism spanned both time & space.
Edwin's global perspective had a strong impact on me, a young writer coming out of a suburban high school deep in the Midwest. But his cosmopolitanism wasn't just a matter of sophistication, of connections. I think Edwin really sensed, and believed in, and looked to the future for, a real internationalism, a humane culture transcending political, ethnic, linguistic & other boundaries. I think he wrote for this future world culture (which Mandelstam longed for too).
But what is it in particular about poetry which gives it a usefulness in this endeavor? How is it that poetry, like music, can make these crossovers & connections?
I think that poetry, when all is said and done, is human language under the sign of love : or as the Song of Songs puts it, his banner over me was love. Now the word love, in English, is a rather multivalent term... a "many-splendored thing"... So what do we mean by it more specifically, in this context?
Love - eros, agape, caritas - is a mysterious force or "spirit" which is essentially integrative, synthesizing, harmonizing, mediating, healing, and constructive. As St. Paul expresses it (in his most moving paean), "love builds up, it does not tear down." This harmonic, harmonizing force unfolds and reveals the relation between different or opposing things (heart & mind, thought & feeling, you & I, I & Thou...) - brings them into mutuality and shared being. & as anyone who has ever fallen in love can testify, this force of affinity & new relatedness can be immensely powerful, metamorphic, transfiguring : suddenly heart & mind are transposed (translated) into a new & "melodic" reality : & the whole universe seems to be transfigured along with us.
So if we say that poetry is human language under the banner of love, we are adumbrating its essentially harmonic, musical, and experiential quality. Poetry is language directed not so much toward knowledge for its own sake, an objectivity & objectification for purposes of control : rather it is essentially dialogic : it is a sharing of experience & what we know under the sign of wholeness & synthesis (both mind & heart, intellect & sensibility, thought & action).
Lately I've been thinking a lot about TS Eliot's notion of the "dissociation of sensibility" : of how the Metaphysical poets of the 17th century offered an example of some integral vitality which poetry somehow lost soon after. Edwin had an interest in that era, too. Perhaps every literary scholar of the generation coming after Eliot had to take such an interest - but Edwin brought his own special intensity to the reading of Donne, Marvell, along with Shakespeare & Jonson. & there's a metaphysical wit lurking in the last poem in Edwin's collected, which I'm going to read ("Hymn to Her").
Who is the "her" of this poem? A particular woman, perhaps. Maybe also Edwin's mother : note the emphasis on "hard labor" - Edwin was born on Sept 3, 1919 - Labor Day (his mother's own pun). And also, I think, Poetry itself, its "muse". It makes sense to me that Edwin would choose, in his closing poem, to address the theme of "poetry" itself. So the "her" of the title is both woman, or a woman, and poetry.
Now what is a "hymn"? In this case, it's another pun : the hymn is also "him" ("him to her"). A kind of love poem. And the word "hymn" has been connected etymologically, of course, to the Greek god of marriage, Hymenaeus : a hymn, in ancient Greece, was a praise song to this god, sung by the wedding celebrants on their way to or from the wedding chamber.
So we have a kind of witty conjunction of opposites, a metaphysical conceit (in embryo, anyway). We have "him & her" as both persons, and as facets of poetry itself. There are more such oppositions : heaviness & lightness, mistakenness & rightness... (the poem seems especially suffused with Edwin to me : he was a large, imposing personage in many ways, carrying a lot of heavy & painful psychological & intellectual burdens, yet one who never lost his swift lightness of mind & humor...). I love the word "bracing" in this poem. Bracing here has a double sense : as both invigorating, enlivening (awakening), and as supporting, in an architectural sense. (Edwin, whose grandfather was a carpenter in Jerusalem, who worked on the facades of temples there...). Love is the power of harmony, the bond of mutuality which makes civilization, world-renewal. Bracing. "Love builds up..." & embraces.
HYMN TO HER
The load you take
is dense, backbreaking
It can be otherwise:
and in full light
the load is slim,
and to the one that
takes it, bracing --
owed to none but
for the life
that lifts awakened.