Post-Postmodernism and Hope

“Every evening / words / — not stars — light the sky. // No rest in life / like life itself.”

 — Umberto Saba, “Three Cities,” trans. Stephen Sartarelli

“I hear that the axe has flowered, / I hear that the place can’t be named, // I hear that the bread which looks at him / heals the hanged man, / the bread baked for him by his wife, // I hear that they call life / our only refuge.”

 — Paul Celan, “I Hear That The Axe Has Flowered,” trans. Michael Hamburger


I find myself drawn to poets who survived The Second World War. This, in combination with frequently watching the remarkable BBC series Foyle’s War in the evening, as well as, on a more personal note, the recent passing of my wife’s uncle, Sven — a Marine who was at Normandy, and a man of whom I was fond — has got me thinking about the profound and continuing impact of WWII. Even as Czeslaw Milosz says that Communism was the only possible response to the atrocities of the Industrial Revolution, so, too, it occurs to me that Postmodernism may well be a kind of understandable, almost logical response to the atrocities of WWII.

Part of my thinking has been fueled by researching Seamus Heaney, including a number of essays in The Art Of Seamus Heaney wherein various critics attempt to place him, as an accessible, intelligent, lyric poet, within the context of the Twentieth century, and the decline of centrality, gentility, and structure. These abstract thoughts have gained specificity through reading selected works of Paul Celan and Umberto Saba. Both men, in the face of profoundly difficult personal circumstances, heightened their attention to language in their poems. Yet in the case of Celan, the attention presses ever more inward, into a symbolic and even cryptogrammic relationship to German; whereas with Saba, his Italian becomes more specific and spare in a way that promotes universal resonance.
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