The disintegration of the aesthetic ideals of classicism began when French symbolism embraced a new conception of beauty derived from a modern reality which existed at a great distance from harmony. Baudelaire claimed that beauty always consists of an eternal and immutable element. I would say of beauty that it is a dance on a knife-edge between the eternal and the mutable.
A particular conception of wholeness has survived far away from the idea of classical harmony, but even in a work of art which signals splitting or the simultaneous presence of several instances, a perfection must make itself valid. Brightly shining, beauty still flowers, and this in spite of the fact that art no longer takes it upon itself to stand guard over traditional values. If emptiness is not to conceal itself behind beauty, and deadly tedium not to lurk behind the good and the true, these phenomena must today have dimensions that are at least miraculous.
Of the beautiful Rilke says: Denn das Schöne ist nichts als des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wir noch grade ertragen… Here beauty is connected with terror, because the perfect is static and unchangeable, and as such is an expression of death. The terrifying and unendurable experience of beauty and terror in combination is fundamental to this century, in which the lack of beauty is no less than it was in Baudelaire’s time.
If beauty has to meet an aesthetic need alone, it becomes slack, and the poetry narrow. The beauty lies in the formal devices poets use. Rilke’s angel is not beautiful, it is terrible, but the elegies are among the most beautiful things that one can read. And, like all beauty, they yield a resonance in the body.
The art that encounters resistance or is reproached for being ugly will undoubtedly be accepted later, when the work’s innate beauty will come through in even the most far-reaching experiments. The new and the different are seldom experienced as beautiful – and certainly not that kind of art which struggles against order, the art that expresses disharmony, norm-breaking, illness, abnormality or annihilation.
The conception of beauty is conditioned by a number of circumstances, including events in the field of science, e.g. in mathematics, the paradigm shift that has led to the revision of chaos theory. Just as chaos and order prove to be related, so beauty is unthinkable without its opposite. To yearn for pure beauty is to be two hundred years too late.
The conversation with the classical works has changed meaning. What once they were, they are not today. They are, but they will always be something other, and yet they can preserve their intensity across historical time – a most important quality. At some points the connection is integration, at others a distance, but the dialogue never ceases to acquire a new character.
The ‘old ones’ are interesting not because they are old, but for the simple reason that some of them are masters. What makes their works classics is not only that they are executed with artistic precision, but that they contain a universal value. They are still able to make an impression and set our minds ablaze, they still urge us to read and re-read them, and to reconsider them. New poetry that really wants to be challenging must take the poetry of earlier times seriously.
The idea of a tabula rasa is an illusory one. All that we know, we know through language. Even our thoughts can never really be said to be our own. To a certain extent, therefore, tradition is already forced upon us. It would, moreover, be extremely foolish to try to ignore the past, or pretend to have lost our memory. Why not examine what the art that now exists looks like? Why not find out where it can be carried on from? For how otherwise is one to contribute something new and never seen before?
An epoch is characterised at least as much by what it reads as by what it writes.
The new does not consist in an overturning of the older poetry, in fact the new exists only by virtue of it. Ideas may take a rest and acquire topicality again, or with intervals of years may prove to be unexpected challenges. The question is not: what would my poems look like without a tradition? But: would they exist at all, had not poems been written before?
For something to be able to call itself new, it must be new in relation to something else. If I want to seek the new, it will not happen unless I have first made discoveries in what has gone before, or at any rate the new will not allow itself to be embraced with a flight from the past. Knowledge of tradition is required if I want to step over that tradition and not run the risk of writing poems that have already been written. Only by acquiring an insight into the poetry of earlier times can I have any hope – starting from my personal universe – of continuing the aesthetic articulation that all art is.
Every reading of the classical works adds new knowledge to what one already has. Thus one book is more than a book, it is a conscious multiplication, for the greatest works are born of many other readings and are therefore bearers of an insight and a memory at which no one would be able to arrive at, no matter how long they lived.
The poet who has run out of ideals is finished.
Thoughts and ideas do not become exhausted in the age in which they were born. The past is constantly present, so that even though I live in the twentieth century, I am confronted with earlier epochs. ‘Of course one is part of an age,’ Karen Blixen said. But she added: ‘Well, I can’t really say of myself that I belong to a particular generation, for ever since I was a child I have read – well, the classics – Dante and Shakespeare and Euripides…’
It is not a question of how far nowadays it is possible to reproduce older verse forms or rhetorical figures. Classical aesthetic ideals should not be abandoned, nor should they be sentimentalized, but only employed if they have a justification for it. A quest for original values can easily assume the character of compulsion or sterility – free access to the sources, on the other hand, is something quite different.
When two ages confront each other, a further dimension may be added to the poem. A number of traditional features still exist in poetry, fully deliberate, but they enter a new complexity, where the pulse is different and where, for example, the measure is taken of the peculiarly musical quality of the Danish language. To work one’s way into this field of tension is a challenge, a charged and condensed place to be.
Someone has set a level that cannot be ignored. The classical starting point – for me Hölderlin, Mallarmé, Rilke, Celan, Char and Sachs – determines actual new creation. It is in interaction and contrast that my lyrical profile comes into being. At any rate, I cannot possibly avoid writing under the influence of what has already been written. I write my individuality in an attempt to synthesize past and present. I ‘cut my sleep shadow in the darkness. Drag my wings through the mire.’
If people now talk so paradoxically about reinventing tradition, it is because the classics have lived a suppressed existence. It has long been the vogue to take a critical attitude, which in practice has meant that many have been so preoccupied with breaking tradition that they have not had much to do with it. Others have as a matter of course taken the classics into their intellectual orbit, quite simply because eminent works have been written before our own time. The reinvention expresses itself mainly as a rereading, but in some cases also as a rewriting.
Dialectics in art arises in the field of tension between tradition and experiment. By all means call it modern to criticise the criticism that has set the modern works alone at the centre. The cultural context is that the works exist side by side: the new books and the classics.
I live between the echo of the poems that went before, and the whispering and murmuring that is already being heard from poems that are still to be written.
When my generation of poets were publishing their first collections, I quite often heard other poets muttering from the sidelines: is it really new, what they’re bringing out? But surely life, love, loss, longing, death and decay are subjects still worth writing about? Isn’t it the task of all human beings to discover for themselves the things that have always existed? No one can ever lay claim to the experiences of others. The only possible avenue of progress is to fight one’s own way forward. Could the resistance of those poets have had something to do with the fact that the thought the world and mankind were new?
What is given is a supply of collective raw material from which I as a creative individual create the personal subject-matter of my poems. Alternatively, my subject-matter may simply be seen as part of a common stock of raw material. It is the same ontology and possibly also the same attention-radius, but my focus is another, my contexts and interpretations are different, as their existential context takes the form of a specific era in history. And again: my poems are coloured by my nature and temperament.
The modern should not be viewed as the loss of a past. On the other hand, however, one can may hunt about in the modern in order to see what existed in the past. In the modern it survives in a new and unexpected form. For no idea that is brought into the world ever leaves it again. Something can be forgotten, but then reappear and be reactivated. Books influence one another, but the notion that one great common work is being written is a utopia. The idea is a clever one, but it implies a united, shared perspective that is no longer applicable to our time. On the other hand: now and then I am seized by the mad idea that the planet is kept floating in space, constantly rotating and held aloft by all of us writers… As long as we write in the remembrance of the origins of our unique position.
In art, revolution inevitably leads to classicism, as Mandelstam put it.
The books that have meant the most to me? The Bible, the Anatomical Atlas and the Dictionary of the Danish Language.
-translation © David McDuff 2011