Seems that we all have rocks in our head, or at least the idea of rocks, notions of round hard things that can damage us if they strike, solid masses of earthen material that defy our ability to out think them. Stupid rocks. Ideas get in the way of things, a tenet shared by flightier versions of zen and more solid versions of a modernist decree. The essential point is that one cannot know anything about rocks until they retire from the debating society: all the focusing on how tight one's theory is as it clashes with the dense physicality of reality is like taking a trip only to worry about the contents of the luggage. You can win the argument and walk away with nothing but a fleeting smug satisfaction that your designs held fast. Zbigniew Herbert's poem "Pebble" offers us a picture of the title entity as something that is gleefully self-contained, caring less about the content of our arguments or the character that makes them.
by Zbigniew HerbertThe pebbleis a perfect creatureequal to itselfmindful of its limitsfilled exactlywith pebbly meaningwith a scent which does not remind one of anythingdoes not frighten anything away does not arouse desireits ardor and coldnessare just andfull of dignityI feel a heavy remorsewhen I hold it in my handand its noble bodyis permeated by false warmth---Peebles cannot be tamedto the end they will look at uswith a calm and very clear eye
An interesting contrast for this poem would be Paul Simon's song "I Am A Rock", recorded when he was in Simon and Garfunkel; the most notable difference between the lyric and Herbert's poem is that Simon, at the time, was suffocating in his mannered seriousness.
I Am A Rockby Paul Simon
A winter's dayIn a deep and dark December;I am alone,Gazing from my window to the streets belowOn a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow.I am a rock,I am an island.I've built walls,A fortress deep and mighty,That none may penetrate.I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain.It's laughter and it's loving I disdain.I am a rock,I am an island.Don't talk of love,But I've heard the words before;It's sleeping in my memory.I won't disturb the slumber of feelings that have died.If I never loved I never would have cried.I am a rock,I am an island.I have my booksAnd my poetry to protect me;I am shielded in my armor,Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.I touch no one and no one touches me.I am a rock,I am an island.And a rock feels no pain;And an island never cries.
Simon eventually became a solo artist and shed the freshman composition overreach of his earlier poetic style. He developed a consistent sense of humor and revealed a superb sense of irony; best of all he pared back the dried garlands of creaky literary language from his work and was able to convey his subtler points in a fluid tongue that was informal, direct, understated. He decided to abandon Big Themes--Alienation, Despair, Inability to Communicate--and instead take what was in his own backyard. But he did write some grandiose statements while he was a serious younger man who hadn't yet learned to live life like it were a loose suit. Everything was so damned important, so damned serious. How serious he considered it seems nearly comical in retrospect.His desire to be a rock was the extrapolated angst of a teenager who had been hurt in love and is aghast at how cruel the world has turned out to be, It is, if we recall, a young man's first experience of having his idealism betrayed by an intrusive and uncaring world. "..and a rock feels no pain" is what S and G sing in the refrain and it comes across as whining and a wallow. Teens like myself, sensitive and eager to experience the bigger world in a hurry, related to this paean to self-pity; it is a song I have been embarrassed to admit to ever liking. It seems like only a modified version of the typical Bobby Vee or Gene Pitney three-hankie wounds of the heart that held the music charts not long before.
Herbert, in contrast, has his rock, his pebble more precisely, seem like nothing less than an entity unto itself, neither representative of anyone's anger nor a metaphor for anyone's bad experience. The pebble, in fact, is offered up as an example to be noted, studied, emulated in some sense;
The pebbleis a perfect creatureequal to itselfmindful of its limitsfilled exactlywith pebbly meaning
"...filled exactly with pebbly meaning. " This goes along with a notion from William Carlos Williams' idea that the thing itself is its adequate symbol. This was something that I had heard by way of Allen Ginsberg in a broadcast some years ago, and it stays with me because it really does get to the heart of much of the modernist poetry aesthetic, which was to cleanse the language of the freight of a several hundred years of metaphysical speculation and restore the image of the thing as something worth investigating in itself. Herbert presents us with an item that is minute and already perfect, complex and intriguingly self-sustained; it is a mystery for us to parse on terms outside our egos. His is a poem that invites a reader to discover the world with it mind that we have to abandon our filters and templates and formula paradigms that gives phenomena an easily classifiable meaning.
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