Krzysztof Ziarek


The Recounts of Words

When Irving and I happened to discuss one evening his “The Art of Haiku,” almost by accident—a little bit just like we met, it seems, by accident, after my move back to Buffalo—what struck me again about his poetry was the playful directness with which it acknowledges and undercuts the “pretensions” of language and poetry, their balancing on the verge of becoming a pronouncement, their being tempted by mastery, or even by arrogance.  In “The Art of Haiku,” (276) the ‘master’ stops, forced to (re)count the syllables and to re-master his art into the last “correct” line of five syllables.  Irving told me that in the volume, All of Us Here, the tiny “haiku play/error” was wedged against long poems, and perhaps, I added (or at least this is how I remember it), served as a play on the “mastery” of both long and short forms. 

And then the much later “Say Pardon”:

Yes, I pardon you, but—because, offended

and aggrieved, I have been set above you

and made to be and be seen in the right

--I ask you, First, please, forgive me. (406)

This time swiftly and succinctly accounting for the way in which the situation and its language positions the speaker “in the right,” and thus apologizing “first” and in advance for the unspoken advantage which the asymmetry of “having been offended” bestows momentarily on the speaker.  In short, the “injured party” apologizes for being set above the offender, and for being seen to be in the position of righteousness, of the paradoxical ‘master’ in this situation.  But not the master ‘of’ the situation, as the point of poem is to have the offended ask forgiveness for being made to be the “master” of granting pardon.

One can count in Irving’s poems on such undercutting of power, on the repeated emptying of the power games of situations and of language, on the recounting of syllables and the accounting for them, even and especially when they remain unspoken, just as “Say Pardon” literally “says” the often unspoken power dynamic of being offended and granting pardon. 

This counting on language and at the same time holding it accountable, is perhaps what brings me back to Irving’s poetry: it makes me recount syllables.