by Mark Burrows
Beauty? It seems a word that many among us don’t know quite what to do with. We know what it is until someone asks us to explain it, and then things get difficult. And beautiful words? Now, this magnifies the challenge. The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas explained beauty quite simply in this way: It is that which, when seen, pleases us (id quod visum placet). But what pleases us, and how? He went on to speak of three aspects necessary for this: unity, proportion, and claritas, the latter best rendered as “radiance.” And here we have a marvelously succinct approach to the question: When words have a certain radiance, they please us. Sometimes, this has to do with how they sound—with their musicality, as it were. We delight in words that rhyme, particularly when the rhyming startles us. We find ourselves smiling when reading or hearing a particular metaphor that awakens a kind of deep knowing in us. We relish words that seem to dance on our tongues.
Radiance is the theme of many poems found in Adam Zagajewski’s most recent collection, Unseen Hand (2011). Consider this one, a long poem entitled “Improvisation.” In it he speaks of “rapture,” a word too easily abandoned to religious fanatics with their unimaginative reading of exquisitely poetic texts like The Book of Revelation, and describes how it “lives only in the imagination and quickly vanishes,” going on to describe improvisation as the heart of our lives in the ways it gives us room to create amid the predictable and often dull expectations of our lives. How do we do this? Here’s Zagajewski’s suggestion in lines that are breathtakingly beautiful—both in their “sense” and in the sound through which his translator has rendered his Polish into English. Upon suggesting how life finds its spark and sparkle through the needed work of improvisation, he closes the poem with these lines:
Grayness and monotony remain; mourning
that the finest elegy can’t heal.
Perhaps, though, there are hidden things before us
and in them sorrow blends with enthusiasm,
always, daily, like the birth of dawn
on the seashore, or no, hold on,
like the happy laughter of the two little altar boys
in white surplices, on the corner of Jan and Mark,
And, even if we can’t remember this scene because, obviously, we were not there, we can imagine it, and smile in our re-membering. Yes, the poet is right: there are “hidden things” before us that touch us with joy, even amid our sorrow, and lighten our heavy load with a laugh or a sigh or a knowing glance. When does this happen? “Always, daily.” And here, the trick is not knowing what to look at, but knowing how to see. Like when we notice the sun creasing the farthest edge of the horizon above the morning sea. Or hear the trill of birdsong just before the first light breaks the hold of the long silent dark. Joy happens in the hidden things. Radiance cannot be stopped. Remember?
Mark S. Burrows Professor of Religion and Literature, the University of Applied Sciences, Bochum (Germany). Scholar, poet, and translator, most recently, of two volumes of German poetry, Rainer Maria Rilke, Prayers of a Young Poet (2015, revised edition) and SAID’s 99 psalms (2013), both by Paraclete Press, and series editor of Paraclete Poetry and Mt. Tabor Books in the Arts.