Last week I attended a reading of the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert’s poems at the New School in downtown Manhattan. At the podium were the poets Edward Hirsch and Adam Zagajewski, Herbert’s translator Alissa Valles, the journalist and dissident Adam Michnik, and New Yorker poetry editor Alice Quinn. This event marked a long-awaited occasion: the publication of Herbert’s collected works in English. Collected Poems, 1956-1998, in Valles’s sensitive translation, makes an important addition to our understanding of post-war literary modernism, and of post-war poetry in general.
On the occasion of Herbert’s death in 1998, his compatriot, translator, and friend Czesław Miłosz wrote a short, understated poem about their shared art form and how the deceased unfailingly attended it:
He, who served [poetry],
is changed into a thing,
delivered to decomposition
into salts and phosphates,
into the home of chaos.
Changed into a thing: a line Herbert himself would have seen as no small compliment. A battered son of Eastern Europe who saw his country repeatedly swapped by Hitler and Stalin, Herbert was understandably preoccupied with the permanent and stable. His poetry is a lasting monument to the safety of objects, to what he once called “a predatory love of the concrete.” Flowers, diamonds, armchairs, stools–these rarely let one down in the flux of life, and through them mankind can fashion a saner metaphysics than through appeals to History and the inevitable forces of “progress.”
That is not to say, however, that Herbert was unconcerned with politics and ideas. Born in 1924 in Lwow, he seemed destined for a quiet life of the mind until the noise of invasion and occupation roused him from that idyllic might-have-been. He joined the resistance, continued his studies while underground, and performed odd jobs throughout Poland until his gifts as a poet were recognized with the publication of his book Chord of Light in 1956
Herbert’s career as a poet only became possible after the Communist “thaw” of that year, the slight liberalization following Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech.” It is sobering to consider how great the loss would have been had this modest liberalization tempted him to compromise his talents for the sake of political expedience. (He once wrote a wry and haunting poem, A Life, that imagined what doing exactly that would be like: it ends with the poet-stooge and his friends asking rhetorically if “the dictatorship of the proletariat / may exclude art in the true sense,” before erupting into grim laughter.)
Yet a figure far more expressive of Herbert’s actual biography was his alter ego Mr. Cogito, a supremely ironic and polymorphous being, inhabiting every mode of thought and experience, through which the poet voiced his deepest insecurities, longings and fears: becoming a has-been, returning to his native town, confronting the abyss of “fathomless days,” his own eventual decay.
It’s well worth recalling that after the Berlin Wall came down, Herbert returned to his homeland with harsh words for the agreements struck between Solidarity and the Communist government. A staunch cold warrior, he went so far as blame the softer politics of Milosz and Michnik for the national malaise then gripping Poland. But not even this slight minimized Herbert’s artistic achievement and his indomitable humanity in the eyes of his anti-totalitarian compatriots. Michnik is all forgiveness today. When, during the question and answer period after the reading, Edward Hirsch drew a comparison between Herbert and the Latin American poets, specifically Pablo Neruda, the great Polish dissident shot back: “Neruda wrote about Stalin, Herbert wrote about Marcus Aurelius. I’d like to have the value of the difference between them in dollars.” (So would I.)
Auden wrote of Yeats that “mad Ireland hurt [him] into poetry.” Without World War II, there’s a good chance Zbigniew Herbert would now be remembered, if at all, as a professor of philosophy or art history: he, too, was hurt into poetry. He loved antiquity and used myths and other classical imagery to evoke the grim conditions of the ravaged world outside his window, but could also be arrestingly direct about those conditions: “Metaphors mock you as you flee/into a spray of righteous bullets.” Hard to surpass, as a comment on the fragile and tragicomic position of the artist in history. But we should be grateful, in Herbert’s case: if not for the bullets, then for the metaphors.