08 February 2007

Zbigniew Herbert - The Collected Poems, 1956-1998

"This poetry is about the pain of the twentieth century, about accepting the cruelty of an inhuman age, about an extraordinary sense of reality. And the fact that at the same time the poet loses none of his lyricism or his sense of humor - this is the unfathomable secret of a great artist." - Adam Zagajewski

In the mail today I received Zbigniew Herbert's The Collected Poems, 1956-1998 (Ecco Press, 2007). The first thing to notice is that the cover design is pretty astonishing (I almost said 'striking' but caught myself); the image at right, a portarit of Herbert © Anna Beata Bohdziewicz, appears absent any text as the front of the book. The title, publisher info, etc. appear only on the spine and back cover.

Herbert is an incisive and ironic poet who played an inspirational role in the politics of Solidarnosc. He subsequently had quite vituperative, public fallings out with those, like Adam Michnik, on whom he had earlier had significant influence. See, for instance, his remarks in this 1994 interview. That said, Michnik wrote a brief, still admiring lament (reprinted in the NYRB) when Herbert died. There Michnik says:

"There were times when I had the privilege of being close to Zbigniew Herbert. His poems helped me survive the difficult years of prison. This I have never forgotten. Then our ways violently parted. In recent years I was often unable to understand his political statements. But his poems always brought me to enchantment and meditation."

In recent years it has been pretty difficult to find copies of Herbert's translated books. So, this new collection is quite welcome and definitely worth the read. Here is one poem that I especially like and that seems relevant as we await the time when the U.S. administration uses failure of will among the Iraqis to account for the even greater disasters it is creating in Baghdad.

Why the Classics
by Zbigniew Herbert


in the fourth book of the Peloponnesian War
Thucydides tells among other things
the story of his unsuccessful expedition

among long speeches of chiefs
battles sieges plague
dense net of intrigues of diplomatic endeavours
the episode is like a pin
in a forest

the Greek colony Amphipolis
fell into the hands of Brasidos
because Thucydides was late with relief

for this he paid his native city
with lifelong exile

exiles of all times
know what price that is


generals of the most recent wars
if a similar affair happens to them
whine on their knees before posterity
praise their heroism and innocence

they accuse their subordinates
envious collegues
unfavourable winds

Thucydides says only
that he had seven ships
it was winter
and he sailed quickly


if art for its subject
will have a broken jar
a small broken soul
with a great self-pity

what will remain after us
will be like lovers' weeping
in a small dirty hotel
when wall-paper dawns

Translated by Peter Dale Scott and Czeslaw Milosz
Inscription (1969)]

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Blogger Space Bar said...

Jim: Thanks for this. I've begun reading Herbert only recently, and I find his work fascinating. I believe the Jan 22nd Issue fo The New Yerker has some poems by him, but I can't find a link.

09 February, 2007 04:41  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, its a good portrait. I just wish this semi-genre of photography showing people smoking didn't exist. It's like an extension of tobacco industry marketing - look! you too can be cool! - when in fact the activity is toxic, ugly, and smells extremely YUCK. It ain't cool at all; its gross.

10 February, 2007 19:20  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those of you interested in reading Herbert should not buy this book, but track down his earlier books, translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter. They are infinitely superior and readily available. A great injustice has been done with the publication of this Collected.

22 June, 2007 09:03  

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