The Collected Poems, 1956-1998

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Alissa Valles, the translator of most of the poems in The Collected Poems, 1956-1998, included the nine collections of poetry that Zbigniew Herbert published during his lifetime. At least five of these have been published by Ecco Press previously. Despite these and other translations, Herbert is one of those literary giants who almost slips through the cracks because he writes in a language not widely spoken in the Western world. Other famous Polish writers like Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) and Czesaw Miosz (1911-2004)the latter befriended Herbert in postwar Paris and translated many of the poems in this collectionwrote in English or, as in Miosz’s case, entered the mainstream of Western cultural and intellectual life. Herbert, on the other hand, despite extensive travel in Europe and the United States, wrote exclusively in Polish and lived a profoundly Polish life.

He was born during the time of the Second Republic, a democratic interlude in the troubled history of Poland’s political servitude. It was in his early youth, he said in an interview, when he learned “that to debate meant invoking proofs, to search for truth. For the Marxists dialectic meant everything was relative.” In 1939, when Germany and Russia invaded Poland and split the country between them, Herbert was only fourteen years old. His hometown of Lwów fell to the Russians, who promptly arrested thousands of Poles, Jews, and Ukrainians. In 1941, the Nazis turned on Russia and replaced the communist secret police. The tyranny and oppression surrounding Herbert in his early years had a profound impact on his life and his poetry. During the war, he was active in the Resistance to German occupation. After World War II, the Polish authorities, controlled by Moscow, persecuted those who had fought the Germans, based on the assumption that motivation for fighting the Nazis sprang from loyalties to the prewar Polish republic and its democratic principles, which were unacceptable to the Marxist regime.

Until 1956, when Russian control became less oppressive, Herbert led a precarious resistance. He was able to publish a few poems, despite moving from job to job and being desperately short of funds. His friendship with Henryk Elzenberg, a learned and independent professor of philosophy and also a poet, introduced Herbert to a dialectic free of political relativism, a rich way of thinking derived from the overlapping worlds of philosophy, art, and poetry that fed Herbert’s quest for truth. Although he struggled with the notion that he should concentrate on philosophy as such, his deeply felt inclination that he was a poet by nature held him on course. He never, however, entirely separated philosophy and poetry, a frame of mind captured in the droll persona of “Mr. Cogito,” who pervades Herbert’s mature poetry, a speaker based on Descartes’ famous injunction, “Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am). The intricacy of ideas and the emotions of feeling keep strong company in Herbert’s work.

With the thaw of 1956, Herbert published his first book of poems, Struna wiata (chord of light). It was a late debut, but an impressive one. Professor Elzenberg’s influence was apparent in the many poems with classical allusions (“To Apollo,” “To Athena,” “On Troy,” “To Marcus Aurelius”), while the young poet’s fascination with beauty in nature and art is conveyed in brilliantly forged images and metaphors. A rose is a “source of heaven and earth/ O constellations of petals” (“On a Rose”), and the stained glass window of a Gothic church has “tears of glass” (“Architecture”).

Hermes, pies i gwiazda (Hermes, dog and star) appeared the following year. Herbert continues to explore the legacy of antiquity (“Akhenaton,” “Nefertiti”), but he also begins to mine personal memory. In a lovely poem, “Biology Teacher,” a fondly remembered teacher is praised for kindling the poet’s capacity for wonder: “He led us/ through golden binoculars/ into the intimate life/ of our ancestor/ the paramecium.” Once memory is tapped, Herbert cannot suppress his bitter recollections of the political nightmare that hovered over his youth and would permeate, even if in a less horrific manner, the bulk of his life in Poland. In “Ornament Makers,” he celebrates artists, musicians, and poetsthe “decorators” of the worldbut ends on a note of bitter irony. Art becomes an instrument of dehumanization in a totalitarian...

(The entire section is 1830 words.)

The Collected Poems, 1956-1998 Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

The New Republic 237, no. 4 (August 27, 2007): 37-43.

The New York Review of Books 54, no. 7 (April 26, 2007): 35-37.

Poetry 190, no. 2 (May, 2007): 117-129.

Weekly Standard 12, no. 34 (May 21, 2007): 32-33.

World Literature Today 81, no. 5 (September/October, 2007): 70-71.