This study of the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert is a major step in exposing the English-speaking reader to one of the most important contemporary European poets. In the United States and England, Herbert’s reputation has been growing since 1968, when Czesaw Miosz, the winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature, and Peter Dale Scott published their translations of Herbert’s poems, Selected Poems. Since then, as Herbert’s oeuvre of both poetry and prose has continued to grow, new translations and critical articles have appeared in English in diverse journals. This book-length study is the work of the Polish poet, critic, and translator Stanisaw Baraczak, Alfred Jurzykowski Professor of Polish Language and Literature at Harvard University. Baraczak describes the present volume as a “slightly abbreviated version” of a study published in Polish in 1984.
English-speaking readers have been able to appreciate Herbert by reading among the numerous translations of his works in print, but a critical study like Baraczak’s performs a special function. Previously, information about Herbert and his work was hard to find, scattered in articles, interviews, or reviews in a bewildering variety of literary publications, languages, and countries. Baraczak’s study, together with the bibliography and notes, gathers this information together for the first time. Students and critics who want to write about Herbert will turn to this book as an indispensable tool. It has two major ingredients: a wealth of information, some of it new, and, most important, an interpretation of Herbert’s six collections of poetry by a first-rate critical mind.
There are different possible ways of writing about Herbert, and the choice of a method or approach is neither obvious nor inevitable. Two examples can be given. Is Herbert’s life and biography important to an understanding of his poetry? Herbert has been moderately reticent in giving information about his life, but he has provided important information in interviews. He is neither a totally private poet nor by any stretch of the imagination a “confessional” poet. It would not be difficult for the critic to explore this background further, to interview Herbert’s friends and acquaintances about his wartime experiences, his family, first jobs, relationships, and opinions. Herbert has a striking and original personality; this kind of anecdotal information would make fascinating reading. Baraczak has not followed this path; background information about Herbert is encapsulated in five pages in the brief introduction to the book.
A second decision about method is the treatment of Herbert’s literary style or craftsmanship. This is harder for the English-speaking reader to appreciate because Herbert is encountered at a distance, through translation. Herbert’s poems, especially in his first three collections, read extremely rapidly and succeed in making an immediate, seemingly spontaneous, highly synthetic impact. Herbert has encouraged the view that he pays little attention to self-conscious style. When an interviewer asked him why he wrote prose poems, he replied that when he devised this form he had no fixed domicile or convenient place to write. Consequently he chose a form to fit his living conditions, something that he could commit to paper in a very brief time. Many critics have followed Herbert’s lead, emphasizing the content of his poems rather than their form. In addition, Herbert’s verse (not his prose poems) has no punctuation. This, together with the awareness that they were reading Herbert’s work in translation, led many English-speaking critics away from the close consideration of Herbert’s craft and verbal artistry.
Some Polish critics, however, have looked closely at the texture of individual poems, and this is what Baraczak does. He gives many close reading, carefully analyzing metaphors, images, ambiguities, and “tensions.” (Baraczak’s critical vocabulary recalls on many occasions that of the New Critics of the 1940’s and 1950’s.) These are among the most rewarding parts of his book. His interpretations of poems are always well-informed and alert, with a sensitivity to subtleties of verbal texture as well as to mythical and historical connotations. Any student or critic who wants to test an interpretation of Herbert’s well-known poems, such as “Apollo and Marsyas,” “Pebble,” “At the Gate of the Valley,” “Preliminary Investigation of an Angel,” or “Inner Voice,” would do well to consult Baraczak’s readings, as well as the footnotes in which he registers his disagreements with other critics. (These often make lively reading.)
A problem of still greater importance, encountered by any critic writing about Herbert, is that of the meanings of the poems, for Herbert is above all a poet of meanings. Miosz wrote many years ago, “If the key to contemporary Polish poetry is the collective experience of the last decades, Herbert is perhaps the most skillful in expressing it.” This “collective experience” is not just that of Poland but goes far beyond an individual nation and its fate. In a time when much poetry has become decorative or private—when, as Arthur Danto has forcefully stated in The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (1986), many art forms since World War II have abdicated any direct engagement with either philosophy or history—Herbert deliberately confronts this subject matter in poem after poem. He is one of the contemporary poets who is most concerned with philosophical and ethical meaning. For example, the two poems “Elegy of Fortinbras” and “Apollo and Marsyas” have an astonishingly broad frame...
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