A Fugitive from Utopia
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...
(The entire section is 2,332 words.)