Until recently, visitors to Kraków, Poland, might have easily stumbled across a bit of graffiti on the ancient wall surrounding the Old Town. “We Will Fulfill Herbert’s Testament,” the text read, referring to Zbigniew Herbert, a poet of national pride and international fame. When I visited the poet Czeslaw Milosz in 2001, at the beginning of a long residency in Poland, he welcomed my naïve delight at the graffiti with a full-bellied laugh and the remark that it had probably been the work of nationalist thugs.
Indeed, while some of us would like to see Herbert’s poetry and prose as his true “testament,” any conversation about the poet’s legacy since his death in 1998 has inevitably also been about state power and democracy, the idea of the left and the fate of liberalism, preserving national identity in the face of imperial or commercial incursion, and maintaining clarity of thought and expression in an era of public lies. All of these things make Herbert particularly relevant for American readers now. But it is also vital for us to see that the poet himself drew a clear line between poetry and politics, and why. Poets in the West often envy the cultural authority of their Eastern European colleagues. But the hurdles politics imposes on fresh and serious readings of literary work are often not well-understood.
It is hard to exaggerate just how closely Zbigniew Herbert is identified with the anti-Communist Solidarity movement in Poland. After intermittent residencies in Western Europe and the United States throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Herbert returned to the country he called “the treasure house / of all misfortune” in 1981. When Poland’s government declared martial law in December of that year, Herbert threw the full weight of his name and reputation behind the opposition. His poems were set to music and sung or recited at clandestine Solidarity gatherings, in which he often participated. The risks he took at that time were not trivial, and as an ailing man nearing 60 he might well have been forgiven had he chosen to settle down in a secure academic position in the West.
Herbert represents the fate of the poet-prophet or national bard when his or her society collapses. Observing this drama while in Poland translating Her¬¨bert’s poems, I have been struck by just how completely it reverses Plato’s account of the relationship between the poet and the city in The Republic. For Plato, the ideal city, the polis, is a bastion of reason from which the poet should be banished. But in Herbert’s poetry intellectual discipline and a strong sense of measure and hierarchy hold sway, and the city that part of the community to which he is most intimately connected, acts on Herbert as an irrational, irresponsible, and destructive force. Poets cannot banish the city, of course, and this poet wouldn’t even if he could; his work is predicated on the longing for a polis in the purest sense, for what Auden called “the Good Place.” In focusing on politics rather than on polis, readers on both sides of the Atlantic have long muted this crucial relation, treating poetry as if it were cheap journalism.
A July 2006 article published in the Polish weekly Wprost provides a case in point. Titled “Mr. Cogito’s Denunciation,” it claimed to “reveal” how Herbert had been a valuable source of information for the Communist-era secret police. According to this sensational new information, allegedly from the archives of the Institute of National Memory, Herbert not only met repeatedly and willingly with members of the Polish Security Service, but he had also provided them with valuable insight into the intellectual climate among the Polish intelligentsia living in emigration. The explosion of public indignation that followed reached across the political spectrum, though no one could agree on whether the article argued for or against “lustration,” the process by which those who informed for the old regime are today stripped of public posts and benefits. (This issue has dominated public life under Poland’s present right-wing government.) In the end, the Wprost article was condemned by the national Council on Media Ethics as “a major breach of the basic principles of professional journalism.” The very next day, the magazine’s website issued an apology to Herbert’s widow, oddly stating that the piece had “not intended to suggest that Herbert had collaborated ‚Ä¶ [or] to blight the memory of a Great Pole” but to “point out how the secret service of Communist Poland destroyed people.” It might have been truer to say that blighting was the price the newspaper was willing to pay for pointing.
In fact, the secret police file on Zbigniew Herbert had been published less than a year earlier, on Mrs. Herbert’s initiative, and with a commentary by two historians. It is clear from the documents that, while Herbert did meet with the Security Service—these were not invitations one could decline—he did not give his interlocutors the least satisfaction. From the summer of 1959, when the 34-year-old poet sent his fiancé(c)e a postcard from Arles that mentioned he was being followed, he had dealt with the Ministry of the Interior by feigning an inability to maintain secrecy or to understand what was expected of him. He responded to questions by speaking beside the point, downplaying his own interest in politics. He declared his desire to return to Poland but invariably failed to provide the information for which he was asked, whether it was on the “activities of Zionist circles in Scandinavia” or about Polish émigré journals in Paris and London. Toward the end of his report, one of his interrogators wrote of Herbert despairingly, “After all, he is a man with a considerable dose of honor.”
Herbert himself spoke freely of these encounters to friends. In a June 1969 letter to Czeslaw Milosz, the future Nobel laureate then living in California, he wrote:
I hadn’t expected to feel the touch of the gentlemen in little black suits. They phoned me on the day after I arrived. (It was Easter and I thought “they” too would be eating sausage and drinking.) Then there were regular daily “conversations” lasting many hours, not at headquarters¬¨—God forbid—but at the top of the Metropol Hotel, with a window open on the courtyard. I could go out the window and not come back, and my friends would say I’d been drunk, that I’d always had nihilistic tendencies, and there you have it. [‚Ä¶] They were interested in many things, among them Trotskyite movements in the West, but mainly the émigrés, whom they would most like to lure into their pit. They asked me all about you, too, whether you might not come back, and I summarized The Issa Valley for them and analyzed your poetry, pretending you interested them as the best living Polish poet. I played the fool, but it was no fun. I was alarmed to find that I wasn’t used to it anymore, that I wasn’t good at strolling around with shit on my head, and that I’m a coward because I fear for the rest of my life. It made me sick (insomnia, depression), but I’m fine now and working.
Ironically, it was the apparent distance of Herbert’s poems from politics that some younger poets of Poland’s “New Wave” generation dismissed as lofty classicism. In the late 1960s, poets like Adam Zagajewski and Ryszard Krynicki, who later turned to metaphysical and aesthetic concerns in their own work, were writing angry poems of protest satirizing the propagandistic language of the Communist regime. In the spring of 1972 Herbert confronted these younger colleagues when asked to give a speech on “The Poet Facing the Contemporary World” at a poetry festival in Silesia. In his brief, impatient, yet lyrical talk, he explicitly rejected the dichotomy between socio-political “engagement” and the “ivory tower”:
Here I have slid—quite consciously—onto the muddy ground of politics. For our world, our contemporary world, is defined in categories of politics and science, not in categories of art. Hence the poet’s complaint that he is homeless, which is true (but was never otherwise), and his attempt to flirt with politics and science—which is a punishable offense.
The poet’s sphere of action, if his attitude toward his work is serious, is not the “contemporary”—which I take to mean the state of our current knowledge about society, politics, and science—but the real, the stubborn dialogue of man with the concrete reality surrounding him, with this table, with that neighbor, with this time of day: the cultivation of a dwindling capacity for contemplation.
Herbert had just spent the academic year teaching European literature at California State College in Los Angeles, and his exposure to American life at the height of Flower Power had heightened his impatience with artists and writers who declared the necessity of left-wing “engagement.” Though he acknowledged their sincere good intentions, he saw as naïve—and therefore artistically barren—their assumption that the “human spirit” tends naturally toward ideals of freedom, progress, and humanism. For Herbert, this naïveté was twofold. First, it disregards all of the killing and lying done in the name of freedom, progress, and humanity. Second, it is seemingly ignorant of the “great works of the spirit” created by radical conservatives and reactionaries. In his talk, he mentions Joseph de Maistre as an example of the latter, and he could have as easily named Dostoevsky, Wagner, Heidegger, or Céline.
Herbert did not suggest, of course, that there were no political causes worth fighting for. He was with the poets of the New Wave in his loathing for the Communist regime. He was moreover a poet whose imagination had from the first been fed by political history and questions about the nature of power. But he insisted on a distinction between poetry that reflects on power, on the one hand, and poetry used as an instrument of politics, on the other, a distinction too often lost on those who read him for moral dicta. The true purpose of politics, he said in his talk, is to “create space for human initiative and courage,” whereas in our time it is more often a “game of chance” or, worse, an “automatic mechanism unconnected to reality.” Poetry in the service of political aims, no matter how sincere or noble, becomes for Herbert either a branch of decorative art (see his early poem “The Ornament Makers”) or a form of propaganda. Poetry that aligns itself with politics ceases to perform its function, which Herbert defines as building “culture, a hierarchy of values.” Thus this poet attempted to delineate the borders of poetry, as he said, “without usurpation, but also without an inferiority complex.” In this talk and in his poems, Herbert advances a line of thought on the boundaries of art that extends from Greek philosophy through Shakespeare and Kierkegaard to W.H. Auden’s The Sea and the Mirror.
Herbert seems initially to have watched his own bardification with a characteristic blend of gravity and irony. He was aware of the acute tension between the voice of political resistance and the voice of lyrical contemplation. It seemed that for a time the two could exist side-by-side because the uncertainty at the center of Herbert’s worldview was itself a heresy, a political provocation, in the ideological context of People’s Poland. The musings of Mr. Cogito, Herbert’s poetic alter ego, were as unsettling as Hamlet’s punning responses to his corrupt father-in-law. At the same time, the invention of Mr. Cogito, which coincided with Herbert’s stay in the United States, was a mixed blessing for him as a poet. Herbert intended the Mr. Cogito poems as the reflections of an Everyman, an Ordinary Joe groping and limping his way through a world of moral chaos. Written as much in response to ’70s-era California as to People’s Poland, they created imaginative space for doubt and dissent. But they also proved a good vehicle for Herbert’s moralism, for another kind of certainty; some are in fact earlier poems restated by a new persona. That they heralded the poet’s diminishing interest in lyric form may have been connected with the pressure Herbert felt to fulfill a public role.
* * *
This voice of certainty later came to dominate Herbert’s public life. In interviews from the ’80s and ’90s, he reserved harsh judgment for those in the anti-Communist opposition who had at one time or another been members of the Party or who had, in Herbert’s view, compromised themselves fatally by showing sympathy for the Communist cause. Their conversion to the opposition was, he thought, opportunistic. The language of these statements contrasts sharply with that of his best poems: it lacks imagination with regard to the lives and choices of people, some of whom were close friends. In his interviews and correspondence, Herbert is clear that he considers this “prosecutor” within himself a “dark side” of his nature, one he throws out the window when he writes. Nevertheless, his friends and allies were understandably shocked and hurt, while Poland’s far right started to use Herbert to buttress its Manichean view of the Communist era. Herbert’s vehement rejection of Czeslaw Milosz, making public old quarrels that had not led to a break before, was given expression in the poem “Khodasevich,” about a bankrupt exile, an unpatriotic poetaster. Privately, the two poets reconciled before Herbert’s death at Milosz’s initiative, but publicly, Herbert remained the right wing’s model of a patriot, in explicit contrast to Milosz. Herbert’s vehement criticism of the Round Table Talks of 1989 and Poland’s subsequent “soft” transition to democracy isolated him further from the liberal intelligentsia.
At the same time, his poems became increasingly private, describing illness, pain, and aging with relentless precision. The poems “Shame,” “Old Age,” “Stake,” and “A Life” are some of his finest, though they have been largely ignored in favor of earlier poems that have an overt political subtext. In this later work, Herbert sometimes returns to meter and rhyme, or he resorts to a long, breath-length line that, when one is aware of the poet’s asthma, are almost like breathing exercises done in meditation, as in the appropriately titled poem “Time”:
I live in several times like an insect
in amber, motionless and so outside
of time, for my limbs are motionless
and I cast no shadow on the wall,
sunk in a cave as in motionless amber
and so nonexistent
The difficulty of retaining dignity in old age is also the focus of late poems on Kant and Orwell. In a 1986 interview with Renata Gorczynska, Herbert had already made the connection between the wish to end his days with dignity and the desire not to be a moralist: “But why don’t I want to be a moralist? Because while I desire enduring values, love still-lifes and Vermeer’s View of Delft, I would also like to submit to those changes that are the changes of my body. That is, I want to live through old age in a dignified fashion, if it is given to me to do so.”
In December 2000, two and a half years after Herbert died, Katarzyna Herbert spoke publicly for the first time about her life with the poet. She spoke about his bipolar disorder, which had become fully manifest in the late ’60s and had grown steadily more devastating over the subsequent three decades. Even this was immediately politicized. Those who agreed with Herbert’s more extreme public statements accused Gazeta Wyborcza, the newspaper in which the interview had appeared, of trying to discredit Herbert’s authority by making him look like a sick, crazy old man. But I think that the aim of the interview, which was full of painful personal detail, was simply to convey the message that Herbert was a human being. It was a brave first step toward the dismantling of one Herbert myth, not an attempt to exchange it for another.
By the time Herbert’s secret police file was published in 2005, however, the popular effort to “demask” him was already going strong. A flimsy popular biography accused Herbert not only of countless infidelities, but of lying about his participation in the resistance to Nazism during the war. Scholars accused him of plagiarism. Mediocre poems by a pseudonymous poet were attributed to him. From a spotless hero of “upright attitudes,” he was transformed into a fraud and a neurotic. One felt in this fashion for attacking Herbert the resentment of a whole swathe of Polish society disappointed by what Solidarity had delivered. Even as more moderate accounts of Herbert’s public life have recently appeared, one may wonder about the Polish parliament’s declaration of 2008 as “The Year of Zbigniew Herbert.” The current government’s sponsorship may be an occasion to appraise this poet without a circumscribing agenda, but it leads one to dread more cant. In the absence of such distorting lobbies, American readers may do better.
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For most Americans, Herbert’s poetry still exists in a kind of historical void, sometimes called World Literature, in which he floats, stripped of his native matrix, alongside Anna Akhmatova, Bertolt Brecht, and Constantine Cavafy. It is, of course, no one’s fault that American readers do not have wide access to the extensive and diverse Polish criticism on Herbert. But the manner in which he was introduced to American readers has almost certainly encouraged a narrow reading of his work. It is at least in part a generational issue. Among those who started reading Herbert in the ’70s, there is angry resistance to any approach that complicates or challenges the standard vision, that of an idiosyncratic poet of historical irony, whose work reached its peak in the collections Mr. Cogito and Report from the Besieged City. The first selection from Herbert’s early work, edited and translated by Milosz and Peter Dale Scott, excluded such poems as “To the Fallen Poets,” “To Apollo,” “A Life,” “On Troy,” “Forest of Arden,” “Prologue,” and “Ballad: That We Do Not Perish,” poems that show how strongly Herbert felt himself to be in dialogue with his generation and poetic tradition, wonderfully original rather than merely idiosyncratic.
The fine later translations by John and Bogdana Carpenter did a great deal to fill out the picture, as did Bogdana Carpenter’s important scholarship. But it, too, tended to concentrate on Herbert as a “poet of conscience” rather than of ontological uncertainty. It is not surprising that the emphasis came to rest firmly on Mr. Cogito, poems that are among Herbert’s most accessible and funny, formally suited to an era of free verse, and often written around universal themes clearly stated in their titles (“Mr. Cogito Reflects on Suffering,” “Mr. Cogito Bemoans the Pettiness of Dreams”), instead of the oblique references, muted cries, and complex syntax and imagery of Herbert’s earlier work. Herbert had concluded his 1972 talk with a statement of preference for contemporary poetry that practiced “semantic transparency,” pointing the reader away from the sign to the object. But even if one accepts that the transparent language of the poet’s alter ego was an artistic imperative, it is wrong to present Herbert as if his philosophical searching could be subsumed by transparent logic. Mr. Cogito is often the voice of a dapper Stoic who can “leave the abyss at the threshold,” something Herbert himself could not always do. In his bleakest poems he finds no refuge, neither in poetic persona, nor in ethical dicta, as he suggests in “White Eyes”:
Blood lives the longest
it surges and craves air
loosens the pulse’s knot
at dusk the mercury column rises
at dawn mold covers the mouth
closer and closer
white eyes burn no lights
broken triangle of fingers
breath taken from silence
the mother screams
rends a numb name
Herbert’s portrayal of suffering cannot be reduced to political or ethical terms. He had had an early and eager university training in Stoicism and was deeply drawn to the notion that suffering could be mastered by the proper exercise of reason and virtue. Still, though he was known to joke that he was “more Roman than Catholic,” he was also engaged in a lifelong metaphysical search. What pressed on Herbert’s imagination was not how Catholic theology grew out of Stoicism (regarding Christ as logos), but the scandal of sacrifice—both animal and divine—and the pity and terror of redemption. In poems like “Mr. Cogito’s Reflections on Redemption” and “Mr. Cogito in the House of the Dead,” he categorically rejects the notion that suffering in itself redeems or ennobles: God “should not send his son,” but should remain in a cloud of dread, like Zeus or the Hebrew G-d. The created world, meanwhile, should hold on to its suffering and remain imperfect, incomprehensible, and unacceptable. Our only glory is to be “valiant in our uncertainty.”
Ultimately, the function of Herbert’s polis is to make life in this world bearable and reasonable. His poetry, however, pushes to the point where “semantic transparency” becomes cloudy or congealed, “when reason fails,” and whiteness invades Herbert’s poetic universe. This whiteness, whether assigned in Herbert’s early poems to an eye, a stone, or a tree, lies at the heart of Herbert’s ontology, beyond ethical categories. It points toward death, cruelty, and indifference, but also to divinity (Apollonian or other), imagination, and creation, and it suggests a more enigmatic side of the poet, one that complicates the political or historical. This ghostly whiteness appears only fleetingly in Herbert’s later work, as the “Angel in a cap of early snow” (“A Postcard from Adam Zagajewski”), or as the “white gardens quietly burning” in the elliptical and ominous poem “Two Prophets. A Voice Test.” It has already proved a rewarding theme for investigation in the Polish criticism on Herbert, and one hopes it will find a place in the ongoing American reception of his work.
* * *
Czeslaw Milosz, in his presentation of Polish poetry to the West, was at pains to separate the stripped-down world of Herbert from what he called the European “literature of despair,” represented chiefly by Samuel Beckett. In doing so, he tipped the balance slightly toward the friendly, humanist Herbert. It is interesting to find that Herbert, who translated little himself, was sufficiently drawn to the work of both Philip Larkin and Sylvia Plath to translate them; he was also much more drawn to German poetry, with its rich metaphysical tradition, than Milosz was. When we read Herbert against the backdrop of Larkin and Plath, we may better understand his tone, his seemingly effortless melding of philosophical inquiry, dark intuition, and pithy vernacular. In Milosz and Scott’s translations, however, Herbert is drawn toward Milosz’s own, more professorial diction, to which both poets’ many admirers in the English-speaking world have long since become accustomed.
When I took on the formidable task of “collecting” Herbert, my purpose was to bring him down from the mountain, so that he could speak with us “man to man,” as he has Fortinbras say to Hamlet. It isn’t possible to render a poet anew without disturbing many readers’ relation to that poet; I expected my own translations of Herbert, a poet much adored, to be controversial, and they have not disappointed me. Translations are the fruit of interpretation and part of a larger, complex process of bringing a foreign poet into view. I set no store by the notion of a definitive translation; like the term “spiritual leader,” as Herbert is unfortunately called on the dust jacket of his Collected Poems, it reeks of church authorization or a sales pitch. A truly great text—whether a Bible verse or a Paul Celan poem—has no final translation. It will go on inviting new attempts by arrogant young poets who want to measure themselves against the greats. At best, translators engage in the ongoing unfolding of a text, seeing their occupation, as the great philosophers of translation have, as a branch of applied metaphysics. At worst they are like old prostitutes arguing about who gave Napoleon his best night. The insights one may gain from these squabbles may be thrilling, but they are rather narrow if not informed by broader knowledge.
Herbert has a quality of imagination that I think is particularly valuable to those struggling to find language adequate to monstrous stupidities and abuses of power, language that is not historically or aesthetically naïve. But Herbert’s imagination is effective precisely because power is not its ultimate reality. His imagination can be exercised equally on the body of a beloved, the contents of one’s pocket, or the grim debris of history. It does not make catalogues of victims over which to shed righteous tears, any more than it flips through police files to make lists of oppressors. It enlists the insights of the weak to combat the diseases of the strong, the worst of which is the gradual disconnection between pain and imagination. It moves with great velocity between the particular and the general, creating a force field in which paradoxes central to human experience become visible. Its vehicle is a voice neither personal in a confessional sense, nor impersonal in the manner of high modernism, but suprapersonal—a voice rooted in subjective experience but constantly moving toward the objective world, movement that itself is both a leap of faith and a social act. In a time when the language of American public life is shamefully inaccurate and inexpressive, and its poetry too often narcissistic and unambitious, Herbert is a powerful tonic, a reminder that poetry can be sovereign and fearless. His life was accompanied by great personal and intellectual risk, and his work demands similar risk from us.
Alissa Valles has edited and translated Zbigniew Herbert's Collected Poems 1956-1998, as well as work by other Polish and Russian poets. Her first book of poems, Orphan Fire, is forthcoming from Four Way Books.