Saturday, January 31, 2015

`When the Mind Deceives You Be Courageous'

After staying immersed in his work for several years, making him the foreign-language poet I read most often after Montale, I stopped reading Zbigniew Herbert when I heard myself adopting without acknowledgement his clipped way with words. I like concision but prose can borrow only so much from poetry before it turns stylized and fake. I’ve done this before, going cold turkey from Conrad, another Pole. The case with Herbert was more complicated because I rely on translations and because I admire him as a hero who without compromise survived the Nazis and their first-cousins, the communists. 

I picked up The Collected Poems: 1956–1998 (2007) again after reading “A Meeting with Pan Cogito” in Marius Kociejowski’s The Pebble Chance: Feuilletons and Other Prose (Biblioasis, 2014). Born in 1949, Kociejowski is a Canadian poet and travel writer living in London whose father was born in Poland. He met Herbert in 1980 during a reading at Oxford, and concluded the Pole was “a difficult man who made enemies with the greatest of ease.” Kociejowski suggests that Herbert’s touchiness was related to his ill health and fondness for alcohol. While working in England as a book dealer, he often shipped books to Herbert in Poland. The titles won’t surprise Herbert’s readers: 

“Herbert wanted above all the Loeb Library classics, among them Arrian’s Anabasis and Indica, several volumes of Plato, Hesiod’s Homeric Hymns, Lucian, Cicero’s letters to Atticus, Curtius’s history of Alexandria and the letters of St. Jerome. This was the period of Herbert’s late poetic flowering, and also of his terrible mental and physical decline, when he had become like one of his Roman emperors, grandiose and impossible. At the same time he had become the spiritual leader of Solidarity, although its members would no more be able to contain him than could the Communist regime.” 

Kociejowski describes the internecine squabbles in Polish literary circles, the accusations of collaboration with the Stalinists and their puppets. He recalls the visit of a Polish literary editor to England after Herbert’s death in 1998, and his subsequent efforts in an essay to “dismantle [Herbert’s] reputation”: 

“I was in fact rather delighted by the negative portrait he gave of Herbert in his last television interview. When Herbert was asked why he wore a yarmulke, which he did indeed wear to the interview, he replied it was because it kept him warm.” 

Kociejowski tells another story about Herbert’s visit to Israel in 1991 (the year he turned sixty-seven) to receive the Jerusalem Prize. One morning, he disappears from his hotel and a search of Jerusalem’s “drinking holes” commences: 

“Finally, at sunset, he was discovered walking alone, along the edge of the Dead Sea. On what was the hottest of days, somehow he struggled up the slopes of Masada, clutching a bulky volume of Flavius Josephus. Herbert was silent as to how he got there.” 

For so difficult a man (and so great a poet), Kociejowski leaves a fond, generous assessment: 

“When I caught sight of his obituary in The Times, I was not shocked by his death. Actually I was amazed he had survived as long as he did, but I did feel a terrible sense of drift, that gone out forever was one of the stars in my poetic constellation. I will not say he was an excellent poet always—silliness occasionally grabbed hold of his muse—but with such works as `The Envoy of Mr. Cogito’ and `Elegy of Fortinbras,’ he gave us some of the best poems of our times. And, after all, one must thank a man for what he has done and not condemn him for his failures.” 

In “The Envoy of Mr. Cogito,” Herbert writes: 

“be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important”

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