Thursday, May 25, 2006

`A Partisan of Goodness and Beauty'

I found yet another yellowing clip from a newspaper – I seem to leave them everywhere, like hairs from a balding man’s head -- this one tucked into my copy of Mr. Cogito, by Zbigniew Herbert. In the 1993 review, from The New York Times Book Review, Stephen Dobyns looks at three books of poetry, including Mr. Cogito. In it, Dobyns, a poet and writer of crime novels, says:

“I have read Mr. Herbert since the late 60’s, and I must say there is no other living poet whose work I enjoy as much or whom I admire more.”

The Polish poet and essayist died in 1998, but otherwise I would second Dobyns’ judgment. Herbert was a poet who gently but unambiguously chided us for our flippancy. His manner is reproachful, but coolly so, and as a veteran of the worst the 20th century could devise – Nazism, Stalinism – he earned the right to reproach us. Like Mandelstam and Cavafy, he is a poet of civilization (let’s be specific: Western civilization), and his ideal is the Greek polis. This will seem peculiar to young, romantically inclined poets and readers, for whom the poet is a wild man or shaman, a perpetual outsider and sexual rebel. Herbert would have none of such nonsense. His free verse is conversational and largely unpunctuated, but you will never confuse his work with, say, Amiri Baraka’s. His sensibility is classical. Adam Zagajewski wrote of his mentor: “He took classicism to mean: Don’t complain.” Here’s the conclusion of “Report from the Besieged City”:

“cemeteries grow larger the number of defenders is smaller
yet the defense continues it will continue to the end
and if the City falls but a single man escapes
he will carry the City within himself on the roads of exile
he will be the City

“we look in the face of hunger the face of fire face of death
worst of all – the face of betrayal

“and only our dreams have not been humiliated.”

For Herbert, the City must be defended against the barbarians, who have already breached the gates. Notice how personal the poem is – the individual, not the collective, bears the burden of witness. One thinks of “Waiting for the Barbarians,” written by Cavafy in 1904. Here is a portion of a 1984 interview Herbert gave to his American translators, John and Bogdana Carpenter:

Q: “You are a pessimist?”

A: “I don't agree. I am not an optimist either. Rather, I am a Greek. I believe that the Golden Age was long ago.”

Q: “What is the main reason why you write?”

A: “Writing—and in this I disagree with everybody—must teach men soberness: to be awake. [Spoken in English.] To make people sober. It does not mean, not to try. But with a small internal correction. I reject optimism despite all the theologians. Despair is a fruitful feeling. It is a cleanser, from desire, from hope. `Hope is the mother of the stupid.’ [This is a Polish proverb.] I don't like hope.”

Q: “Do you believe this system will last forever?”

A: “This system will fall apart. It might last twenty to thirty years longer. I am there, not! A despairing soldier fights better. . . .”

One can hardly imagine an American, let alone an American poet, talking that way. Jarugelski’s neo-Stalinist crackdown had come less than three years before Herbert’s interview. Five years later, Jarugelski was elected president of Poland. Six years later, he was succeeded by Lech Walesa. Hope can’t keep up with reality, especially in Poland. In his essay “Beginning to Remember,” Zagajewski wrote:

“Herbert’s empathy, on which, as on a foundation, he built his dissent against the twentieth century’s monstrous history, calls to mind yet another kind of doubleness in his poetry. Herbert’s poems are like a suitcase upholstered in soft satin; but the suitcase holds instruments of torture. His early poems and prose poems have something boyish about them, they’re delicate to the point of helplessness. But it turned out very early on that this delicacy had nothing in common with weakness, capitulation, and a cover for suffering: it is poetry, or the prelude to poetry.”

Ecco has announced it will publish Herbert’s 416-page The Collected Poems: 1956-1998, in December. American readers have been denied an overall sense of Herbert’s career as a poet. His poems have been translated and published out of sequence. For the moment, enjoy his “Why the Classics,” as translated by Peter Dale Scott and the late Czeslaw Milosz:

in the fourth book of the Peloponnesian War
Thucydides tells among other things
the story of his unsuccessful expedition
among long speeches of chiefs
battles sieges plague
dense net of intrigues of diplomatic endeavours
the episode is like a pin
in a forest
the Greek colony Amphipolis
fell into the hands of Brasidos
because Thucydides was late with relief
for this he paid his native city
with lifelong exile
exiles of all times
know what price that is

generals of the most recent wars
if a similar affair happens to them
whine on their knees before posterity
praise their heroism and innocence
they accuse their subordinates
envious colleagues unfavourable winds
Thucydides says only
that he had seven ships
it was winter and he sailed quickly

if art for its subject
will have a broken jar
a small broken soul
with a great self-pity
what will remain after us
will it be lovers' weeping
in a small dirty hotel
when wall-paper dawns"

Then consider another excerpt from the 1984 interview with the Carpenters:

Q: “When did you lose your faith in the reformability of the system? In 1949 with the beginning of Stalinism in Poland, or before 1956? After 1956? After 1968, 1970? When?”

A: “I have known this since September 20, 1939. When I came into contact with the Soviets in Lwów [Herbert’s birthplace, now in the Ukraine], as a boy. I cannot stop wondering at certain intellectuals. I had my revelations ab oculos. And not through Marx or Lenin. The city was changed within a few days into a concentration camp. This system attacks a European through smells and tastes; while I am a partisan of goodness and beauty, I don't have a model for the happiness of humanity. My advice is: compare the smell, the state of the street, people's eyes, as I did in 1939.”

1 comment:

Hedgie said...

Thanks for the information about the forthcoming Ecco Collected Poems of Herbert. I've been looking for a good edition of his work, and that sounds like it, worth the wait. Thbanks again.