“History does not know a single example of art or an artist anywhere ever exerting a direct influence on the world’s destiny – and from this sad truth follows the conclusion that we should be modest, conscious of our limited role and strength.”
One scrambles for exceptions – Orwell? Koestler? Solzhenitsyn, surely? But Zbigniew Herbert’s careful qualification – “direct” – would seem to leave out even the author of The Gulag Archipelago (Roger Boylan might think otherwise). The passage above is from “The Poet and the Present,” a previously untranslated essay included in The Collected Prose 1948-1998, for me the most excitedly anticipated new book of the year.
Gathered are three volumes already available in English – Barbarian in the Garden (1985), Still Life with a Bridle (1991) and The King of the Ants (1999). New to English-language readers are Labyrinth on the Sea (published in Polish in 1999, the year after Herbert’s death) and a selection of twenty-eight pieces, “Short Prose (1948-1998),” from the Polish volume The Gordian Knot published in 2001. Collected Prose is edited and partially translated by Alissa Valles, who in 2007 did the same for Herbert’s The Collected Poems 1956-1998. She includes additional work from The King of the Ants not part of the original English edition.
The book arrived on Monday and I’ve only wandered around in it but “The Poet and the Present” has already vindicated my sense of anticipation. Less than three pages long, it was written for a Silesian poetry festival in 1972, shortly after Herbert returned from a year of teaching at California State College in Los Angeles. Almost forty years later it stands as a principled refutation of virtually all the poetry being written today in the United States and England. In the paragraph following the one quoted above Herbert writes:
“This sounds like an aesthete’s avowal, an encouragement to lock oneself up in an ivory tower, but that stance, too, is quite alien to me. My concern is to oppose the tyranny of dichotomies chopping up complicated human reality, and to draw the borders of poetry—as I understand them—without usurpation but also without an inferiority complex.”
If poetry or any art is to be memorable and moving, it can be neither engagé nor an empty game. Herbert cites his conversations with young Americans in 1970-71 and says “those who dabble in film, art, or literature, loudly declare they are on the side of the `Left’.” If anything, that hegemony is even more absolute today. He continues:
“And I often wonder why the work that results from this essentially noble stance is intellectually immature, as if the proclamation of humanist ideals led the artist into the realm of banality. I’ve often asked myself if it isn’t too cruel a punishment that political kindheartedness should cancel out a work’s artistic value.”
Good wishes and good feelings, whether in Steinbeck or Neruda, don’t make good art. In fact, they make good art almost impossible. A poet cannot be a propagandist and remain a poet, any more than a neurosurgeon can simultaneously practice découpage. Herbert, survivor of Nazi and Communist barbarism and vulgarity, writes:
“The poet’s sphere of action, if he has a serious attitude toward his work, is not the present, by which I mean the current state of socio-political and scientific knowledge, but reality, man’s stubborn dialogue with the concrete reality surrounding him, with this stool, with that person, with this time of day—the cultivation of the vanishing capacity for contemplation.”
In the photograph on the cover of Collected Prose, Herbert wears a small cross on a chain around his neck. He also had Jewish ancestry and was an enthusiastic cultural heir of the best, from the Hebrews and Greeks onward, in the Western tradition. Herbert’s is the rare brave voice of sanity and civilization. In another essay, “Animula” (from Labyrinth on the Sea), he writes:
“I always wished I would never lose the belief that great works of the spirit are more objective than we are. And that they will judge us. Someone very rightly said that not only do we read Homer, look at frescoes of Giotto, listen to Mozart, but Homer, Giotto, and Mozart spy and eavesdrop on us and ascertain our vanity and stupidity. Poor utopians, history’s debutants, museum arsonists, liquidators of the past are like those madmen who destroy works of art because they cannot forgive them their serenity, dignity, and cool radiance.”