Friday, February 19, 2016

`The Best Artificial Fertilizer for Poetry'

Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998) makes his first appearance in Leopold Tyrmand’s Diary 1954 (trans. Anita Shelton and A.J. Wrobel, Northwestern University Press, 2014) in a sort of walk-on part, a bit player, twenty-nine years old, under-employed and not yet a world-class poet:

“Zbyszek [Polish diminutive of Zbigniew] Herbert is not yet thirty; he’s slim and frail, with excessively broad hips. He has the cheerily upturned nose of a schoolboy and suspiciously mild eyes. In their soft blueness there is guile and stubbornness. He is polite, calm, and friendly, but in his cordiality there lurk a strong will and obstinacy and some kind of sensitive subversiveness that it’s better not to ignore. He is soft-spoken, has interesting things to say, and knows what he’s talking about. His erudition, large and disinterested, transmutes readily into wit and charm. He cultivates moral purity, an uncompromising attitude, and fidelity to himself – a little ostentatiously, but so honestly that one cannot find fault with him, nor pay him anything less than the deepest respect.”

Tyrmand’s journal is a day-by-day account of his life in Warsaw during the first three months of 1954, that interval between Stalin’s death in March 1953 and Krushchev’s “Secret Speech” to the 20th Party Congress in February 1956, signaling the start of the so-called “thaw.” Tyrmand (1920-1985) is thirty-three, a journalist and wit, a fixture of the city’s literary scene, inspiration to its bikiniarze (hipsters) and former president of the Warsaw Jazz Club. In 1941, while working in the Polish underground, Tyrmand was arrested by the NKVD and sentenced to “corrective labor” in the Gulag. During the Nazi bombing of Vilnius, he escaped his eastbound prison transport and headed west. A Jew, he survived the Holocaust by acquiring French papers and going to work in Germany. (Tyrmand was nothing if not brazen.) In 1944 he took a job peeling potatoes in the hold of a German transport ship. He jumped ship in Norway, was recaptured and held in a concentration camp near Oslo, where he survived the war. Tyrmand returned to Warsaw in 1946, published a collection of stories recounting his Norwegian adventure and went to work for a satirical weekly.

Tyrmand revels in all this grim absurdity. He’s a misfit and contrarian, never quite fitting in anywhere. His account of life in Stalinist Poland recalls not Solzhenitsyn and Nadezhda Mandelstam but Gogol and his spiritual descendent, Andrei Sinyavsky (aka Abram Tertz). On the first page of his diary, dated Jan. 1, 1954, he says: “A diary is an auscultation of all the fine details that define a life. That’s how a subtle and sensitive writer would put it. I have no idea how I came up with this line.” Admirers of Zbigniew Herbert will appreciate the rare glimpses of the would-be poet, whose first collection, Chord of Light, was published in 1956. In the same diary entry quoted above, dated Jan. 7, Tyrmand writes:

“Of course, he suffers poverty. He earns a few hundred zlotys per month as timekeeper in a cooperative that produces paper bags, toys, and boxes. The serenity with which Herbert endures this drudgery after completing three degrees is straight out of early Christian hagiography. His serenity is a carefully crafted mask: it conceals the despair of a man who fears that he has gambled his life away in a frivolous poker game of history in which the stake was ideological loyalties and laurels. As a result of his ruinous gambling habit, he is in no position to help his aged, ailing parents, or to escape other worries. He’s like a man who leans over the well of life only to be hit by a dreadful stench, but who drinks from the edge anyway, gripping the rim tight so as not to recoil and not, at any price, to shift his dreamy gaze to the sugar coated landscape.”

Like the jazz soloists he admired, Tyrmand riffs metaphors. That last one is particularly prescient and pungent. In 1966, Tyrmand immigrated to the United States, where he founded the journal that became Chronicles. Despite frequent visits to the West, including the U.S., Herbert remained in Poland, “gripping the rim tight.” Each was stubborn and uncompromising. In the Feb. 2 entry, Tyrmand tells us Herbert has taken a job with the Central Peat Bog Administration, a name worthy of Kafka. Three days later he paints an utterly unexpected portrait of Herbert:

“Zbyszek has many problems in his life. He’s pretty, with a cute mug of a face and a skin that Helena Rubinstein would pay a fortune to use in advertisements, if only she could see it. That’s his main problem because everyone takes him for a faggot, which he’s not, but explaining this to everyone is a burden. It’s no doubt hardest to explain to the faggots, who must feel understandably bitter about his contrariness to nature.”

Tyrmand also tells us that Herbert, just after the war, was the only Polish journalist to interview Rita Hayworth, and that the poet considers this “his greatest achievement.” Tyrmand asks: “What can you do with that sort of ambition in Warsaw, anno 1954? The closest thing we have here to Rita Hayworth is the prime minister Józef Cyrankiewicz, the one person in the regime who’d like to be sexy.”
Herbert often visits Tyrmand after his day at the Central Peat Bog Administration. Now we get a picture of the young poet at work, adapting to the conditions imposed by the sterility of socialism:

“It seems that his job in the peat bogs has a fertilizing effect. He has nothing to do at work, and it won’t do to read newspapers in the office, so Zbyszek sits at his desk and writes poetry and fairy tales. Everyone thinks he’s exemplary and zealous, while he’s actually obsessing over his wasted life, which—as everyone knows—is the best artificial fertilizer for poetry. In his poetry he expresses distress and fear that he won’t leave a trace of himself behind. The quagmires of the human condition horrify him. I told him that’s a natural feeling on the bogs. He has to change his job to something in concrete or cement mixing.”

And this from Feb. 22: “In the evening Herbert came by. We talked about Rubens. Apparently not without reason. And also about suicide and heroism. We wondered if God is only engaged in rewarding and punishing individuals, or does he also intervene in social issues? We concluded that he does not.”

In a 1994 interview, Herbert said of the diarist: “Tyrmand and I were very good friends. He used to treat me with a bit of condescension, posing as an older colleague and mentor. He loved to provoke me. Once we walked together on Nowy Swiat and he told me: `I have finally decided who you are: you are a rag under the table on which beer has been spilt.’ I said nothing. He repeated louder: `A rag under the beer-stained table.’ He was very unhappy that I did not lose my temper. That's typical Tyrmand.”

1 comment:

C. Rancio said...

"I have no idea how I came up with this line" Priceless