This outstanding new translation brings a uniformity of voice to Zbigniew Herbert's entire poetic output, from his first book of poems, String of Light, in 1956, to his final volume, previously unpublished in English, Epilogue Of the Storm. Collected Poems: 1956-1998, as Joseph Brodsky said of Herbert's SSelected Poems, is "bound for a much longer haul than any of us can anticipate." He continues, "For Zbigniew Herbert's poetry adds to the biography of civilization the sensibility of a man not defeated by the century that has been most thorough, most effective in dehumanization of the species. Herbert's irony, his austere reserve and his compassion, the lucidity of his lyricism, the intensity of his sentiment toward classical antiquity, are not just trappings of a modern poet, but the necessary armor—in his case well-tempered and shining indeed—for man not to be crushed by the onslaught of reality. By offering to his readers neither aesthetic nor ethical discount, this poet, in fact, saves them frorn that poverty which every form of human evil finds so congenial. As long as the species exists, this book will be timely."
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Zbigniew Herbert was born in Lwów, Poland, in 1924. In his late teens he fought in the under-ground resistance against the Nazis. Herbert studied law, economics, and philosophy at the universities of Krakow, Torun, and Warsaw. His books include Selected Poems, Report from the Besieged City and Other Poems, Mr Cogito, Still Life with a Bridle, The King of the Ants, Labyrinth on the Sea, and Collected Poems. He died in 1998.From The Washington Post:
Reviewed by Anthony Cuda
For over three decades, many American poets have recognized Polish-born Zbigniew Herbert as one of the most innovative, penetrating and original poets of the post-WWII era. But with much of his work untranslated or out of print, he has remained a secret pleasure, overshadowed by the acclaim of his compatriot, Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz. Now after years of copyright quarrels and delays, the new, gorgeously bound Collected Poems, 1956-1998 promises to prove him not merely the best Polish writer in recent memory but one of the most impressive poets of the later 20th century.
In a 1984 interview, Herbert discussed what distinguishes him from contemporaries like Milosz: "Writing -- and in this I disagree with everybody -- must teach men soberness," he said, adding emphatically: "to be awake." For Herbert, who knew along with Goya that the sleep of reason produces monsters and tyranny, "to be awake" means to refuse the witchcraft of reduction and rhetoric and to seek instead the beguiling magic of the mundane and close to hand:
is a perfect creature
equal to itself
mindful of its limits. . . .
I feel a heavy remorse
when I hold it in my hand
and its noble body
is permeated by false warmth
-- Pebbles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye
This is quintessential Herbert: His sparse punctuation, understatement and delicate irony always take priority over ostentatious imagery or verbal acrobatics. Far from maudlin hyperbole, his remorse arises from a grave awareness of how the imagination always transforms and often distorts the objects of its attention.
In one of Herbert's magisterial prose poems -- which boast the same wry wit, inventiveness and relentless tenderness as his verse -- he considers the decline of armchairs, which he claims "were once noble flower-eating creatures." "The despair of armchairs," the enchanting parable concludes, "is revealed in their creaking." When asked in 1968 how he could write about chairs and trees in so terrible an age, Herbert responded, "And what if the trees are unhappy?" In their stubbornness and vulnerability, Herbert's objects -- lamps, pens, trees, clouds -- aim to awaken us to the myriad betrayals of the everyday and inconsequential. "At last," he says elsewhere, "the fidelity of things opens our eyes."
Despite having witnessed systematic oppression in Poland under Nazi and Soviet occupation, Herbert aims his political critique not at regimes or ideologies but at the blindness and corruption that disfigure human intimacy. His only enemy, as Joseph Brodsky aptly suggested, is the vulgarity of the human heart. Even his own failings do not escape censure; instead, they are the most bitter to recall.
so now I sit in solitude
on a sawed-off tree trunk
in the exact center point
of the forgotten battle
gray spider I spin
on memory too large
and a heart too small
(from "A Small Heart")
Herbert's most compelling poems are poised midway between his dedication to courage and justice and his profound sense of humility and imperfection. They repeatedly affirm the paradox that the mind frees itself, if at all, only by submitting to its own fragility. "There are those who grow/ gardens in their heads," he writes in "A Knocker":
is a piece of board
my sole instrument
is a wooden stick
I strike the board
it answers me
yes -- yes
no -- no
Alissa Valles's translations seem quite commendable, if at times antiseptic in comparison to previous versions, such as those by Milosz and Peter Dale Scott, which this volume also includes. Her stringency, however, is more fitting than the turgidity of Adam Zagajewski's preface, which revels in precisely the sort of vagueness (Herbert "studied classical authors" and "loved the past"), cliché and watery overstatement ("the unfathomable secret of a great artist") that Herbert so assiduously refused. Zagajewski is a fine poet in his own right and should have done better.
Herbert's most memorable poems enchant us by the candor and clear-sightedness with which they face failings and disappointed desires. They console by refusing to fawn or flatter. The "Elegy of Fortinbras" ridicules Hamlet but nonetheless longs for his starry-eyed idealism:
. . . This night is born
a star named Hamlet We shall never meet
what I shall leave will not be worth a tragedy
It is not for us to greet each other or bid farewell
we live on archipelagos
and that water these words what can they do
what can they do prince
Elsewhere, Herbert regrets the circuitousness of metaphor -- its necessary indirections and digressions. But metaphor, he also admits, is one of the ways that we make the world intelligible by relating it to what we already know. It is a mirror that reflects our own desires, losses and frailties:
and just to say -- I love
I run around like mad
picking up handfuls of birds
and my tenderness
which after all is not made of water
asks the water for a face
The new Collected Poems leaves no doubt about the place of Herbert's work in 20th-century letters, which rivals that of W. H. Auden or Elizabeth Bishop in its originality, imaginative breadth and humane vigilance.
Copyright 2007, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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