Saturday, October 25, 2008

First Thoughts on Zbigniew Herbert

Back from my October Week break in rural Perthshire – wet, windy, but nonetheless enjoyable in a “we’re going to enjoy ourselves no matter what” kind of way.

I was blown away, not by the wind, but by the Selected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert (Oxford, 1977), translations by John and Bogdana Carpenter. Astounding poetry. In their introduction, the Carpenters paint Herbert as having an “insistence on a clear moral stance which can resist the fluctuations of history and ideology.” They’re not suggesting Herbert was a dogmatist or that his moral stance was handed down by state or church – far from it – but that the history he lived through (1924-1998) made values important to him. “Rarely have positive values been won against greater opposition and with greater struggle” – the Second World War and its devastating effect on Poland, followed by decades of communism shaped his outlook. A moral vacuum, for Herbert, wasn’t an option.

In his prose poem ‘What Mr Cogito Thinks About Hell’, (‘Mr Cogito’ is a persona whose views sometimes correspond with Herbert and sometimes ironically contradict him), Cogito says that the lowest circle of hell is populated by poets and artists:

Throughout the year competitions, festivals and concerts are held here. There is no climax in the season. The climax is permanent and almost absolute. Every few months new trends come into being and nothing, it appears, is capable of stopping the triumphal march of the avant-garde.

The poem ends with similar irony:

Beelzebub supports the arts. He provides his artists with calm, good board, and absolute isolation from hellish life.

The whole idea of following trends, embracing moral relativity, or producing art simply for art’s sake must have filled Herbert with horror – understandable given the historical circumstances he lived through – and his stance is intriguing when looked at from today’s western world where offering a reasoned moral opinion can often be viewed, in itself, as taking oneself too seriously. He wrote (in prose) in 1970:

‘During the war I saw the fire of a library. The same fire was devouring wise and stupid books, good and bad. Then I understood that it is nihilism which menaces culture the most. Nihilism of fire, stupidity, and hatred.’

However, Alissa Valles, in a Boston Review article says that Herbert was very much a poet of “ontological uncertainty” and feels that the Carpenters concentrated too much on his moral side:

‘The fine later translations by John and Bogdana Carpenter did a great deal to fill out the picture, as did Bogdana Carpenter’s important scholarship. But it, too, tended to concentrate on Herbert as a “poet of conscience” rather than of ontological uncertainty.’

I certainly found both the morality and the uncertainty in Herbert’s work and that shouldn’t surprise anyone. All great poets play with the fire of contradiction and it’s partly those oppositions that give their work tension and power.

I borrowed the Selected from the Scottish Poetry Library and would like to buy some Herbert poetry. But what to go for? Valles’s recent Collected would be the obvious choice, but the controversy surrounding it has been considerable. I’ll leave that for now, but will return to the issue over the next day or two.


Unknown said...

Welcome back. I seem to recall Seamus Heaney championing Herbert's cause along the way. You make it clear that you've enjoyed the work. What's the problem with the Valles translation, then (pardon my ignorance)?

Anonymous said...

The options are few, and fairly expensive:

Selected Poems (Penguin, 1968): cheap at 3 or 4 quid.

And the two Carpenter translations:

Mr Cogito (Oxford, 1993): not many 2nd hand copies under £30 these days.

Report from the Besieged City (Oxford, 1987): ditto, and the only copies on are located in the US.

You can borrow mine, with a small deposit for the armed guard.


Matt Merritt said...

Thanks for a really interesting post, Rob, and for reminding me that I really need to read more of Herbert. I remember reading a poem called The Monster Of Mr Cogito a few years back, and searching for any books of his, but after coming up empty-handed I'd sort of forgotten about him until now.

Rob said...

Barbara - there might not be much wrong with the Valles translation. Although there might. It depends on who you believe. I've been meaning to post something on this for the past few days but haven't had time. However, maybe early tomorrow morning...

Andy, yes, I saw that the alternatives were expensive. The SPL have the 1968 Selected and not much of that is repeated in the 1977 one that I read. I might take you up on your offer but I'd be terrified of losing Mr Cogito. I've seen copies going for more than £100.

Matt, The Monster of Mr Cogito is in my 1977 volume - very good poem.

I might pick up the Valles, just to read for myself...

Unknown said...

Up in Dublin yesterday, where I had the specific intention of buying some Mark Doty and W.S. Graham and couldn't get hold of either... but I saw the Valles in hard back going for €40.50... It's a huge book! Maybe I should put on my Christmas wish list...

Rob said...

€40.50!!?? Donì't buy that copy!

It's only £8.50 from

Rob said...

Although that version is a paperback.