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.