Tuyển tập thơ 1956-1998
by ADAM ZAGAJEWSKI
WHERE DID HERBERT come from; where did his poetry come from? The simplest answer is: We don't know. Just as we never know where any great artist comes from, irrespective of whether they are born in the provinces or in the capital. Yet here we cannot merely content ourselves with our mystic ignorance!
American readers undoubtedly deserve a short biographical sketch:
Zbigniew Herbert, born in Lwow in 1924, led a life that especially in his youth was full of adventure and danger, though one is tempted to say that he was .created rather for a quiet existence between museum and library. There are still many things we do not know about the wartime period of his life-to what extent he was engaged in the resistance, or what he experienced during the occupation. We know that he came from what is called in English the "middle classes," and in Polish is known as the intelligentsia. The relative, or perhaps truly profound, orderliness of his childhood was destroyed once and for all in September 1939 by the outbreak of war. First Nazi Germany, then seventeen days later the Soviet Union, invaded the territory of Poland. At that time Wehrmacht units did not make it as far as Lwow; the city, which was filled with refugees from central Poland, was occupied by the Red Army-and by the NKVD, the secret police, who immediately set about arresting thousands of Poles, Jews, and Ukrainians. The sudden leap from the last pre-war vacation to Stalin's terror must have been unbelievably brutal. Many elements of Herbert's poetry undoubtedly originated from this experience.
In the last days of June 1941 the Soviet occupation of Lwow ended and the Nazi occupation began. Distinguishing between the two occupations is a matter for academics. Of course, one major difference was that now the persecutions were aimed mostly, though not exclusively, at Jews.
When the war ended and Lwow was incorporated into the territory of the Soviet Union, Herbert was one of thousands of young people living in abeyance, trying to study, and hiding their underground past. Hard as it will be for a western reader to believe, the new authorities imposed by Moscow persecuted former resistance fighters simply for having fought in their various ways against the Nazi invader. Their crime was to have been connected-often without fully being aware of it, since they operated at a local level and mostly carried out specific, small-scale assignments-with the Polish government in exile in London rather than the communist partisan movement. The new government applied to them a policy that was the exact opposite of the American GI Bill, putting obstacles in their way, sometimes imprisoning them, and sometimes even sentencing them to death.
The whole time up till 1956, when a political thaw altered the situation for the better, Herbert led an unsettled existence, changing addresses frequently, moving around between Gdansk, Warsaw, Torun, and Krakow, and taking on various jobs (when he was short of money he even sold his own blood, a painfully accurate metaphor for the life of a poet). He studied philosophy, wondering whether or not he should devote himself to it full time. He was also drawn to art history. For political reasons he was unable to bring out his first book of poetry, but he began to publish individual poems and book reviews; the periodical he was most involved with was Tygodnik- Powszechny, a liberal-Catholic weekly based in Krakow.
He was not completely isolated; he had friends in various cities, and lovers; he also had an intellectual mentor. This was Henryk Elzenberg, at the time a professor of the University of Torun, an erudite philosopher and poet, a tireless researcher of intellectual formulae, and an independent type barely tolerated by the new regime. A volume of correspondence between teacher and student published recently (in 2002) reveals a melancholic professor and a witty student frequently excusing himself before his mentor for real or imagined failures. In these letters Herbert is contrary and obedient, inventive, talented, no doubt aware of his epistolary charms, but still timid, a little afraid of his strict Master, not entirely sure whether he should become a philosopher or a poet, demanding emotion in philosophy and ideas in poetry, averse to closed systems, droll, at once ironic and warm.
The year 1956, as I mentioned, changes almost everything for Herbert. His debut, Chord of Light, is enthusiastically received. Suddenly, thanks to the thaw; the borders of Europe are pen to him, to some extent at least; he can visit Prance, Italy, London. Prom this moment there begins a new chapter in his life, one that was to last almost to his final month – he died in July 1998. A truly different chapter-yet if one looks at it closely, it is oddly similar to the preceding one. Now, admittedly, Herbert travels amongst Paris, Berlin, Los Angeles, and Warsaw; the length of his journeys is much greater than before, and he becomes a world-famous poet. But the fundamental unrest and the underlying instability (including financially) are still there. In addition there is an encroaching illness. Only the surroundings are more beautiful; they include the greatest museums of the world, in which breathless tourists can see a Polish poet diligently and calmly sketching the works of great artists in his notebook. For once again he has masters: Henryk Elzenberg's place has now been taken by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Piero della Francesca, and also the "old masters" from the magnificent poem in Report from a Besieged City.
He also had mentors and teachers in poetry. He learned a great deal from Czeslaw Milosz, with whom he was friends (they had met for the first time in Paris in the second half of the 1950s). He was thoroughly familiar with the Polish romantic poets and with old and modern European poetry. He certainly read Cavafy. He studied the classical authors-studied them the way poets do, unsystematically, falling in and out of love, jumping from period to period, finding the things that were important for him and discarding those that interested him less; in doing so he acted quite differently from a scholar, who moves like a solid tank of erudition through the period he has selected. He also read dozens of historical works on Greece, Holland, and Italy. He sought to understand the past. He loved the past-as an aesthete, because he was fascinated by beauty, and as a man who quite simply looked in history for the traces of others.
EVERY GREAT POET lives between two worlds. One of these is the real, tangible world of history, private for some and public for others. The other world is a dense layer of dreams, imagination, and phantasms. It sometimes happens-as for example in the case of W B. Yeats-that this second world takes on gigantic proportions, that it becomes inhabited by numerous spirits, that it is haunted by Leo Africanus and other ancient magi.
These two territories conduct complex negotiations, the result of which are poems. Poets strive for the first world, the real one, conscientiously trying to reach it, to reach the place where the minds of many people meet; but their efforts are hindered by the second world, just as the dreams and hallucinations of certain sick people prevent them from understanding and experiencing events in their walking hours. Except that in great poets these hindrances are rather a symptom of mental health, since the world is by nature dual, and poets pay tribute with their own duality to the, true structure of reality, which is composed of day and night, sober intelligence and fleeting fantasies, desire and gratification.
There is no poetry without this duality, though the second, substitute world is different for each outstanding creative artist. What is it like for Herbert? Herbert's dreams are sustained by various things-travels, Greece and Florence, the work of great painters, ideal cities (which he saw only in the past, not in the future, unlike many of his contemporaries). But they are also sustained by the knightly virtues of honor and courage.
Herbert himself helps us to understand his poetry in "Mr Cogito and Imagination." Because Mr Cogito:
longed to fully comprehend
-the nature of diamonds
-the melancholy of the prophets
-the wrath of Achilles
-the madness of genocides
-the dreams of Mary Queen of Scots
-the Neanderthal's fear
-the despair of the last Aztecs
-the long dying of Nietzsche
-the joy of the Lascaux painter
-the rise and fall of an oak
-the rise and fall of Rome
Achilles and an oak, Lascaux and a Neanderthal's fear, the despair of the Aztecs-these are the ingredients of Herbert's imagination. And always "rise and fall" -the entirety of the historical cycle. Herbert sometimes likes to assume the position of a rationalist and so in his beautiful poem he says of these unfathomable things that Mr Cogito longed to "fully comprehend" them, something that is of course (fortunately) impossible.
But for Herbert the matter is even more complicated. In him we find two central intellectual problems-participation and distance. He never forgot the horror of war and the invisible moral obligations he incurred during the occupation. He himself spoke of loyalty as a leading ethical and aesthetic yardstick. Yet he was diff rent from other poets such as Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski, the great bard of the wartime generation, who died very young (in the Warsaw Uprising), and whose poems were imbued with the heat of burning metaphors. No, Herbert is not like that at all: In him the level of wartime horror is seen from a certain distance. Even in the direst circumstances the heroes of Herbert's poems do not lose their sense of humor. And in the poems and essays the tragic poet steps out alongside the carefree Mr. Pickwick, who does not imagine that he has deserved such a great misfortune. It may be here that there lies the particular, indefinable charm of both Herbert's poetry and his essays-this tragicomic mixing of tones, the fact that the utmost gravity in no way excludes joking and irony. But the irony mostly concerns the character of the poet, or that of his porte-parole M r. Cogito, who is by and large a most imperfect fellow. While as concerns the message of this poetry-and it is poetry with a message, however obscure-the irony does not affect it whatsoever.
The need for distance: We can imagine to ourselves (I like to think about this) a youthful Herbert, who in occupied Lwow is looking through albums of Italian art, perhaps paintings of the Sienese quatrocento, perhaps reproductions of Masaccio’s frescoes. He's sitting in an armchair with a album on his lap; maybe he's at a friend's place, or maybe at home-while outside the window there can be heard the shouts of German (or Soviet) soldiers. This situation-the frescoes of Masaccio (or Giotto) and the yells of soldiers coming from outside-was fixed permanently in Herbert imagination. Wherever he was, however many years had passed since the war, he could hear the soldiers shouting outside the window-even in Los Angeles and the (once) quiet Louvre, in the now closed Dahlem Museum in Berlin (its collections transferred to a modern building on Potsdamer Platz) or in his Warsaw apartment. Beauty is not lonely; beauty attracts baseness and evil-or in any case encounters them frequently.
The paradox of Herbert, which is perhaps especially striking in our modern age, also resides in the fact that though he refers willingly and extensively to existing "cultural texts" and takes symbols from the Greeks anywhere else, it is never in order to become a prisoner of those references and meanings - he is always lured by reality. Take the well-known poem “Apollo and Marsyas." It is constructed on a dense, solid foundation of myth. An inattentive reader might say (as inattentive critics have in fact said) that this is an academic poem, made up of elements of erudition, a poem inspired by the library and the museum. Nothing could be more mistaken: Here we are dealing not with myths or an encyclopedia, but with the pain of a tortured body.
And this is the common vector of all Herbert’s poetry; let us not be misled by its adornments, its nymphs and satyrs, its columns and quotations. This poetry is about the pain of the twentieth century, about accepting the cruelty of an inhuman age, about an extraordinary sense of reality. And the fact that at the same time the poet loses none of his lyricism or his sense of humor-this is the unfathomable secret of a great artist.
(Translated by Bill Johnston)