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The Collected Poems 1956-1998by Zbigniew Herbert
Synopses & Reviews
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, fantasms. It sometimes happens...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 waking 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....
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.
—from the introduction by Adam Zagajewski (translated by Bill Johnston)
"Herbert (1924 — 1998) lived to witness his hometown of Lww, Poland, occupied by the Soviets in 1939, the Nazis in 1941, and the Soviets again in 1944. This exposure to systematic and violent oppression awakened in Herbert a protective and motivating skepticism that pervades all his poetry: 'If you put trust in your five senses/ the world contracts into a hazelnut.' This impeccably, newly translated and edited volume finds Herbert, strongly anticommunist throughout his life, determined to resist the reduction of the human to anything easily measured, manipulated and forgotten, even if history keeps reminding us that 'only our dreams have not been humiliated.' Tender, wary, melancholy and wry, the poems visit ideas of redemption as one might visit a grave site, i.e., knowing that what you seek can only be experienced in the heart and mind. If one attempts through poetry to 'offer to the betrayed world / a rose,' Herbert's world-weary, tragicomic alter-ego, Mr. Cogito — one of last century's most memorable poetic personages — warns us that the gesture will probably go unnoticed, especially in an age when even 'the temple of freedom/ has been turned into a flea market.' Finally, the work of this powerful master of 20th-century literature is all in one place." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"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-WW II 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,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) 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: The pebble 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 (from 'Pebble') 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 bitter meditations 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': my imagination 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' 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'), cliche 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. Anthony Cuda is an assistant professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. His reviews of poetry appear regularly in the New Criterion and Field." Reviewed by Julie PowellJonathan YardleyDarrin M. McMahonAnthony Cuda, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
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."
About the Author
Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998) was a spiritual leader of the anticommunist movement in Poland. His work has been translated into almost every Euro-pean language, and he won numerous prizes, including the Jerusalem Prize and the T. S. Eliot Prize. His books include Selected Poems, Report from the Besieged City and Other Poems, Mr Cogito, Still Life with a Bridle, and King of the Ants, all published by Ecco.
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