To an extent rare in our age of pampered poets who are tenured professors, the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert (1924 –1998) combined a life of torment with writings distinguished by equanimity, indeed ataraxia, a term from Stoic philosophy which describes transcendence of material things. Herbert was a bellicose Stoic who bragged about fighting duels over matters of honor in life, and did the same in his poems. An overdue assemblage of his published verse, "The Collected Poems: 1956-1998" (Ecco, 586 pages, $34.95), reveals a writer of courageous strength, willfully unhysterical at a time marked by war and communist tyranny, as well as long experience of physical and emotional suffering.
In his last collection, after many hospitalizations, Herbert's poem "Breviary" finds subjects for praise even in ill health:
Lord, I give thanks to You for syringes with needles thick and hairthin, bandages, every kind of Bandaid, the humble compress, thank you for the drip, for saline solutions, tubes and above all for sleeping pills with names like Roman nymphs…
Valid prose poems are exceedingly rare in our day, and Herbert was a master of the form, surprising us by eschewing an emotionally overwrought tone. The prose poem "Moon" from an early collection declares: "I don't understand how you can write poems about the moon. It's fat and slovenly. It picks the noses of chimneys. Its favorite thing to do is climb under the bed and sniff at your shoes."
Herbert's wry, ironic tone is usually far from the sensual wonderment of a splendidly life-appreciating poet like the Nobel Prizewinner Czeslaw Milosz. Yet like Milosz, Herbert is profoundly preoccupied with the nature of the world, as well as by history, philosophy, and religion. In the poem "The Studio," Herbert asserts:
When God built the world
he wrinkled his forehead
calculated and calculated
hence the world is perfect
and impossible to live in.
Existence is impossible, not just in a Poland occupied by Nazis and then communists, but everywhere. Alcohol is cited humorously in "Abandoned" as "medicine for solitude / bottles of liquid gold / and a symbolic label / — Johnnie / tipping his top hat / hurries to the west."
When I visited Herbert in 1990 in his dilapidated apartment in Paris's grungy 10th arrondissement, his phone had been cut off for nonpayment, and Mrs. Herbert was obliged to run to her neighbors repeatedly to call ambulances for her ill husband. Yet the poet was impishly exuberant when I asked if he liked poems by the Polish Pope, Karol Wojtyla. Herbert suggested that all world leaders, including then President Bush, should publish poetry, to better reveal their inner selves.
The elder Mr. Bush is still unpublished as a poet, and other Herbert ideas remain ignored, like his still timely warning against literary hysteria in "Mr. Cogito Reflects on Suffering":
Don't brandish your stump over other people's heads don't knock your white cane on the panes of the well-fed.
Instead, his advice, to "make from the stuff of suffering / a thing or a person / play / with it" would surely result in better poems than what Herbert calls in another poem the "glibly lachrymal / handiwork of modernity / full of triumphal howling." In the moving "To Ryszard Krynicki — a Letter," addressed to the finest Polish poet from the generation after his own, Herbert states "Not much will remain Ryszard in truth not much / of the poetry of our mad century."
Surely the present poems will, as generously and selflessly edited here by Robert Hass, a former American Poet Laureate and close friend and translator of Milosz. The pioneering translations which Milosz did of Herbert in collaboration with Peter Dale Scott, a former Canadian diplomat and English Professor at Berkeley, are left unchanged here. Milosz himself worked in diplomacy, and these two diplomats produced invaluable translations of a violently undiplomatic truth-teller like Herbert. Instead of the much appreciated translations of Herbert by John and Bogdana Carpenter, this book substitutes many credited to a Warsaw-based translator, Alissa Valles.
A random comparison between Valles and the Carpenters reveals many lines that are repeated, and many other minor changes which cannot be called vast improvements. Nevertheless, a poet of Herbert's power deserves a variety of translators. Less can be said for the gimmicky, affected preface by Adam Zagajewski, who trivializes Herbert by comparing him to Dickens's Mr. Pickwick — Herbert could be like Micawber, perhaps, but Pickwick, never! Mr. Zagajewski offers whiny, myth-making baloney — the kind Herbert spent his life struggling against — depicting poets as helpless, pitiful beings incapable of solid erudition. Herbert was a well-read scrapper of a kind not equaled in Europe since the erudite 1920s French boxer Georges Carpentier, known as the "Sparring Scholar." Small wonder the Swedes were too terrified to give Herbert the open microphone that comes with a Nobel Prize in Literature.
Mr. Ivry last wrote in these pages on the painter Francis Bacon.