Zbigniew Herbert: Selected Poems (1968)

Poetry is best encountered like a complete stranger who starts talking to you on the Tube, in the sauna, at the school gates, who in fifteen minutes adds something completely unexpected to your day, a new thought, a new insight, a new sensation – and then vanishes.

I picked up this old volume for £1 at the Salvation Army bookstand and read it on the train home.

Herbert (1924-98) was the outstanding Polish poet of the 20th century. After fighting in the Polish resistance he became a subtle dissident against the communist regime.  The short introduction is by Al Alvarez and neatly pulls out the political nature of Herbert’s work. ‘Most of Herbert’s work is concerned with reasons for not being convinced.’ After such a holocaust of an upbringing, what was there to believe in? His poetry ‘is political by virtue of being permanently and warily in opposition’. An admirable stance.

Herbert’s verse is classic, precise, ironic, characterised by a scientific detachment. Romantic styles and forms, rhyme and lushness and rhetoric, have all been burned away by the Nazi atrocities and decades of communist oppression, along with punctuation, capital letters, all the rest.

There are just phrases, lines, each trying to be as honest as possible.

The pebble
is a perfect creature

equal to itself
mindful of its limits

filled exactly
with a pebbly meaning

with a scent which does not remind one of anything
does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire

its ardour and coldness
are just and full of dignity

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

You can see how Ted Hughes was influenced by the unsentimental objectivity of these East European poets, who he helped to publish and publicise. He has a poem about a pebble turning red in the heat of the sun which I must track down…

But it’s not all about natural objects. This volume has a series of prose poems which combine the feel of European folk story retold for the era of the fridge and the party functionary.

From Mythology

First there was a god of night and tempest, a black idol without eyes, before whom they leapt, naked and smeared with blood. Later on, in the times of the republic, there were many gods with wives, children, creaking beds, and harmlessly exploding thunderbolts. At the end only superstitious neurotics carried in their pockets little statues of salt, representing the god of irony. There was no greater god at that time.

Then came the barbarians. They too valued highly the little god of irony. They would crush it under their heels and add it to their dishes.

The crisp translations are a collaboration by the just-as-famous Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz and Canadian diplomat Peter Dale Scott. ‘Permanently and warily in opposition.’

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