HERBERT: POET OF DESPONDENT HOPE

By The Editors

Raport z oblężonego miasta Report from a Besieged City

by Cynthia Haven

In the final installment in our discussion on Zbigniew Herbert's Collected Poems Cynthia Haven leads us through Herbert's Report from a Besieged City. We're deeply grateful for both Cynthia's and James's wonderful insights into the work of this master of 20th-century poetry and we would also like to thank our guest contributors, links to whose posts are interspersed throughout the article.—Editors

 

1.

Hope did not come easily to Zbigniew Herbert." I don't like hope," he told his translators John and Bogdana Carpenter.[1] Then he repeated the Polish proverb: "Hope is the Mother of the stupid."

Yet he had thrown in his lot with the ideals of Solidarność.

Solidarność had been launched in the Gdańsk shipyards in 1980. The government and its Soviet overlords were antsy about the heady success of Communist Poland's first free trade union, and the widespread non-violent social movement that had blossomed around it. A series of national mass strikes in 1980 and 1981 rattled the Soviet system that had oppressed the Poles since World War II.

Herbert followed the news from abroad, most recently from Berlin. As the Solidarność movement reached fever pitch in January 1981, the ailing 57-year-old poet returned to Poland after six migratory years abroad.

The essence of Poland's modern experience had been humiliation, ever since the partition of the once-mighty Polish-Lithuanian Respublica in the late 18th century—"Shame borne patiently," as a song popular during Solidarność put it. Solidarność transformed that anguished sense of humiliation into reawakened conscience, dignity, and strength. Transformed it, that is, until one snowy midnight.

At 11:57 p.m. on Saturday, December 12, 1981, 3.4 million phones in Polish households went dead at once. Thousands were arrested, roadblocks were set up, and the tanks rolled into Warsaw between midnight and dawn. The Polish people woke up the next morning to find their country was under martial law—stan wojenny, literally, "the State of War." In short, the government had declared war on its people.

Somewhere in Warsaw during the pre-dawn hours, Herbert slept. He was a man to whom dreams did not come easily, and his dreams were about to be annihilated. As tanks and armed units became a daily sight in Poland in the weeks and months following, it evoked in Herbert memories of other destroyed cities—other soldiers and other takeovers. Herbert was 15 when German tanks rolled into his native Lvov, a city with an especially http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/?lab=FrajlichInterview">cherished role in Polish culture, in 1939; a few years later, in 1944, his beloved Warsaw was systematically destroyed by the Nazis, who focused especially on what was most time-honored and beautiful. "Report from a Besieged City" is Herbert's statement from behind the barricades. Not a political statement—had it been only that, it would be journalism rather than art, and forgotten with the fishbones it had wrapped. The poem is more than his veiled ars poetica; it is his ars vitae, really.

But it's not a political statement, perhaps, for another reason: although the poem describes Poland under martial law, Herbert began it at another time, in a different place. Herbert rarely dated his poems, yet this one is clearly tagged "1982." That was an afterthought, however, to match the poem that became a signature of life under martial law. In fact, he began the poem in Berlin[2], a cosmopolitan center that remained divided against itself, thanks to the same Soviet overlords who dominated Poland. Berlin adds another stratum to a poem already layered like a dark and bitter pousse-café. In Berlin, he walked along the wall that divided the former capital of the defeated victor—and the poem's ironies and oxymorons were already unleashed. When the Russians took Berlin, accompanied by Red Army atrocities as communism supplanted fascism, there was no celebration: these Berliners were merely swallowed by one monster instead of another. Postwar communist Berlin had been a tougher and harsher place to live even than postwar Warsaw. What complex emotions Berlin must have evoked in Herbert we can only guess—but some need not be guessed at; they are in this poem. Herbert sees history as a shifting landscape—or perhaps a computer game where shape-shifting characters role-switch from civilizers to barbarian and back again.

Herbert knew in his bones what all Poles knew. The moral legacy of World War II was not, as historian Norman Davies reminds us, the case of good triumphing over evil, but rather of one evil triumphing over another—a reality papered over by the Allies' naïveté and self-congratulation. (Herbert's view of the West is not too much more optimistic—it's merely a third, lesser evil. Witness his remarks about what sells in "foreign markets" in this poem, or his Berkeley reflections in "Mr. Cogito on Magic.")

When monsters devour each other, or turn on your own country to swallow it, too, fear, depression, and a sense of futility become daily goblins in the national psyche. But for the individual, the act of writing a poem—almost without regard to its content—is the most mandarin gesture of defiance. In the case of a poem like this one, it's more: an incendiary option, and the greatest affirmation Herbert could make—perhaps that's why Miłosz called poetry "a home for incorrigible hope." Moreover, "poetry of witness" by definition presupposes taking a participatory and resistant role in events. It is at least an assertion of independence, and more fundamentally, of motion. Nothing is more hopeless than torpor.

 

2.

Compression and velocity are the hallmarks of first-rate poetry. Clearly, most of Zbigniew Herbert's oeuvre makes the cut. Yet "Report from a Besieged City," at first glance, may seem almost sprawling and epic next to his more opaque and coded poems. It is certainly longer and, while most of his poems seem to be a snapshot or a few snapshots of an event or a state of mind, "Report" unrolls like a film. The poem's intended scope is huge.

With remarkable economy, however, the poem deploys its weaponry on many fronts and at many levels of command. To conflate all Polish history, indeed human history, and its psychology, too, in fifty-eight lines—while also making a frank personal statement—is compression in the extreme. The epic breadth is no illusion; despite it, however, "Report" remains as cryptic and hard as a pebble. It's a Morse code tapped out patiently, precisely, almost without hope, from the depths of an abyss.

Poet-critic Stanisław Barańczak rightly observed that this poem's title could stand above any of Herbert's poems.[3] Its sobriety and urgency resonate throughout Herbert's oeuvre. It's also embedded in his driving sense of mission as a writer: "I write down—not knowing for whom—a siege's history," he says in "Report."

These comments already set the underlying theme for the poem: the movement from disorientation and helplessness to a kind of certitude and, yes, even a kind of desolate hope—though certainly not through any personal uplift or cheer. This transition occurs not only through the content of the poem, but through the mounting certainty and steady defiance of the narrator, which may or may not equal the voice of Herbert.

Herbert states at the outset that he is writing the siege's history "not knowing for whom" (by the end of the poem, he will know for whom he writes). The double arrow points both ways: Herbert invites us to be aware of his audience (he doesn't know for whom he is writing), but this invitation makes us all the more aware of who is issuing it. Who the poetic "I" is had been figuratively (and later literally) chiseled in stone by Miłosz; the parallels are distinct and interesting. Miłosz's "Dedication," written in Warsaw, 1945, was almost an anthem. "What is poetry that does not save/Nations or people?" is Miłosz's own protest against poetry that is "a connivance with official lies…"

Miłosz's famous insistence on a plain language prefigures Herbert's own "a bird is a bird/slavery slavery/a knife a knife/death is death." From "Dedication":

 

You whom I could not save Listen to me. Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another. I swear, there is no wizardry of words. I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.

Having just returned from abroad, Herbert would have been aware of Miłosz's own brand of luminous pessimism, banned in Poland. Herbert provides a despairing mirror image of Miłosz's statement-of-purpose in "Secretaries," a 1975 poem written in Berkeley, which begins, "I am no more than a secretary of the invisible thing":

 

Secretaries, mutually unknown, we walk the earth Without much comprehension. Beginning a phrase in the middle Or ending it with a comma. And how it all looks when completed Is not up to us to inquire, we won't read it anyway.

For both Miłosz and Herbert, poetry was a game played for the highest stakes. As Herbert told the Carpenters in 1984, a year or two after "Report" was written: "Writing—and in this I disagree with everybody—must teach men soberness: to be awake. [italicized words spoken in English.] To make people sober." And when playing for the highest stakes, there is always the possibility of great loss—or the game means nothing.

In "Report," Herbert defines the terms of the game. He describes it as a drama, the drama of the narrator's plight. The narrator is barely able to keep a grip in a deteriorating political situation, as emphasized by the slow elimination of punctuation and capitalization in a poem which had seemed in its opening lines, for Herbert, uncharacteristically conventional in its end stops and dashes. Compared with Miłosz's certitude in the poems cited above, the voice of the poet here seems uneven, at times bewildered and almost panicky ("we here are all suffering from the loss of a sense of time"). Describing his role in Warsaw at three points in the poem, he writes:

 

I have to be precise but I don't know when the siege began

I avoid comment emotion keep a tight rein on facts It appears only facts have value on the foreign markets

I know it's all monotonous it won't move anyone to tears

One other poem comes to mind—a poem that also features a running, first-person narrative beneath the ostensibly intended story: "Mona Lisa," from his 1961 collection, offers a comic counterpoint two decades before "Report." The poem's breathless narrator has "kept coming" to Paris from Poland:

 

through seven mountain frontiers barbed wires of rivers and executed forests and hanged bridges

to stand before "Jerusalem in a frame," evaluating the Louvre like an anthropologist fresh from Mars on a terrestrial field trip, all the while catching his breath in wonder that he made it at all:

 

so I'm here sometimes it was sometimes it seemed that don't even think about it

For Westerners who never had to face a campaign of resistance from the passport office, who never had to face a KGB interrogation for their proposed trip abroad, the narrator's breathy tourism, giddy disbelief, panting from the effort to get to the Louvre, may be mistaken for black comedy at its dizziest. The tone wavers precariously between the unsayable and the ditzy until its final lines. Yet the narrator of "Report" has no comedy about him—he catches himself, but to keep himself from a fruitless and self-indulgent outburst, despair, or rage (for good reason: more than two decades passed between the post-thaw "Mona Lisa" and "Report." The relative stasis of communism—treacherous, but known—had, when challenged, passed into the crisis of martial law and government by naked coercion.)

It's no secret to anyone who's made any serious, prolonged attempt to write poetry that a different person emerges from the poems than the ego that controls the pen. (This may be the original thought behind a writer finding his or her "voice"; a concept that has devolved in modern times to mostly be a synonym for "style.") One of poetry's many addictions is this hide-and-seek with a new alter ego. What's startling is how different the poetic persona is in Herbert's case: the quick-tempered, quicksilver man who chain smokes, fights with friends, and downs half a quart of vodka in a sitting [4] versus the grave, stoic, though nimble-witted omniscient voice—as Auden put it, "an older colder voice … that asks and promises nothing." A few years after "Report," Miłosz would accuse Herbert of romanticism, "a blind attachment to only one imponderabilium: the fatherland," as he wrote in Year of the Hunter, in which Poland is elevated to a mystical "absolute"—a romanticism hardly seen in the narrator of the poem (who, again, should not necessarily be viewed as identical to the poet Herbert).

But it's uncommon, when a poet writes, to see the struggle between the two people, the "real" and the created voice, to see them tussle with such ferocity. This is the poem's effectiveness as a personal drama of the narrator, the one who is:

 

Too old to carry arms and fight like the others—

I was mercifully given the supporting role of a chronicler

That's where Herbert's ars vitae comes through—again, not through the literal meaning of the words, but by the more subtle shifts of the narrator behind the words. For Herbert aspires to the created voice—the voice that emerges in the last third of "Report." By the end, the steady, psychologically metronomic voice (a cerebral substitute for meter) begins to resemble time itself. Herbert aims his arrow toward the voice that matches the impervious stones and gray ashes of so many of his poems. He avoids false theatricality (the piano at the top of the Alps/played concerts false to his ear/ … /he lived in a cellarless house/without mirrors or dialectics"), for reality is anti-theatrical and repetitious, controlled by fear and habits, dull and unrelenting as hunger, and has perils not visible from the top of the Alps.

 

3.

And some of the perils are metaphysical ones. Simone Weil said, "An essential feature of the first half of the twentieth century consists in the weakening and near disappearance of the notion of value." It was no different in the second half of the century, nor does this "essential feature" seem likely to reverse itself anytime soon. It was a matter that preoccupied Herbert as well as Weil. It weighed on Miłosz, too, who often spoke of the need to "hold on to values that [are] a reflection of the eternal order of things,"[5] and, elsewhere, "behind the interplay of phenomena there is a meaningful world structure to which our hearts and minds are allied. Everything, however, conspires to destroy that supposition, as if it were a remnant of our faith in the miraculous."[6]

So first among these metaphysical perils is vigilance towards those forces that would strip meaning from people, lives, and events like paint from a chair. In part, such forces are reality's self-defense against a metaphysical alternative that would negate it. Their weapon of choice: to blur colors and distinctions, and dull the sharp edges of a metaphysical existence to match a noncommital grayness. It ratifies man's sense of helplessness, encouraging him to deny his own dignity, to see his aspirations as risible and his heroism absurd; it praises the mediocre and censures the excellent. For the alternative insists some things are better than others, that choice exists, and that value is established and asserted by our choices—a notion Herbert asserts defiantly in "The Power of Taste." (Socialist realism is only one form of attack; Herbert's California poems unmask others—the modus might be different, but the operandi is the same).

Dante put those who refuse choice in the vestibule of hell, as "neither rebellious nor faithful to God…The heavens drive them out, so as not to be less beautiful; and deep Hell does not receive them, lest the wicked have some glory over them."[7] It's no accident that Akhmatova kept Doré's engravings of the Inferno on the walls of her home on the Fontanka; its world corresponded to the Soviet reality that was her daily life. The affirmation of hierarchy, of values, is therefore an act as sharp as a machete, as powerful as lobbing a grenade.

In the final battle, this affirmation means more than the survival of the man who reads Mann. It embraces the civilized values of the man who will share bread with another, even to the last crust—for the values of Marsyas, whose unimaginable suffering transcends http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/?lab=ApolloMarsyas">the cold art of Apollo in Herbert's poem. Such a mindset endorses the ability to grieve in the face of loss—for a certain pessimism inheres in grief. Mourning presupposes that the thing lost is unique and not replaceable. It insists on value in the face of perishability. To grieve, therefore, asserts one's humanity, individuality and dignity—so, from one angle, man's greatest hope can be said to lie in his anguish. It's the secret of great tragedy, and our inherent fascination with a keening muse.

As he so often does, Herbert asserts by negation: by limning a contrary; by praising, or appearing to praise, the absence of a value http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/?thread=Pebble">(as he does in "Pebble"). Herbert is a master who can, by negation, evoke all the gravitas and grandeur, the mass and majesty of the world—as he does in "Report," by describing the destruction of his world. His grays evoke the insistent memory of color, and it's a way of turning the enemy's tool against him. Negation is also a way to remain invisible, to diminish the self and its assertions, the false tremolo of romanticism. Negation allows him to posit an unspoken value, that, if stated overtly, would sound histrionic, sentimental, or be subject to ridicule. Here's a taste of it in "Report," written with caustic irony:

 

…with a kind of pride I long to bring news to the world of the new breed of children we raised owing to the war our children don't like fairy tales they have their fun killing waking and sleeping they dream of soup of bread and bone just like dogs and cats

The sharpening of one's vigilance becomes more necessary, more urgent, and more poignant, knowing that you are inevitably compromised by the process—that you will become, in part, the barbarian you are resisting. Throughout his travel poems, he chafes, no longer at home among the people, art, and society whose values he has tried to cherish and foster within himself. He has changed—as he wrote in "Mona Lisa," he is "hewed off from the meat of life/abducted from home and history."

The natural reaction to such a realization is to harden oneself and withdraw from engagement, the reaction Herbert toys with often with the tempting image of stone. One wonders about the wish to be impervious—a natural response to pain, but one that, one suspects, does not conduce to great poetry.

This process of resistance, under suffering and duress, is far from meaningless: it is the process that proves civilization. The process of degradation, of humiliation, reduces the human being to his essence—the sharing of bread, which, under certain circumstances, moves beyond a simple gesture and acquires eucharistic resonances. In short, it retraces gestures that are patterns of the human spirit, and its heritage.

This sheds another light on Barańczak's comment that this title could stand above any of his poems. For one of Herbert's great themes is civilization, and its effects within the individual. "Report," in its grave and inventive way, does more than compress civilization—it exemplifies it.

4.

Thanks to a narrator who has kept us off-balance from the beginning, reality slips and spins throughout the fifty-eight lines of this magnificent poem. We move beyond the personal drama of the narrator, and beyond a psychological landscape into an historical, and ultimately an eternal, one—perhaps necessitated by his observation that "we here are all suffering from the loss of a sense of time/…/if we lose our ruins we will be left with nothing." The question seems to move from "Who am 'I'?" to "What is now?"

Here's where we come to another ambiguity, one that has been criticized in the current translation. As James E. Reid in the Sarmatian Review noted: "This is one of Herbert's best known poems, and one of the reasons is that it is so clearly a report from 'the' city where the poem's writer, narrator, and possibly its reader is besieged. It is not a report from 'a' city somewhere."[8] The Polish language http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/?thread=Pebble">has no articles, so the choice is up to the translator: the Carpenters' translation calls the poem "Report from the Besieged City"; Valles calls it "Report from a Besieged City." Knowing that the poem was initiated in Berlin, not Warsaw, gives us some latitude to interpret Herbert. Would he have thrown the emphasis on Warsaw, as indicated by his choosing to date the poem 1982? Or would he have stressed the ambiguity, the fluidity of the poem that speaks of all cities, as a synecdoche for civilization itself? It may be a significant piece of evidence that, in Herbert's poems, which famously lack punctuation and standard capitalization, "City" is capitalized—for the City represents, in the end, not just Warszawa, nor even Berlin. "A" or "the"? We can only gather hints from the poem itself.

Line by line, we come to realize that the poem is a synoptic history of Poland. "Report" could only have been written by a Pole. Take this oblique allusion:

 

…Sunday: no water we resisted an assault at the eastern gate the one called the Gate of the Covenant

What arch and trenchant irony towards the Soviet government that had oppressed them since the partition of Poland! The "Przymierze" in Arka Przymierza is both an "alliance" and "covenant." In the official propaganda of the time, constant reference was made to the "alliance" and "friendship" with the U.S.S.R.

Some references may get lost in English, and translation involves critical choices:

 

Wednesday: cease-fire talks the enemy interned our envoys

we don't know where they are that is where they were shot

"Miejsce kazni," a bit of an archaism, is a "place of torture" and "place of execution." In Poland, the term has strong associations with the "Internowanie" (internment camp, detention camp), where the thousands arrested during martial law would have been held. However, it even more profoundly recalls "Katyń," the massacre in which 15,000-22,000 Poles were murdered by the Soviets (about 8,000 were Polish military officers executed in the Katyń forests in 1939—hence, Herbert's reference to the "executed forests" in "Mona Lisa"; clearly, Katyń had been on his mind for some time). Valles nails the Katyń reference with "where they were shot." In their translation, however, the Carpenters keep the ambiguity: "we don't know where they are held that is the place of torture." The allusion to both the prisoners of martial law, whose fate was unknown at that time, and the victims of Katyń is maintained—and linked.

This double meaning returns us to the artificial "present" of the poem (artificial, because the date was chosen to reinforce its associations with Solidarność): it was not possible to speak openly about Katyń—even in 1982, over forty years later. Any mention of the atrocity was dangerous; government censorship suppressed all references to the massacre that had destroyed the cream of Poland's military elite and intelligentsia. The official line was that the mass graves uncovered in the Katyń forest were victims of a Nazi massacre. Imagine, for a moment, an American equivalent: a world where we were not allowed to speak of 9/11 and could not remember the victims in any public way. A world, moreover, in which our nation was ruled by the terrorists who did the killing. The comparison misses the enormity, still: Poland was a much smaller country with a prewar population of 30 million, and the number of those murdered 5-7 times as great as those who died in the World Trade Center.

Miłosz described the living wound that was Katyń: "The Soviet state went to great pains to convince the world of its innocence, and its allies took it at its word, or pretended to, so that the Poles were left to stand alone—with the truth, but with a truth proclaimed by the German enemies. And who would have believed them, since they were known for their anti-Soviet 'complexes'?" Reading a book by an American correspondent in Moscow, Miłosz wrote, "I found the excerpt that reports on the trip by Western diplomats and journalists to Katyń; I read it and almost threw up." (Year of the Hunter, p. 180)[9]

In 1981, Solidarność erected a memorial with the simple inscription "Katyń, 1940," but it was dismantled by the police, to be replaced with an official monument "To the Polish soldiers—victims of Hitler's fascism—resting in the soil of Katyń." The line connecting Katyń and Solidarność, therefore, had already been drawn before Herbert's poem. But the passage from "Report" underscores it with a scream.

Understandably, given this complex and terrible history, the narrator says he is trying to "keep a tight rein on facts" as the poem progresses. During an evening walk:

 

I listen to the noise of drums and the barbarians shrieking it is truly beyond me why the City is still defending itself

the siege is taking a long time our enemies have to take turns nothing unites them apart from the desire for our destruction

The Soviet troops waited patiently on the other side of the Vistula, rather than intervening, as Warsaw was mercilessly demolished by the Nazis in 1944.

In "Report," the narrator is wandering "along the edges of the City/skirting the borders of our uncertain liberty." The literary pentimento reveals Berlin—a city also reduced to rubble by war's end. Berlin: the site of so many Soviet war crimes, and yet its denizens had in turn committed so many atrocities against the Poles, not to mention the Jews (Poland was the home of Auschwitz, and of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising). Berlin: both victim and conqueror, and at the time of the poem, still a divided city.

Herbert has just thrown punches at both the regimes that devastated Poland, but instead of stopping to pant, he keeps his momentum—not to move in for the kill, but instead to turn to other wounds, at other times, meted out by other aggressors:

 

Goths Tartars Swedes Caesar's men ranks of the Transfiguration who can count them the banners change their colors like a forest against the horizon a delicate bird yellow in spring through green to winter's black

Some careful readers insist that the banners' colors are no more than an ironic reference to the changing of the seasons. It may be noteworthy, however, that at the Battle of Vienna in 1683, troops led by King Jan III Sobieski of Poland halted the Turkish advance into Europe. Sobieski presented Pope Innocent XI with the trophy he had captured from the Turkish grand vizier: the green banner of the Prophet.

Now "freed from the facts," the narrator "can meditate on ancient questions":

 

…about our allies across the sea I know they feel sincere compassion they send flour sacks encouragement lard and good advice they don't even know it was their fathers who betrayed us they were our allies from the time of the second Apocalypse the sons are blameless deserve gratitude so we are grateful

they have not lived through a siege long as an eternity they who are touched by misfortune are always alone.

America makes its cameo—Poland's ally since World War II. "Their fathers" were our leaders at Yalta, where Roosevelt and Churchill abandoned Eastern Europe to Stalin. Berlin was divided like a pie, with one quarter forked over to the Soviets. Poland was reorganized, with a puppet government, betraying the Polish government-in-exile that had evacuated in 1939.

But, a generation later, America did supply encouragement and plenty of good advice as we watched Solidarność from the sidelines. We, after all, are not a people who have suffered the misfortune of a long siege, and detest being alone.

Herbert shrugs us off—America, savior and betrayer. Those who are touched by misfortune … Poland, and most of the individuals within it.

 

5.

On the streets of Moscow or Petersburg, during the 1990s, you could still see the impenetrable facial expression that testified to more than seven decades of totalitarianism. Tourists tried to fake Soviet citizenship—it could be cashed in for cheaper admission tickets to the Tretyakov or the Hermitage. But the impostors almost always got it wrong: it wasn't the clothes or the way of walking that gave them away. It was the look on their faces. They made eye-to-eye contact. They had a look of curiosity, of responsiveness. Once outside the home, the look needed to "pass" as citizens in the Soviet Empire was a look of no thoughts, no feelings, no interest, no receptivity at all. On occasions when they could be observed by strangers, Soviet faces were as impervious as any stone—which brings us back to Herbert.

"Report" is a poem where the "I" doesn't matter, and the narrator becomes increasingly aware of its unimportance. The voice becomes the voice of time—anonymous, and thus universal, just like the ubiquitous Soviet public face. Has the narrator become the barbarian he is resisting? Herbert liked to think of himself as a Greek, with a Greek's stoic acceptance of fate, but perhaps he is disinclined to see Soviet translation of the same values, or recognize its incursions into his ideals. The man who would be unmarked by the barbarians has in fact been scarred by them. He craves the impenetrability and inviolability of stones, and yet to become a stone is to be forever limited and damaged by one's opponents.

Herbert has occasionally been compared to C.P. Cavafy, certainly in his civilized irony toward history—both poets used irony to mask their wounded passion for it. Herbert might have enjoyed the comparison to the Alexandrian poet: "I am a Greek. I believe that the Golden Age was long ago," he told the Carpenters. That epigrammatic line from the poem—"they who are touched by misfortune are always alone"—could easily have been lifted from, say, Sophocles's Oedipus at Colonus.

But the isolated passage here, sandwiched in the middle of a stanza so late in "Report," is picked up and developed in a theme that reaches its apotheosis and refutation at once, for the many will survive in one:

 

but the defense continues and it will continue to the end

and if the City falls and one man survives he will carry the City inside him on the paths of exile he will be the City

Sound familiar? It should. But here Herbert miraculously inverts the bleak formula found in Cavafy's early poem, "The City":

 

You won't find a new country, won't find another shore. This city will always pursue you. You'll walk the same streets, grow old In the same neighborhoods, turn gray in these same houses. You'll always end up in this city. Don't hope for things elsewhere: There's no ship for you, there's no road. Now that you've wasted your life here, in this small corner, You've destroyed it everywhere in the world.

 

trans. Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard

But while Cavafy's target has wasted his life, in Herbert's poem, it is the city that is devastated. Cavafy's target can't escape the city that condemns him; Herbert must preserve "the City" through Herculean effort. Herbert's Ithaca is a spiritual destination, situated between his own two temples.

Herbert's epiphany ("he will be the City") may be one short step away from the 19th-century Romanticism he has been accused of, but he stops finally at an important point, the final step before the edge of a cliff. For he ends with the only kind of immortality that one without any hope of salvation can anticipate. Such a salvation is also an ingenious reversal of the very disinheritance caused by post-Darwinian, post-Industrial Revolution reduction of man to a near-zero. For the probability is strong that among all the men encoded with "the City" in their DNA, one of them will survive the siege, the massacre, the holocaust—and from that one, an infinity can be reproduced. Man's anonymity, in this sense, guarantees his indestructibility, as efficiently as a Xerox machine infinitely reproducing a text improves the odds for its survival. Perhaps fittingly, it is not an individual immortality, but the immortality of the City borne within the individual psyche.

Herbert's pessimism is unmitigated by Miłosz's ecstasies—and perhaps he's backing away from the Romantic cliff by refusing to end on a note of a new Adam in a New Jerusalem, or an Aeneas founding a new Rome. The 1984 interview with the Carpenters is telling: "I reject optimism despite all the theologians. Despair is a fruitful feeling. It is a cleanser, from desire, from hope," he said. "A despairing soldier fights better."[10] He eschews complacency—for the reader and for himself. His parting thought echoes T.S. Eliot: "We are only undefeated because we have gone on trying." He is victorious, because he remains standing:

 

and only our dreams have not been humiliated

Raport z oblężonego miasta (Report from the Besieged City and Other Poems) was published in 1983 by an émigré publishing house in Paris—but even under censorship, it made the return trip to Poland, where it was performed by the Eighth Day theater company. The government shut down the theater for this and other infractions in 1984. The same year, 1984, Herbert moved to Paris, where he suffered from depression and a serious illness, spending another six years on the Seine.

In Miłosz's landmark History of Polish Literature, which brought Herbert to greater critical notice in the West, he wrote that "Herbert's poetry might be defined as a distillation of the crushing experiences shared by everyone in Poland."[11] Yet for awhile, it was the poet himself who was crushed.

Footnotes:

[1] John and Bogdana Carpenter, "Conversation on Writing Poetry: An Interview with Zbigniew Herbert, Manhattan Review, volume 3, no. 2 (Winter 1984/85). [2] Cf. Jacek Lukasiewicz, Herbert (Wrocław 2001), pp. 170-71. [3] Stanisław Barańczak, Breathing Under Water, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, Mass.: 1990), p.185. [4] Benjamin Ivry describes visiting Herbert, "a well-read scrapper," in Paris: "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." Benjamin Ivry, "The Sparring Poet," New York Sun, February 7, 2007. [5] Cynthia L. Haven, "A Sacred Vision: An Interview with Czesław Miłosz," The Georgia Review (Summer 2003) http://www.uga.edu/garev/summer03/haven.htm [6] Czesław Miłosz, Witness of Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), p. 53. [7] Dante Alighieri, Divine Comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970) trans. Charles S. Singleton, p. 27. [8] James E. Reid, "The Collected Poems: 1956-1998, Sarmatian Review, January 2008 (Vol. 28, No. 1), p. 1358. [9] Czesław Miłosz, Year of the Hunter (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994). p 180. [10] John and Bogdana Carpenter, "Conversation on Writing Poetry: An Interview with Zbigniew Herbert, Manhattan Review, volume 3, no. 2 (Winter 1984/85). [11] Czesław Miłosz, History of Polish Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969, 1983), p 472.


Comments

1

Thanks, Anna.  It’s funny, isn’t it, how little Herbert’s work is known in the U.S.?  A parallel from a different world of connoisseurship may help explain it.

A well-known wine writer of my acquaintance complained about the difficulty of judging contests where tasters have to consider a hundred wines at once.  He said that’s why award-winning wines are often described as íopenë or íaccessible.ë  The taste buds gravitate towards a common denominator.  He called it the ílow-cut red dressë syndrome in wines: In a crowded room, he said, the male eye gravitates towards the woman in the low-cut red dress.  It doesn’t matter whether he’s happily married, or had sex an hour before.  Hours later, he may notice the fine fabric and subtle sweep of an Armani gown, or appreciate the superior workmanship and superb detailing of a Chanel suit—but first to catch his eye is the cheap red dress.

That’s why, he said, an unusual and austere Riesling may not figure in the rankings.  And that’s why, I think, Zbigniew Herbert often doesn’t get the attention he merits in the West.  The taste for Herbert must be developed—he’s difficult, un-obvious, offbeat, and coded. It certainly helps to study a little. I can promise he richly rewards the effort. 

 

I hope our website discussion encourages a few others to join us.
COMMENT: Thanks, Cynthia.
You have widened the aperture of American taste and experience from the -albeit ebullient- accessible excesses which initially characterized our Eastern European hit parade. I agree with the simile you make to an unusualwine.  Perhaps the hallmark of anyworthy craftis that it means more than it says -wine or music, as well as poetry- and thereby invites the participant’s own experience more
readily.

 

Thanks again,
Ruth
DATE: 03/03/2008 11:59:15 PM

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