by Anna Frajlich
Cynthia Haven talks to Anna Frajlich about exile, aesthetics, ethics and more in the work of Zbigniew Herbert. You can read Anna Frajlich’s essay on Herbert’s “Apollo and Marsyas” over here. —Editors
Anna Frajlich has been called “the best Polish poetess of her generation.” The émigré poet, scholar, and educator was born of Polish parents in 1942 in Katta Taldyk in Kyrgyzstan. Her family, in flight from the Nazis, was reunited a year later in the Urals and returned to Poland in 1946. She graduated from Warsaw University with a master’s degree in Polish literature, but emigrated with her husband and son in 1969, during the Polish government’s virulent anti-Semitic campaign. She received her PhD from New York University. Her eleven volumes of poetry have been published on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2002, the president of the Polish Republic awarded her the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit. She has taught Polish language and literature at Columbia University for 25 years.
Cynthia Haven conducted this interview by telephone on January 5, 2007.
Cynthia Haven: Herbert published his first books of poetry in the 1950s—so you were familiar with his poetry before you emigrated in 1969, yes?
Anna Frajlich: Definitely. Herbert did not publish a book before 1956. After the 1956 thaw, there was a group of poets who had a so-called “debut” or “second debut”—that is, those who could not publish before 1956 because of the very strict Stalinist censorship, or those who published and went along with socialistic politics, and then changed their outlook on life. These writers of the so-called ’56 generation were very popular, almost like cult figures, for the younger generation. I read their books with great enthusiasm, even though I was still in school.
But only in 1974 was Herbert recognized as a very special poet, by critics as well. At first, critics didn’t know what to think about his classical interests. They were afraid his poetics would petrify in a classical idiom. In 1974, he got out of the pack. He became a figure on his own, not part of a generation.
CH: It’s rather surprising it took so long. His poetry is so distinctive, and he seems so obviously different from his peers.
AF: He is. For quite a time, he was very much considered similar to Wisława Szymborska in his poetics and outlook. After all, he wrote a poem about a stone, she wrote a poem about stone, et cetera. When this group of poets began to publish, we read them with equal enthusiasm. Later, everybody realized Herbert had something more to say, in a different manner, than others.
CH: What prompted this realization in 1974?
AF: He created “Mr. Cogito,” and that was a new thing. It was lyrical poetry—nevertheless, he created a figure not identical with lyrical “I.” Mr. Cogito could be a negative persona, and the author still retained his integrity. It was a very fascinating poetic move. And combined with Herbert’s deep interest in philosophy and classical myths and culture, it made such a great impact. Herbert became a very important figure for critics, poets, and for readers.
CH: Frost commented, famously, that “poetry is what gets lost in translation.” Can you tell us what we, as English speakers, are losing in any translation of Herbert? What do the Polish readers hear that we cannot?
AF: It works both ways. I cannot know what you are missing. I’m not a native speaker. If I listen to Shakespeare in Polish, do I know what I am missing? I am definitely getting more from the Polish if I am a Pole.
But let me say that every word in a language brings a number of associations. That’s what Frost had in mind. When you say the word “wolf,” it means something different than it does for someone from an Eastern European culture, or from a Mediterranean culture. You lose the associations that the word brings. Let alone poems that rhyme, or have a certain melody—this is difficult to bring into another language. Almost impossible. If you want to replicate rhyme, you have to give up meaning. If you leave rhymes out, you are losing music.
Let me give you a specific example. It’s in one of Herbert’s beloved poems, on page 476 [of the Collected Poems], “Wolves.” It says “a yellowish moisture.” In Polish, there is no moisture, there is urine. I wasn’t sure if “moisture” is an enigmatic sign of urine in English.
It’s a beautiful statement, what Frost said. But we still translate poetry because if it weren’t translated, we wouldn’t be able to read it at all. We would be impoverished if we weren’t able to read it. There’s enough poetry left if a translation is good. Miłosz’s translations, in the poems I read, are perfect.
CH: The examples you are using—wolf, urine—are reminiscent of something Brodsky said about Evgeny Rein. Despite cultural associations, nouns bring a certain mental clarity, don’t they? The Russian poet Evgeny Rein famously advised the young Joseph Brodsky that a good poem should be stuffed with nouns, with adjectives and even verbs at a minimum. “If you cast over a poem a certain magic veil that removes adjectives and verbs, when you remove the veil the paper should still be dark with nouns.”
AF: Of course.
CH: In a sense, a simple noun cannot be betrayed by an ideology or propaganda. Herbert said in “Stool”: “At last the fidelity of things opens our eyes.” It’s also what he said, as a sort of poetic position statement, in “Mr. Cogito and the Imagination”:
a bird is a birdslavery slaverya knife a knifedeath is death
AF: During World War II, another Polish poet, Julian Tuwim, in exile in New York, wrote: “Let a word always mean the word, and let justice mean justice.” The intent is the same here, but Tuwim used more notional words, as was probably befitting that time, a time of big words.
Herbert, knowing from experience that universal notions can be easily manipulated, postulates, even demands a more precise usage of language. But I wanted to point out that such tradition is embedded in Polish poetry.
CH: In 1968, Herbert resigned from his co-editorship of a poetry journal, Poezja, in protest of its anti-Semitic policies. You emigrated the following year because of the government’s vicious anti-Semitic campaign. Was Herbert’s position well known?
AF: I didn’t know that at the time. I was just beginning to publish in Warsaw, and besides, such things were not made public and I did not check the editorial board. Also, Herbert was mostly abroad between 1965 and 1971. But had I known, it would have touched me, and even now, 40 years later, I am touched. Every such gesture by a writer or public figure was appreciated by us, Polish Jews, who felt truly hurt.
CH: Pardon me for being a naïve Westerner, but this was only a quarter-century after the Holocaust. How was this allowed to happen?
AF: Allowed by whom? Who allows things like that? It was a political move. Russia sided with the Arab world in the war of 1967. It forced all the countries that were under their umbrella to take the same stand—remember that Churchill and Roosevelt gave up on Poland in Yalta and Potsdam. So the Soviet Union demanded that all those countries support the party line. Władysław Gomułka [the Polish First Secretary of the Communist Party] felt pressured by the intellectuals over issues of harsh censorship and freedom of expression, so he decided to pressure them back. There was an internal war within the party, he wanted allies—and when communists need allies, they play the racist card. For them, always, the goal justifies the means. He knew that the anti-Semitic campaign would bring him popularity. Many communists were Jewish (as were many intellectuals, and many liberals), so he made the equation: intellectuals of Jewish origin are enemies of the state, they wanted Israel to win, et cetera, et cetera. People knew that if they purged the Jews, many positions and apartments would be up for grabs. My husband and I were not involved politically in anything, but we fit the description: educated people of Jewish origin.
CH: In your classes at Columbia, you frequently include Herbert’s poem, “The Power of Taste.” Why do you think this poem, in particular, has much to teach your Western students?
AF: I put “The Power of Taste” on the syllabus because we read a philosophical text on “The Rise and Fall of the Notion of Beauty” by Polish philosopher Władysław Tatarkiewicz. I want to show students how the problem of aesthetics versus ethics is considered by poetry. In “The Power of Taste,” Herbert states and shows that a high aesthetic standard leads to high ethical standards, because such an elevated power of taste did not give in to the temptation of Stalinism and communism. Quite recently, lustration [policies to limit the role of former communists, and especially informants of the Communist secret police, in government or even civil service positions] has shed a somewhat different light on the problem. In many instances, people gave in to the lure of the Communist government by informing on their “neighbors,” and those lures were attractive to them. I see it differently now—I look at this poem as wishful thinking, rather than statement of actual situation. Many people had a very high standard of aesthetics, but did not transfer their stand to the ethical realm.
CH: Brodsky also insisted that aesthetics is mother of ethics.
AF: It’s right, but not necessarily. In “Apollo and Marsyas,” Apollo represents highest aesthetic value, yet he is not moved by Marsyas’s suffering. He is cold, totally oblivious, and what Herbert tells us is that suffering, not the sense of beauty, gives us true art.
CH: I’ve always found it a repellent poem, unbearably gruesome to visualize.
AF: It is. It is repellent. But that is why it is so strong. You cannot forget that message. To many people of his generation and my generation, it recalls the behavior of the Germans in Poland. Germany is such a cultured nation, creating the highest expression of music and poetry, but it did not prevent them from engaging in the cruelest behavior, not only on a social level, as a group, but on an individual level as well.
CH: Did something change Herbert’s point of view in the years between the composition of the two poems? After all, they were published in collections that were more than two decades apart—“Apollo and Marsyas” in 1961, and “Power of Taste” in 1983. Or is he simply looking at the problem in a different way?
AF: It’s just the other side of the same coin. I would read it like that. Herbert probed this topic from different angles. “Power of Taste” was written later, and I think it was written under certain political situation, but also a personal situation. Whenever he asked for a passport, they grilled him and probably wanted him to act as informer while abroad. He did not give in.
CH: In Poland, as elsewhere in the Soviet bloc, there was tension between the literary émigrés and those who remained in their native land. You are an émigré poet, and Herbert remained in Warsaw—yet you both write about displacement and loss. Did Herbert feel he was losing his homeland even as he remained within its borders?
AF: First of all, the myth of emigration is very deeply rooted in the 19th-century Romantic tradition. Many Polish poets were in France, either because they were expelled or ran away. Poland had been partitioned by Russia. There was much emigration.
After World War II, people did not want to go to Poland, which was under Soviet domination. Many Poles went to gulags, because they were arrested in the south of Poland in 1939. Seventeen days after Hitler attacked from the west, the Soviets attacked from the east. They arrested the army, killed tens of thousands of officers, cut off rights. Those people who left, via Russia and Persia and the west, remained as émigrés and were very much opposed to the Communist regime.
So when Miłosz came to the U.S. as a cultural attaché, and worked in the consulate and embassy of the People’s Republic of Poland, he was detested by the entire strata of Polish émigré society. Even when Miłosz asked for asylum in France in 1950, they still were very hostile towards him. They continued to be hostile until he got his Nobel Prize.
The writers who went along with the regime, they had—well, I wouldn’t say they had a good life, because nothing compared with American life. But they had security, apartments, cheap vacations. They could sit at their desks and write, as long as they submitted to the ideology. That was another tension: émigré writers could never support themselves as writers. There were other tensions: some émigrés published in Poland, others would never do that. Herbert was somewhere in between. He was against the regime, but he spent years abroad. Yet he could never bring himself to emigrate. I don’t see anything wrong with it. He didn’t have to emigrate.
CH: Eventually, Herbert became quite hostile towards those who emigrated…
AF: I think at a certain point, he developed a certain animosity towards émigrés. You can find a few examples in his poetry, and an aggressive attack on Miłosz is in one of his poems, “Khodasevich.” I think Khodasevich was a very honorable man. With all my admiration for Herbert’s poetry and for Herbert, this is the poem that I absolutely cannot agree with or forgive. This is a very cruel statement on Miłosz and on émigrés. I’m not the only one who feels this way. If not for these émigrés, Herbert could never have had such an easy landing abroad. Miłosz was the one who started translating Herbert’s poetry into English. Adam Czerniawski, in one of his articles, emphasizes that émigré poets did a lot to popularize Herbert abroad. Many vouched for Herbert, found him stipends or jobs abroad. Herbert had a personal problem, but he projected it on émigré writers and on Miłosz. This projection was hurtful. That’s it.
CH: I also note you have a few cities in common with Herbert—your parents were from Lvov; Herbert was born in Lvov. And you both lived in Warsaw. Did that give you any special simpatico with the poet?
AF: Every mythology needs geography. We needed Ithaca, we needed Troy. In the American mythology, you have the Mississippi, or the Wild West. In Polish literature, for centuries, the east is the mythical space, and definitely for all those people who were born in Lithuania or what is now the Ukraine, that land was the very Arcadia. Lvov was a very important center of Polish cultural and intellectual life, with a Polish university. It was a Polish city. It’s not there anymore. Nothing of Polish life is there anymore. Now it’s the Ukraine.
Before I left Poland, my mother took me to Lvov, took me to every apartment where she had lived. We knocked on doors and they let me in. People who were born there love Lvov and Vilnius. And a few months before she passed away, my mother dreamed about the streets of Lvov. That was her Arcadia. Poles lost the most familiar spaces. You return to them again and again.
CH: Yes, as in Zagajewski’s “To Go to Lvov.” He called it “that mythical eastern city.”
AF: In the last years of Herbert’s life, it was even more important. People return to their childhood in the time of illness, before death.
CH: You returned to Poland in 1993. Any chance you met Herbert?
AF: I never met Herbert. If he had come to New York to claim his Bruno Schulz Award in 1988, that might have been an opportunity. But he did not.
CH: And once you came to America, what did you think of Herbert’s audience here?
AF: I observed that Herbert’s poetry had a great following in the States. Thanks to the translations of Peter Dale Scott and Czesław Miłosz, as well as Bogdana and John Carpenter, Herbert’s poetry “glided” into an American idiom. In translation, the poems certainly lose some of their depth. But they retain their universal message, some of their universal beauty, and—let’s hope—their metaphysics.