Valles on Herbert
Alissa Valles on the poet she translated, Zbigniew Herbert:
Until recently, visitors to Kraków, Poland, might have easily stumbled across a bit of graffiti on the ancient wall surrounding the Old Town. “We Will Fulfill Herbert’s Testament,” the text read, referring to Zbigniew Herbert, a poet of national pride and international fame. When I visited the poet Czeslaw Milosz in 2001, at the beginning of a long residency in Poland, he welcomed my naïve delight at the graffiti with a full-bellied laugh and the remark that it had probably been the work of nationalist thugs.
Indeed, while some of us would like to see Herbert’s poetry and prose as his true “testament,” any conversation about the poet’s legacy since his death in 1998 has inevitably also been about state power and democracy, the idea of the left and the fate of liberalism, preserving national identity in the face of imperial or commercial incursion, and maintaining clarity of thought and expression in an era of public lies. All of these things make Herbert particularly relevant for American readers now. But it is also vital for us to see that the poet himself drew a clear line between poetry and politics, and why. Poets in the West often envy the cultural authority of their Eastern European colleagues. But the hurdles politics imposes on fresh and serious readings of literary work are often not well-understood.