The latest Words Without Borders/Reading the World book club is now officially underway. This month James Marcus and Cynthia Haven will be leading a discussion of Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Poems. They have a lot of interesting things lined up for the next few weeks:
The discussion will include contributions from a wide range of poets, scholars, and translators, including Peter Dale Scott, Anna Frajlich, Andrzej Franaszek, William Martin, and Alissa Valles (who translated most of the new collection). Our hope, however, is that visitors to the site will feel free to chime in, whether they’re longtime admirers of the poet or have just been introduced to his extraordinary art.
The first post is Marcus’s introduction to Herbert and his poetic mouthpiece, Mr. Cogito:
It was during his California interlude that Herbert introduced Mr. Cogito—a musing (and frequently amusing) poetic mouthpiece. [. . .] Mr. Cogito was primarily a creature of mind. He read the paper, he studied his face in the mirror, he smoked a cigarette, but as his name suggests, his main business was cogitation. (In the end, he may have more in common with Italo Calvino’s Mr. Palomar, whose telescopic contemplations took in everything but the self.)
What I find most interesting is that this twentieth-century Polish poet tried to keep politics out of his writing:
Yet he remained wary of mixing poetry and politics, famously clashing with a claque of younger writers at a 1972 poetry festival in Silesia. For a poet to flirt with ideology was, he insisted, a “punishable offense.” Engagement was a dead end, possibly a childish one. “The poet’s sphere of action,” he declared, “if his attitude toward his work is serious, is not the ‘contemporary’—which I take to mean the state of our current knowledge about society, politics, and science—but the real, the stubborn dialogue of man with the concrete reality surrounding him, with this table, with that neighbor, with this time of day: the cultivation of a dwindling capacity for contemplation.”
Helping get this book club off to a good start, there’s a second post available on WWB featuring an interview conducted by Cynthia Haven with poet and translator Peter Dale Scott. The conversation touches upon how Scott came to Herbert’s poetry, the relationship between Herbert and Milosz, and an interesting bit about why it took so long for Herbert to get a foothold with an American audience:
Scott: Herbert was far less known in America and partly for an accidental reason—the 1968 Penguin edition of his poetry was not for sale in America, and there was no U.S. edition until 1986. I have no knowledge why this was the case, but I suspect that the falling out between Miłosz and Herbert was not unrelated. A possible other reason might have been that Miłosz and I were also distant from each other in those years, thus unable to press together for an American edition.
These Words Without Borders book clubs are really remarkable, and work especially well when people log on and comment . . .
At House of Mirth James Marcus offers a preview of the upcoming Words Without Borders discussion of Zbigniew Herbert’s The Collected Poems 1956-1998, which promises to be quite interesting.
Next week, Cynthia Haven and I will be overseeing a Words Without Borders book club—an online conversation, more or less—devoted to Zbigniew Herbert’s The Collected Poems 1956-1998. I’d love to say that Herbert needs no introduction, but this giant of postwar poetry, who died in 1998, is still woefully undervalued in the English-speaking world. He is certainly on par with his compatriots Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska, even if the Swedish Academy declined to recognize that fact. And his poems, with their pained dignity and dearth of punctuation, deliver a frisson like no other. The WWB discussion will include contributions from a wide range of Herbert experts, including (so far) Peter Dale Scott, Anna Frajlich, Andrzej Franaszek, William Martin, and Alissa Valles (who translated most of the new Ecco collection).
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.
And I can’t disagree with David Orr’s opening sentiment:
. . . it’s impossible to know which country has the best writers, let alone the best poets. Even so, if cash money were on the line, you’d find few critics willing to bet against Poland. Since 1980, the Poles have two Nobel Prize-winning poets, 34 pages in the “Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry” (11 better than France, a country with 25 million more people) and enough top-flight artists to populate dozens of American creative writing departments, probably improving many of them in the process.
Herbert, who won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 1995, is a titan of not only Polish poetry, but of twentieth-century European poetry. His celebrated alter ego, Mr. Cogito, ranks as the one of the most original characters in modern poetry.
In celebration of Reading the World Month, Scott Esposito has posted a number of interviews, reviews, and general articles about international literature in translation. (Full disclosure: He interviewed me as well to kick off this celebration. Which is why I really like him and keep posting about his site. Just so we’re clear about my bias.)
Linked from this article you can find other interviews with Katherine Silver, Karen S. Kingsbury, Howard Curtis, Humphries Davies, and Natasha Wimmer.
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