10 January 08 | Chad W. Post

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 . . .

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