Invincible Summer |||

Gloria gets carsick on Mondays

So there I am in the big Barnes & Noble at Union Square, looking for a gift for my Couchsurfing host. Her neighbour Kate Light? Nothing. Her more famous neighbour Marilyn Hacker? Nothing. Really? As Marilyn told me years ago in London, poetry doesn’t travel well; the Atlantic is wide. But she’s a prominent New York poet, unavailable in one of her own city’s largest bookstores. Not only doesn’t travel well, doesn’t persist. For example, I cannot find for sale in England a collection of Charles Causley’s verse, though it was on the English Literature syllabus when I was in school.

Back to the shelves. Other prominent poets? Richard Howard – nah. Czeslaw Milosz – nothing. I must be missing something. These are prominent contemporary poets. The information desk confirms it. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Zbigniew Herbert Collected Poems 1956-1998
Zbigniew Herbert, Collected Poems 1956-1998

But a last, long shot gets a hit. They have something by Zbigniew Herbert. A mistake, perhaps: I had already looked. No, no: in the new books section. And there it is: Zbigniew Herbert: Collected Poems 1956-1998.

I started writing precocious poems when I was 11, but it was not until at 17 I saw Herbert’s poem “Elegy of Fortinbras” that I knew a poem could move me to tears. I devoured the 1968 Penguin collection, which laced itself into what I know of language, just as Shelley meant by “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. In the 1980s I stumbled across another collection in translation, Report From The Besieged City. Suddenly, a decade after his death, I have in my hands four or five times more than I have seen. A feast. I spent the flight back to London immersed in it.

I love the modesty and irony of his poems, the distrust of world systems, his insistence on the importance and the particularity of people and things. Long before John Gray, Herbert wrote about the world systems as secular religions and rued the neglect of what classical writers knew. The 21st century needs him as badly as his own did, and I’ll be reproducing some of his work here. Appropriately, the first is:

Why The Classics

in the fourth book of the Peloponnesian War  
Thucydides tells among other things  
the story of his unsuccessful expedition

among long speeches of chiefs  
battles sieges plagues  
dense net of intrigues of diplomatic endeavours  
the episode is like a pin  
in a forest

the Greek colony Amphipolis  
fell into the hands of Brasidos  
because Thucydides was late with relief

for this he paid his native city  
with lifelong exile

exiles of all times  
know what price that is

generals of the most recent wars  
if a similar affair happens to them  
whine on their knees before posterity  
praise their heroism and innocence

they accuse their subordinates  
envious colleagues  
unfavourable winds

Thucydides says only  
that he had seven ships  
it was winter  
and he sailed quickly

if art for its subject  
will have a broken jar  
a small broken soul  
with a great self-pity

what will remain after us  
will be like lovers’ weeping  
in a small dirty hotel  
when wallpaper dawns
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