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.
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:
1 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 2 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 3 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