It’s easy to say which nation has the fastest trains (France) or the largest number of prime ministers who’ve probably been eaten by sharks (Australia), but 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. The 19th-century Polish poet Cyprian Norwid said he wanted to see “Polish symbols loom / in warm expanding series which reveal / Once and for all the Poland that is real” — for decades now, those symbols and that reality have been hard to ignore.
Of course, for most of us, discovering “the Poland that is real” means reading works translated from Polish. The most significant such translation this year — possibly in many years — is Zbigniew Herbert’s “Collected Poems, 1956-1998” (Ecco/HarperCollins, $34.95), translated by Alissa Valles, which was published in February to (almost) universal acclaim.
more from the NY Times Book Review here.