poetry from the so-called Other Europe


Herbert has been celebrated as “a conscience and spokesman for the Polish nation” (Robert Hass), “a moral authority” (A. Alvarez), and “a complete poet” (Marius Kociejowski). By and large, his ironic, erudite, parabolic verse, with its allegorical insistence on historical recurrence and its self-conscious sublimation of private experience to public idea, continues to define our imagination of Polish poetry.

This was already the case well over twenty years ago, when readers in the United States and Britain could still believe that only governments on the other side of the Iron Curtain would eavesdrop on telephone calls, censor the media, flout international law, or torture political prisoners. Back then, the consensus also seemed to be that capitalist democracy, despite its attendant freedoms, leached the relevance from intellectual and artistic work. Consequently, many writers in the West came to look with curiosity, if not envy, toward their counterparts, who were presumed to have it better spiritually and morally. True, the Eastern European poets demonstrated clarity of voice and vision in the face of calamity and decrepitude. And in the ’60s, when their work first started to appear in English, readers here were justifiably excited, not only because they now had access to otherwise barricaded realities, but because this newly translated work—with its lucid perspectives and political relevance—marked a welcome reinvigoration of the lyric.

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