No Artificial Fires: The Poetry of Zbigniew Herbert

Bilal Tanweer in Poetry, etc.:

ScreenHunter_56 Dec. 04 14.10How to describe the poetry of the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, who Seamus Heaney described as “a poet of exemplary ethical and artistic integrity in world literature in the 20th and 21st century… a poet whose work fulfills the classical expectation that great literature will delight and instruct,” and who Robert Hass referred to as “one of the most influential European poets of the last half-century, and perhaps—even more than his [Nobel Prize winning] contemporaries Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska—the defining Polish poet of the post-war years,” and about whom Stephen Dobyns wrote in the New York Times claiming: “In a just world Mr. Herbert would have received the Nobel Prize long ago”?

I first encountered Zbigniew Herbert in a volume called Mr. Cogito and I experienced that rare exhilaration of encountering something wise, beautiful and unlike I had read before. It was a detached poetic voice that was also contemplative and humorous and deeply serious and yet playful all at the same time, and its sparse and precise language moved delightfully between thought and image. By the time I went through the collection, the marginalia of my copy were all exclamatory points and Wow’s of varying lengths and slants. Many of these poems have since become my ports of refuge, and one The Envoy of Mr. Cogito has grown into an anthem. However, on that first reading I dwelled longest on a much simpler poem where Herbert leads a kind of existential meditation stamped with his trademark humor:

Mr. Cogito Meditates on Suffering

All attempts to remove
the so-called cup of bitterness—
by reflection
frenzied actions on behalf of homeless cats
deep breathing

one must consent
gently bend the head
not wring the hands
make use of the suffering gently moderately
like an artificial limb
without false shame
but also without unnecessary pride

do not brandish the stump
over the heads of others
don’t knock with the white cane
against the windows of the well-fed

drink the essence of bitter herbs
but not to the dregs
leave carefully
a few sips for the future

but simultaneously
isolate within yourself
and if it is possible
create from the matter of suffering
a thing or a person

with it
of course
entertain it
very cautiously
like a sick child
forcing at last
with silly tricks
a faint

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