It isn’t an exercise that makes much sense to try and rank poets in a sort of hierarchy of greatness. Still, the great poets are easily recognizable – in a moment the minds knows, the heart feels, the spirit senses a quality involving silence and attention. Read it, and at once you know the poetry that will last all your life. Among West Indian poets, I have that sense especially about Derek Walcott and Martin Carter and Lorna Goodison.
I also have that sense of greatness about the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, of course, and Seamus Heaney and I’ve been reading again Zbigniew Herbert’s poems, in translation, and have felt the frisson that shivers in one as a real poet goes to work.
Zbigniew Herbert was born in 1924 in Lwow. In his teens he fought in the Polish underground resistance against the Nazis. After the war he studied Economics, Law and Philosophy at the Universities of Krakow and Warsaw.
To escape being stifled in Communist Poland he went to Paris in 1982 where he lived for ten years, returning to Poland in 1992 a literary hero. He died in 1998, writing poems until the end.
Herbert’s poetry, for long banned under Communism but increasingly acclaimed as it gradually saw the light of day throughout Europe, resists simple categorization. The most you might say is that he is speaks for the individual conscience.
One of Herbert’s major themes is to bear witness to the truth. Each individual must see events, and his own experience of them, with absolute clarity. No matter what obstacles are in his way, he must be faithful to the truth of this experience and keep a covenant with it. The greatest enemy of clarity is the manipulation of information, and of reality, at the service of power and propaganda – what Herbert calls “the monster.”
The acquisition of truth is a constant battle. Each person is surrounded by false information, and those who have access to the truth methodically withhold it – “those at the top of the stairs” rarely appear, and when they do it is with a finger to their lips.
The withholding of truth is a major strategy of power, deliberate and concerted misrepresentation on the widest scale, aiming ultimately at a change of collective identity through the media, publishing, and political organs. And, though this theme applied above all to the old Communist systems, it has a universal application. The individual bearing witness to the truth is never safe.
Here is a poem taken from Herbert’s collection of poems translated into English, Report from the Besieged City. The poems in this collection were written between 1956 and 1982.
From The Top Of The Stairs
those who are standing at the top of the stairs
they know everything
with us it’s different
sweepers of squares
hostages of a better future
those at the top of the stairs
appear to us rarely
with a hushing finger always at the mouth
we are patient
our wives darn the sunday shirts
we talk of food rations
soccer prices of shoes
while on saturday we tilt the head backward
sometimes we dream
those at the top of the stairs
that is to us
and as we are chewing bread over the newspaper
-now let’s talk
man to man
what the posters shout out isn’t true
we carry the truth in tightly locked lips
it is cruel and much too heavy
so we bear the burden by ourselves
we aren’t happy
we would gladly stay
those are dreams of course
they can come true
or not come true
so we will
continue to cultivate
our square of dirt
square of stone
with a light head
a cigarette behind the ear
and not a drop of hope in the heart
Our freedom as individuals and our ability to fulfil a real purpose in life depend upon the accuracy with which we are able to perceive the truth around us, bear witness to it, and try to do something about it. No poet has recognized that more clearly than Zbigniew Herbert.