Beware the view from the top of the stairs

Ian on Sunday

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.

20130210ianZbigniew 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

Of course

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

and drink

sometimes we dream

those at the top of the stairs

come down

that is to us

and as we are chewing bread over the newspaper

they say

-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.

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