The Reemergence of a Modern Master

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By Reviewed by Anthony Cuda
Sunday, April 29, 2007

THE COLLECTED POEMS 1956-1998

By Zbigniew Herbert

Translated from the Polish and edited by Alissa Valles

Ecco. 600 pp. $34.95

For over three decades, many American poets have recognized Polish-born Zbigniew Herbert as one of the most innovative, penetrating and original poets of the post-WWII era. But with much of his work untranslated or out of print, he has remained a secret pleasure, overshadowed by the acclaim of his compatriot, Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz. Now after years of copyright quarrels and delays, the new, gorgeously bound Collected Poems, 1956-1998 promises to prove him not merely the best Polish writer in recent memory but one of the most impressive poets of the later 20th century.

In a 1984 interview, Herbert discussed what distinguishes him from contemporaries like Milosz: "Writing -- and in this I disagree with everybody -- must teach men soberness," he said, adding emphatically: "to be awake." For Herbert, who knew along with Goya that the sleep of reason produces monsters and tyranny, "to be awake" means to refuse the witchcraft of reduction and rhetoric and to seek instead the beguiling magic of the mundane and close to hand:

The pebble

is a perfect creature

equal to itself

mindful of its limits. . . .

I feel a heavy remorse

when I hold it in my hand


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