I attended an event last month in New York City sponsored by the PEN American Center and entitled "State of Emergency: Unconventional Readings." PEN believes that it is urgently necessary to review the USA Patriot Act and the full range of anti-terrorism laws and orders enacted since Sept. 11, 2001. The participants in the reading all concurred that these governmental measures compromise core American values and put us on the wrong side of international laws that we have long promoted. Freedom of expression is jeopardized. I was struck by the fact that two of the 15 readers, Don DeLillo and Francine Prose, each read a poem by the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert.

Herbert knew something about writing during wartime and working in an era of repression -- for years he wrote "for the drawer," as he wryly put it, since he was forbidden to publish in Poland -- and thus it's striking but perhaps not entirely surprising that his poems speak to our moment. "I avoid any commentary I keep a tight hold on my emotions I write about the facts," the chronicler states in "Report from the Besieged City," which DeLillo read. The place he describes sounds like an Iraqi city under siege:

in the evening I like to wander near the outposts of the City

along the frontier of our uncertain freedom

I look at the swarms of soldiers below their lights

I listen to the noise of drums barbarian shrieks

truly it is inconceivable the City is still defending itself

"Five Men," which Prose read, tells the story of five people -- "two of them very young/ the others middle-aged" -- executed in a courtyard. "I did not learn this today/ I knew it before yesterday," the poet declares, "so why have I been writing/ unimportant poems on flowers." He ponders what the five men talked about the night before their execution:

of prophetic dreams

of an escapade in a brothel

of automobile parts

of a sea voyage

of how when we had spades

he ought not to have opened

of how vodka is best

after wine you get a headache

of girls

of fruits

of life

Herbert deliberately cultivated a cool, economical and anti-rhetorical style, dispensing with punctuation in his poems and eschewing grandiose effects -- what one poem calls "the piano at the top of the Alps" and "the artificial fires of poetry." His early poems showed "a rapacious love of the concrete," a strong fascination with inanimate objects, which he viewed as steadfast and immutable, unlike human beings. His concentration on objects was part of his determination to see things as they are, to give them their proper names. "At last the fidelity of things opens our eyes," he asserted in "Stool." To the poet who suffered under, and had seen the collapse of, several shameful ideologies, his commitment to concrete particulars stood as a fundamental contrast and direct alternative to the cant and half-truths of human beings. Thus he noted in his poem "Pebble": "the pebble/ is a perfect creature// equal to itself/ mindful of its limits," and "its ardour and coldness/ are just and full of dignity." He confessed:

I feel a heavy remorse

when I hold it in my hand

and its noble body

is permeated by false warmth

-- Pebbles cannot be tamed

to the end they will look at you

with a calm and very clear eye

A radically understated style stood as a special corollary to the quest for things-in-themselves. Herbert sought a cleansed language of what he called "semantic transparency," the pristine word that holds against modern debasements of language.

It's crucial to remember that Herbert, the most ironic, civilized and classically conscious of poets (the exemplary personages in his poems tend to be figures such as Marcus Aurelius and Hamlet, Roman proconsuls and Greek gods), spent virtually his entire adulthood in opposition to totalitarianism. He was a stubbornly idiosyncratic poet of isolation, disinheritance and grief -- what one critic terms "multilevel orphanhood." He was also a poet of "historical irony" (the phrase is Czeslaw Milosz's), continually confronting his own experience and juxtaposing it with the experience of the past, seeking the grounds for what he called "universal compassion."

For all his professed love of the concrete, he wasn't a phenomenological poet per se; on the contrary, he was supremely a poet of thought -- self-questioning, philosophically self-conscious, a tragic post-Cartesian attracted to Erasmus. Many of his poems address the issues and problems of accurate description. As he put it at the end of "Never About You": "Don't be surprised we don't know how to describe the world/ and only speak to things affectionately by their first names."

Herbert's poems often return to the textual and ethical issues involved in inscribing experience, in trying to write down the fluctuating external world and be faithful not only to what we know but also what we don't know. Thus an "uncertain clarity" became primary even as he pursued classical values, raising questions about history, about the nature of nature, of philosophical truth, of suffering, of time, of God.

Why the Classics 1

in the fourth book of the Peloponnesian War

Thucydides tells among other things

the story of his unsuccessful expedition

among long speeches of chiefs

battles sieges plague

dense net of intrigues of diplomatic endeavours

the episode is like a pin

in a forest

the Greek colony Amphipolis

fell into the hands of Brasidos

because Thucydides was late with relief

for this he paid his native city

with lifelong exile

exiles of all times

know what that price is


generals of the most recent wars

if a similar affair happens to them

whine on their knees before posterity

praise their heroism and innocence

they accuse their subordinates

envious colleagues

unfavourable winds

Thucydides says only

that he had seven ships

it was winter

and he sailed quickly


if art for its subject

will have a broken jar

a small broken soul

with a great self-pity

what will remain after us

will be like lovers' weeping

in a small dirty hotel

when wall-paper dawns

(The lines from "Report from the Besieged City" appear in Zbigniew Herbert, "Report from the Besieged City and Other Poems," translated by John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter. Ecco. Copyright © 1985 by Zbigniew Herbert. The lines from "Five Men" appear in Zbigniew Herbert, "Selected Poems," translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott. Penguin and Ecco. Copyright © 1968 by Zbigniew Herbert, translation copyright © 1968 by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott. The section from 'The Pebble" and the poem "Why the Classics," translated by Czeslaw Milosz, appear in Zbigniew Herbert, "Selected Poems." Wydawnictwo Literackie. Copyright for the English translation © by Czeslaw Milosz.)