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Zbigniew Herbert


Zbigniew Herbert was born on October 29, 1924, in Poland in the city of Lvov, which is now a part of the Ukraine. His grandfather was an Englishman who settled in Lvov to teach English. His father, a former member of the Legions that had fought for restoration of Poland's independence, was a bank manager. Herbert's formal education began in Lvov and continued under German occupation in the form of clandestine study at the underground King John Casimir University, where he majored in Polish literature. He was a member of the underground resistance movement. In 1944, he moved to Krakow, and three years later he graduated from the University of Krakow with a master's degree in economics. He also received a law degree from Nicholas Copernicus University in Torun and studied philosophy at the University of Warsaw under Henryk Elzenberg.

During the 1950s he worked at many low-paying jobs because he refused to write within the framework of official Communist guidelines. After widespread riots against Soviet control in 1956 brought about a political "thaw," Herbert became an administrator at the Union of Polish Composers and published his first collection, The Chord of Light ("Struna swiatla," 1956). The book put him immediately among the most prominent representatives of the "Contemporaries" (young poets and writers associated with the weekly Contemporary Times).

Soon he became an acknowledged master not only in the field of poetry but also in essays and drama. In 1957 his second collection of verse, Hermes, the Dog and the Star, came out. The year 1961 brought about his third book of poems, Study of the Object ("Studium przedmiotu"), and in 1962 he published his famous collection of essays, Barbarian in the Garden, which was eventually translated into many languages. In 1964 Herbert received the Koscielski Foundation Prize, and in 1965 the national Austrian Lenau Prize and the Alfred Jurzykowski Prize. Herbert was coeditor of the poetry journal Poezja from 1965 to 1968 but resigned in protest of anti-Semitic policies. 

In 1968 his Selected Poems, translated into English by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott, was published in the United States and England, making Herbert one of the most popular contemporary poets in the English-speaking world. The year 1970 marked the publication of his Dramas, and in 1971 his first Polish edition of Selected Poems was published. In 1973, he received another prestigious European award, the Herder Prize. The volume Mr. Cogito ("Pan Cogito," 1974) brought him even more recognition. In 1979 in Verona he received the Petrarch Prize, to which the following years added, among others, awards from the Foundation of Prince Gabor Bethlem, the Bruno Schulz Prize, and the Jerusalem Prize.

Herbert's next book of poems, Report from the Besieged City ("Raport z oblezonego miasta i inne wiersze," 1984), which dealt with the ethical problems of the nation under martial law, was issued simultaneously through an emigré publishing house and as an underground edition in Poland. Ecco Press published his collection of essays Still Life with a Bridle in 1991, as well as his poetry collection Elegy for the Departure ("Elegia na odejscie") in 1999.

Herbert traveled widely throughout the West and lived in Paris, Berlin, and the United States, where he taught briefly at the University of California at Los Angeles. He died on July 28, 1998, in Warsaw, Poland.

Zbigniew Herbert
Photo credit: Anna Beata Bohdziewicz

By This Poet


I Would Like to Describe

I would like to describe the simplest emotion
joy or sadness
but not as others do
reaching for shafts of rain or sun

I would like to describe a light
which is being born in me
but I know it does not resemble
any star
for it is not so bright
not so pure
and is uncertain

I would like to describe courage
without dragging behind me a dusty lion
and also anxiety
without shaking a glass full of water

to put it another way
I would give all metaphors
in return for one word
drawn out of my breast like a rib
for one word
contained within the boundaries
of my skin

but apparently this is not possible

and just to say - I love
I run around like mad
picking up handfuls of birds
and my tenderness
which after all is not made of water
asks the water for a face
and anger
different from fire
borrows from it
a loquacious tongue

so is blurred
so is blurred
in me
what white-haired gentlemen
separated once and for all
and said 
this is the subject
and this is the object

we fall asleep
with one hand under our head
and with the other in a mound of planets

our feet abandon us
and taste the earth
with their tiny roots
which next morning
we tear out painfully