The Zbigniew Herbert event last night was my favourite of the festival so I had better write my thoughts on it. Perhaps not the thoughts I had at the time, which were things like “wow, Nick Laird and Zbigniew Herbert are both handsome men, I thought great poets were meant to be ugly” and how much I hated the people in front of me, who kept talking while the poets were reading/speaking. Perhaps something about Eastern European poets, political manifestos and how Fiona Sampson looks a bit like one of my favourite primary school teachers.
I came across Herbert’s work a few months ago while collecting the Penguin Modern European Poets series from different secondhand bookshops. This started while I was in a charity shop last year when I found a collapsing copy of Vasko Popa’s volume from this series. In a different bookshop, I stumbled across (literally – it was on the floor) Miroslav Holub’s, and the introduction to that by Al Alvarez made me realise I was going to have to collect them all. Their writing is refreshingly different to the British voice: they’re economical and cold, they have no time for melodrama or psychodrama, they create whole words in 27 words, they pull up sharp against the topics such as death without sentiment. They are disarming in the way they approach things that the rest of us might only nudge with gloves on. Herbert’s work is no different, but his has a sideline of arch humour to it. He also tells excellent stories, and created an alter ego – Mr Cogito – that allowed him to write false autobiographies about journeys in and out of myth, through fantasylands and to converse with God. Like the best myths, they may as well be happening in our own lives now, and most situations speak very clearly and truly to the Poland of Herbert’s early life.
Anyway, Al Alvarez – who edited many poets from that series and manned the Observer’s poetry page back when the Observer had a poetry page – was reading at the event, and discussing his friendship with Herbert. He called Herbert “Zbig” a lot, which pleased me. It’s like whenever Julia Davis calls Rob Bryden “Bobby” in interviews.
Herbert’s gift for the well-timed ironic twist, or the arched eyebrow underneath the political manifesto, was on full display in the poems that Eva Hoffman, Nick Laird, Al Alvarez and Fiona Sampson read. (Sampson was chairing the event, and I’d have quite liked to hear her thoughts, connections and favourite Herbert poems too. She has a good voice.) My favourite line came in Hoffman’s reading of one of the Mr Cogito poems, when Herbert refers to God “cracking his knuckles” as he gets ready to answer a particularly plaintive prayer. His artistic manifestoes were also discussed, his love of solidarity and his hatred for what the free market did to Poland, and the way he dealt with this in his poems. Not in rants and outright anger, but with subtle imagery and wit. One that stuck in my mind was the line “women as pink and flat as wafers”, proving the delicacy of people in a poor country, their thinness and frailty, and the rudding up of their skin in the cold weather. In the clips of Herbert being interviewed that were shown, his reference to myth as universal experience – open, moral stories that have clear messages and characters who represent a truth and type – was startling in how he managed to be both sophisticated yet disarmingly simple. Herbert can cut through swathes of intellectual thought with seven words. He manages to strip away academia whilst remaining highly intelligent. I’m not quoting here because it’s not an essay, but if you’re interested, go away and read some.
Although, at the end of it all, perhaps Al Alvarez remembering what Herbert’s decision not to publish absolutely everything he wrote – “poems that keep the bed warm in case the muse pays a visit” – was my favourite sentence of the evening.
(Incidentally, apart from this sentence, this entry is 666 words.)