Books May 2007
The slender Mr. Cogito
On Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Poems: 1956-1998.
The Collected Poems: 1956-1998.
Ecco, 600 pages, $34.95
“Fatten your animal for sacrifice,” Apollo warned the ancient Greek poet Callimachus, whom opponents criticized for avoiding civic verse, “but keep your muse slender.” The implication of this directive—that poetry’s aesthetic value depends upon its refusal to engage in contemporary politics—has never been less true than in the case of the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert (1924–1998), whose slender Muse magically digests even the most ungainly of fares. His rejoinder to the ancient warning came late in his career, in the tribute to his own early mentor Henryk Elzenberg in 1992:
The times we lived in were truly a tale told by an idiot
Full of sound and cruelty
Your severe gentleness delicate strength
Taught me to weather the world like a...
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