December 4, 2012

Zbigniew Herbert

Zbigniew Herbert [Poland]

Zbigniew Herbert Born on October 29, 1924 in Lwów, Poland. Herbert was attended the Państwowe VIII Gimnazjum I Liceum im. Króla Kazimierza Wielkiego we Lwowie until the German and Svoiet invastions in 1939. During the German occupation the poet continued his studies at secret meetings organized by the Polish underground, graduating and passing the A-level exam in January 1944.

     Herbert worked as a lice-feeder in the Rudolf Weigl Insstitute, production anti-typhus vacines and as a salesman in a metal shop until passing his exam, upon which he began Polish Philology studies (also held in secret) at University of Jan Kazimierz in Lwów. He had to drop out however when the family moved to Kraków before the 1944 invasion of the Soviet Red Army. After the war his hometown of Lwów, no longer within the Polish borders, would become a Ukrainian Soviet city.

      The family original lived near Kraków in Proszowice, while Herbert studied Economics in Kraków and attended lectures at the Jagiellonian University and the Academy of Fine Arts. In 1947, he received his Trade Academy diploma and moved, with his parents to Sopot, working at several different jobs, in the Polish National Bank, as a sub-editor for the journal Prezgląd Kupiecki, and, in Gdańsk, in the department of the Polish Writers’ Union. During this time he met Halina Misiołkowa at the Union, developing a relationship that would last until 1957.

     Herbert also continued Law studies at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, where he ultimately received a Master of Law. Shortly thereafter he worked in the District Museum and as a primary school teacher.

     In 1951, he moved to Warsaw to study Philosophy at the University of Warsaw, living in poor conditions, at one point living in a room rented by 12 people. He attempted to live from his writing, but his style did not follow the social-realistic dictates, and he refused to write political propaganda. He did publish, however, in the weekly magazine Tygodnik Wybreż his poetry cycle, Poetyka dla Laikó (Poetry for the Lay People), as well as reviewing for the journal Slwo Powszechne under both name and the pen name Patryk. Under another pen name, Stefan Martha, Herbert published in Dziś I Jutro, a publication of Catholic-based PAX Association. But with the closure of the more oppositional magazine, Tygodnik Powszechny, Herbert felt he could no longer cooperate with the more collaborationist PAX. He earned some money froom writing biographies, for a period in 1952, becoming a salaried blood donor. For a short period of time he worked as the manager of the management office of the Union of Socialist Composers.

      Although he had published other works of poetry previously, it was not until the end of Stalinism in Poland that he could devote himself to poetic writing. In 1956 he was offered a small studio and won a scholarship of 100 US dollars, that permitted him to travel abroad. Throughout the next several years, Herbert would become a traveler, moving throughout Western Europe, to England, Scotland, the United States, and elsewhere while living off of awards and small stipends. In 1968, he married Katarzyna Dzieduszycka at the Polish consulate in France.

     From 1971 to 1973, he returned to Poland, living in Artur Międzyrecki’s flat in Warsaw, and joining the board of the Polish Literary Association. That same year he also joined the Polish P.E.N. club. But he 1975 through 1981, he was again traveling through Germany, Austria, and Italy, returning to Poland in 1981, joining the editorial board of the underground journal Zapis and writing under his own name. In 1986, Herbert returned to Paris, where he joined the Polish Writers’ Association and became a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1991 he received the Jerusalem Prize, giving him an opportunity to travel to Israel, where he became a close friend of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai.

     Seriously ill, Herbert returned to Warsaw in 1992, and by 1994 was wheelchair bound, although he continued to write and traveled even to Holland. On July 28, 1998, Herbert died, awarded, posthumously the Order of the White Eagle, but his widow declined to accept. In 2007, however, he was invested with the Order of the White Eagle, which his family finally accepted.

     Because his poetry was often rejected or banned, Herbert’s book publications were relatively late in his life, most of them published over a period from 1961 to 1999. But he also wrote essays, fiction, and drama, and his work quickly found an international audience, most of his work being translated close to its original Polish publication in English. Among his many international awards was the Austrian State Prize for European Literature (1965), the Herder Prize (1973), the German Petraca-Preis (1979), the Struga Prize (1981), the International Literary Prize of the Arts Council of Wales (1987), The Bruno Schulz Prize (given by the American Foundation of Polish-Jewish Studies and American P.E.N) (1988), and the previously mentioned Jerusalem Prize.


Struna światł (Warsaw: Czvtelnik, 1956); Hermes, pies I gwiazda (Warsaw: Czvtelnik, 1957); Stadium przedmiotu (Warsaw: Czvtelnik, 1961); Napis (Warsaw: Czvtelnik, 1969); Pan Cogito (Warsaw: Czvtelnik, 1974); Raport z oblężonego Miasta I inne wiersze (Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1983); Elegia na odejście (Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1990); Rovigo (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie, 1992); Epilog burzy (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie, 1998); 89 wierszy (Kraków, 1998); Podwójny oddech. Prawdziwa historia nieskończonej miłośi. Wiersze dotąd niepublikowane (Gdynia: Małgorzata Marchlewska Wydawnictwo, 1999)

Selected Poems, Czesław Miłosz and Peter Dale Scott, trans. (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Modern European Poets, 1968; reprinted by New York: Ecco Press, 1986); Report from the Besieged City, trans. by John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter (New York: Ecco Press, 1985); Mr. Cogito, trans. by John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter (New York: Ecco Press, 1993); Elegy for the Departure, trans. by John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter (New York: Ecco Press, 1999); The Collected Poems: 1956-1998, trans. by Czesław Miłosz, Peter Dale Scott, and Alissa Valles (New York: Ecco Press, 2007); Zbigniew Herbert, Selected Poems, trans. by Czesław Miłosz, Peter Dale Scotjt, John and Bogdana Carpenter (Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2007)

For a selection of poets by Zbigniew Herbert, go here:

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