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

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