Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Herbert (again)

I feel that I have been posting conspicuously often about the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, in part because a new Collected Poems appeared in 2007. (Words Without Borders recently featured Herbert in their Forum in connection with the 2007 publication of The Collected Poems, edited and translated by Alissa Valles.) The collection did receive quite a bit of attention; some reviewers, though, staunchly prefer the Carpenters' translations. Michael Hofman at Poetry writes that the text is "an uncorrected bound proof—rather unnavigable without an index of titles and first lines, and no doubt subject to all sorts of further alterations and corrections." About the translator, Hofman scoffs: "Herbert has a new translator, someone I have never heard of. Even that drafty, echoey thing the Internet (our very own updated version of Ovid's cave of rumor) has barely heard of Alissa Valles. This, by the way, is to register my surprise, not some snobbish impulse." Hofman, it seems, doth protest too much.

Valles' volume, I think, is, on the contrary, thoughtfully composed and her understanding of Herbert is, to my mind, astute. In the Jan./Feb. Boston Review she notes how English speakers still have relatively limited access to (or perhaps understanding of) Herbert despite his status as a literary juggernaut. She writes:

For most Americans, Herbert’s poetry still exists in a kind of historical void, sometimes called World Literature, in which he floats, stripped of his native matrix, alongside Anna Akhmatova, Bertolt Brecht, and Constantine Cavafy. It is, of course, no one’s fault that American readers do not have wide access to the extensive and diverse Polish criticism on Herbert. But the manner in which he was introduced to American readers has almost certainly encouraged a narrow reading of his work. It is at least in part a generational issue. Among those who started reading Herbert in the ’70s, there is angry resistance to any approach that complicates or challenges the standard vision, that of an idiosyncratic poet of historical irony.

Her new volume, incidentally, contains all the early translations of Herbert by Miłosz and Dale Scott. You may recall, Dear Reader, that I mentioned in an earlier post the minor quibbles the two had in translating Herbert's "Pebble".

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