“with one hand under our head / and with the other in a mound of planets”: Zbigniew Herbert’s “I Would Like to Describe”

This weekend I finished reading Diane Ackerman’s book The Zookeeper’s Wife,  which I’ll be reviewing for the Literary Wives group on April 7 (it’s a quick read, so there’s still plenty of time to hop aboard if you’d like to join the discussion). The book is full of interesting facts; for example, during World War II, the Polish underground movement managed to keep students in high school and college (which had been outlawed for Poles by Nazi decree) — and even grant degrees — through a system of “floating” classrooms.

One of those students was Zbigniew Herbert, who went on to become one of Poland’s most famous post-war poets. For many years he refused to submit his work to state-sanctioned venues, and was throughout his adult life an opponent of communism and censorship.  His work has been translated by, among others, Czeslaw Milosz.

His poem “I would like to describe” expands on the poet’s frustration at his own inability to summon just the right word or words to describe emotion. While bemoaning the inadequacies of metaphor, the speaker nonetheless conjures up some beautiful examples. “I would like to describe courage / without dragging behind me a dusty lion” (l. 12-13) is one of my favorites.

I confess that I didn’t know much about Herbert before I researched this week’s post, but now I’m going to go off and get my hands on a copy of his selected poems.

Who’s a poet you’d like to learn more about?