One poet Robert Hass mentioned as a periodic practitioner of the “prose poem” was Zbigniew Herbert, who offers “an example of the way it appropriates fable.” For today’s discussion purposes, below is a copy of Herbert’s prose poem “The History of the Minotaur” as translated into English by Alissa Valles.
As you read, ask yourself this: Does it look like poetry or prose to you? Is it “poetry” only because it is, like the ugly duckling (read: quacking swan) walking with ducks, that is, a poem only because it is in a book surrounded by other poems?
And this: Is it rife with poetic devices? Does the humor work to its poetic advantage? The snappy ending, maybe?
Me? I have no horse in this race and couldn’t tell you if I did. The good news is, I’m not sure the established poet and professor and winner of the Pulitzer Prize–Mr. Hass–could, either. If ever a man needed his poetic license to get out of a difficult spot, this is it!
The History of the Minotaur
by Zbigniew Herbert
The true history of the prince Minotaur is told in the yet undeciphered script Linear A. He was–despite later rumors–the authentic son of King Minos and Pasiphaë. The little boy was born healthy, but with an abnormally large head–which fortune-tellers read as a sign of his future wisdom. In fact with the years the Minotaur grew into a robust, slightly melancholy idiot. The king decided to give him up to be educated as a priest. But the priests explained that they couldn’t accept the feeble-minded prince, for that might diminish the authority of religion, already undermined by the invention of the wheel.
Minos then brought in the engineer Daedalus, who was fashionable in Greece at the time as the creator of a popular branch of pedagogical architecture. And so the labyrinth arose. Within its system of pathways from elementary to more and more complicated, its variations in levels and rungs of abstraction, it was supposed to train the Minotaur prince in the principles of correct thinking.
So the unhappy prince wandered along the pathways of induction and deduction, prodded by his preceptors, gazing blankly at ideological frescos. He didn’t get them at all.
Having exhausted all his resources, King Minos resolved to get rid of this disgrace to the royal line. He brought in (again from Greece, which was known for its able men) the ace assassin Theseus. And Theseus killed the Minotaur. On this point myth and history agree.
Through the labyrinth–now a useless primer–Theseus makes his way back carrying the big, bloody head of the Minotaur with its goggling eyes, in which for the first time wisdom had begun to sprout–of a kind ordinarily attributed to experience.
There you go! One of the prose poems touted by Mr. Hass himself. Is it my favorite in my much-esteemed Collected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert 1956-1998? Not hardly, but that matters not and is not pertinent to our exploration of the form.
In our next post, more Robert Hass debating with himself over the stormy marriage of prose and poetry. It’s like reality TV. Only in a book. Tune in tomorrow!
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