zbigniew herbert

4 posts

That Ugly Duckling We Call “Prose Poetry”

To some people, the term “prose poetry” is like fingernails on a blackboard. Painful to hear. If it’s poetry, how is it prose? And if it’s prose, how is it poetry?

Beats me. I had a sum total of zero “prose poems” in my first book. Then I read Zbigniew Herbert, Poland’s wonderful poet. He sold me on the style with poems like “The History of the Minotaur” and “Old Prometheus.” Whatever you choose to call them, four of these “prose poems” wound up in my recent Lost Sherpa of Happiness collection, and I kinda like them.

In A Little Book on Form, Robert Hass has a few funny lines about this form. You should know, in advance, that he himself wrote prose poems. He provides a little history in his little book on this little form, too. If you thought this ugly duckling came of age in the rocking 60s, think again. It’s old. Older than me, even! We’re talking century comma 19th!

  • “In 1802 Coleridge contributed a few of his journal entries to a miscellany edited by his friend Robert Southey. He gave one of them a title:

December Morning

The giant shadows sleeping amid the wan yellow light of the December morning, looked like wrecks and scattered ruins of the long, long night.

“It did not start a stampede toward a new poetic form, so prose did not get annexed to the formal possibilities of poetry until August 26,1862, when a Paris daily newspaper La presse published a few of Baudelaire’s Petits poemes en prose (Le spleen de Paris). The entire collection of fifty prose pieces was published in 1869 two years after Baudelaire’s death….”

  • “The term ‘prose poem’: it had the force at one time of contradiction, of breaking down categories. And there may still be great value in a term impossible to define. All you have to do is read the scholars to see that it is impossible to define. Prose using all the techniques of poetry except meter, lineation, and rhyme? But there are no techniques special to poetry except meter, lineation, and rhyme. Short prose written by poets? Then their letters are prose poems. Short prose that avoids the usual discursive uses of prose? A proscription, not a definition. Writing that the authors call ‘prose poems’? Short pieces of prose organized in books like poems?”
  • Conversation About the Definition of a Prose Poem on Woodpecker Trail at Coralville Lake at the End of March, the Wind Rising:

B: The thing is it doesn’t have a definition.

B: Sure it does. A poem without lines.

B: Well, that includes prose.

B: Right.”

Of all the chapters in Hass’s book, I found this one of the more enlightening–and amusing–ones. For the purposes of today’s entry, know this: If you hate prose poems, blame Baudelaire. And if you love them? Blame Baudelaire.


“Apollo and Marsyas” by Zbigniew Herbert

herbert book

After reading Zbigniew Herbert’s small book Mr. Cogito, I was hungry for more. On the web, I found this disturbingly beautiful (and beautifully disturbing) Herbert poem about a Greek myth and wanted to share it. This translation comes from Alissa Valles in 2007. The good news? It led me to The Collected Poems. Riches lead to riches.

Apollo and Marsyas

The real duel of Apollo
with Marsyas
(absolute ear
versus immense range)
takes place in the evening
when as we already know
the judges
have awarded victory to the god

bound tight to a tree
meticulously stripped of his skin
before the howl reaches his tall ears
he reposes in the shadow of that howl

shaken by a shudder of disgust
Apollo is cleaning his instrument

only seemingly
is the voice of Marsyas
and composed of a single vowel

in reality
Marsyas relates
the inexhaustible wealth
of his body

bald mountains of liver
white ravines of aliment
rustling forests of lung
sweet hillocks of muscle
joints bile blood and shudders
the wintry wind of bone
over the salt of memory
shaken by a shudder of disgust
Apollo is cleaning his instrument

now to the chorus
is joined the backbone of Marsyas
in principle the same A
only deeper with the addition of rust

this is already beyond the endurance
of the god with nerves of artificial fibre

along a gravel path
hedged with box
the victor departs
whether out of Marsyas’ howling
there will not some day arise
a new kind
of art—let us say—concrete

at his feet
falls a petrified nightingale

he looks back
and sees
that the hair of the tree to which Marsyas was fastened
is white


Dignity for the Aging, the Sick, the Dead


My wife and I are of such an age where we are rapidly losing friends and family members who grew up in the generation before us. Likewise, we spend much time visiting members of this generation in declining health, some in assisted living, some in nursing homes, some in hospitals.

It is a sad truth of life that proud and private people have no choice but to surrender their pride and their privacy once they are in some way debilitated and in need of full-time medical attention. Sometimes the professional help is just that–professional, caring, wonderful. And other times, sadly, it’s just a job.

As my last send-off post to Zbigniew Herbert, whose Collected Poems 1956-1998 (translator Alissa Valles) I finished today, I’ll share a tender poem he wrote on just that subject. It is called “Shame,” and in it, Herbert links his love for the ancient Greeks (Antigone) with the basic humanity and respect for the body she symbolizes:



When I was very ill shame abandoned me
willingly I bared for alien hands surrendered to alien eyes
the poor mystery of my body

They invaded me brutally increasing the humiliation

My professor of forensic medicine the old Mancewicz
fishing a suicide’s remains from a pool of formaldehyde
bent over him as if he wished to ask him for his pardon
then with a deft movement he opened the proud thorax
the basilica of the breath fell silent

delicately almost tenderly

So–faithful to the dead respectful of ash–I understand
the wrath of the Greek princess her stubborn resistance
she was right–a brother deserved a dignified burial

a shroud of earth carefully drawn
over the eyes


What We Can Learn from Mr. Cogito


Steering clear of translated poetry is more common than running off the road to avoid poetry written in your native tongue. Poetry, after all, is the genre most vulnerable to missteps in diction. It is disproportionately left to pay literature’s heavy syntax.

Still, as a writer or reader of poetry, you must resist the urge to resist. You can see through translations’ glass darkly. Sometimes you can even see the lightning.

Having just finished John and Bogdana Carpenter’s 1993 translation of Zbigniew Herbert’s collection, Mr. Cogito, I can attest to the merits of perseverance. Herbert’s poetry, in this case a Polish train placed on English tracks, is playful, inventive, and gratifying. He’s a master of short lines, one-line stanzas, and zig-zagging line lengths (who, after all, says they all have to be uniform?).

Most delightful, he dispenses with punctuation and pulls it off. It’s a little more work for the reader, but the reader is equal to the task–quickly adapts, even. For example, consider the challenges in this Herbert work:

Sense of Identity

If he had a sense of identity it was probably with a stone
with sandstone not too crumbly light light-grey
which has a thousand eyes of flint
(a senseless comparison the stone sees with its skin)
if he had a feeling of profound union it was exactly with a stone

it wasn’t at all the idea of invariability the stone
was changeable lazy in the sunshine brightened like the moon
at the approach of a storm it became dark slate like a cloud
then greedily drank the rain and this wrestling with water
sweet annihilation the struggle of forces clash of elements
the loss of one’s own nature drunken stability
were both beautiful and humiliating

so at last it would become sober in the air dried by thunder
embarrassing sweat the passing mist of erotic fervours


It’s an exercise in reading, no? You need to pause in unknown places, look around for the sun or, if night, the north star. The poem demands some focus and attention, but it’s worth it, even if for one phrase: “…it would become sober in the air dried by thunder”

Yes. Worth the price of admission, that. And the exercise in imagination. I like to read poems that put me off balance now and again. Herbert is just the ticket for that. After all, balance is bad when there’s too much of it. Just like everything else. Including conventions of writing, thank you.