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.