Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Zbigniew Herbert


From Zbiegniew Herbert stems this phrase ‘birth of the earth’. He describes in his book with the descriptive title ‘A Barbarian comes into the Garden’, the experience anyone can make when taking a boat from Pireaeus and heading out into the Aegean Sea. For when passing a small island, in reality more a rock formation emerging out of the water like a whale, this view reminds him of how the earth was born.

As an ‘intellectual experiences’ it does touch upon that source of philosophy: the wonder about the world. It is an experience and not an explanation. Only then can the questions begin to articulate the problem man has with his knowledge of the world.

Zbiegniew Herbert was first lawyer, then poet. He went often to a special monastery for the blind to write. His humor was tremendous and so his political position. He did not play games nor got involved in any of the political gambits as did so many other compatriots. Consequently when Marshall Law was declared by Jaruselski in Poland to quash Solidarnosc, he was one of the few well known intellectuals not identified as belonging to ‘la crème extreme’ and therefore was not arrested. Due to his judicial background he attended many trials thereafter as observer to ensure a minimum of fairness in the trial. In that sense he fulfilled a bit the role of an ‘imaginary witness’ as conceived by Adorno as the figure to pass on the truth to the next generations.

Zbiegniew Herbert was still another kind of observer. This became noticable when he remembers what he saw through the eyes of Kazimierz Moczarski who had written this incredible book called 'Dialogue with the henchman', the latter being Jürgen Stroop. Since Moczarski was not treated justly by the Polish authorities, to say the least, again Zbiegniew Herbert steps in thanks to his impartiality and remembers.

What I saw(1956)

To the memory of Kazimierz Moczarski

I saw prophets tearing at their pasted-on beards

I saw imposters joining sects of flagellants

butchers disguised in sheepskin

who fled the anger of the people

playing on a block-flute I saw I saw

I saw a man who had been tortured

he now sat safely in the family circle

cracked jokes ate soup

I looked at the opened mouth

his gums - two bramble twigs stripped of bark

I saw his whole nakedness

the whole humiliation


a solemn meeting

many people flowers


someone spoke incessantly about deviations

I thought of his deviated mouth is this the last act

of the play by Anonymous

flat as a shroud

full of suppressed sobbing

and the snickering of those

who heave a sigh of relief

that again it has worked out

and after clearing away the dead props


raise the blood-drenched curtain

Zbiegniew Herbert


When Mariusz Lukasik had his first exhibition at the Kwarz Gallery, organized by artists, on Grollmannstreet in Charlottenburg, Berlin, Zbiegniew Herbert walked in and took up immediately a conversation about the unusual etchings since they depicted an explosion of light in darkness. Mariusz Lukasik had grown up in the poor district of Warszawa called Praga. The etchings were like Rembrandt’s stark in contrast between darkness and light with the latter falling sparsely into a cellar where a man was sitting to repair his bicycle. Such art works, whether etchings or poems, reflect an affinity to an attire of mankind known more by what blind people see.

As was mentioned above, Zbiegniew Herbert went to a monastery of the blind to write his poems; Mariusz Lukasik was nearly blind as a youth. Both artists have in their works this visionary going beyond the plainness of just seeing and describing what one sees. Although Picasso also said he paints what he see when still a child, or Otto Dix to Philippine Herring maintaining this principle of honesty in their art works, it is still another dimension to develop a vision out of blindness. As if the reverse to a full explosion of light to be imagined like a nuclear holocaust, darkness encompasses this double meaning of light fading out completely while still on the horizon there hovers a slim streak of evanescing light.

Source of photo: http://Cit.uvm.edu/real/gutman/herbert

Zbiegniew Herbert perceives the classics as a learning ground to see again. In that vision many things follow if not the curvatures of the earth, then the destiny of mankind with all tragic flaws as taught over centuries by Ancient Greek Classics. If anything motivates man to seek avoidance of his or her tragedy, then the tragic flaws making man and woman human rather than Gods are challenges not to seek the ideal, but to work out within the incomplete and imperfect something resembling not a classical ideal, but more a livable life. For if only the ‘stiff tongue’ could be unfastened, the lock keeping closed the doors to the imagination be opened, the feet able to run were before it was but a limp, then poems could soar like birds into the azure sky. That is not just hope but an intense longing for the original viewpoints touched by the certainty of the senses not separated from those intellectual experiences making it possible for wonder to give birth to open questions.

A trace of that can be found in his poem about ‘Nike’ – victory – hesitating. Michel Foucault would pick up this hesitation and transform it into an even stronger message insofar as he said ‘we speak only then with the other when we have no victory necessary’.

In one sense a poet is that much closer to stumbling over words, due to a stiff tongue, especially when words are not that perfect or as shiny as pebbles polished over centuries by water. Still, the poet uses these words since he is capable of conveying man’s emotions when stepping for the first time into the all encompassing light and there confronts darkness as being its own lack of light.

It can be compared to the door opening slowly so that the person can step out into the full light. Plato describes that in his cave analogy which reaccounts when a man sees light for the first time. It is a reality so beautiful that it is blinding, especially if not shared with others. Out of that resonates the crucial question, why did the Enlightenment fail, if not depending too much on just ‘light’? One conceives the Enlightenment as depending for illumination solely upon reason and not on the way we allow our senses to speak. That has been the negation by philosophy insofar as Hegel said neither the senses or poetry can be sources of truth. For mankind that is to suppose when the smell is there and the sound of wood cracking in the fire, that it cannot give an idea as to how future plans can be shaped when venturing forth in this world. Rather it should be left alone to the conceptual level. Zbiegniew Herbert as former lawyer turned poet would know about this dilemma and simple negation of the senses.

Nike when she hesitates

by Zbigniew Herbert

Most beautiful is Nike
when she hesitates
the right hand leaned against the air
wonderful like a command
but the wings quiver

She sees
The lonely youth
Follow the elongated track
Of the wagon of war
That grey path in a grey landscape
Shaped by rocks and bare shrubs

Soon the youth shall die
Already the scale of his fate

Nike has tremendous desire
To approach him
and to kiss him on his forehead

but she is afraid
that he

who has never tasted the sweetness of careness
upon getting to know her
could flee like all others
during battle

therefore Nike hesitates
and decides nevertheless
to remain in that posture
which the sculpturers have taught her
ashamed by this moment of compassion

she knows
that one will find in the grey of tomorrow morning
the youth
with open breast
closed eyelids
and with the rough obolos of fatherland
underneath the stiff tongue.

Translated by Hatto Fischer



These poems, and others by Herbert, are found at http://redfrog.norconnect.no/~poems/poets/herbert.html
which is managed by the Polish Academic Information Center at the State University of New York, Buffalo.



by Zbigniew Herbert

The pebble
is a perfect creature
equal to itself
mindful of its limits
filled exactly
with a pebbly meaning
with a scent that does not remind one of anything
does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire
its ardour and coldness
are just and full of dignity
I feel a heavy remorse
when I hold it in my hand
and its noble body
is permeated by false warmth
- Pebbles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye

Translated by Peter Dale Scott and Czeslaw Milosz


Why the Classics

by Zbigniew Herbert
in the fourth book of the Peloponnesian War
Thucydides tells among other things
the story of his unsuccessful expedition
among long speeches of chiefs
battles sieges plague
dense net of intrigues of diplomatic endeavours
the episode is like a pin
in a forest
the Greek colony Amphipolis
fell into the hands of Brasidos
because Thucydides was late with relief
for this he paid his native city
with lifelong exile
exiles of all times
know what price that is
generals of the most recent wars
if a similar affair happens to them
whine on their knees before posterity
praise their heroism and innocence
they accuse their subordinates
envious collegues
unfavourable winds
Thucydides says only
that he had seven ships
it was winter
and he sailed quickly
if art for its subject
will have a broken jar
a small broken soul
with a great self-pity
what will remain after us
will it be lovers' weeping
in a small dirty hotel
when wall-paper dawns

Translated by Peter Dale Scott and Czeslaw Milosz


The Envoy of Mr Cogito

by Zbigniew Herbert

Go where those others went to the dark boundary
for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize
go upright among those who are on their knees
among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust
you were saved not in order to live
you have little time you must give testimony
be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important
and let your helpless Anger be like the sea
whenever your hear the voice of the insulted and beaten
let you sister Scorn not leave you
for the informers executioners cowards - they will win
they will go to your funeral with relief will throw a lump of earth
the woodborer will write your smoothed-over biography
and do not forgive truly it is not in your power
to forgive in the name of those betrayed at dawn
beware however of unnecessary pride
keep looking at your clown's face in the mirror
repeat: I was called - weren't there better ones than I
beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring
the bird with an unknown name the winter oak
light on a wall the splendour of the sky
they don't need your warm breath
they are there to say: no one will console you
be vigilant - when the light on the mountains gives the sign- arise and
as long as blood turns in the breast your dark star
repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends
because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain
repeat great words repeat them stubbornly
like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand
and they will reward you with what they have at hand
with the whip of laughter with murder on a garbage heap
go because only in this way you will be admitted to the company of cold
to the company of your ancestors: Gilgamesh Hector Roland
the defenders of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes
Be faithful Go

translated by John Carpenter & Bogdana Carpenter



Gleichnis vom König Midas

von Zbigniew Herbert


Endlich schlafen die goldenen hirsche

auf ihren waldwiesen ruhig

die gemsböcke auch

den kopf auf dem stein


die auerochsen einhörner eichkatzen

jegliches wild überhaupt

die raubtiere wie die zahmen

auch sämtliche vögel


König Midas pirscht nicht


er beschloß

Silen zu fangen


drei tage jagte er ihn

bis er ihn fing

dann schlug er Silen der faust

zwischen die augen und fragte:

- was ist für den menschen das beste


Silen meinte wiehernd:

- ein nichts zu sein

- zu sterben

König Midas kehrt in seinen Palast zurück

aber es mundet ihn nicht das herz des klugen Silen

das in wein gedämpfte


er geht umher er zupft seinen bart

und fragt die alten leute

- wie viele tage die ameise lebt

- warm der hund vor dem tode heult

- wie hoch ein berg wäre

errichtet aus knochen aller

früherer tiere und menschen

dann lässt er den mann zu sich kommen

der auf den roten vasen

mit schwarzer wachtelfeder

hochzeitenzüge und wettkämpfe malt

und der von Midas befragt

weshalb er das leben der schatten verewige


- weil der hals eines galopierenden pferdes

schön ist

und weil die kleider der mädchen beim ballspiel

wie bäche lebendig sind und unwiederholbar


lass mich niedersetzen bei dir

bittet der vasenmaler

laß uns von den menschen sprechen

die mit tödlichem ernst

der erde ein korn überlassen

und zehn dafür ernten

die die sandalen flicken und die republik

die sterne und die oboli zählen

gedichte schreiben und tief sich beugen

um aus dem sand das verlorne kleeblatt zu bergen


laß uns ein wenig trinken

ein wenig philosophieren

vielleicht werden dann

wir beide

die wir aus blut und täuschung gemacht sind

uns endlich befreien

von der drückenden leichtigkeit des schweins


Aus: Zbigniew Herbert, Griechisches Tagebuch


Whenever we visited Zbiegniew Herbert in Warszawa during martial law (1981 - 85), we would phone him first at 0048 22 41 26 77, and then upon being invited to come over, we went to Promenande 21m, 00 778 Warszawa.

Hatto Fischer

up-dated 31.7.2013

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