Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


Bilal Tanweer is a writer and translator. He was recently named an Honorary Fellow of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

How to describe the poetry of the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, who Seamus Heaney described as “a poet of exemplary ethical and artistic integrity in world literature in the 20th and 21st century… a poet whose work fulfills the classical expectation that great literature will delight and instruct,” and who Robert Hass referred to as “one of the most influential European poets of the last half-century, and perhaps — even more than his [Nobel Prize winning] contemporaries Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska — the defining Polish poet of the post-war years,” and about whom Stephen Dobyns wrote in the New York Times claiming: “In a just world Mr Herbert would have received the Nobel Prize long ago”?

I first encountered Zbigniew Herbert in a volume called Mr. Cogito and I experienced that rare exhilaration of encountering something wise and beautiful that was nothing like I had read before. It was a poetic voice that was distant and detached and contemplative and humorous and deeply serious and yet playful all at the same time. It spoke in a sparse and precise language and moved delightfully between thought and image. By the time I went through the collection, the marginalia of my copy were all exclamatory points and Wow’s of varying lengths and slants. Many of these poems have since become my ports of refuge, and one The Envoy of Mr. Cogito has grown into a personal anthem. However, on that first reading I dwelled longest on a much simpler poem where Herbert leads a kind of existential meditation stamped with his trademark humour:

Mr. Cogito Meditates on Suffering

All attempts to remove

the so-called cup of bitterness —

by reflection

frenzied actions on behalf of homeless cats

deep breathing

religion —


one must consent

gently bend the head

not wring the hands

make use of the suffering gently moderately

like an artificial limb

without false shame

but also without unnecessary pride

do not brandish the stump

over the heads of others

don’t knock with the white cane

against the windows of the well-fed

drink the essence of bitter herbs

but not to the dregs

leave carefully

a few sips for the future


but simultaneously

isolate within yourself

and if it is possible

create from the matter of suffering

a thing or a person


with it

of course


entertain it

very cautiously

like a sick child

forcing at last

with silly tricks

a faint


(Translated from the Polish by John and Bogdana Carpenter)

Instead of confessing to suffering or fretting about its causes, the meditation concerns itself with its gentle prescription: to accept the suffering without resigning oneself to it; to respect it without making a spectacle of it; isolate it, and engage with it with humour and play, and arrive at a place of forbearance and quietude.

Reading Herbert’s work for the first time felt like stepping into a new kind of earthly wisdom. Here was a very benevolent use of irony: to draw strength in hard times while at the same time not being delusional about the bleakness of the world. Here was a stoic courage: to battle a monstrous world without becoming a monster oneself, to always fight to see clearly, humanely instead of choosing

between the convenient ideological blinders. Here was an astonishingly brutal honesty: “Go where those others went to the dark boundary/ for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize”. However:

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

It is well worth remembering that Herbert lived through a dramatically oppressive time. He was born in 1924 in Lvov, Poland (now in Ukraine, Lviv) and was 15 when his hometown was annexed by the Soviet Union, an occupation that was followed by the Nazi takeover in 1941. When the Nazis were eventually defeated in World War II, his hometown was seized again by the Soviet Union.

Even though Herbert started writing poetry as a student in the 1940s, he was unable to publish any of his works due to censorship until 1956 — “a period of fasting,” he described later. His struggles living and writing in two totalitarian regimes were fundamental to shaping the concerns and subjects in his poetry.

Herbert’s poems are all hard at work to free themselves from being weighed down by the world. According to Robert Hass, Herbert is “an ironist and a minimalist who writes as if it were the task of the poet, in a world full of loud lies, to say what is irreducibly true in a level voice.” His poems relentlessly search and strategise for the survival of what is most gentle in us without making any false promises about life or the future of the world. They consider the pitfalls of language, fight battles of the conscience, discuss virtue, suffering, Hell, magic, upright attitudes, report on the temptations of Spinoza — but they do it in a manner that is always unaffected, unsentimental, humourous,  categorically against despair but always wary of false hope.

Perhaps the best description of Herbert’s poetry is found in his own writing, albeit in his description of his aims in studying philosophy. In a letter to his mentor, the sage and independent philosopher, Henryk Elzenberg, dated November 2, 1951, Zbigniew Herbert said of philosophy — Herbert began as a student of philosophy, economics and art history — what could wonderfully describe his poetry: “What I really look for in philosophy… I look for emotion. Powerful intellectual emotion, painful tensions between reality and abstraction, yet another rending, yet another, deeper than personal, cause for sorrow… I prefer to live through philosophy to brooding on it like hen. I would rather it be a fruitless struggle, a personal cause, something going against the order of life, than a profession.”

Actually, it is no surprise that the best description of Herbert’s poems comes from his expectations of philosophy. The search in his poems is fundamentally philosophical: he is a poet who distrusts poetry; who is painfully aware of how language gets corrupted with ideology, and all his poems are attempts to arrive at clarity — even if it is ultimately only “an uncertain clarity”. He wants simple and crude truth that’s washed off the smoke and haze of propaganda and neat symmetries of ideological thinking. He’s suspicious of romanticism and loftiness of metaphor. He wants to describe the world without ‘the artificial fires of poetry’. In Herbert’s world, truth exists in simple objects. A pebble was a pebble is a pebble been a pebble:


The pebble

is a perfect creature

equal to itself

mindful of its limits

filled exactly

with a pebbly meaning

with a scent which does not remind one of anything

does not frighten anything away

does not arouse desire

its ardor 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 from the Polish by Peter Dale Scott and Czeslaw Milosz)

This philosophical quality also explains Mr. Cogito, the principal character in his work, the filter and conduit of his meditations. The character is a clear borrowing from Descartes, whose cogito ergo sum defined the epistemological search for certainty, a base that could serve as the foundation of reliable knowledge, for something that persists. But Herbert’s Mr. Cogito is a clumsy character, an ordinary, even less than ordinary person, who is nonetheless sharp and clear-eyed and is trying to be honest about his experience in the world.

Herbert’s search for clarity is so rigorous that he is even wary of imagination — that prized gift of the Romantics, what they held to be our Divine instrument. In a 1986 interview, Herbert remarks, “In the sphere projected by our imagination, we are always thinking that we are without limits, that our possibilities are inexhaustible, but the body is here… The body is wise.” So one should trust the body then, asks the interviewer, Renata Gorczynski. “Not permit it too much, not allow it everything, but at the same time listen to it.”

I Would Like To Describe

I would like to describe the simplest emotion

joy or sadness

but not as others do

reaching for shafts of rain or sun

I would like to describe a light

which is being born in me

but I know it does not resemble

any star

for it is not so bright

not so pure

and is uncertain

I would like to describe courage

without dragging behind me a dusty lion

and also anxiety

without shaking a glass full of water

to put it another way

I would give all metaphors

in return for one word

drawn out of my breast like a rib

for one word

contained within the boundaries

of my skin

but apparently this is not possible

and just to say — I love

I run around like mad

picking up handfuls of birds

and my tenderness

which after all is not made of water

asks the water for a face

and anger

different from fire

borrows from it

a loquacious tongue

so is blurred

so is blurred

in me

what white-haired gentlemen

separated once and for all

and said

this is the subject

and this is the object

we fall asleep

with one hand under our head

and with the other in a mound of planets

our feet abandon us

and taste the earth

with their tiny roots

which next morning

we tear out painfully

(Translated from the Polish by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott)

For a poet whose most formidable quality is his deeply cultivated negative capability, evil inevitably arises from a simplification of the world. His morality too stems from a clear view of the world, out of empathy and an appreciation of the messiness and variedness of human experience. Most of Herbert’s villains are dictators, autocrats, despots; but they are not the crazy mad bastards like we are accustomed to imagine them; instead, they are thinkers and scholars with views of history and human nature; they are revolutionaries attempting to fix humanity’s maladies with ready formulas and they consider other men’s blood as fair price for their causes, who inevitably derive their power from false hope.

Herbert has been well-known through the English speaking world for many years. He was blessed with a team of two fine translators, John and Bogdana Carpenter, who translated most of his early work and championed it for many years. But for some bizarre reason, their original translations are all out of print now and the new translations by Alissa Valles in Zbigniew Herbert: Collected Poems — 1956-1998 published by Ecco Press in a beautifully produced edition lack the lucid precision of the Bogdana translations. But even in not so great translations, they do manage to convey the gravity of his poetry — enough, at all events, to make the reader in English understand why Herbert is so firmly placed in the pantheon of the great poets of the twentieth century, and why his is the kind of poetry that makes for the strongest argument for literature: that without it, how would we ever know such essential truths about living in a world that constantly militates against us seeing, against us feeling, against understanding.

Zbigniew Herbert

Mr. Cogito and the Imagination


Mr. Cogito never trusted

tricks of the imagination

the piano at the top of the Alps

played false concerts for him

he didn’t appreciate labyrinths

the Sphinx filled him with loathing

he lived in a house with no basement

without mirrors or dialectics

jungles of tangled images

were not his home

he would rarely soar

on the wings of a metaphor

and then he fell like Icarus

into the embrace of the Great Mother

he adored tautologies


idem per idem

that a bird is a bird

slavery means slavery

a knife is a knife

death remains death

he loved

the flat horizon

a straight line

the gravity of the earth


Mr. Cogito will be numbered

among the species minores

he will accept indifferently the verdict

of future scholars of the letter

he used the imagination

for entirely different purposes

he wanted to make it

an instrument of compassion

he wanted to understand to the very end

—Pascal’s night

—the nature of a diamond

—the melancholy of the prophets

—Achilles’ wrath

—the madness of those who kill

—the dreams of Mary Stuart

—Neanderthal fear

—the despair of the last Aztecs

—Nietzsche’s long death throes

—the joy of the painter of Lascaux

—the rise and fall of an oak

—the rise and fall of Rome

and so to bring the dead back to life

to preserve the covenant

Mr. Cogito’s imagination

has the motion of a pendulum

it crosses with precision

from suffering to suffering

there is no place in it

for the artificial fires of poetry

he would like to remain

faithful to uncertain clarity

(Translated from the Polish by John and Bogdana Carpenter)