Poetry Friday: Zbigniew Herbert knows just what to say

h1 November 30th, 2007 by eisha

“Uncover” by Nicole Dextras - click on photo to see her websiteI may have mentioned it before, but I’m on the Young Adult Fiction Nominating Committee for this year’s Cybils. And let me tell you, with 123 nominated books, it’s becoming quite the challenge trying cram as much reading into my day as possible. As I tear through novel after novel, I’m starting to notice how often the same metaphors and imagery get used over and over. It makes me that much more appreciative when I come across a truly original turn of phrase – a unique combination of words that really captures the emotion or aesthetic that the author is trying to convey. So I sympathize with Zbigniew Herbert in his quest for the perfect word.

Here’s a bit of his poem, “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

Click here to read the rest. Maybe he didn’t find that one perfect inimitable word, but see if you don’t think ol’ Zbigniew did a pretty good job of putting thought to paper, after all.

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12 comments to “Poetry Friday: Zbigniew Herbert knows just what to say”

  1. Wow. Thanks — this guy truly blows me away.


  2. Okay, I know I say this too much, but HCIHLTL—How could I have lived this long?–and not have found this poem? I will atone for that by printing it out and studying it this week. Thank you!


  3. Wow, eisha. How’d you find this/him? So great. If you just stumbled upon him at the Poetry Foundation site, I bet that was a great moment. If you have an anthology of his or some such thing, please share the title, ’cause that is one great poem. I love this:

    “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”

    This poem is great on many levels, but it’s particularly fascinating to me, as I often feel sympathy for authors struggling to write or revise or what-have-you, this notion of all the texts that have come before them and how hard it must be to sound original. You know? I mean, the world is never going to simply run dry of ideas, but I would think it must be a challenge, writing in 2007 with all the literature and poems that came before 2007 and all the ideas already taken….In other words, was writing before Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson and all the great minds of literature a little bit easier, really? Imagine the writing of the first novel considered dystopian or the making of the first silent film.

    Every time I read a novel or poem or idea that is striking in one way or another, I think, that can never be done again. I guess my left brain sees it in a half-glass-empty way, but if I had a throbbing, creative right brain and were a writer, I’d see it a bit more half-glass-full.

    I’m rambling and not saying this very eloquently. And on that note anyway, my youngest is literally crying over spilt milk, so I’m off.


  4. Sara and TadMack, glad you liked it too.

    Jules, I’m almost embarrassed about it, but yeah, I went to the Poetry Foundation website to look for a particular poem, but I saw the name “Zbigniew” and got sidetracked. I just liked his name. And then the couple of poems I read blew me away.

    I think you’re quite eloquent, J. I totally get what you’re saying. I think it must be hell to come up with original ways to say things. I think it must be the same for visual artists, too, and especially hard for musicians. How do you create a truly original song? When there are sooooo many songs already out there? How do you know that the song you think you just wrote isn’t a total ripoff of something you heard when you were six and has been in the back of your head ever since? I heard a musician quoted as saying that the Beatles had written 90% of all the possible rock songs. Which is certainly a gross exaggeration, but kind of speaks to what I’m saying. How do you write songs in a world that already had the Beatles? How do you write novels in a world that already had Dickens and Faulkner and Harper Lee?

    So yeah, I get the glass-half-empty sentiment.


  5. Eisha,

    Great Poetry Friday selection! Love Herbert’s poem. It was interesting to read his biography at the Poetry Foundation’s website. I’m also a huge fan of Wislawa Szymborska’s poetry. She’s another poet from Poland. I sometimes wonder if people who grew up/lived under repressive regimes for years write poetry with more soul.

    I also look for unique metaphors, similes, imagery, turns of phrase in children’s poetry. I love the work of Valerie Worth, Lilian Moore, and Barbara Juster Esbensen. They were so creative with language.


  6. Eisha, yeah, the song thing really boggles my mind. I am particularly impressed when anyone can come up with a good melody. How does one do that? My brain simply is not capable. And, if it were to, I would do like you said and probably think, oh I’m sure someone else has already done this somewhere.

    So, yes, when someone does write a great novel or song, I guess it’s all the more impressive — in a world, that is, that already has the Beatles and Tennessee Williams and Ray Bradbury.

    This would be why my response to the Pivot what-profession-would-you-NOT-like-to-do question when we interviewed ourselves was “author.” Like Phyllis Root said in her interview about novel writers, “how can anyone think of all those words”? It amazes me when it’s done well.

    Thanks for not thinking what I said was stupid. It’s something I think about a lot. When a good new piece of art comes out (poem, song, painting, play, movie, novel, whatever), particularly if it’s strikingly original, it’s like I check that off in a list in my head and feel sorry for book and music and art creators everywhere, ’cause if they try something similar next, they’ll likely get labelled unoriginal. I know there are brilliant people who work all around that, but it gets me thinking about First Times: Can you imagine writing the first Southern fiction novel (which ever that one is considered to be)? Seeing “The Wizard of Oz” in 1939 on the Technicolor screen? Marlowe writing The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus and seeing it performed for the first time in, what, the late 1500s?

    Elaine, I love Lilian Moore. I was reading Jane Yolen’s and Andrew Fusek Peters’ great anthology from this year to my girls again the other day, and I was reminded how much I love Moore’s “I’m Small,” and it made me want to get this again from the library (I just noticed that Publishers Weekly calls this an “uneven collection” of poetry. Oh my. I thought it was an exceptionally good anthology).


  7. Eisha,
    Thanks so much for this poem (it had me in tears). As a writer, I feel like this every day. I know what I want to say, but to find the right words? Like Herbert said, “I would trade all the mephors for one word . . .”

    Jules: I totally get what you’re saying, and you said it beautifully. But that is the miracle of the human mind, to find that original turn of phrase, that unique image, that unforeseen slant. It’s extremely daunting to even attempt something, knowing all that has come before. But writers live on hope, and are driven by the need to express what is in their hearts.


  8. Then there’s the new that only has new going for it. Shock value and all that.

    What I think is that all creative work is part of an ongoing conversation, and even new work is rooted in that conversation. The new rejects the current mode of discussion, or it turns it backwards, or it takes the talk out in a whole new direction. But it (never, IMHO) springs out of itself. So it’s not a matter of an artist wanting/needing/hoping to make something new; it’s a matter of the artist passionately wanting to RESPOND in a different way.

    The Latin root of “respond” is interesting: it means “to promise back.” In that sense, it’s a wonderful thing that the world is already filled with great art and music and writing, not to mention nature and fantastic acts of love and bravery, or there would be nothing worthy to promise something back to.

    I do see what you’re getting at, though, Jules, and you are right. Firsts are important, but personally I like seeing what all the other artists do AFTER someone shouts: Hey, let’s go this way now!


  9. That is beautifully put, Jama and Sara.


  10. Yeah, right on.


  11. [...] Eisha: Shares part of a poem entitled “I’d like to describe.” [...]


  12. Oh my. I’m so glad I finally had time to sit down and read yesterday’s posts, and I may now take a break, if only to ponder this one for a while in silence – it’s so lovely. Dragging a dusty lion and all . . .


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