the real duel (dual)

10:55 AM Posted by James Owens

Zbigniew Herbert

Every great poem lives between two worlds. One of these is the real, tangible world of history, private for some and public for others. The other world is a dense layer of dreams, imaginations, fantasms. It sometimes happens--as for example in the case of W.B. Yeats--that this second world takes on gigantic proportions, that it becomes inhabited by numerous spirits, that is is haunted by Leo Africanus and other ancient magi.

These two territories conduct complex negotiations, the result of which are poems. Poets strive for the first world, the real one, conscientiously trying to reach it, to reach the place where the minds of many people meet; but their efforts are hindered by the second world, just as the dreams and hallucinations of certain sick people prevent them from understanding and experiencing events in their waking hours. Except that in great poets these hallucinations are rather a symptom of mental health, since the world is by nature dual, and poets pay tribute with their own duality to the true structure of reality, which is composed of day and night, sober intelligence and fleeting fantasies, desire and gratification.

(Adam Zagajewski, from his "Introduction" to The Collected Poems, 1956-1998)


Zbigniew Herbert's best known poem, and a key text for anyone who wants to understand contemporary poetry from anywhere on the globe, is "Apollo and Marsyas" from the 1961 volume Study of the Object.

Read "Apollo and Marsyas" in Alissa Valles's version here.


(Alissa Valles, who has done an impressive job of translating the Collected Poems, offers insight into her thought processes about Herbert in an introductory note which is also helpful for a reading of "Apollo and Marsyas".)

In the poem "Apollo and Marsyas" the fourth stanza reads in Polish (JO: This isn't right. I can't get the diacritical marks. But it is an approximation of what the Polish text, which I can't read, says.)

tylko z pozoru
glo Marsjasza
jest monotonmy
i sklada sic z jednej samogloski

Milosz and Scott (in their Selected Poems) originally translated this as follows:

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

I chose to remove the "aa" added, restoring the simple "A" of Herbert's poem. To my sense it is crucial that though the poem is "composed" around a cry of pain, Herbert does not explicitly sound it in the poem, but points to it and portrays it in a series of metamorphoses--a landscape, a choir, a petrified nightingale. To translate it into a cry is to remove animating ambiguities in the poem. Who perceives the sound, and as what? What, if anything, does the sound "express" or indicate? Who is it that describes the body's landscape in the poem's indented section--is this Apollo's aestheticized reading of Marsyas's pain, or is the poet showing us a mortal beauty hidden from the god because he is immortal? What is the nature of this "real duel" between god and silene--and what would constitute victory?