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The Knocker

March 27, 2017

There are those who grow
gardens in their heads
paths lead from their hair
to sunny and white cities

it’s easy for them to write
they close their eyes
immediately schools of images
stream down from their foreheads

my imagination
is a piece of board
my sole instrument
is a wooden stick

I strike the board
it answers me
yes—yes
no—no

for others the green bell of a tree
the blue bell of water
I have a knocker
from unprotected gardens

I thump on the board
and it prompts me
with the moralist’s dry poem
yes—yes
no—no

Zbigniew Herbert 1963, Tr Peter Dale Scott

COMMENTARY: Living half of his life in a Polish state that was first destroyed by Nazi Germany and then subjugated by the Soviet Union, Zbigniew Herbert’s conceptions of art were, of necessity, confronted by the brutal reality of politics. Politics, at that time and place, meant morality that, whether fascist or communist, knocked a heavy handed “yes-yes” or “no-no.” The thumping of a moralist dogma, rigid black-&-white polarity, is the opposite of the dreamy romance of “those who grow gardens in their head.” Interestingly Herbert does not count himself as a writer of the easy (facile?) poems of the freewheeling “schools of images.” Though the poem sparkles with vividness (the green bell of a tree/ the blue bell of water), Herbert claims that he is writing the dry poem of the moralist. Such a contradiction is both Herbert’s way of creating thematic tension (by having the poem perform the very thing it denies) and, relatedly, making the poem say yes-no–in ambiguity that belies moralism.

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