Ernst Herbeck’s Gazelles

I learned about the schizophrenic Austrian poet Ernst Herbeck from W. G. Sebald's essay collection Campo Santo, then discovered that Gary Sullivan maintains a blog devoted to translating Herbeck.

Herbeck spent forty years in a mental hospital in lower Austria. The story goes that his psychologist, the writer Leo Navratil, would give him a blank postcard, a pen, and a title/topic, and Herbeck would proceed to write a poem, which he never subsequently revised. Here is Herbeck's poem “Poetry,” in Gary Sullivan's translation, courtesy of Fascicle:

"Poetry is an oral form of making history in slow motion. Poetry is a literary work. The teacher taught us in school that poetry is sealed. Poetry hates reality more difficult than itself. The poem is a transference of authority to the reader. The reader picks up the poem & that's history in the trees. Poetry teaches you from the animal out, to find it in the wild. How gazelles are reputable historiographers."

Sebald's essay in Campo Santo, translated by Anthea Bell, includes a partial rendering of the same poem:

"Poetry is an oral way of shaping history in slow motion... Poetry is also antipathetic to reality, and weighs more heavily. Poetry transfers authority to the pupil. The pupil learns poetry; and that is the history in the book. We learn poetry from the animal in the woods. Gazelles are famous historians."

One thing this seems to show is that you can be pretty crazy and still understand what poetry is.

It's also striking how different these two translations are. Are gazelles famous historians or reputable historiographers? Here is Gary Sullivan reading Herbeck translations on Youtube. The Notwist was also impacted by Herbeck.

5 thoughts on “Ernst Herbeck’s Gazelles”

  1. I wonder how much of the appeal of Herbeck lies in the fact of his seemingly not having tried to market his work at all, or even thought about marketing. So often when I read, I feel like I have to discard level after level of marketing — burrowing through styrofoam — in order to get to the actual substance/ literary part. Herbeck is the real thing, sans styrofoam. But perhaps nowadays you would have to live your life in a mental institution never to have to think about marketing?

  2. That poem is beautiful! I don't get the gazelle part, though . . . Any theories?

  3. Would you be excited about Herbeck if he lived in a mental institution in Fresno or Bognor Regis?

  4. Good questions. Perhaps gazelles are famous historians because they flee from predators, and the successful ones live to remember the carnage. If the Emperor Domitian was a leopard, Tacitus was a gazelle. Makes sense to me. But was Herbeck in fact thinking along such lines?

    A mental institution in lower Austria sounds grim. I am reminded of a joke P.G. Wodehouse made about the train journey taking him to an internment camp in Germany during World War Two — "There is a flat dullness about the countryside which has led many a visitor to say, 'If this is Upper Silesia, what must Lower Silesia be like?'"

    Certainly the world must contain potential Ernst Herbecks who never found their Leo Navratil — I would think quite a few more of them than there are Franz Kafkas who never found their Max Brod.

    I'm suddenly realizing my comment about styrofoam might have been influenced by Brian Christian's essay in Agni #69, "High Compression: Information, Intimacy, and the Entropy of Life," an essay that draws some of its power from Christian's own conflictedness uabout whether literature does in fact contain too much of what I previously called styrofoam —

    Brian Christian — "'Wrap rage describes the frustration we humans feel when trying to free a product from a nearly impenetrable package,' Jeff Bezos, CEO of says in an announcement about how Amazon is working with manufacturers to reduce packaging and make things easier to open. Sure, but what about the literature itself — I get wrap rage doing the reading…"

    For others, of course, the unwrapping can be a highly pleasurable component of the overall experience…

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