POETRY DISPATCH No. 363 | February 8, 2012
1923 – 2012
POETRY DISPATCH No. 363 | February 8, 2012
Poetry Dispatch No. 125 | November 20, 2006
LOVE POETRY WEEK, Monday, No.2
“I liken love to a great house, a mansion that once you go in, the big door shuts behind you and you have no idea, no premonition where it will all lead to. Chambers, vaults, confounded mazes, ladders, scaffolding, into darkness, out of darkness—anything.” Edna O’Brien from JOHNNY I HARDLY KNEW YOU
DRINKING WINE by Wislawa Szymborska translated by Grazýna Drabik and Sharon Olds
He looked, and gave me beauty,
and I took it as if mine.
Happy, I swallowed a star.
I allowed myself to be
invented in the likeness
of the reflection in his eyes.
I am dancing, dancing
in the flutter of sudden wings.
A table is a table,
wine is wine in a glass
that is just a glass and stands
standing on a table. While
I am imaginary
to the point of no belief,
to the point of blood.
I am telling him
what he wants to hear: ants
dying of love under
the constellation of the dandelion.
I swear that a white rose,
sprinkled with wine, sings.
I am laughing, tilting
my head carefully
as if checking an invention.
I am dancing, dancing
in astonished skin, in
an embrace that creates me.
Eve from a rib, Venus from sea-foam,
Minerva from Jove’s head —
all were more real than I.
When he stops looking at me
I search for my reflection
on a wall. And I see only
a nail from which a picture
has been removed.
from Calyx, Special International Issue, 1980
Poetry Dispatch No. 113 | October 24, 2006
How To (and How Not To) Write Poetry
Advice for blocked writers and aspiring poets from a Nobel Prize winner’s newspaper column. by Wislawa Szymborska
The following are selections from columns originally published in the Polish newspaper Literary Life. In these columns, famed poet Wislawa Szymborska answered letters from ordinary people who wanted to write poetry. Translated by Clare Cavanagh, they appeared in slightly different form in our Journals section earlier this year.
To Heliodor from Przemysl: “You write, ‘I know my poems have many faults, but so what, I’m not going to stop and fix them.’ And why is that, oh Heliodor? Perhaps because you hold poetry so sacred? Or maybe you consider it insignificant? Both ways of treating poetry are mistaken, and what’s worse, they free the novice poet from the necessity of working on his verses. It’s pleasant and rewarding to tell our acquaintances that the bardic spirit seized us on Friday at 2:45 p.m. and began whispering mysterious secrets in our ear with such ardor that we scarcely had time to take them down. But at home, behind closed doors, they assiduously corrected, crossed out, and revised those otherworldly utterances. Spirits are fine and dandy, but even poetry has its prosaic side.”
To H.O. from Poznan, a would-be translator: “The translator is obliged to be faithful not only to the text. He must also reveal the full beauty of the poetry while retaining its form and preserving as completely as possible the epoch’s spirit and style.”
To Grazyna from Starachowice: “Let’s take the wings off and try writing on foot, shall we?”
To Mr. G. Kr. of Warsaw: “You need a new pen. The one you’re using makes a lot of mistakes. It must be foreign.”
To Pegasus [sic] from Niepolomice: “You ask in rhyme if life makes cents [sic]. My dictionary answers in the negative.”
To Mr. K.K. from Bytom: “You treat free verse as a free-for-all. But poetry (whatever we may say) is, was, and will always be a game. And as every child knows, all games have rules. So why do the grown-ups forget?”
To Puszka from Radom: “Even boredom should be described with gusto. How many things are happening on a day when nothing happens?”
To Boleslaw L-k. of Warsaw: “Your existential pains come a trifle too easily. We’ve had enough despair and gloomy depths. ‘Deep thoughts,’ dear Thomas says (Mann, of course, who else), ‘should make us smile.’ Reading your own poem ‘Ocean,’ we found ourselves floundering in a shallow pond. You should think of your life as a remarkable adventure that’s happened to you. That is our only advice at present.”
To Marek, also of Warsaw: “We have a principle that all poems about spring are automatically disqualified. This topic no longer exists in poetry. It continues to thrive in life itself, of course. But these are two separate matters.”
To B.L. from the vicinity of Wroclaw: “The fear of straight speaking, the constant, painstaking efforts to metaphorize everything, the ceaseless need to prove you’re a poet in every line: these are the anxieties that beset every budding bard. But they are curable, if caught in time.”
To Zb. K. of Poznan: “You’ve managed to squeeze more lofty words into three short poems than most poets manage in a lifetime: ‘Fatherland,’ ‘truth,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘justice’: such words don’t come cheap. Real blood flows in them, which can’t be counterfeited with ink.”
To Michal in Nowy Targ: “Rilke warned young poets against large sweeping topics, since those are the most difficult and demand great artistic maturity. He counseled them to write about what they see around them, how they live each day, what’s been lost, what’s been found. He encouraged them to bring the things that surround us into their art, images from dreams, remembered objects. ‘If daily life seems impoverished to you,’ he wrote, ‘don’t blame life. You yourself are to blame. You’re just not enough of a poet to perceive its wealth.’ This advice may seem mundane and dim-witted to you. This is why we called to our defense one of the most esoteric poets in world literature—and just see how he praised so-called ordinary things!”
To Ula from Sopot: “A definition of poetry in one sentence—well. We know at least five hundred definitions, but none of them strikes us as both precise and capacious enough. Each expresses the taste of its own age. Inborn skepticism keeps us from trying our hand at our own. But we remember Carl Sandburg’s lovely aphorism: ‘Poetry is a diary kept by a sea creature who lives on land and wishes he could fly.’ Maybe he’ll actually make it one of these days?”
To L-k B-k of Slupsk: “We require more from a poet who compares himself to Icarus than the lengthy poem enclosed reveals. Mr. B-k, you fail to reckon with the fact that today’s Icarus rises above a different landscape than that of ancient times. He sees highways covered in cars and trucks, airports, runways, large cities, expansive modern ports, and other such realia. Might not a jet rush past his ear at times?”
To T.W., Krakow: “In school no time is spent, alas, on the aesthetic analysis of literary works. Central themes are stressed along with their historical context. Such knowledge is of course crucial, but it will not suffice for anyone wishing to become a good, independent reader, let alone for someone with creative ambitions. Our young correspondents are often shocked that their poem about rebuilding postwar Warsaw or the tragedy of Vietnam might not be good. They’re convinced that honorable intentions preempt form. But if you want to become a decent cobbler, it’s not enough to enthuse over human feet. You have to know your leather, your tools, pick the right pattern, and so forth. . . . It holds true for artistic creation too.”
To Mr. Br. K. of Laski: “Your poems in prose are permeated by the figure of the Great Poet who creates his remarkable works in a state of alcoholic euphoria. We might take a wild guess at whom you have in mind, but it’s not last names that concern us in the final analysis. Rather, it’s the misguided conviction that alcohol facilitates the act of writing, emboldens the imagination, sharpens wits, and performs many other useful functions in abetting the bardic spirit. My dear Mr. K., neither this poet, nor any of the others personally known to us, nor indeed any other poet has ever written anything great under the unadulterated influence of hard liquor. All good work arose in painstaking, painful sobriety, without any pleasant buzzing in the head. ‘I’ve always got ideas, but after vodka my head aches,’ Wyspianski said. If a poet drinks, it’s between one poem and the next. This is the stark reality. If alcohol promoted great poetry, then every third citizen of our nation would be a Horace at least. Thus we are forced to explode yet another legend. We hope that you will emerge unscathed from beneath the ruins.”
To E.L. in Warsaw: “Perhaps you could learn to love in prose.”
To Esko from Sieradz: “Youth really is an intriguing period in one’s life. If one adds writerly ambitions to the difficulties of youth, one must possess an exceptionally strong constitution in order to cope. Its components should include: persistence, diligence, wide reading, curiosity, observation, distance toward oneself, sensitivity to others, a critical mind, a sense of humor, and an abiding conviction that the world deserves a) to keep existing, and b) better luck than it’s had thus far. The efforts you’ve sent signal only the desire to write and none of the other virtues described above. You have your work cut out for you.”
To Kali of Lodz: “‘Why’ is the most important word in this planet’s language, and probably in that of other galaxies as well.”
To Mr. Pal-Zet of Skarysko-Kam: “The poems you’ve sent suggest that you’ve failed to perceive a key difference between poetry and prose. For example, the poem entitled ‘Here’ is merely a modest prose description of a room and the furniture it holds. In prose such descriptions perform a specific function: they set the stage for the action to come. In a moment the doors will open, someone will enter, and something will take place. In poetry the description itself must ‘take place.’ Everything becomes significant, meaningful: the choice of images, their placement, the shape they take in words. The description of an ordinary room must become before our eyes the discovery of that room, and the emotion contained by that description must be shared by the readers. Otherwise, prose will stay prose, no matter how hard you work to break your sentences into lines of verse. And what’s worse, nothing happens afterwards.”
Wislawa Szymborska in the offices of Zycie Literackie (Literary Life) January 1961
Poetry Dispatch No. 97 | August 23, 2006
PERSPECTIVE by Wislawa Szymborska
They passed like strangers,
without a word or gesture,
her off to the store,
him heading for the car.
that for a short while
they’d been in love forever.
Still, there’s no guarantee
that it was them.
Maybe yes from a distance,
but not close up.
I watched them from the window,
and those who observe from above
are often mistaken.
She vanished beyond the glass door.
He got in behind the wheel
and took off.
As if nothing had happened,
if it had.
And I, sure for just a moment
that I’d seen it,
strive to convince you, O Readers,
with this accidental little poem
that it was sad.
from THE NEW YORKER, January 2, 2006, translated, from the Polish, by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh.
Polish poet and translator, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996, at the age of seventy-three. Szymborska is one of the few woman poets who have received the prize. Her early works were born more or less within the straitjacket of the Socialist Realism. Later she has expressed her pessimism about the future of mankind. While skepticism has marked Szymborska’s views of the human condition, its has not stopped her from believing in the power of words and the joy arising from imagination. Szymborska often uses ordinary speech and proverbs but gives them a fresh and arresting meaning.
Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?
The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.
from ‘The Joy of Writing,’ 1967
Wislawa Szymborska was born in Bnin (now part of Kornick) in western Poland. In 1931 her family moved to Krakow. They lived near the railway station. From the kitchen window Szymborska watched trains with enthusiasm. However, she never left Poland… After the war, from 1945 to 1948, Szymborska studied Polish literature and sociology at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. From 1953 to 1981 she worked on the Krakow literary magazine Zycie Literacia as poetry editor and columnist. As a poet Szymborska made her debut with the poem Szukam slowa which was published in the newspaper Dziennik Polski in 1945. Three years later she finished her fist collection of poems, but the book was not published. The Communist had gained power tightening their cultural policy and Szymborska’s work was considered too complex and bourgeois. She returned to the work, made it more political and her first collection DLAGTEGO ZYJEMY, appeared in 1952.
Like many Poles, Szymborska became disillusioned with communism. ‘I looked back in terror where to step next…’ Her later work have been more personal and relatively apolitical, although he has noted “Apolitical poems are political too” in ‘Children of This Age’. The 1957 collection of poems, WOLANIE DO YETI (calling out to Yeti), marks her first break with socialist-realist literature. In ‘Still Life with Toy Balloon’ she wrote: “Fly off through the open window, / fly off into the wide world, / let someone cry out: Oh! / so I can weep.”
Szymborska has been married twice. Since the early 1990s she has been a widow and lived in Krakow. After the Nobel award she retrested to Zakopane to escape reporters and well-wishers and to write her acceptance speech. “I’m a private person,” she told in a telephone conversation to Czeslaw Milosz, her countryman, who had won the prize in 1980, and emigrated to the United States. “… inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It’s made up of all those who’ve consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination… Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous “I don’t know.”‘(from Nobel Lecture, 1996) Szymborska’s two poems published in the magazine Orda (1/2000) expressed her feelings of aging and strangeness – she sees that we are only visitors in a cosmic party.
Before and after the Nobel Prize Szymborska have avoided literary gatherings, but her personal example and devotion to poetry has inspired young women all over the world to choose career in literature. CHWILA (2002), published when Szymborska was 79, contained 23 poems. Szymborska’s writing in Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces (2002) is misleadingly casual – her incisive views on scientists, gardening, fairy tales, fashion, and other subjects stand up for repeated readings without losing their freshness.