Essay

How To (and How Not To) Write Poetry

Advice for blocked writers and aspiring poets from a Nobel Prize winner’s newspaper column.
Introduction

In the Polish newspaper Literary Life, Nobel Prize winning poet Wislawa Szymborska answered letters from ordinary people who wanted to write poetry. Clare Cavanagh, translates these selections.

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.”

Originally Published: August 29th, 2006

Well-known in her native Poland, Wisława Szymborska received international recognition when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. In awarding the prize, the Academy praised her “poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.” Collections of...

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  1. November 12, 2006
     Ronald O. Medin

    Is there a short course in poetry, for the aged

    that did not do well in school, but have a life time of love,pain and feelings, worthy of poetry ,to share?

  2. November 28, 2006
     Jesse

    I agree with a lot of what this article says. However I disagree when this poet tells someone to not use a lot of metaphor. Sorry but is this not what Emily Dickinson, Johnne Donne, Charles Baudlelair, William Shakespear, and William Butler Yeats did? It seems to me like this poet is trying to promote the more straight forward non metaphorical verse found in much of today's verse. Yes I said verse. If a piece of writing doesn't use allusion and or figure of speech such as personification, metaphor, or similie its verse not poetry. If this poet uses little to non of these then I'm sorry their not a poet and the noble literary community has lost site of what poetry is meant to be.

  3. November 28, 2006
     Jesse

    No, I looke up poems by Wislawa Szymborska and she can be a very metaphorical poet. This person most have been using metaphors in a nonsensical manner.

  4. November 28, 2006
     Jesse

    Sorry for the typos and for doubting Wislawa Szymborska. I read more of her poetry. She is amazing. Her poetry is genuine its expression of the human condition. The women should be burned as a witch. Her ability to seamlessly combine literal and straightforward speech with metaphorical and symbolic speech is scary. She is a poet of the highest order.

  5. November 28, 2006
     Alan Buckholtz

    Glad to be a part of this

  6. December 6, 2006
     sunny

    Hi Jesse, this isn't the blogger Jessica Schneider,
    is it? Either way, you seem to have read a
    textbook on the 'rules' of poetry and digested it
    completely without taking into account any of the
    wider essence of the ever-changing possibilities of
    what a poem can be.

  7. December 13, 2006
     Jeffrey Thornton, Poet

    There is nothing right nor nothing wrong with how
    a poet wishes to begin writing, write, and feel
    about writing, as W.Z. is saying. Most succinctly...
    just write and let it go.

  8. February 1, 2007
     Frederick S "Tony" Hall

    Submission of a poem:

    The Grand Canyon at First Light

    At dawn like the curse of blindness
    heavy fog lay on the rim
    where was the majestic vastness
    for the day remained so dim.

    From the sight of ones potential
    where a glimpse calls forth the rest
    I saw as the South Rim opened
    the wonder of Nature's best.

    Downriver the wall ingnited
    glistening in brilliant light
    ever deeper the view continued
    so awesome the Canyon's might.

    At last I noticed white water,
    like our special selves below,
    cascading free with great power
    in touch with an endless flow.

    ------

    2007

    Frederick Hall

    Let me know where it might be published.
    No money is desired.

    Thanks,

    FSH 1:45 PM --- Thurs 2/1/2007

  9. February 15, 2007
     patrick mcmanus



    LANGUAGE DOORWAY


    the language

    in my poems

    is often offensive

    and abusive

    is often edited

    and deleted

    given the right

    for the poetry foundation

    to publish it


    patrick mcmanus

    found poem

  10. March 15, 2007
     LAINE COTE'

    Definition Of A Poem

    Do we think by defining something
    We make it more accessible?
    Even open to ownership?
    Though the adage possession nine-tenths of the Law---in poetry it's only
    The other tenth that matters at all.

    I use to struggle with my poetry
    Until I realized it struggled more with me.
    Now I do what I can
    Then get out of the way
    So that mysterious one tenth
    Can work its alchemy. /lc

  11. December 13, 2007
     CHINMOY K BOSE

    I try to write poem

    could you please take a look at it and comment


    Good wish

    by CHINMOY K BOSE


    Thursday, December 06, 2007


    Nobody can know. No intellect, no listening help. Obtainable by one who is chosen.....chosen few.


    O! Good wish prevails

    And nothing else will do.

    No better to be 'cause better is.....everything.

    Has a strong belief,we,followers of tachyonic future bloom

    Like dots in poincare, like sparkles in the time we hold.

    A sleek glitter-like certainty of past and beyond leaves whole place bathing in golden rays,

    And in the sparkles... gold trees, gold flower and fruit bloom in golden world, in cold, soothing.

    Like a childhood garden party remembered.

    O! peace,peace,peace.

    A matter of faith like

    We are real.

    Where a man can go.

    He is destined to learn and truth is a totality.

    What, if we substract infinity from infinity.

  12. February 19, 2008
     Dr Tapan Kumar Pradhan

    Here's a poem written by me. If you like it, tell me why - and if you hate it, please tell me why.

    EPITAPH



    I have printed my name in crimson lights

    Upon my grave-stone, a circle

    Of grass and gravel tells you where

    Below a bed of earth six feet deep

    Reclines he who once refused to surrender...


    Someday if ever you will pass by me

    And remember, if at all, the emblazoned name

    Etched into marble grown yellow through years,

    Remember then the distant wedding night

    When you had vainly displayed your vermillion brow...




    Dr Tapan Kumar Pradhan


    Member of Faculty

    Zonal Training Centre

    RBI, Navi Mumbai

  13. May 7, 2008
     Don MacKyle

    To Dr. Tapan Kumar Pradhan, on the subject of your poem "Epitaph". You are a skilled wordsmith, and you have good ideas. The trouble in this poem is linking them together. This is just personal opinion, on which I welcome debate, but your poem could do with a more "complete" air. The last two lines are especially difficult to appreciate without greater expansion. However, Doctor, "Epitaph" is certainly an engaging read if not necessarily a complete one. Keep writing.

    ALSO: To the person who wrote about metaphor, back in November of 2006: metaphor is great, but only when a) it is very good, original and not drawn-out, and b) metaphor works better for the situation than just saying it straight up. Shakespeare also said things clearly and simply, my friend. He used metaphor when he was conveying emotion that could not be expressed well mundanely. My final point: if a poem is allegory or parable, don't suddenly switch to straightforward explanation. I don't think that you will have a problem with that, such a champion of the metaphor as you are.

    P.S. It is somewhat weak to write a bit of literary criticism with spelling errors riddling every work like bullets in the carcass of your idea. Proofread your work, out of respect for your readers if not for yourself.

  14. February 1, 2009
     tabatha indreland

    I wanted instructions on how to pacifically write poetry like step 1 do this on this line and such not some confusing mumbo jumbo you could be a little more helpful

  15. March 5, 2009
     DEOGRATIAS

    The poet is nothing if not creative. What do you understand by this statement?Supply evidence.

  16. December 20, 2009
     Gabby L.

    I do like a lot of the points made here, but it just seems like everyone is trying to turn poetry into something it's not.

    There was a point that was made that said poetry is a game. That's definitely right, and it certainly does have rules. The thing is, though, that there are self-entitled people out there making up their own rules and trying to push it on everyone else. Anyone who just wants to play the damn game can't because the rule makers say that they can't. Not only is poetry a game, but it is a political joke. I think that's the source of the sad unpopularity of poetry today.

    And to "tabatha indreland":
    If you need a step-by-step walk-through on what, and how to write in such an elementary manner, then you shouldn't be doing it. This "confusing mumbo jumbo" is just as much art as it is lesson, and if you were really searching for answers on poetry, you would know that.

  17. January 21, 2010
     Sylviette W. Pressman

    How refreshing to have questions about particular poems or parts of them discussed by Wislawa Szymborska(I assume it is all her remarks).

    Please tell me what publication to order to have more of this enjoyable and useful commentary on peoples' poetry.

    Also is there a journal that I can order for the same purpose. I am a member of a poetry group that meets weekly to read poems we want to share. I also have written a few and want to write more! I know my contact with your works will help me put more of my ideas into poems.

    Thank you for an exciting afternoon with poetry questions and answers!

  18. September 21, 2010
     Kevin

    Wislawa Szymborska is my favorite poet. I just recently created an entire album of songs inspired by her amazing poems. You can sample the music and download it here:

    http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/Close...

    Thanks for checking us out! If you love Szymborska you won't be disappointed!

    -Kevin

  19. March 31, 2014
     Basil Eliades

    Don MacKyle (2008), superb delivery! 3/3 mate!