Wislawa Szymborska’s Do’s and Don’ts Continued (With One Example of How It’s Done)

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.

From a letter to Kali, 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.

“I dwell in Possibility— / A fairer House than Prose,” Emily Dickinson once wrote. Here are some possibilities at work in one of Szymborska’s recent poems:

Early Hour

I’m still asleep,
but meanwhile facts are taking place.
The window grows white,
the darknesses turn gray,
the room works its way from hazy space,
pale, shaky stripes seek its support.

By turns, unhurried,
since this is a ceremony,
the planes of walls and ceiling dawn,
shapes separate,
one from the other,
left to right.

The distances between objects irradiate,
the first glints twitter
on the tumbler, the doorknob.
Whatever had been displaced yesterday,
had fallen to the floor,
been contained in picture frames,
is no longer simply happening, but is.
Only the details
have not yet entered the field of vision.

But look out, look out, look out,
all indicators point to returning colors
and even the smallest thing regains its own hue
along with a hint of shadow.

This rarely astounds me, but it should.
I usually wake up in the role of belated witness,
with the miracle already achieved,
the day defined
and dawning masterfully recast as morning.

—from Wislawa Szymborska, Monologue of a Dog (Harcourt, 2005; tr. Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak).

Originally Published: April 21st, 2006

Scholar and translator Clare Cavanagh is the author of Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West (2010), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. Other works of scholarship include Osip Mandelstam and the Modernist Creation of Tradition (1995), which received the AATSEEL Prize for Outstanding...