Journal, Day Four
Wislawa Szymborska’s Tips on Poetry for Daily Use
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 scepticism 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 post-war 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.
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.
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...