Szymborska’s Tips for Beginning Bards, Part Three

“In Central and Eastern Europe,” Czeslaw Milosz proclaims, “the word ‘poet’ has a somewhat different meaning from that which it has in the West. There a poet does not merely arrange words in beautiful order. Tradition demands that he be a ‘bard,’ that his songs linger on many lips, that he speak in his poems of subjects of interest to all the citizens.” This is not simply what Seamus Heaney once called “the unacknowledged legislator’s dream.” Milosz’s words hold true for modern Polish and Russian poetry—the traditions I know best—in ways I will not attempt to elaborate here. “If they’re killing people for poetry,” Nadezhda Mandelstam remembers her husband insisting in the mid-1930s, “that means they honor and esteem it, . . . that means poetry is power.”

“Why are you complaining?” he chides her elsewhere. “Only here do they really respect poetry—they kill because of it. More people die for poetry here than anywhere else.” There are advantages, needless to say, to coming from places where poetry is less highly valued.

Szymborska is that rare bird, an Eastern European poet who is apparently immune to the temptations of bard-dom. In The Literary Mailbox, she seeks to steer young writers away from the dangers of poetic soothsaying the way an American creative writing prof might warn students against the perils of, say, confessional poetry. “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,” she explains to B.L. from the vicinity of Wroclaw. “But they are curable, if caught in time.” “You’ve managed to squeeze more lofty words into three short poems than most poets manage in a lifetime”: she scolds Zb. K. of Poznan. “’Fatherland,’ ‘truth,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘justice’: such words don’t come cheap. Real blood flows in them, which can’t be counterfeited with ink.” “Rilke,” she explains to Michal in Nowy Targ, “warned young poets against large sweeping topics, since those are the most difficult and demand great artistic maturity”:

He counselled 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!” Szymborska is perhaps herself the best proof that dailiness, no less than loftiness, is best served by great artistic maturity: the quotidian has rarely found a better poetic friend. But more on that tomorrow.

Originally Published: April 19th, 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...