The Use and Abuse of Poetry for Life, Part Two,
or Wislawa Szymborska’s Do’s and Don’t for Beginning Poets, Continued

“Poets are poetry, writers are prose,” Szymborska comments in her resolutely anti-poetic “Stage Fright”—or so public opinion would have it.

Prose can hold anything including poetry,
but in poetry there’s only room for poetry—

In keeping with the poster that announces it
with a fin-de-siécle flourish of its giant P
framed in a winged lyre’s strings
I shouldn’t simply walk in, I should fly . . .

In her own how-to guide for would-be writers, The Literary Mailbox (see yesterday’s column for details), Szymborska stubbornly insists on poetry’s “prosaic side.” “Let’s take the wings off and try writing on foot, shall we?” she urges the hapless Grazyna from Starachowice in one letter. “I feel the inspiration to become a poet,” Miss A. P. from Bialogard exclaims. “I feel the compulsion to become an editor,” Szymborska responds. She returns time and again to the mundane business of writing poetry properly, that is to say, painstakingly and sparingly. “You need a new pen,” she advises Mr. G. Kr. of Warsaw: “The one you’re using makes a lot of mistakes. It must be foreign.” She is no kinder, once again, to translators. “It’s true,” she tells Luda from Wroclaw, “that Eluard didn’t know Polish. But did you have to make it so obvious in your translations?” Her own favorite writing utensil, an old friend of hers once told me, is the wastepaper basket: she apparently throws 99 percent of what she writes away. Clearly she would like to encourage more writers to follow her lead. At the very least they should equip themselves properly for the long trek ahead. “You ask in rhyme if life makes sense,” she remarks to “Pegasus [sic] from Niepolomice”: “My dictionary answers in the negative. “You treat free verse as a free-for-all,” she scolds another would-be poet, Mr. K.K. from Bytom.” “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?”

The poet’s work, Szymborska remarks in her Nobel Lecture, “is hopelessly unphotogenic. Someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling. Once in a while this writes down seven lines, only to cross out one of them fifteen minutes later.” But the poet’s daily life is not drudgery alone. Or rather, the daily grind—the poet’s or anyone’s, for that matter—is anything but in the eyes and mind of an attentive poet. “Even boredom should be described with gusto,” she reminds Puszka from Radom. “How many things are happening on a day when nothing happens?” Her own lyric “May 16, 1973” is a case in point. “Your existential pains come a trifle too easily,” she reprimands Boleslaw L-k. of Warsaw:

We’ve had enough despair and gloomy depths. ‘Deep thoughts,’ dear Thomas says (Mann, of course, who else), ‘should make us smile.’ [N.B. Szymborska used the first-person plural not as the queenly prerogative of a future Nobel Laureate, but to maintain her anonymity, since the past tense of Polish verbs reveals its user’s gender, and she was the only woman on Literary Life’s editorial staff who answered letters.] 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.

And one final remark, worth remembering perhaps, as daffodils and jonquils bloom. She writes the following 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.”

Originally Published: April 18th, 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...