Talking Craft with MrMary || How To (& How Not To) Write Poetry by WISŁAWA SZYMBORSKA


 Wislawa Szymborska

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. 

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 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 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 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 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.”

WISŁAWA SZYMBORSKA

Wisława Szymborska-Włodek (2 July 1923 – 1 February 2012) was a Polish poet, essayist, translator and recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature. Born in Prowent, which has since become part of Kórnik, she later resided in Kraków until the end of her life. She was described as a “Mozart of Poetry”. In Poland, Szymborska’s books have reached sales rivaling prominent prose authors: although she once remarked in a poem, “Some Like Poetry” , that no more than two out of a thousand people care for the art. Szymborska was awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature “for poetry that with ironic  precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality”. She became better known internationally as a result of this.

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