Wislawa Szymborska
May 6, 2009 6:00 PM   Subscribe

How to (and how not to) write poetry -- "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. Translated by Clare Cavanagh." Here is her Nobel acceptance speech, where she charmingly imagines a dialogue between herself and Ecclesiastes.
posted by vronsky (25 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

 
Awesome find, vron. This woman's quotes are GREAT. She's my new hero.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:13 PM on May 6, 2009


Tried to pick out one I love the most of all of these and failed.

(Why is it that simple genius is the type that makes you feel the most inadequate? It all seems possible while they're talking but when that stops you realise you understood it all instinctively, not properly. Way to make you feel inadequate.)
posted by litleozy at 6:20 PM on May 6, 2009


Br. K. of Laski, and all the other wannabe Hemingways, better pay close fucking attention to what she says.
posted by nasreddin at 6:23 PM on May 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is pretty amazing.
posted by Stephen Elliott at 6:33 PM on May 6, 2009


I'm a big Szymborska fan. This poem is probably my favorite right now. That translation is by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:43 PM on May 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


Her advice is fun to read, but it's lousy advice: unhelpful even when "correct," and very self-congratulating. If you were a beginning poet, would you want to send her a poem, knowing she was just going to tear it, and you, to shreds? Would you keep writing afterward?
posted by sleevener at 6:57 PM on May 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


This guy still owes me $20 for a bag of pot I sold him in 1976. If any of you know his whereabouts, please contact me.
posted by twoleftfeet at 6:59 PM on May 6, 2009


Here is my favorite of her poems for the moment, although I love them all.
posted by winna at 7:02 PM on May 6, 2009


Her advice is fun to read, but it's lousy advice: unhelpful even when "correct," and very self-congratulating. If you were a beginning poet, would you want to send her a poem, knowing she was just going to tear it, and you, to shreds? Would you keep writing afterward?

I translate both prose and poetry, and when I read this---
“The translator is obliged to be faithful not only to the text. He must also reveal the full beauty of the poetry while retaining its form and preserving as completely as possible the epoch’s spirit and style.”
---I cringed. Nothing is easier than telling a translator a bunch of generalities about what he should be doing. Such advice is completely worthless, since the alpha and omega of translation is knowing when and where to make appropriate compromises.
posted by nasreddin at 7:03 PM on May 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


This guy still owes me $20 for a bag of pot I sold him in 1976. If any of you know his whereabouts, please contact me.

I know the whereabouts of the thread you're looking for, pothead.
posted by gman at 7:08 PM on May 6, 2009


I know the whereabouts of the thread you're looking for, pothead.

I'm very sorry. I don't know how that happened. Please, don't tell the principal.
posted by twoleftfeet at 7:21 PM on May 6, 2009


too late for bono...
posted by the aloha at 7:54 PM on May 6, 2009


If you were a beginning poet, would you want to send her a poem, knowing she was just going to tear it, and you, to shreds? Would you keep writing afterward?

True for a beginning poet. After you've a bathroom wall of rejection letters, you begin to cherish decent criticism, or at least criticism that addresses your faults, instead of stamping bullshit like "we're currently interested in publishing books of the how-to genre".

Thanks, I'd never read her. Keep suggesting (and linking) poems y'all like of hers.
posted by sarcasman at 7:58 PM on May 6, 2009


This guy
still owes me $20
for a bag of pot
I sold him in 1976.
If any of you know
his whereabouts,
please contact me.

Some Dude -- by twoleftfeet.
posted by stavrogin at 8:13 PM on May 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


"It all seems possible while they're talking but when that stops you realise you understood it all instinctively, not properly." Well said. I know the feeling litleozy.

I could have sworn I linked that same poem in a metatalk thread a few years ago mr. roboto, but google is proving me a liar.

No worries twoleftfeet. I left my keys in the front door all day yesterday. No one promised there wouldn't be side effects.


"Keep suggesting (and linking) poems y'all like of hers"

On Death, Without Exaggeration

Monologue of a Dog
Ensnared in History


Plato, or why

Pi


A Few Words On The Soul


We have a soul at times.
No one's got it non-stop,
for keeps.

Day after day,
year after year
may pass without it.

Sometimes
it will settle for awhile
only in childhood's fears and raptures.
Sometimes only in astonishment
that we are old.

It rarely lends a hand
in uphill tasks,
like moving furniture,
or lifting luggage,
or going miles in shoes that pinch.

It usually steps out
whenever meat needs chopping
or forms have to be filled.

For every thousand conversations
it participates in one,
if even that,
since it prefers silence.

Just when our body goes from ache to pain,
it slips off-duty.

It's picky:
it doesn't like seeing us in crowds,
our hustling for a dubious advantage
and creaky machinations make it sick.

Joy and sorrow
aren't two different feelings for it.
It attends us
only when the two are joined.

We can count on it
when we're sure of nothing
and curious about everything.

Among the material objects
it favors clocks with pendulums
and mirrors, which keep on working
even when no one is looking.

It won't say where it comes from
or when it's taking off again,
though it's clearly expecting such questions.

We need it
but apparently
it needs us
for some reason too.
posted by vronsky at 8:15 PM on May 6, 2009 [5 favorites]


Related.
posted by grobstein at 8:26 PM on May 6, 2009


Thank you for posting this. She became one of my favorite poets after reading Cat in an Empty Apartment in the New York Times ten years ago. I also like Love at First Sight, which I found out many years later was an inspiration for one of my favorite films: Kieslowski's Red.
posted by Chromakey at 8:39 PM on May 6, 2009



A Few Words On The Soul

Wow. One of those poems where I stand behind myself reading, not wanting to stop, but almost afraid to keep going.
posted by sarcasman at 8:50 PM on May 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


If you were a beginning poet, would you want to send her a poem, knowing she was just going to tear it, and you, to shreds? Would you keep writing afterward?

Swans sing before they die, 'tis said.
'Twere no bad thing
Should certain persons
Die before they sing.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:24 PM on May 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


I was put off a bit by the snarky tone, but enjoyed reading them anyway. Also was glad to discover her poems here.

My favorite of the advice: “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.”
posted by serazin at 10:17 PM on May 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


She walks in beauty like the night, of cloudless climes and starry skies...

I wonder if the biggest hurdle in poetry is in coming up with something novel?

She codes with remarks so subtle as to be sublime, she need not dress to be with the times.
posted by porpoise at 10:50 PM on May 6, 2009


And ah, how sad it is we hadn't linked this one yet?

Some Like Poetry

Some -
thus not all. Not even the majority of all but the minority.
Not counting schools, where one has to,
and the poets themselves,
there might be two people per thousand.

Like -
but one also likes chicken soup with noodles,
one likes compliments and the color blue,
one likes an old scarf,
one likes having the upper hand,
one likes stroking a dog.

Poetry -
but what is poetry.
Many shaky answers
have been given to this question.
But I don't know and don't know and hold on to it
like to a sustaining railing.
posted by winna at 12:44 AM on May 7, 2009


Ahhhh, Symborska is really great.


True Love

True love. Is it normal
is it serious, is it practical?
What does the world get from two people
who exist in a world of their own?

Placed on the same pedestal for no good reason,
drawn randomly from millions but convinced
it had to happen this way - in reward for what?
For nothing.
The light descends from nowhere.
Why on these two and not on others?
Doesn't this outrage justice? Yes it does.
Doesn't it disrupt our painstakingly erected principles,
and cast the moral from the peak? Yes on both accounts.

Look at the happy couple.
Couldn't they at least try to hide it,
fake a little depression for their friends' sake?
Listen to them laughing - its an insult.
The language they use - deceptively clear.
And their little celebrations, rituals,
the elaborate mutual routines -
it's obviously a plot behind the human race's back!

It's hard even to guess how far things might go
if people start to follow their example.
What could religion and poetry count on?
What would be remembered? What renounced?
Who'd want to stay within bounds?

True love. Is it really necessary?
Tact and common sense tell us to pass over it in silence,
like a scandal in Life's highest circles.
Perfectly good children are born without its help.
It couldn't populate the planet in a million years,
it comes along so rarely.

Let the people who never find true love
keep saying that there's no such thing.

Their faith will make it easier for them to live and die.
posted by the bricabrac man at 4:27 AM on May 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Cultural evaluation criterion checklist, item #117: Newspaper has poetry advice column.
posted by xod at 12:59 PM on May 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


This was great, thanks for posting it.

My favorite of the lines of advice was the last one:

"...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.”

posted by troubles at 2:28 PM on May 7, 2009


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