Almost all creative writers choose their vocation because they believe deeply in the power of the written word – whether for self-expression, or giving coherence and causality to their worlds, or simply to gain some control over the incomprehensible chaos that surrounds them.
This past week, we’ve explored how an Indian-American Canadian wrote a memoir to explore her second childhood at age 30, how a 28-year-old New Zealander wrote 832 pages of an award-winning novel, how another group of Americans moved further ahead to getting publicly recognized for their works and, finally, how an Italian chemist became a writer after his own 11-month life-changing experience at Auschwitz, trying to make sense of it all for the 40 years after.
All of the above brought to mind this popular poem (full text at the end) by the Nobel Laureate and Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska. Using ordinary, everyday language and vivid images, Szymborska provided new meanings about the creative act of writing. And, yet, the poem isn’t all sweetness and light. It showcases her singular and worldly-wise wisdom about the human condition. Also, it illustrates one of her enduring opinions on poetry and language, which she shared at the end of her Nobel Lecture:
…… But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in this world.
Szymborska starts the poem with 3 questions about a commonplace story character, setting and the related images created with written words: a doe that bounds through the woods to drink water from a spring and lifts its head on hearing the slightest ominous sounds. These initial images, which Szymborska, as writer, has just created on paper with her mind and her pen, have set her to musing on writing as a creative and personal act.
She goes on to describe how this doe comes to life under her fingertips because she has borrowed true details to describe its being and also used more words to create the surrounding wooded world in which it now exists.
This fictional doe is, quite possibly, also a manifestation of the writer’s inspiration on the page, trying to break itself free with truth, even as it is ever-sensitive to the slightest distractions. [Note: Some critics have analyzed the doe as representative of the writer’s self. However, I believe if that was what the poet intended, she would have started her opening questions with “Who is…..?” rather than “Why is…..?”]
The next section of the poem is about those distractions: the many hunters created by, again, her own words, and who are as plentiful as there are drops of ink in her pen. They are skilled, armed and ready to attack the previous creature of her imagination, the innocent, vulnerable, freedom-loving doe. Szymborska writes how, for her creations on paper, imagined life is as real life. They forget that they are at the mercy of the writer who created them. And, that the rules that govern their existence across time and space are entirely their creator’s whims or compulsions. This creator can write their fates out exactly as she desires – not a thing can happen to them unless she wishes it to.
The hunters are, potentially, a representation of the self-critical aspects of a writer’s psyche – steady in supply, many in number and well-equipped to attack the writer’s inspiration at the slightest opportunity. Yet, of course, even this self-criticism is self-created and, ultimately, has no real power unless the writer grants it such.
Indeed, these perceptions of imagined life as real are, most likely, also extended to the writer herself. It is, after all, a necessary condition for a writer to suspend disbelief during the act of creation. So, again, quite possibly, Szymborska is also reminding herself, as the writer, of a writer’s omnipotence – both over her inspired creations as well as over her self-criticism demons.
In the final few lines of the poem, Szymborska returns to self-interrogation with 3 more questions about the world that she is creating and whether she is indeed an absolute ruler with supreme control through time and space over its existence. She answers herself (and us) with the last 3 lines: that the joy of writing is about the power of preserving. And that, in this godlike act of preserving things forever by writing about them, the writer is able to conquer or take revenge on the inevitable human condition of mortality.
Regarding the use of questions in the beginning and the ending of this particular poem, her Nobel Lecture, again, reveals her insights on the importance of questions for poets, in particular:
This is why I value that little phrase “I don’t know” so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself “I don’t know,” the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself “I don’t know”, she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and would have ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying “I don’t know,” and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize.
Poets, if they’re genuine, must also keep repeating “I don’t know.” Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement, but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift that’s absolutely inadequate to boot. So the poets keep on trying, and sooner or later the consecutive results of their self-dissatisfaction are clipped together with a giant paperclip by literary historians and called their “oeuvre” …
Some notes on the poet, Wislawa Szymborska:
Born in the early 1920s in Poland, Szymborska lived in Krakow for most of her life, even during the German Occupation during WWII. For most of her working life, she was with the literary review magazine Życie Literackie (Literary Life). Polish history and politics, including WWII, Stalinism communism, etc., informed her ouevre. Yet, her 15+ collections of ~350 poems were not strictly political but filled with personal truths, wit, irony and and, what many critics have called, deceptive simplicity. In a New York Times Book Review piece, Stanislaw Barańczak, one of her translators and a fellow poet, wrote:
The typical lyrical situation on which a Szymborska poem is founded is the confrontation between the directly stated or implied opinion on an issue and the question that raises doubt about its validity. The opinion not only reflects some widely shared belief or is representative of some widespread mind-set, but also, as a rule, has a certain doctrinaire ring to it: the philosophy behind it is usually speculative, anti-empirical, prone to hasty generalizations, collectivist, dogmatic and intolerant.
Amongst other literary prizes, she also won the Nobel for Literature in 1996 for:
…. poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.
More links about Wislawa Szymborska:
How to (and How Not to) Write Poetry [One of the best, brief compilations of her magazine work – selections from columns originally published in Życie Literackie (Literary Life). In these columns, Szymborska answered letters from ordinary people who wanted to write poetry.]
Selected poems online:
The Joy of Writing
Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?
For a drink of written water from a spring
whose surface will xerox her soft muzzle?
Why does she lift her head; does she hear something?
Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth,
she pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips.
Silence – this word also rustles across the page
and parts the boughs
that have sprouted from the word “woods.”
Lying in wait, set to pounce on the blank page,
are letters up to no good,
clutches of clauses so subordinate
they’ll never let her get away.
Each drop of ink contains a fair supply
of hunters, equipped with squinting eyes behind their sights,
prepared to swarm the sloping pen at any moment,
surround the doe, and slowly aim their guns.
They forget that what’s here isn’t life.
Other laws, black on white, obtain.
The twinkling of an eye will take as long as I say,
and will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities,
full of bullets stopped in mid-flight.
Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so.
Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,
not a blade of grass will bend beneath that little hoof’s full stop.
Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?
The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.
By Wislawa Szymborska
From “No End of Fun”, 1967 (also in her New and Collected Poems)
Translated by S Barańczak & C. Cavanagh
Copyright © Wislawa Szymborska, S. Barańczak & C. Cavanagh