Archive for February, 2012

In Praise of Wisława Szymborska

Wislawa Szymborska July 2, 1923 - February 1, 2012

“The world is astonishing, no matter what else we can say about it.”

You may have never heard of Wisława Szymborska or her poetry. I am writing this to spread her fame a little wider. This Polish poet, winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature, died in her sleep on February 1, 2012. She was 88 years young. How fitting her going, for she wrote in her poem “I’m Working on the World”or dying in her sleep as the desirable way to go, comparing it to music in the dark. She concludes this poem with a sardonic twist, typical of her poetry, describing the rest of life as playing a Bach fugue on a saw.

That wry humor suffuses her whole body of work in which she observes the extraordinary and the ironic in the familiar objects that she never finds ordinary. From plates and fans in a museum, to plants, to clouds, to an onion, everything around her astonishes. Her own penchant for poetry, she finds amusing as she writes in “In Praise of My Sister,” a sister who doesn’t write poems. In another poem “Poetry Reading,” she reflects that a boxing match draws a bigger crowd. She imagines that the snoring man in the first row of her poetry audience is dreaming that his wife is still alive and is baking him a tart. At that point, the poets reading to a room of twelve people and eight empty seats.

I love the way Szymborska uses concrete images; I love the way she thinks of things I would never think of. Her poetry teems with her playful look at subjects. Who else would write a poem “In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself. ” In “Hitler’s First Photograph,” she pictures him full of milk and his growing up to be a tenor at the Vienna Opera House, a doctor, a priest, and marrying the burgermeister’s daughter. Even the adult monster was once a cute little baby. The image jars the reader’s sensibilities.

Szymborska’s humor can be black, but her understatements always astound and pack such a wallop, that I wish I could have written a poem nearly as good as her poem that I just finished reading. One of her poems that sticks long in my memory (and there are too many to choose from) is “The End and the Beginning,” possibly the best poem ever written on the subject of war because of its powerful understatement.  The poem begins with the homely statement that someone always has to tidy up after a war as if the task is a housewifely duty and ends by dropping the grisly matter-of-fact observation that rubble has to be shoved to the roadsides so the carts can be loaded with corpses. This is the type of startling, surprise tour de force that frequently concludes her poems.

In her Nobel Prize lecture I discovered the reason why I like poetry more than politics. She states: “Poets, if they’re genuine, must also keep repeating, ‘I don’t know.'” Politicians are always telling us they have the answers; they hold the truth. Szymborska contends “Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know’. Each poem is an effort to answer a question. She continues in her lecture: “But any knowledge that doesn’t lead to new questions quickly dies out: it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life. In the most extreme cases, cases well-known from ancient and modern history, it even poses a lethal threat to society.”

She bases her poetic credo on the belief that the world is astonishing; nothing is obvious. She writes, “But in the language of poetry . . . nothing is usual or normal . Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it . . . . And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in the world.” Like many of her poems, she cannot resist ending her lecture with an understatement: “It looks as though poets will always have their work cut out for them.”

I recommend you start exploration of Wisława Szymborska with Poems New and Collected 1957-1997. It includes all the poems in View with a Grain of Sand and also the complete text of her 1996 Nobel lecture. A new collection, Here, contains poetry she wrote since she won the Nobel Prize. She also has some unpublished poems in manuscript form that were not ready for publication at the time of her death.  The collaborative translation by Stanislaw Barańczak, Professor of Polish Language and Literature at Harvard and a Polish poet himself, and Clare Cavanagh, Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at Northwestern University, is so good that, as far as I am concerned, the poems could have been written originally in English.

Two interesting notes about her fame in Poland: her poem “Nothing Twice” set to music became a popular song. The Polish film director Krzysztof Kieślowski is said to have been inspired by her poem “Love at First Sight” in the making of Red, from The Three Colors Trilogy: Blue, White, Red–three wonderful films.

I wish my mother were still alive. If she were, I would ask her to read aloud in Polish to me all of Szymborska’s poetry and ask for her comments on them. Maybe I should write a poem in which I imagine Alice Dzierzgowska doing this?


Novel vs. Short Story: The Long and the Short of It

A good short story is more difficult to write than a novel. This is the conventional wisdom I remember from writing workshops and many books on the art of fiction. The argument goes something like this: Every word must count in a short story. The limitation of size and scope of the short story demand economy of language and precision in choice of detail.  Handling of dramatic development must be skilled to hold conflict, complication, climax and resolution in the space of twenty pages or less.  On the other hand, a novelist has latitude to be profligate. The novel in its sweep is forgiving in lapses of craft if the general flow is right.  As writers and readers we ought to examine the contention that shaping a small, delicate object entails more skill than a work of larger magnitude. Looking at other art forms, is it true that  a miniature sculpture of an elephant is more difficult to carve than a life-size one?  Is a small painting of a few square feet more difficult to paint than a mural that occupies the entire side of a building?

Sometimes aspiring writers are advised to master the short story before turning their hand to a novel. Many novelists have started with short stories before they wrote a first novel. Throughout her prolific career Joyce Carol Oates has worked in both genres.  Often the short story is viewed as a proving ground for fledgling novelists, the assumption being if the short story writer produces a great short story, of course, that same author can write a great novel. The decision whether a story lends itself better to treatment in a short story versus in a novel depends on such considerations as one main character seen over a short period of time or many characters interacting over years. A novel provides the scope for a many-layered story with multiple themes. The term slice of life arose to describe the short story’s close-up focus on one character, one event, and one main theme.

I’ve taken a second look at this prevalent notion that writing an excellent short story is more difficult than writing an excellent novel. I’ve come to the conclusion that the novel is the more difficult accomplishment. The difficulty does not lie in that one genre requires more discipline, craft, or artistry with the techniques of fiction than the other does; but that the novel’s size and the sustained emotional intensity over a far longer period of time account for its difficulty.

The short story is  a sprint of high energy; in contrast, the novel is an endurance run. I like to describe the process of writing a novel as a long journey into night–a night where morning does not come until the book is done.  Granted, the elements of fiction and the techniques of the craft are the same.  The novel is just longer and because of its length, of course, entails greater complexity and requires more time to complete; but the real difficulty arises in the novelist’s effort to maintain a consistent emotional intensity throughout the expanse of the novel and over the months or years that it takes to write a work of several hundred pages.

Instead of weighing one genre more difficult than another, we should describe the short story and the novel as simply different. One is long and one is short . . . for good reasons.