Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Wislawa Szymborska: "whatever inspiration is, it's born from a continuous 'I don't know' "

Wislawa Szymborska
at the Nobel Prize banquet, Dec 10 1996

The Polish poet, essayist, and translator Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012) received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. The Economist reported at the time of her death that her friends considered the speech a kind of curse: it was only the third she'd given in her lifetime, and she herself called it a "torture," and friends referred to it as the "Nobel disaster" since it was years afterward before Szymborska published another poem.  

When faced with the prospect of explaining what, exactly, it is the poet does, she responded in her lecture "The Poet and the World" that "I'm not very good at it. This is why my lecture will be rather short. All imperfection is easier to tolerate if served up in small doses." Here is an excerpt from her remarkably descriptive explanation, the whole of which is worth reading on the Nobel site. The 2013 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature will be announced Thursday morning in Stockholm.

... The moment always came when poets had to close the doors behind them, strip off their mantles, fripperies, and other poetic paraphernalia, and confront - silently, patiently awaiting their own selves - the still white sheet of paper. For this is finally what really counts. 
It's not accidental that film biographies of great scientists and artists are produced in droves. The more ambitious directors seek to reproduce convincingly the creative process that led to important scientific discoveries or the emergence of a masterpiece. And one can depict certain kinds of scientific labor with some success. Laboratories, sundry instruments, elaborate machinery brought to life: such scenes may hold the audience's interest for a while. And those moments of uncertainty - will the experiment, conducted for the thousandth time with some tiny modification, finally yield the desired result? - can be quite dramatic. Films about painters can be spectacular, as they go about recreating every stage of a famous painting's evolution, from the first penciled line to the final brush-stroke. Music swells in films about composers: the first bars of the melody that rings in the musician's ears finally emerge as a mature work in symphonic form. Of course this is all quite naive and doesn't explain the strange mental state popularly known as inspiration, but at least there's something to look at and listen to.
But poets are the worst. Their work 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 person writes down seven lines only to cross out one of them fifteen minutes later, and then another hour passes, during which nothing happens ... Who could stand to watch this kind of thing? 
I've mentioned inspiration. Contemporary poets answer evasively when asked what it is, and if it actually exists. It's not that they've never known the blessing of this inner impulse. It's just not easy to explain something to someone else that you don't understand yourself.
When I'm asked about this on occasion, I hedge the question too. But my answer is this: inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It's made up of all those who've consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners - and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it's born from a continuous "I don't know."...

(Associated Press photo, above, from NPR)

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