Thursday, April 1, 2021

We're Not Fooling!

A little while ago Kym came up with one of her great ideas and asked Kat and I if we were interested in coordinating some poetry posts for National Poetry Month. She thought that since we all post poetry fairly regularly, we could do something together. We've figured out some fun things to do on Thursdays this month, so we hope to provide you with some questions, answers, poets, themes, and of course, poetry.

We're starting National Poetry Month off today with our answers to "Why poetry?" What purposes does poetry serve? Why do we like it and what do we get out of it? 

Those are some deep and personal questions, but I would agree with Robert Frost and extend his quote to include "Reading a poem is discovering." I had the usual exposure to poetry in school. This included memorizing a few lines of well-known poems and learning how to write haiku in elementary school. In high school English we had units on poetry that included endless analysis of poems, and my teachers were most often concerned with their students arriving at the correct answer that was given in the teacher's edition. It was enough to suck any life, joy, or celebration out of the poems we were reading, and it definitely had that effect on me. 

But one day in 2007 I was making the bed and listening to NPR. There was a piece about the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska in which she read her poem "A Tale Begun". She captured my attention immediately and I stood by the bed, mesmerized and spellbound. This was a poem that seemed to capture many of my own feelings, and she expressed them better than I could myself. That is probably one of the main reasons I enjoy poetry; it can express things I might not have even known I was feeling. It can unite people in feelings, language, and words. Poetry can provide delight, expose us to the unexpected, and show us details of the everyday. Poets give us economy of language, are evocative, and they are sometimes soothing and reassuring. Poetry is a way to express deep emotion, from intense joy to crushing grief. It has provided a meaningful way for me to deal with the pandemic. 

Szymborska won the Nobel prize for literature in 1996. The following is from her acceptance speech where she talks about the astonishment of everyday life:

"Astonishing" is an epithet concealing a logical trap. We're astonished, after all, by things that deviate from some well-known and universally acknowledged norm, from an obviousness we've grown accustomed to. Granted, in daily speech, where we don't stop to consider every word, we all use phrases like "the ordinary world," "ordinary life," "the ordinary course of events." ... 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.

Poetry reminds us that our world is astonishing in so many ways.

A Tale Begun
by Wislawa Szymborska

The world is never ready
for the birth of a child.
Our ships are not yet back from Winnland.
We still have to get over the S. Gothard pass.
We've got to outwit the watchmen on the desert of Thor,
fight our way through the sewers to Warsaw's center,
gain access to King Harald the Butterpat,
and wait until the downfall of Minister Fouche.
Only in Acapulco
can we begin anew.
We've run out of bandages,
matches, hydraulic presses, arguments, and water.
We haven't got the trucks, we haven't got the Minghs' support.
This skinny horse won't be enough to bribe the sheriff.
No news so far about the Tartars' captives.
We'll need a warmer cave for winter
and someone who can speak Harari.
We don't know whom to trust in Nineveh,
what conditions the Prince-Cardinal will decree,
which names Beria has still got inside his files.
They say Karol the Hammer strikes tomorrow at dawn.
In this situation let's appease Cheops,
report ourselves of our own free will,
change faiths,
pretend to be friends with the Doge
and say that we've got nothing to do with the Kwabe tribe.
Time to light the fires.
Let's send a cable to grandma in Zabierzow.
Let's untie the knots in the yurt's leather straps.
May delivery be easy,
may our child grow and be well.
Let him be happy from time to time
and leap over abysses.
Let his heart have strength to endure
and his mind be awake and reach far.
But not so far
that it sees into the future.
Spare him
that one gift,
0 heavenly powers.

View with a Grain of Sand, copyright © 1993 by Wislawa Szymborska, English translation by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh copyright © 1995 by Harcourt, Inc.


Be sure to visit Kym and Kat today and read their answers to "Why poetry?" and join us next Thursday for our Poet of the Week!


  1. Oh, YES! That's the power of poetry! And I'm so glad that you found it . . . after having the joy of it beaten out of you by (I'm sure well-meaning) English teachers. And what a poem! I adore the poetry of Wisława Szymborska -- it's so powerful and so REAL. (And . . . translated to English as well, so doubly amazing.) Thanks for sharing your story and that incredible poem. Happy National Poetry Month! XO

  2. I've always admired the way poetry provides an entirely different way to view the world. I confess I didn't understand many of the references in this poem, but that doesn't stop me from enjoying it -- and I think that's another special thing about poetry. Thank you, as always, for sharing. I look forward to whatever it is you've got in store for us this month!

  3. Wow! This poem! Incredible! Don't you just love that poetry can make you stop in your tracks and be entirely focused on the power and beauty of simple words, brilliantly put together... I love how it can take you out of where you are and carry you away to a magical place! Happy National Poetry Month indeed... I am just so excited about all the new poems I am going to learn!

  4. Oh this is fun! I am looking forward to reading/hearing what you 3 ladies have in store for us! Like you, Bonny, I hated poetry in school because it was analyzed to death...and then some. Luckily I had parents who enjoyed poetry though and they would often recite poems to us kids and we had scads of poetry books in the house (most of which now reside with me or Colin!!).

  5. When I was in 10th grade my English teacher also taught 11th grade English. On the side board for the 11th graders she had written Robert Frost's Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening. I was very deeply moved by the images the poem created for me and I copied it down in my notebook. She came by my desk and asked why I was copying it and I couldn't describe how it made me feel and said that I thought it was beautiful. She laughed and told me that I didn't understand a thing about it, but hopefully I would by the next year. To this day it is still one of my favorite poems. I was fortunate to grow up in a family with some poetry lovers and it was there that I learned that I don't have to analyze and that it is alright just to sit with the feeling or image a poem gives you. I look forward to what you three have to share!

    1. I recognize your feeling; I think it's just how I felt when I heard Wislawa Szymborska reading this poem! I wish we could go back to your 10th grade English class and my poetry units in high school and maybe have better teachers. But thank goodness you grew up in a family with poetry lovers that enabled you to sit with the feeling and recognize it as a very real and valuable thing. I hope you enjoy what we share this month!

  6. That poem captures the feeling of never finding just the right time to have a baby but doing it anyway. I struggle with poetry, I tend to rush through it and want to get to the point. I hope I can slow myself down this month and read your posts with a desire to understand the emotion of poetry better.

  7. I read everything as a child (a house full of books and magazines and National Geographics) but in HS classes I was always amazed at the things the teachers could pull out of the stories we read. (I didn't see that, huh.) I didn't know I was 'missing' things. I was, but still. Poetry has always been that same idea only more. I know I'm missing things, but the flow of words is soothing, or stirring, or upsetting and that I get, even if I don't understand completely why.

    1. Some analysis of stories and poetry is fine and probably helps me appreciate them more, but over-analysis just sucked all the joy, emotion, and enjoyment of poetry out of it for me. I feel really lucky to have "rediscovered" poetry later in life, and am glad that you appreciate the flow of words and poetry itself.

  8. When you pose the question "Why poetry?" I think of Mary Oliver and the very end of her book A Poetry Handbook, "Poetry is a life cherishing force. . . . For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. " p. 122

  9. You introduced me to Szymborska's beautiful poetry years back; thank you! Poetry helps get me outside my very-literal brain and see/think about things in new ways. I'm glad April has five Thursdays :-)

  10. Is there really a right time? for anything? Sometimes the time it happens no matter what is the time. I loved the poem.


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