They say that the first sentence in any speech is always the hardest. Well, that one’s behind me. But I have a feeling that the sentences to come—the third, the sixth, the tenth, and so on, up to the final line—will be just as hard, since I’m supposed to talk about poetry. I’ve said very little on the subject—next to nothing, in fact. And whenever I have said anything, I’ve always had the sneaking suspicion that I’m not very good at it. This is why my lecture will be rather short. Imperfection is easier to tolerate in small doses.
Contemporary poets are skeptical and suspicious even, or perhaps especially, about themselves. They confess to being poets only reluctantly, as if they were a little ashamed of it. But in our clamorous times it’s much easier to acknowledge your faults, at least if they’re attractively packaged, than to recognize your merits, since these are hidden deeper and you never quite believe in them yourself. When they fill out questionnaires or chat with strangers—that is, when they can’t avoid revealing their profession—poets prefer to use the general term “writer,” or to replace “poet” with the name of whatever job they do in addition to writing. Bureaucrats and bus passengers respond with a touch of incredulity and alarm when they discover that they’re dealing with a poet. I suppose philosophers meet with a similar reaction. Still, they are in a better position, since as often as not they can embellish their calling with some kind of scholarly title. Professor of philosophy: now that sounds much more respectable.
But there are no professors of poetry. That would mean, after all, that poetry is an occupation requiring specialized study, regular examinations, theoretical articles with bibliographies and footnotes attached and, finally, ceremoniously conferred diplomas. And this would mean, in turn, that it’s not enough to cover pages with even the most exquisite poems in order to become a poet. The crucial element is some slip of paper bearing an official stamp. Let us recall that the pride of Russian poetry, the future Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky, was once sentenced to internal exile precisely on such grounds. They called him a “parasite,” since he lacked official certification granting him the right to be a poet.
Several years ago, I had the honor and the pleasure of meeting Brodsky in person. And I noticed that, of all the poets I’ve known, he was the only one who enjoyed calling himself a poet. He pronounced the word without inhibitions. Just the opposite: he spoke it with defiant freedom. This must have been, it seems to me, because he recalled the brutal humiliations that he experienced in his youth.
In more fortunate countries, where human dignity isn’t assaulted so readily, poets yearn, of course, to be published, read and understood, but they do little, if anything, to set themselves above the common herd and the daily grind. It wasn’t so long ago, in this century’s first decades, that poets strove to shock us with their extravagant dress and their eccentric behavior. But all this was merely for the sake of public display. 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 finally this is 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 to the emergence of masterpieces. And one can depict certain kinds of scientific labor with some success. Laboratories, sundry instruments, elaborate machinery brought to life: such scenes may hold an 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. And 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 to 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 several 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 to someone else what you don’t understand yourself. When I’m asked about this on occasion, I hedge, too. But my answer is this: inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists. There is, there has been, there 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—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 that they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous “I don’t know.” There aren’t many such people. Most of the earth’s inhabitants work to get by. They work because they have to. They didn’t pick this or that kind of job out of passion; the circumstances of their lives did the choosing for them. Loveless work, boring work, work valued only because others haven’t even got that much—this is one of the harshest human miseries. And there’s no sign that the coming centuries will produce any changes for the better as far as this goes.
And so, though I deny poets their monopoly on inspiration, I still place them in a select group of Fortune’s darlings.
By this point, though, certain doubts may arise in my audience. All sorts of torturers, dictators, fanatics and demagogues struggling for power with a few loudly shouted slogans also enjoy their jobs. They, too, perform their duties with inventive fervor. Well, yes; but they “know,” and what they know is enough for them once and for all. They don’t want to find out about anything else, since that might diminish the force of their arguments. But 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, well known from ancient and modern history, it even poses a lethal threat to society.
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 spaces within us as well as the 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 have ended her days performing that 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, absolutely inadequate. So poets keep on trying, and sooner or later the consecutive results of their self-dissatisfaction are clipped together with a giant paper clip by literary historians and called their “oeuvres.”
I sometimes dream of a situation that can’t possibly come true. I audaciously imagine that I have a chance to chat with Ecclesiastes, the author of that moving lament on the vanity of all human endeavors. I bow very deeply before him, because he is one of the greatest poets, for me at least. Then I grab his hand. “There’s nothing new under the sun”: that’s what you wrote, Ecclesiastes. But you yourself were new under the sun. And the poem you created is also new under the sun, since no one wrote it down before you. And all your readers are also new under the sun, since those who lived before you couldn’t read your poem. And that cypress under which you’re sitting hasn’t been growing since the dawn of time. It came into being by way of another cypress similar to yours, but not exactly the same.
And Ecclesiastes, I’d also like to ask: What new thing under the sun are you planning to work on now? A further supplement to thoughts that you’ve already expressed? Or maybe you’re tempted to contradict some of them? In your earlier work you mentioned joy—so what if it’s fleeting? So maybe your new-under-the-sun poem will be about joy? Have you taken notes yet, do you have drafts? I doubt that you’ll say, “I’ve written everything down, I’ve got nothing left to add.” There’s no poet in the world who can say this, least of all a great poet like yourself.
The world—whatever we might think when we’re terrified by its vastness and our impotence, embittered by its indifference to the individual suffering of people, animals and perhaps even plants (for why are we so sure that plants feel no pain?); whatever we might think of its expanses pierced by the rays of stars surrounded by planets that we’ve just begun to discover, planets already dead, still dead, we just don’t know; whatever we might think of this measureless theater to which we’ve got reserved tickets, but tickets whose lifespan is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think of this world—it is astonishing.
But “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 to which we’ve grown accustomed. But the point is, there is no such obvious world. Our astonishment exists per se and it isn’t based on a comparison with something else.
Granted, in daily speech, where we don’t stop to consider every word, we all use phrases such as “the ordinary world,” “ordinary life,” “the ordinary course of events.” But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighted, 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.
It looks like poets will always have their work cut out for them.
-Translated from Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh
© The Nobel Foundation, 1996.
This article appeared in the December 30, 1996 issue of the magazine.