From the ancient world to the Renaissance, when the sciences, arts, and humanities
all spoke the same language, it was not unusual to find scientists writing poetry,
or to find poets, philosophers, and artists probing the universe with the curiosity
of scientists. With increasing specialization, the disciplines have diverged, resulting
often in mutual incomprehension. As a poet who studied sociology as well as literature,
Wislawa Szymborska, the 1996 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, is particularly
interesting to consider in terms of the divergence of the arts and sciences or the
dialogue of creative and critical thinkers. A number of Symborska's poems reflect
upon the rift between poetic and prosaic discursive modes and the clashing styles
of creative-intuitive and critical-analytical thinkers. Perhaps the most explicitly
antagonistic in its view of their separation is the following.
Evaluation of an Unwritten Poem
In the poem's opening words the authoress asserts that while the Earth is small, the sky is excessively large and in it there are, I quote, "too many stars for our own good."
In her depiction of the sky, one detects a certain helplessness, the authoress is lost in a terrifying expanse, she is startled by the planets' lifelessness, and within her mind (which can only be called imprecise) a question soon arises: whether we are, in the end, alone under the sun, all suns that ever shone.
In spite of all the laws of probability! And today's universally accepted assumptions! In the face of the irrefutable evidence that may fall into human hands any day now! That's poetry for you.
Meanwhile, our Lady Bard returns to Earth, a planet, so she claims, which "makes its rounds without eyewitnesses," the only "science fiction that our cosmos can afford." The despair of a Pascal (1623–1662, note mine) is, the authoress implies, unrivalled on any, say, Andromeda or Cassiopeia.
Our solitary existence exacerbates our sense of obligation and raises the inevitable question, How are we to live et cetera, since, "we can't avoid the void." " 'My God,' man calls out to Himself, 'have mercy on me, I beseech thee, show me the way . . . ' "
The authoress is distressed by the thought of life squandered so freely, as if our supplies were boundless. She is likewise worried by wars, which are, in her perverse opinion, always lost on both sides, and by the "authoritorture" (sic!) of some people by others. Her moralistic intentions glimmer throughout the poem. They might shine brighter beneath a less naïve pen.
Not under this one, alas. Her fundamentally unpersuasive thesis (that we may well be alone under the sun, all suns that ever shone) combined with her lackadaisical style (a mixture of lofty rhetoric and ordinary speech) forces the question: Whom might this piece convince? The answer can only be: No one. Q.E.D.1
Szymborska dramatizes a classic conflict of creative and critical thinking. In a witty
dissection of a nonexistent poem, she considers the value of literature or art versus
logical analysis or scientific reasoning. The poet takes on the voice of an analytical
reader who could be a literary critic with a scientific bent or a scientist critiquing
the language of poetry. The speaker in the poem is a reader who values facts, reason,
and precision over emotion, rhetoric, and the imprecision of metaphor. Regarding the
poem as a logical argument or mathematical proof, this critical reader complains that
it fails to meet its burden and thus is unpersuasive. Not only does this stern critic
give the poem a low mark, but the poet herself is downgraded. Metaphors and ambiguities
are not just dismissed as examples of imprecision, but are cited as evidence of the
poet's fuzzy thinking, her innately flawed judgment. The poet's intuitive rather than
analytical approach fails to convince this reader of the poem's merit. What otherwise
might be regarded as a poet's strengths, this speaker perceives as shortcomings: "That's
poetry for you."
Unlike the exacting critic, the poet tries to support "perverse opinions" with a "naïve
pen." Unlike the rational scientist, the poet feels overwhelmed by a vast uncaring
universe and depressed by an inhumane world. She is "helpless," "lost,"s "startled,"
"distressed," "worried" and "moralistic." Her style is "lackadaisical." Her mind is
"imprecise." Neither the everyday vernacular nor the "lofty rhetoric" of the poet
meets rigorous standards of scientific discourse. Szymborska's poem also comments
on a stereotypical divide between masculine and feminine cognitive styles. In terms
made popular by John Gray's book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, the intuitive
poet ("authoress" or "Lady Bard") is a Venusian female while the rational critic presumably
is a Martian male. Possibly he has missed the point; but at least this skeptical reader
is duly attentive to the poem. He evaluates its content and language, dwelling on
the questions it raises, however ridiculous or naïve they seem to him. Unfortunately
the critic in Szymborska's poem is unable to appreciate the poet's work when he disagrees
with its premise.
Syzmborska's title, "Evaluation of an Unwritten Poem," could refer to the distance
separating the discursive practice of the critic from that of the poet. The poem is
diminished in the critic's text. What the critic comprehends may differ from what
the poet actually wrote or intended. The critic mutes or silences the poet's voice,
especially when other readers consult the critic before (or instead of) reading the
poet's original text. The "unwritten poem" in this sense could be a poem that neither
the critic nor the poet wrote but a product of their interaction. This phantom text
could be a poem the critic wishes he had written or what the critic imagines the poet
has written. Indeed it is possible that I am discussing not Szymborska's poem, but
the poem I imagine when I read the translation of her original text. The work of Harold
Bloom suggests that a compelling interpretation of poetry often involves creative
misinterpretation.2 The critic's most creative act may be misreading the poet's text.
By taking on the voice of the sophisticated analytical reader, Szymborska the poet
creates an implicit dialogue between critic and poet that functions as a double-edged
critique of both. In the most literal, denotative reading of the poem, the fact-driven
critic reveals the poet's vulnerability. However, an alternate meaning diverges from
this initial interpretation. On the one hand, there is a critical or scientific thinker
who analyzes the poet's psyche as well as the poem itself and concludes that both
are lacking. On the other hand, the critical voice in this dramatic monologue is the
creation of a poet who is familiar with the critic's disparagement.
The paradoxical title, "Evaluation of an Unwritten Poem," could be read as a comment
on the conventional antagonism that is presumed to exist between artist and critic.
Szymboska gently mocks both parties: the poet who takes liberties with language, inventing
ungainly words like "authoritorture," as well as the fastidious critic who objects
to such idiosyncratic usage. She acknowledges the poet's heartfelt abuse of language
as well as the critic's splenetic abuse of the poet. The polysyllabic portmanteau
word she coins might refer to the work of all authoritarians, including writers whose
books browbeat readers and critics whose reviews manhandle authors. The voice of the
critic in this poem overtly ridicules fuzzy-brained poets; but taken as a whole the
text of the poem also satirizes critical readers who relish a poem only when intent
on taking it apart. The title suggests the potential destructiveness of the critical
enterprise, since in this case the critic's evaluation seems to have precluded a possible
poem that remains unwritten. This elusive work of art exists only as a few scattered
quotes and paraphrases from the "unwritten" text—shreds or fragments of an imaginary
poem that never coalesced into a coherent or persuasive argument.
We could say that the critical reader performs a dismal autopsy on the dead or aborted
poem, while blaming the poet who failed to create a convincing work. Alternatively,
we could say that the phantom poem remains unwritten perhaps due to the poet's fear
of the reader's harsh evaluation or condescending critique. And yet, the peculiar
title also calls attention to the secondary role of the critic, since it is impossible
to evaluate an unwritten poem, to critique a work of art that might have been but
never was created. Until the artist actually produces the work, the critic has nothing
to say about it. Yet what makes this poem particularly interesting to me is the overt
way the poet has incorporated a critical voice into the creation of the poem.
Note that "Evaluation of an Unwritten Poem" is not the poem that Szymborska's critic
scorns: a poem that might have been, but that doesn't actually exist. Szymborska has
written something quite different: a poem that acknowledges the inner dialogue of
a psyche that contains both creative and critical voices—just as it expresses bipolar
emotions of hope and despair. Although it would appear that the critic has overwhelmed
the poet and destroyed a prospective poem in the making, ultimately this voice of
the rational reader is an aspect of the poet and her creation. The poem that made
it to the page is a result of a dialogue of the poet's voice with a critical voice
that could be internal or external, or both. Poets who also work as critics may feel
that their critical writing comes at the expense of poems that remain unwritten. Yet
Szymborska's poem appropriates for its own ends the voice of the exasperated critic.
It is a truism that critical thinking requires precise analysis rather than fuzzy
metaphor, while the creative process requires a suppression of the inner critic. Yet
if we were expecting that the analytical critic values cold, hard facts over emotion
and intuition, Szymborska's poem is a bit of a surprise. In this case it is the poet
or creative thinker who has accepted the void, while it is the critic or rational
thinker whose faith in science allows him to embrace the hope that human beings are
not alone in the universe, an idea as yet unproven. As it turns out, this critical
reader's belief doesn't actually rely on facts, but rather on "laws of probability,"
"today's universally accepted assumptions," and "the irrefutable evidence that may
fall into human hands any day now!" Here it is the critic who expresses what the poet
might prefer to believe, however harsh may be the critic's assessment of the poet's
art.3 Such unfounded belief is not unlike the credo expressed in another poem of Szymborska's,
an intriguing companion to the previous poem, almost its mirror image.
I believe in the great discovery. I believe in the man who will make the discovery. I believe in the fear of the man who will make the discovery.
I believe in his face going white, His queasiness, his upper lip drenched in cold sweat.
I believe in the burning of his notes, burning them into ashes, burning them to the last scrap.
I believe in the scattering of numbers, scattering them without regret.
I believe in the man's haste, in the precision of his movements, in his free will.
I believe in the shattering of tablets, the pouring out of liquids, the extinguishing of rays.
I am convinced this will end well, that it will not be too late, that it will take place without witnesses.
I'm sure no one will find out what happened, not the wife, not the wall, not even the bird that might squeal in its song.
I believe in the refusal to take part. I believe in the ruined career. I believe in the wasted years of work. I believe in the secret taken to the grave.
These words soar for me beyond all rules without seeking support from actual examples. My faith is strong, blind, and without foundation.
In the previous poem, the critic's faith would destroy the poet's art. Here it is
the poet whose belief, a "faith . . . without foundation" would negate the scientist's
deadly discovery. As the poet (or "authoress") is female in the other poem, the scientist
here is envisioned as male—specifically, a white male. Again the potential antagonism
of the poet and the scientist gives way to a productive alliance, an implied dialogue
of creative-intuitive and critical-analytical thinkers. However, the implicit dialogue
in both cases relies paradoxically on the actual or imagined nullification or setting
aside of the other's text. In the critic's dramatic monologue, a poem remains in a
sense "unread" if not "unwritten," as the poem to which the critic refers is unavailable
to any subsequent reader. Alarmed by the poet's emotions, the critic reduces the poem
to nothing more than an inchoate argument that fails to persuade. It only proves the
critic's point that the poet's mind is "imprecise."
While the critic, at odds with the poet, speaks of an unmade or obliterated work of
art in "Evaluation of an Unwritten Poem," in "Discovery" a scientific breakthrough
is undone through the humane action of a scientist who shares the poet's vision. In
the poet's fervent credo this man of science, who is no less a man of conscience,
foresees the inevitable consequence of his findings and burns his own notes in order
to suppress the terrible knowledge of his discovery. Perhaps with good reason, the
poet's faith in the benevolence of the scientist may be greater than the rational
critic's faith in the logic of the poet. In the previous poem, an absolute faith in
science leads the skeptical critic to dismiss the poet's imprecise art. Here the poet's
uncorroborated faith in the scientist's integrity envisions the destruction of scientific
data in order to avert the destruction of life as we know it. At stake in both poems
are the survival and spiritual well-being of humanity.
These two poems of Szymborska's offer insight into the dialogue of critical and creative
thinkers, a dialogue within and between disciplines as well as within and between
individuals. Although Szymborska's poetic monologues allude to a stereotypical conflict
of critical and creative thinkers, these monologues also can be read as two halves
of an interactive dialogue. Szymborska has used creative and critical thinking to
examine both parts of the dialogue and then to merge them in her poetry, producing
a synthesis of their divergent expressions. Above all, she observes what great critical
and creative thinkers share in common: a search for truth and a concern for humanity.
Many if not most of the poets I know are also scholars, teachers, book reviewers,
and critics; and in reality, many if not all scientists and other critical thinkers
also enjoy the works of creative artists and poets. Although they may choose a road
less traveled, poets seek truth as diligently as the scientist, critic, or scholar—just
as critical-analytical thinkers appreciate the truth found in literature and art.
Once during an airplane flight I sat next to a physicist who told me how intensely
he and his colleagues enjoy and appreciate poetry. He said that in some respects,
both the poet and the physicist are searching for language to grasp a complex reality
that is difficult to imagine, comprehend, or describe.
As someone who works as both a poet and a critic, I have found that the dialogue of
artist and critic can be positive or negative: negative when either the creator or
the critic speaks out of turn; or positive when each allows the other to articulate
its position without immediately offering a rebuttal. I don't work well when I anticipate
too soon how critical readers might respond, or if my inner critic rejects all of
my ideas before I have a chance to explore them fully. It is counter-productive if
the critic is too vocal as I'm struggling to get a poem started—or for that matter
when I'm beginning a critical essay. An undisciplined inner critic can sabotage the
creative brain-storming required to explore ideas and make associations without knowing
exactly where they will lead. I find it useful at this stage to jot ideas into a notebook
without stopping to evaluate or judge their worth. At times, I might commit myself
to short bursts of free-writing to start the flow of ideas. I might try writing a
first draft on a computer with a darkened screen, avoiding the impulse to go back
over each sentence as it is written.
Only at a later stage, when scattered notes begin to take form as an initial draft,
can I allow my inner critic a voice in revising and editing a draft. I listen to the
critical voice as I try to select my best ideas and give them an appropriate shape
and structure. As I begin a writing project, the creator is dominant; but by the end,
the critic has become a prevailing influence. It sometimes happens that I have to
work at both creative and critical writing together. In such cases, it is often helpful
to tackle first the critical writing—or critical tasks such as revising and editing.
For me a good time to work on a creative writing project is just before falling asleep
at night, especially after I've spent time doing critical writing, revising, or editing.
I find that when my inner critic is exhausted and therefore unable to interfere, I
can often work more productively on a creative project.
I will conclude with a third poem by Wislawa Szymborska. This final piece offers further
reflection on the creative or poetic versus the critical or prosaic.
Writing a Resume
What needs to be done? Fill out the application and enclose the resume.
Regardless of the length of life, a resume is best kept short.
Concise, well-chosen facts are de rigueur. Landscapes are replaced by addresses, shaky memories give way to unshakable dates.
Of all your loves, mention only the marriage; of all your children, only those who were born.
Who knows you matters more than whom you know. Trips only if taken abroad. Memberships in what but without why. Honors, but not how they were earned.
Write as if you'd never talked to yourself and always kept yourself at arm's length.
Pass over in silence your dogs, cats, birds, dusty keepsakes, friends, and dreams.
Price, not worth, and title, not what's inside. His shoe size, not where he's off to, that one you pass off as yourself. In addition, a photograph with one ear showing. What matters is its shape, not what it hears. What is there to hear, anyway? The clatter of paper shredders.
Aside from compiling conventionally pragmatic advice for job seekers, Szymborska suggests
that even the most mundane and practical writing may carry on a secret dialogue with
the poetry of life.
1 Q.E.D. Latin quod erat demonstrandum. Literally "that which was to be demonstrated."
Q.E.D. is written after mathematical proofs to show that the result required for the
proof to be complete has been obtained. A more colloquial translation might be "See,
I told you so." All poems are quoted in their entirety from View with a Grain of Sand:
Selected Poems, by Wislawa Szymborska, translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak
and Clare Cavanagh, Harcourt Brace, 1995.
2 Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. New York: Oxford, 1973.
A Map of Misreading. New York: Oxford, 1975.
3 It might amuse Symborska to know that in 2004 a group of Swedish poets broadcast
their work into outer space: "Apparently hoping to find and impress some Swedish-speaking
aliens, a group of poets in Stockholm have beamed readings of their work into outer
space. The poets gathered at an observatory on Nov. 16 and aimed their transmission
at Vega, a star that is 25 light years from earth. 'I can't think of anything more
adequate than poetry to communicate what it means to be human,' Daniel Sjolin, editor
of the Swedish poetry magazine Lyrikvannen, told Reuters." World Magazine, November,