Haryette Mullen: "Evaluation of an Unwritten Poem": Wislawa Szymborska in the Dialogue of Creative and Critical Thinkers

Fall '06 TOC

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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, 2004.


© 2006 Harryette Mullen, an earlier version of this talk was published in The Explicator. vol. 64, no. 2 (Winter 2006): 112-115.


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