Remedy for a Poet's Anxiety

I often feel worried when I am not writing that maybe I have nothing left to say.  Or that I'm disguising leftovers again. But I was heartened, recently, reading On Elizabeth Bishop (Writers on Writers) by Colm Tóibín. For one thing, the book is a lovely, warm look at her life and work and how she inspired him. For another, I discovered that Bishop, and Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore, and their friends passed around their poems, their themes, rewrote each other's work, and that Lowell, particularly, incorporated quotes from his friends' and family's letters into his poems. If that's not recycling, well, I'll reheat my hat.

When I told someone I was reading it, a friend asked, "But what are you reading for fun?" Ah, well, fun is where you find it. That book took me back to Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters (Library of America), where I could examine and enjoy the poems mentioned anew. It didn't exactly prompt a poem from me, but I did feel somewhat enlightened after. I was reassured that we write and keep writing about what is familiar to us, and that it's perfectly fine to do so.

Last Saturday, on my weekly library visit, I scanned the shelves of new books, searching for poetry. I had read about James Tate, whose obituary just appeared, and who sounded like my kind of poet: "I like to start with the ordinary and then nudge it"; and about Simon Armitage (alive): "the coming together of apparently incongruous concepts," but their books were not there. Ultimately, I had to reserve them (although I did get Armitage's nonfiction prose, Walking Home: A Poet's Journey). One poetry book on the new shelf was faced out. Called Map: Collected and Last Poems, it was by Polish writer Wisława Szymborska who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. I did not know that. I opened the book.

The poems are translated, and I would guess expertly because they sang beautifully. Here's a line for thought from her poem, "Writing A Résumé": "Regardless of the length of life, / a résumé is best kept short." Best of all, she inspired me to write. I wrote five poems that day. I think they are good. But I always think whatever I just wrote is good. (I will have to wait a few weeks until the happy mist clears to see if they hold up.) Szymborska pointed me back to my own voice, my own experiences, and asked me to pin them up and take a look.

Which says to me, and I pass along this well-known secret: keep reading. Be hungry. Be curious. Find the poets that make you put down their books because you suddenly have an idea you must write yourself. Szymborska just did that for me. And I am grateful.

Detail from "Curiosity Boxes": Colors of Independence, 2012

Five Wisława Szymborska poems on the Nobel Prize website:
"The End and the Beginning" on the Poetry Foundation website:


india flint said…
James Tate's "Blue Booby" has long been a favourite of mine
Alisa said…
Thanks, India! Cool! I'll have to take a look. With so many good works, it is so easy to feel behind.