A Note

Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996.  This poem, “A Note”, appeared in her 2005 collection, Monologue of a Dog.  I first saw it in the November 28, 2005 issue of The New Yorker magazine; I cut it out, put it in one of those magnetic Lucite photo frames and stuck it to my refrigerator, where it’s been ever since. Whenever the time comes–weeks, months, years from now–it will be among the pieces of writing read at my memorial service.

Life is the only way
to get covered in leaves,
catch your breath on sand,
rise on wings;

to be a dog,
or stroke its warm fur;

to tell pain
from everything it’s not;

to squeeze inside events,
dawdle in views,
to seek the least of all possible mistakes;

An extraordinary chance
to remember for a moment
a conversation held with the lamp switched off;

and if only once
to stumble on a stone,
end up soaked in one downpour or another,

mislay your keys in the grass;
and to follow a spark on the wind with your eyes;

and to keep on not knowing
something important.

(Translated, from the Polish, by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh)


You can read the full text of Szymborska’s Nobel speech, entitled “The Poet and the World”, here; I particularly like these words about inspiration (italics mine):

“Contemporary poets answer evasively when asked what [inspiration] 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 something to someone else that you don’t understand yourself.

When I’m asked about this on occasion, I hedge the question too. But my answer is this: inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and 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 – and 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 they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.'”

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