National Poetry Month Poetry Dare: Wisława Szymborska’s “Vocabulary”

Never mind the old wives tales about lions and lambs. March is ice under the bridge now. It’s April.

When I finish writing this today, I will go outside to spread ice melt on my driveway where the snow and ice from the blizzard that raged through late last night and early this morning thawed in the near-30-degree temperatures we enjoyed today. When it freezes over again, I’ll have my own personal skating rink. Did I mention it’s April?


I’m reading poems by Polish poet Wisława Szymborska every day in April as part of our National Poetry Month Poetry Dare. I’ve read little, if any, of her work before, and that’s really the point of the dare: to spend time with a poet that is unfamiliar, and see what happens. A blurb on the front cover of her Poems: New and Collected calls her work “dark, complex, and profoundly intelligent.” I find most good poetry complex and profoundly intelligent, all in its own way. But it’s the “dark” reference I’m interested in. Her poems do have a dark edge to them, if one can have dark with a nearly imperceptible wink. The poems are not dark in a depressing or hopeless way, but in the way of a hopeful cynic, like polished jade. I see it in “An Effort,” in the way she talks back to the song (and the impossible expectations) that haunt her:

An Effort

Alack and woe, oh song: you’re mocking me;
try as I may, I’ll never be your red, red rose.
A rose is a rose is a rose. And you know it.

I worked to sprout leaves. I tried to take root.
I held my breath to speed things up, and waited
for the petals to enclose me.

Merciless song, you leave me with my lone,
nonconvertible, unmetamorphic body:
I’m one-time-only to the marrow of my bones.


Back to the weather in April in South Dakota. Or in Poland, during whichever month is colder than April. It’s been a particularly unfriendly winter in the Dakotas. We’ve had less than our usual share of snow (it seemed to be drawn away to uninitiated parts of the South), but temperatures have plunged well below zero more often than I’d care to repeat anytime soon. Nevertheless, we’re proud of our winters. We might complain privately to our neighbors and store clerks, but we like folks who aren’t from around here to know how hardy we are: That we don’t bat an eye at driving a snowmobile 22 miles to the office because the roads are closed, that every one of us has a personal story about frostbite that would make your fingers fall off, or that Long Johns are something you wear under your clothes, not order from the bakery counter.

Under the circumstances, Szymborska’s “Vocabulary” made me laugh aloud to the cold walls in my empty office. Perhaps she’d written it after waiting for a herd of walrus to cross, while sled dogs transported her to her writing studio.


“La Pologne? La Pologne? Isn’t it terribly cold there?” she asked,
and then sighed with relief. So many countries have been turning
up lately that the safest thing to talk about is climate.

“Madame,” I want to reply, “my people’s poets do all their
writing in mittens. I don’t mean to imply that they never remove
them; they do, indeed, if the moon is warm enough. In stanzas
composed of raucous whooping, for only such can drown out the
windstorms’ constant roar, they glorify the simple lives of our
walrus herders. Our Classicists engrave their odes with inky icicles
on trampled snowdrifts. The rest, our Decadents, bewail their fate
with snowflakes instead of tears. He who wishes to drown himself
must have an ax at hand to cut the ice. Oh, madame, dearest

That’s what I meant to say. But I’ve forgotten the word for
walrus in French. And I’m not sure of icicle and ax.

“La Pologne? La Pologne? Isn’t it terribly cold there?”

“Pas du tout,” I answer icily.


I am copying poems out as I read them. It’s allowing me to listen to the words in a different way, keeping me with them longer as my hand moves slower than my eyes. I wrote “Vocabulary” out in my notebook (it was on a warmer day, when mittens were not required). As I did, my response to the poet formed, and I wrote it out next.

After reading Szymborska’s “Vocabulary”

Wisława forgive me
for I have not written.
It’s been six cold weeks
since my last versification.
I blame it on the winter. It’s frigid
here (Dakota? Dakota?)
and I lack sufficient insulation
to sit encased in ice on my deck.


Your people’s poets
are sturdier than I,
writing in mittens, weeping
snowflakes from tear ducts
like a frozen water main
while I stay inside, away
from indirect sunlight, lulled
into hibernation by the hum
of a small electric heater.
I should ask for absolution, tell you
how I am remorseful.
I do blame the winter.
But it might just be
I’ve forgotten the words.


While I wait for warmer days, tell us how your Poetry Dare is going. Are you reading a particular poet each day, an eclectic mix you’ve put together, or the daily offerings of Every Day Poems? What do you find challenging about the daily practice or about your poet? What are you most enjoying? Share with us in the comments. And if you wrote about the dare on your blog, leave us a link.

Want to share the Poetry Dare with the world? Grab a button to post on your website.

Poetry Dare: Tweetspeak Poetry

Photo by Martinak15, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by L.W. Lindquist.

Browse more Poetry Dare

Love, Etc. by L.L. Barkat

“Delicate, suggestive, clever.” —Carl Sharpe, editor of VerseWrights

Buy Love, Etc. by L.L. Barkat now



  1. says

    Wonderful… and, “weeping snowflakes from tear ducts” ah, you mean it’s not just me? LOVE it Lyla!

    Yesterday I spent the morning with Adrienne Rich and The Dream of a Common Language (even the title of the book is a poem in its own right). The first poem, “Power”, took me quite by surprise to be sure. It can be found here:

    The way Rich utilized space within lines gave me a feeling that the poem was breathing – in and out, and halting now and again. I thought how I have wasted space for so long, only thinking of line breaks at the ENDS of lines and not realizing they could also come within them (which demonstrates her feeling of ownership over the blank page). And, I loved right off the bat Rich’s use of Curie’s first name Marie, and not Madame, illuminating her humanity by reminding us that she had parents who selected just the perfect name for their baby girl.

    I got so carried away thinking about her style that I forgot to think about the meaning. It might help to fess up that I was pretty cranky yesterday (okay, that’s what we’re calling it) and found myself embroiled in quite the discussion with Rich. We were debating if Marie Curie was in fact in denial or was simply resigned to finish her important work. Knowing it would kill her she wanted to beat it at its own game. Out of respect (and acknowledging my own foul mood and how that can cloud my judgement at times) I decided to read about Marie Curie, too, and talk to my scientist husband. What I found did not solve the disagreement.

    I do so love Adrienne Rich’s work, and that she sent me digging beneath the surface of the earth, taking what it might divulge, was exciting. However she and I will have to agree to disagree on the question of denial. My thoughts are that Marie Curie was not in denial. Before the damage was done she had no way of knowing what her own failing health would teach the world… and after she knew it was not denial that pushed her forward, but knowing that no one lives forever so in completing her work it would not have been in vain. And so now, to my mind, this changes things- or does it? It’s a pickle I’ve cooked up and found myself in. And it feels very awkward but see Lyla… you asked. I feel all kinds of uncomfortable taking issue with the great. My throat tightens even as I write. Which says so much about my own power, I think, although I’m not sure what. It probably isn’t saying anything very good, but, there it is. Day one. I am rebellious and contrary.

    Up next, a tale filled with cold and cruel endings… great love and even greater pain.

    • says

      Unfortunately the space within lines does not appear in this version I have shared. It is found in the book… :) Really. I promise. I’ll post a picture on my blog.

    • says

      Donna, this is wonderful. That the poem took you on this trail of thought. I’m thinking it’s not so important whether you “forgot to think about the meaning.” The specifics of that are not the poem’s job. The poem did it’s job in taking you into this level of thought (and, dare I say it? emotion).

      I love that you are having a “discussion” with the poet, and that you are allowing yourself to disagree.

      This I really loved: “her feeling of ownership over the blank page.” You own a blank page too. What might you do with it? 😉

    • says

      Donna, you selected one of Rich’s most well-known and wonderful collections. It was among the first of her works I ever read. I still have the volume on my shelf. (It’s the ’78 edition.) Even the feel of the paper is wonderful.

      Your comments sent me to pull the book out again to re-read “Power”. I like your insights into Rich’s use of spacing, which obviates need for punctuation. That poem is such an eye-opener for the collection. And after all these years, it hasn’t lost any of its own power.

      Wonderful comments from Lyla, too.

      If you don’t know of it, take a look at Lauren Redniss’s “Radioactive – Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout”; it’s my favorite book about Curie. It’s doesn’t look as you might imagine, which is what makes it so marvelous. And it’s such a story!

      • says

        Maureen, thank you… and I definitely will look for that. Hmmm… funny how a poem can almost drag you around corners looking for secrets. :) I can see why you really like her work and why you have hung on to that collection! I just read the second poem in the collection and it left my near tears: Phantasia for Elivra Shatayev, and so now wouldn’t you know I am going to have to find out more about this woman, and how it was that her diary bits came to find themselves in Rich’s poem? I have a feeling they are not suppositions, but real excerpts. I have to find them now. Something in me just has to know exactly where they were in her diary and what other words were there too? Not so much bc I want to know the feeling of dying on a mountainside, but I need to know how this poem came to be.

  2. Donna says

    Ah…. The blank page….. that is a good question Lyla. Mostly, lately, I fight with it. Quite the wrestling match, actually. And it’s a funny thing about it- no matter how many blank pages we un-blank, there are always more to be found and filled (or not). I love that.

    Thanks Lyla!! Snowflakes falling from tear ducts- oh that’s such a perfect line.

  3. says

    I’m reminded why we moved from Upstate NY to Texas. Brrr!
    This is so good Lyla. I’m also reminded how much I love your writing.
    I’m reading Naomi Shihab Nye. I discovered she lives in San Antonio which makes her nearly a neighbor! I’m reading one of her lovely poems each day and writing them in a big notebook. She writes, of course, a lot about Texas, so it’s easy to put myself right into the lines.
    Thank you so much for doing this.

  4. says

    I am faltering already, just because I’m ill. I am having trouble doing much of anything right now (second week in a row).

    And so I read my Tomas Transtromer yesterday but not yet today. Still, yesterday’s may take me through a lot of years…

    “We do not surrender. But want peace.”

    I think, yes, I could spend years in those lines.

    And I love your words here. So many thoughtful words. If my brain were not so fuzzy, I might even say something of value about them.

    • says

      Oh, so sorry to hear you’re not well, L.L.

      Something from Transtromer for you:

      . . .
      And what is empty turns its face to us
      and whispers:
      “I am not empty, I am open.”
      (from “Vermeer”)

      • says

        I can see this is a poet I’m going to need to read, after this month. :)

        The way a good poem forces the reader past the usual either/or is one of the greatest gifts it gives me. He does that with these lines here.

      • says

        “I am not empty, I am open.”

        Really nice, Maureen.

        I did end up compelling myself to go to the library yesterday afternoon, and so I got Tomas and I read him for a long while last night. Some of the poems are very strange. They don’t settle anywhere. This is odd for me (I like a poem that settles on something), so it’s going to be an interesting month.

        Mostly, I seem to be liking these separate pieces that come my way. Like the one you gave me here. Or the one I found. “We do not surrender. But want peace.”

        • says

          The poem I quoted from is in “The Half-Finished Heaven: the best poems of Tomas Transtromer” (2001). One notable thing about the collection is that the translations are by Robert Bly (he seems to do translations of an incredible number of languages). It’s a wonderful volume, especially if one is approaching Transtromer for the first time.

    • says

      It occurs to me that there are ways, though so difficult sometimes to navigate, to do both (again he forces me past the dichotomy of “it’s either this or that, as in my comment to Maureen below). To reach a point of peace, without surrendering what is most essential to living.

    • Marcy says

      L.L. Barkat

      So sorry to hear you are ill, my thoughts and prayers are with you. It’s no fun to feel bad and be sick, may the Lord above look kindly down upon your soul. Sometimes this is His way of slowing us down, allowing Him to take control and heal us. Sit in a sunny window and sip hot tea, know people care. In Him, Marcy

      • says

        Marcy, you are very kind.

        I *did* sit near a sunny window today and drink tea. How did you know? :)

        (And I listened to my daughter read The Hobbit aloud, which was quite funny and good for the heart.)

  5. says

    I love your poem, Lyla!

    So grateful for the suggestion to copy out the poems by hand. The practice is already helping me to see new layers, especially since the poet we’re doing (Kevin Young) likes white space.

  6. says

    I’m reading John Ciardi every day. The way he strings words together to give you the “sense” of the thing is extraordinary.

  7. says

    My people’s poets <– that's the 3-word phrase I've read and reread. Such a sense of community. And wonder.

    I'm late to the dare, but I have been doing my own poetry thing. At the conclusion of my bible time each morning, I summarize my readings with a haiku. What that means is that this wordy girl narrows, refines, and decides what bits need to stick most. I admit, sometimes I write a run-on haiku (2 haikus stacked).

    As for poetryReading, I've got this book from my husband's grandpa entitled, "Best Loved Poems." The dates inside say 1946 & 1952; pages are yellowed; the font looks typewriter-ish; it sold for 35 cents. Also, the first and last interior pages are thicker paper, dark brown.

    I wonder why.

    • says

      There is something to that, isn’t there? “My people’s poets.” And I wonder who “my people’s” poets would be…

      Run-on haiku. I love that. It’s how haiku started, actually. It was written in a chain. And then Basho (I think) was the one who started letting the links stand alone. It’s a great practice, I think, as you say to have to decide what needs to stay, what has to go, to get down to the very essence of the thing. A single image.

      A poem from the 1946 collection? Let’s have it. :)

  8. says

    This sentence intrigued me: “The poems are not dark in a depressing or hopeless way, but in the way of a hopeful cynic, like polished jade.” The “hopeful cynic” part, especially, got me wondering. I never would have thought to put those two words together, but when I read that, I immediately thought of Puddleglum in the Narnia books.

  9. says

    I write out the words to poems as well. Today I am toiling with Hopkins’ “Carrion Comfort.” I don’t understand all of it, but writing the words helps me, at the least, contemplate new things each time I scratch out a word and wonder about it.

    I always look forward to Saturday mornings when Tweetspeak Poetry arrives in my inbox. I love reading these essays.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *