The Manhattan Review
The Manhattan Review
Established 1980

Archive > Vol. 4 no. 2


Wislawa Szymborska

Stage Fright

Translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh


Poets and writers.
So the saying goes.
That is poets aren’t writers, but who—

Poets are poetry, writers are prose—

Prose can hold anything including poetry
but in poetry there’s only room for poetry—

In keeping with the poster that announces it
with a fin-de-siecle flourish of its giant P
framed in a winged lyre’s strings
I shouldn’t simply walk in, I should fly—

And wouldn’t I be better off barefoot
to escape the clump and squeak
of cut-rate sneakers,
a clumsy ersatz angel—

If at least the dress were longer and more flowing
and the poems appeared not from a handbag but by sleight-of-hand,
dressed in their Sunday best from head to toe,
with bells on, ding to dong
ab ab ba—

On the platform lurks a little table
suggesting séances, with gilded legs,
and on the little table smokes a little candlestick—

Which means
I’ve got to read by candlelight
what I wrote by the light of an ordinary bulb
to the typewriter’s tap tap tap—

Without worrying in advance
if it was poetry
and if so, what kind—

The kind in which prose is inappropriate
or the kind which is apropos in prose—

And what’s the difference,
seen now only in half-light
against a crimson curtain’s
purple fringe?



“Stage Fright” from POEMS, NEW AND COLLECTED: 1957-1997 by Wislawa Szymborska, English translation by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh copyright ©1998 by Harcourt Inc., reprinted by permission of the publisher. This material may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.