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Standby Poems: Experiment by Wisława Szymborska

I always connect fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett with the poem ‘Experiment’ by Wisława Szymborska (1923-2012). It's a bit of digression, but I remember him saying in a TV interview that after learning he had a rare form of dementia, the very next morning he took a walk in his garden and it was a gorgeous bright sunny day and there, amongst the trees and flowers, he suddenly found himself whistling. Even on a day when he’d had the darkest news, up popped the human spirit again, unthinking, whistling to itself. And that’s what takes me back to this poem.

If I tried to sum it up, and hope it doesn’t put you off, ‘Experiment’ is about headless dog wagging it’s tail. It’s a poem I’m glad to have read by a poet I was pleased to be introduced to by Christopher Reid, my Jerwood Arvon mentor back in the early years of the century when I was still a ‘young’ poet. I've been hooked by her poems ever since.

For me, ‘Experiment’ is a real Standby Poem, one that I often reach for. I've taken it with me on some of my adventures – to a high school in Swaffham (deepest Norfolk) where there happened to be a young Polish girl in one of the classes who knew the work of Szymborska. She said everyone knew and loved her poems in Poland and, after making her laugh with my pronouncation, she even taught me how to say her name correctly. I also remember the girl read the poem to the class, joyfully, in Polish which was lovely to hear.

It came with me to a writing group in Blundeston Prison – set up by my sister Nicky who worked there in the library – and for each session I’d take a poem for discussion. This one had quite an effect! It really surprised me that the group of inmates were shocked and thought it was sick – what warped mind would write about a headless dog! What’s it got to do with happiness? I tried to explain…

One definition of happiness for me, after reading 'Experiment', will always be a headless dog wagging it’s tail. I swing back and forth as to whether it’s scary, as Szymborska says in the poem, or whether it’s reassuring that if all else fails, even on the darkest days, happiness can be found in a sniff of a bacon sandwich.



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