No poet gives me more sheer pleasure than the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska ( Vee-shwava Zhim-borshka). The poems’ surfaces have a deceptive simplicity that opens onto bottomless depths. Great clarity combines with humility–the title of her Nobel lecture was “I Don’t Know.” No matter how dark the subject–“Hitler’s First Photograph,” “The Terrorist,” “Funeral”–a love of life shines through, an abiding affection for humans in all their imperfections, a rueful embrace of mortality. The cover of her book Here features a photo of a younger Szymborska smoking, her eyes closed and a blissful smile on her face. She had to have chosen this after she had been diagnosed with the lung cancer that would kill her, and I take it as an extension of the spirit that pervades her poems: embrace life, pains, pleasures and all. Sorrow but not guilt. Joy and humor in the face of loss.
I first came across Szymborska’s work years ago in Czeslaw Milosz’s Postwar Polish Poetry, and it was love at first read. Over the years, more and more of her poetry became available in English. I read her only in translation, and the best translators by all accounts are Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak. I hesitated a little before I taught her work the first time–would my twenty-year-old American students connect to an ironic intellectual Polish poet? The answer was a resounding yes. The voice engaged them immediately, and the humor, the surprising questions and unusual takes on every day life. And then, before they knew it, they were drawn into the poems’ depths.
Years ago I heard Ed Hirsch give a talk on poetry and photography. Before he spoke, a black and white photo was shown on a screen onstage: a baby in what could be an old-fashioned christening dress. Because it was a baby we all oohed and aahed and smiled. And then Ed read Szymborska’s poem “Hitler’s First Photograph.” I’m not posting it here, but you can find it online.
I joke that in my next life I want to come back as a Polish poet. When Szymborska died it was front page news, and flags around the country were lowered to half-mast. Poetry there is a major part of the conversation, along with philosophy, politics, science, and the other arts. I dream of making ways for more of that to happen here, but we’re a long way from that now.
In addition to Szymborska’s poems, there’s a wonderful collection of short prose pieces, Nonrequired Reading.
Here are a couple of my favorites, both translated by Cavanagh and Baranczak. Feel free to add your own, and your thoughts about her work.
Maybe all this
is happening in some lab?
Under one lamp by day
and billions by night?
Maybe we’re experimental generations?
Poured from one vial to the next,
shaken in test tubes,
not scrutinized by eyes alone,
each of us separately
plucked up by tweezers in the end?
Or maybe it’s more like this:
The changes occur on their own
according to plan?
The graph’s needle slowly etches
its predictable zigzags?
Maybe thus far we aren’t of much interest?
The control monitors aren’t usually plugged in?
Only for wars, preferably large ones,
for the odd ascent above our clump of Earth,
for major migrations from point A to B?
Maybe just the opposite:
They’ve got a taste for trivia up there?
Look! on the big screen a little girl
is sewing a button on her sleeve.
The radar shrieks,
the staff comes at a run.
What a darling little being
with its tiny heart beating inside it!
How sweet, its solemn
threading of the needle!
Someone cries enraptured:
Get the Boss,
tell him he’s got to see this for himself!