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!
I’d like to add a little thing I wrote that was published in a special Szymborska issue of The New Ohio Review in 2009. I think we appreciate very similar things about WS. When I was in Krakow for several months in 2013 (and failed to learn any Polish), there was a special exhibit on her, including some of her fabulous and witty collages, often sent to friends in the mail.
TO KEEP ON NOT KNOWING
Reading Szymborska I feel I’ve stepped from a quiet street into a sensible house (no drafts, no drapes, no poking furniture, no exhausting art), and a voice calls me out to a balcony that widens to a stone terrace, an expanding perch. She’s there smiling, over her shoulders a sweater the gray of spring rain, and as she turns, a view of a valley widens behind her. Of course, a river runs there, so clear we can make out the trout hatchlings in the pea gravel, read their ambitions to be small fry, to study currents, to kiss insects off the surface where a fisherman has just cast a line. Its flashing drip meets its climbing crater, steep as the mountains that end the valley, and over those mountains, more mountains. Cities slosh up and over the sides; the valleys are fins of light. This place feels startling and familiar—like falling in love every night with the Milky Way.
Reading the title of a Szymborska poem, we don’t expect the poem to startle us. The titles are traffic signs—indicators, directionals: “Born,” “Wrong Number,” “Clouds.” The title “A Note” leads us to a functional first line “Life is the only way”–but from this bland beginning we discover we’ve been standing on a limestone shelf jutting over a canyon; we jump along a series of shelves built from sturdy phrasal lines:
Life is the only way
to get covered with leaves,
catch your breath on the sand,
rise on wings;
to be a dog
or stroke its warm fur;
to tell pain
from everything it’s not;
From earth, to sea, to sky. At the end of the first stanza a twinkle of apprehension settles in that she might be suggesting something about angels, but Szymborska douses that impression in the leap to “to be a dog.” Aha! I’d been thinking about being alive in narrow human terms. Birds and dogs are included! Deep registers of my buried Catholic upbringing are struck. Why was I dwelling on myself and my own little feelings? But my species arrogance feels rebuked in the friendliest manner, for the dog and its dogginess offer comfort, generosity, and pain dulled by “everything it’s not.”
I said series of shelves, but that’s wrong. Parts of a Szymborska poem aren’t linked like a chain, in a 1, 2, 3, or as deductions, I. A. 1, a, i. The associational course of a poem is like the operations of quantum physics where something bubbles up, something vanishes. Instead of 1, 2, 3, I feel moved through a pattern of 1, c, green, Keats, bees, Sunday.
The title “A Note” is really “Notatka” which I think I can pronounce passably, but the first line, “Życie— jedyny sposób”? The moment on the terrace happens soundlessly, or sourcelessly, as if stream and mountain were painted in not heaved up and flooded in by continental plates, orogeny, and storm patterns. The house I’ve walked into is implicit, inside the implicit city, the translated one, that wavers on the water where I skip stones. The real city, the city of the Polish language, with its three kinds of “z,” with its use of aspect where English might uses tenses, with its instrumental case, the city of Polish lies far beyond those mountains. Google Earth zooms me over; I roam the streets of Krakow, pass picnickers under the bulwarks, swans gliding by like question marks, but I can’t hear the singing in the tavern or smell the sparks as the yellow tram turns a corner. The clouds arrive with a Baltic twang: chmury, chmur, chmurami, chmurach, chmuron I don’t understand. But then, life is the only way, she says at the end of “A Note, “to keep on not knowing / something important.”
Thanks for this, Michelle. “Limestone shelf jutting over a canyon” is exactly right for the feel of her poems. This is a wonderful piece, really captures the feel of her poems, her spirit.
I’m always struck by the temporal genius of Szymborska’s poems. Often, I feel led by a poem’s speaker, sort of stepping-stones on the way to the poem’s heart. Not with Szymborska. Her poems are at once so simple and clear in their moments, but also have the (simultaneous) quality of hurtling the reader beyond the speed of thought toward…some kind of light shed on a moment/experience only Symborska could have seen. She alters perspective. She juxtaposes the every-day with her extraordinary and close observations, her implacable and inevitable commentary. She annihilates the barriers between external and internal, and between subject, viewer, and her poem’s reader. She is a driver whose bus I trust, who stops us short, focuses on what might be peripheral, makes sure all of life is seen, even a beetle–dead on the path.
Seen From Above
A dead beetle lies on the path through the field.
Three pairs of legs folded neatly on its belly.
Instead of death’s confusion, tidiness and order.
The horror of this sight is moderate,
its scope is strictly local, from the wheat grass to the mint.
The grief is quarantined.
The sky is blue.
To preserve our peace of mind, animals die
more shallowly: they aren’t deceased, they’re dead.
They leave behind, we’d like to think, less feeling and less world,
departing, we suppose, from a stage less tragic.
Their meek souls never haunt us in the dark,
they know their place,
they show respect.
And so the dead beetle on the path
lies unmourned and shining in the sun.
One glance at it will do for meditation––
clearly nothing much has happened to it.
Important matters are reserved for us,
for our life and our death, a death
that always claims the right of way.
I remember when you first recommended her poetry to me over ten years ago now. I was delighted with her honesty, intelligence and understated humor. So glad to know her voice is in the world. Thanks!
Clare Cavanagh is also the superb translator of another great Polish poet of a younger generation, Adam Zagajewski.
Yes, Adam Zagajewski is another one of my favorite poets. I was lucky enough to teach with him in Houston years ago and he’s a lovely man as well as a great poet. I love all of his work, including the prose, especially Another Beauty and Solidarity/Solitude.
Thanks, Sharon, for including Szymborska … also one of my favorites. I agree with Megan Bohigian about “Seen from Above.” What is so wonderful about Szymborska is her tremendous skill at metaphorical illusion … the psychic equivalent of optical illusion. She writes about one truth (our view of insects in this case) and another truth at the same time (that particular insect having a complete life regardless of us). She slices our heads off with simplicity … Yes, swords and loss of heads shows up in her work as well. Thanks again.
You’re right: optical illusion, the way you think you’re looking at one scale and suddenly it’s another: that shift and startle and sudden new perspective.
“Life is the only way/to get covered with leaves?” How can a person even think that? She is breathtaking, and I’ve loved her poetry ever since you first brought her to my attention, Sharon. (Other people also think so differently from me that I can’t imagine it, only I recoil with horror.) She has me always at the edge of a giggle while I’m also thinking profundities. How can this be–and in a language that has three kinds of z’s? Ah.
Szymborska was awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature “for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.” When World War II broke out in 1939, she continued her education in underground classes. From 1943, she worked as a railroad employee and managed to avoid being deported to Germany as a forced labourer.
Thanks for this. I didn’t know these details. I hope someone is writing a biography.