Wisława Symborska

May 30, 2022

Last week’s post on First Loves led to a wonderful discussion during Fridays at 4. This week I want to continue that feeling, but with a later poetry love of mine, the work of Polish poet Wisława Szymborska (Vee-ZHWA-vah Zhim-BOR-ska).  I can read her work only in translation, and the general agreement is that the best are those by Clare Cavanaugh and Stanislav Barańczak.  Their versions are the ones that appear below.

I was completely smitten the first time I saw these titles, and then the poems that followed: “Notes from a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition,” “The Letters of the Dead,” “In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself,” “Cat in an Empty Apartment,” on and on.  What drew me?  The tone of voice, that speaks about mortality with matter-of-factness, even humor.  The moments she chooses to write about, from dramatic (“The Terrorist, He Waits,” ) to the minute, the daily (“The Silence of Plants,” “A Little Girl Tugs at the Tablecloth”).  That she writes about writing poetry, something not typical of American poetry (“In Fact Every Poem.” “To My Own Poem,” ‘The Poet’s Nightmare,” “Some People Like Poetry.”)  The surfaces are deceptively simple, the depths infinite.

Please comment here, post your own favorites, and plan to join us to discuss them this Friday.



translated by Clare Cavanaugh and Stanisław Barańczak



After every war
someone’s got to tidy up.
Things won’t pick
themselves up, after all.

Someone’s got to shove
the rubble to the roadsides
so the carts loaded with corpses
can get by.

Someone’s got to trudge
through sludge and ashes,
through the sofa springs,
the shards of glass,
the bloody rags.

Someone’s got to lug the post
to prop the wall,
someone’s got to glaze the window,
set the door in its frame.

No sound bites, no photo opportunities
and it takes years.
All the cameras have gone
to other wars.

The bridges need to be rebuilt,
the railroad stations, too.
Shirt sleeves will be rolled
to shreds.

Someone, broom in hand,
still remembers how it was.
Someone else listens, nodding
his unshattered head.
But others are bound to be bustling nearby
who’ll find all that
a little boring.

From time to time someone still must
dig up a rusted argument
from underneath a bush
and haul it off to the dump.

Those who knew
what this was all about
must make way for those
who know little.
And less than that.
And at last nothing less
than nothing.

Someone’s got to lie there
in the grass that covers up
the causes and effects
with a cornstalk in his teeth,
gawking at clouds



And who’s this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe?
That’s tiny baby Adolf, the Hitlers little boy!
Will he grow up to be an LL.D.?
Or a tenor in Vienna’s Opera House?
Whose teensy hand is this, whose little ear and eye and nose?
Whose tummy full of milk, we just don’t know:
printer’s, doctor’s, merchant’s, priest’s?
Where will those tootsy-wootsies finally wander?
To garden, to school, to an office, to a bride,
maybe to the Burgermeister’s daughter?

Precious little angel, mommy’s sunshine, honeybun,
while he was being born a year ago,
there was no dearth of signs on the earth and in the sky:
spring sun, geraniums in windows,
the organ-grinder’s music in the yard,
a lucky fortune wrapped in rosy paper,
then just before the labor his mother’s fateful dream:
a dove seen in dream means joyful news,
if it is caught, a long-awaited guest will come.
Knock knock, who’s there, it’s Adolf’s heartchen knocking.

A little pacifier, diaper, rattle, bib,
our bouncing boy, thank God and knock on wood, is well,
looks just like his folks, like a kitten in a basket,
like the tots in every other family album.
Shush, let’s not start crying, sugar,
the camera will click from under that black hood.

The Klinger Atelier, Grabenstrasse, Braunau,
and Braunau is small but worthy town,
honest businesses, obliging neighbors,
smell of yeast dough, of gray soap.
No one hears howling dogs, or fate’s footsteps.
A history teacher loosens his collar
and yawns over homework.



It’s good you came—she says.
You heard a plane crashed on Thursday?
Well so they came to see me
about it.
The story is he was on the passenger list.
So what, he might have changed his mind.
They gave me some pills so I wouldn’t fall apart.
Then they showed me I don’t know who.
All black, burned except one hand.
A scrap of shirt, a watch, a wedding ring.
I got furious, that can’t be him.
He wouldn’t do that to me, look like that.
The stores are bursting with those shirts.
The watch is just a regular old watch.
And our names on that ring,
they’re only the most ordinary names.
It’s good you came. Sit here beside me.
He really was supposed to get back Thursday.
But we’ve got so many Thursdays left this year.
I’ll put the kettle on for tea.
I’ll wash my hair, then what,
try to wake up from all this.
It’s good you came, since it was cold there,
and him just in some rubber sleeping bag,
him, I mean, you know, that unlucky man.

I’ll put the Thursday on, wash the tea,

since our names are completely ordinary—



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:
No interference?
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!

Share the word

You Might Also Like


  • Reply Anne Pitkin May 30, 2022 at 2:58 pm

    I wonder if you’ve seen Szymborska’s “How to Start Writing (and When to Stop). It is a series of replies to would-be writers who sent submissions to Literary Mailbox, a column in the Polish journal Literary Life. It is what you might expect, wry and often devastating.

  • Reply Sharon May 30, 2022 at 3:01 pm

    I heard about it, but haven’t seen it. I’m glad you reminded me–I’ll look for it, thanks.

  • Reply Heather McHugh May 30, 2022 at 5:30 pm

    no poet better earned the world’s acclaim.. bravo to you for keeping us alert, today, to what is always indispensable in her: Szymborska’s signature mix of mercy and the merciless, her sharp sardonic view as intimate as comprehensive, her steady fix on human love (with its own darker strokes of overlord and undertow)

    • Reply Sharon May 30, 2022 at 5:36 pm

      Thanks for this. I remember your stunning talk in Houston on “Hitler’s First Photo,” and that you put the photo up first, and we all oohed and ahhed before we knew what we were seeing. This poem’s ability to go back in time, to peel away everything we know since, is uncanny to me, and that juxtaposition of poem and photo profoundly disturbing.
      Hitler as a baby

  • Reply Martha Zweig June 2, 2022 at 3:41 pm

    Polish Literature: In Broad Daylight by Wisława Szymborska (recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature)

    [The poet Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński was killed in action in the Warsaw Uprising on 4 August 1944 at the age of 23].

    He would have made trips to a mountain guesthouse
    and come down for dinner to the dining room;
    sitting at the table by the window,
    he would have looked at the four spruces, branch, by branch,
    not shaking off the newly fallen snow.

    With his pointed beard, bespectacled,
    his hair going bald and grey,
    his facial features heavier and weary,
    with a wart on his cheek, and a wrinkled forehead,
    as if human clay had spoilt heavenly marble –
    but when it happened he wouldn’t have known himself
    because the price for not having died earlier
    goes up slowly, not rapidly,
    and he too would have paid it.

    “I’ve been bloody lucky,” he would have said
    about his earlobe, barely grazed by a bullet
    when his head moved at just the right moment.

    Waiting for broth to be served,
    he would have read the latest newspaper
    with its big headlines and the ad section,
    or drummed his fingers on the white tablecloth –
    his hands would have borne the marks of time,
    their skin coarse, showing the bulging veins.

    Sometimes somebody would have called from the hall:
    “Somebody on the line for you, Mr Baczyński”,
    and there would have been nothing strange
    in that it was him and that he rose adjusting his sweater,
    and proceeded slowly towards the door.

    Upon this sight no one would have frozen
    and broken off their conversations in mid-sentence
    as it would have been perfectly ordinary, a pity, a pity,
    it would have been a sight just like any other.

    Today I favor the version of this poem on page 141 of the Harcourt Grain of Sand volume (which version Google failed to find). I don’t get it right away. Not, in fact, until the end note. Then I feel something, a lot. Pity & terror, even. The difficulty I’m having in reading/rereading more than 1 or 2 of these poems is that they start to seem all alike. A series of lectures, from a podium. After a while, it’s a brand. After even more, a gimmick. I do also keep liking the cat in the apartment because we’re in the cat’s mind, a relief from the other poems’ human persona presentation.

    • Reply Sharon June 2, 2022 at 3:51 pm

      I find a likeness of tone, I guess, and attitude. But I always find it refreshing in its difference from American poetry, a different viewpoint. And knowing her work and her interviews and prose, I think it couldn’t be further from a gimmick–I think it’s a way of seeing the world, being in the world. Simple surfaces, but behind them deep knowledge of philosophy and history, an instinct for telling details, of human behavior, of mortality.

  • Reply Martha Zweig June 2, 2022 at 4:12 pm

    PS: I found the book I mentioned last time, the one I stole: A Calendar of Love, stories, by George Mackay Brown. Knocked sox favorite:The Story of Jorkel Hayforks.

  • Reply Susanna Rich June 3, 2022 at 1:19 pm

    I am SO in love with Szymborska and grateful for the opportunity to groove with you all on her. One of the things that makes her so brilliant is that she easily translates into other languages–especially in what is the most difficult to manage naturally–rhyme. Here is one of my favorites in Baranczak’s and Cavanagh’s take:

    Bodybuilder’s Contest

    From scalp to sole, all muscles in slow motion.
    The ocean of his torso drips with lotion.
    The king of all is he who preens and wrestles
    with sinews twisted into monstrous pretzels.

    Onstage, he grapples with a grizzly bear
    the deadlier for not really being there.
    Three unseen panthers are in turn laid low,
    each with one smoothly choreographed blow.

    He grunts while showing his poses and paces.
    His back alone has twenty different faces.
    The mammoth fist he raises as he wins
    is tribute to the force of vitamins.

    • Reply Sharon June 3, 2022 at 1:22 pm

      Interesting, about the translating. I love wrestles and pretzels.

  • Reply Laura Jensen June 3, 2022 at 5:40 pm

    Interesting event, thank you for doing this, Sharon.
    przyszycie guzika na koszuli – google give this answer for Sewing A Button on Her Shirt, but google translates it back Sewing A Button on A Shirt.

    • Reply Sharon June 3, 2022 at 7:10 pm

      Thanks for this. I’m going to look up more.


    Leave a Reply