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On Szymborska

I have been saying that Polish poetry is strong and distinguished upon the background of world poetry by certain traits. Those traits can be found in the poems of a few eminent Polish poets, including Wislawa Szymborska. Her Nobel Prize is her personal triumph but at the same time it confirms the place of the “Polish school of poetry.” Perhaps it is not necessary to recall that the language of that poetry is the language of a country where the crime of genocide was perpetrated on a mass scale. Links between the word and historical experiences can be of various kinds, and there is no simple relationship of cause and effect. And yet a certain fact is not without significance: Szymborska, like Tadeusz Rozewicz and Zbigniew Herbert, writes in the place of the generation of poets who made their debut during the war and did not survive.

What does the poetry of Szymborska, marked as it is by such a lightness of touch, skeptically smiling, playful, have to do with the history of the twentieth, or any other, century? In its beginnings, it had much to do with it, but its mature phase moves away from images of linear time rushing toward utopia or an apocalyptic catastrophe, as the just-ending century liked to believe. Her dimension is personal, of one person who reflects on the human condition. It is true that her reflection goes together with a remarkable reticence, as if the poet found herself on a stage with the decor for a preceding play, a play which changed the individual into nothing, an anonymous cipher, and in such circumstances to talk about oneself is not indicated.

Szymborska’s poems explore private situations, yet they are sufficiently generalized, so that she is able to avoid confessions. In her well-known poem about a cat in an empty apartment, instead of complaint about the loss of the husband of a friend, we hear: “To die/one does not do that to a cat.” Reticence and an ironic distance toward herself may testify to special predilections of the poet; nevertheless, since in this she resembles some of her Polish contemporaries, one could successfully defend the thesis that their common feature is their attempt to exorcise the past. In this task they practice a peculiar distillation, and the raw materials they use are often difficult to detect.

For me, Szymborska is first of all a poet of consciousness. This means that she speaks to us, living at the same time, as one of us, reserving her private matters for herself, operating at a certain remove, but also referring to what everybody knows from one’s own life. For do we not remember our undressing before a medical examination, or our wondering at coincidences, or reading letters of people who are no more? Hence, as if in drawings that capture scenes of familiar everyday events, we recognize ourselves in these poems as beings kindred to each other, with a subjectivity which is different in each person and which exists, as it were, between parentheses. We are related also because we are contemporaries, thus submitted to the same circuit of information. Words—orientation signals—mean more or less the same to us: the theory of evolution, spaceships, Hiroshima, but also Homer, Vermeer, or the uncertainty principle, namely, a whole repertory of notions we receive at home, at school, in the mass media.

Szymborska’s poems are built through juggling, as if with colored balls, the components of our common knowledge; they surprise us with its paradoxes and show the human world as tragicomic. The consciousness that finds its expression in them is a consciousness afterafter Darwin, after Einstein, after many others—for, after all, the civilization in which we live submerged preserves their traces. Confronted with poetry so insouciantly dancing, as if written effortlessly, we hesitate to mention the landmarks of science, yet because they have existed, Szymborska’s thought and our thought, whether we wish it or not, is complex and devious. Nowhere is this better seen than where she questions the place of man in the chain of evolution. Thus, for instance, the poem “Four in the Morning” opposes our anxiety, not allowing us to sleep, to the automatic busying of ants.

No one feels good at four in the morning.
If ants feel good at four in the morning
—three cheers for the ants. And let five o’clock come
if we’re to go on living.*

Another poem, “In Praise of Self-Deprecation,” draws a line between the clear conscience characterizing all live nature and the moral torments which are our part:

The self-critical jackal does not exist.
The locust, alligator, trichina, horsefly
live as they live and are glad of it.

The poem “Autonomy” begins:

When in danger the sea-cucumber divides itself in two

and the argument that follows re-vindicates the human privilege, that of creating art—in spite of and against death:

We know how to divide ourselves, how true, we too.
But only into a body and an interrupted whisper.
Into body and poetry.

Symborska would not have been a poet of the period of great doubts had she not invoked salvation through art. “The revenge of a mortal hand” appears in her poems in various forms, including fun at her own expense.

A couple of years ago, reading her poems in public in English translation, I found out that their intellectual brilliance hiding serious content was well understood, and applauded by, a mostly young audience. I should reveal what it was they liked the most. The listeners of both sexes laughed a lot (and I with them) hearing the poem “In Praise of My Sister”:

My sister does not write poems,
and it’s unlikely she’ll suddenly start writing poems.

I thought that at least half of those present must have had writing poems on their conscience, and that is why they found the poem so funny.

—Translated from Polish by the author and Robert Hass

  1. *

    English translations of poems are from Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems by Wislawa Szymborska, translated and introduced by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire (Princeton University Press, 1981).

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