For the fourth week of our National Poetry Month celebration, we will be focused on the work of Wisława Szymborska. Szymborska was born in 1923 in Bnin, a small town in western Poland, and from early childhood lived in Kraków. She worked on the editorial staff of the cultural weekly Życie Literackie (Literary Life) from 1952 to 1981. Szymborska wrote some twenty books of poetry, was a distinguished translator of French poetry into Polish, and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996, “for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.” She died in February 2012.
In 1998, two years after Wisława Szymborska won the Nobel Prize in Literature and thirteen years before Tomas Transtromer received his, Helen Vendler wrote this dual review of each of their recently translated Collected Poems. The piece presents a sustained contrast between Transtromer’s meditations on “powerful unseen, unconscious forces” with Szymborska’s mastery of social circumstance. Yet Vendler’s reading of Szymborska’s poem “Some People,” among others, enlarges the meaning of “social circumstance,” and brilliantly evokes the poet’s ambidextrous powers: “It is a list; she likes lists. It is rigorous; she believes in facing the truth. It involves social experience; life for her is rarely one of individual isolation…. It is both objective and subjective, both documentary and empathetic…. Her restless skepticism questions a categorical statement even as she makes it.”
October 8, 1998
March 8, 2012
I’m a poor audience for my memory.
She wants me to attend her voice nonstop,
but I fidget, fuss,
listen and don’t,
step out, come back, then leave again.
She wants all my time and attention.
She’s got no problem when I sleep.
The day’s a different matter, which upsets her.
She thrusts old letters, snapshots at me eagerly,
stirs up events both important and un-,
turns my eyes to overlooked views,
peoples them with my dead.
October 21, 1993
Die—you can’t do that to a cat.
Since what can a cat do
in an empty apartment?
Climb the walls?
Rub up against the furniture?
Nothing seems different here
but nothing is the same.
Nothing’s been moved
but there’s more space.
And at nighttime no lamps are lit.
Six months before Wisława Szymborska won the Nobel Prize in Literature, Edward Hirsch reviewed her Selected Poems in The New York Review: “Szymborska is a highly conceptual poet, and an idiosyncratic one. Reading the great twentieth-century poets—Eliot, for example, or Vallejo—one feels the language moving mysteriously ahead of the thought, the combination of words unlocking perceptions deeper than the conscious mind; hence the high premium these poets place on the irrational and the unconscious in the creative process. In Szymborska’s case the governing rationale of a poem comes first and then develops in unexpected directions….”
April 18, 1996
December 17, 2009
When we first started looking through microscopes
a cold fear blew and it’s still blowing.
Life hitherto had been frantic enough
in all its shapes and dimensions.
Which is why it created small-scale creatures,
assorted tiny worms and flies,
but at least the naked human eye
could see them.
But then suddenly beneath the glass,
foreign to a fault
and so petite,
that what they occupy in space
can only charitably be called a spot.
Czesław Miłosz wrote this brief and illuminating piece on Wisława Szymborska in late 1996, just after she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. While conceding that the “dimension” of her poems was “personal,” he went on to discuss the subtle ways her work rejected excessive subjectivity: “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.”
November 14, 1996
February 23, 2006
I walk on the slope of a hill gone green.
Grass, little flowers in the grass,
as in a children’s illustration.
The misty sky’s already turning blue.
A view of other hills unfolds in silence.
As if there’d never been any Cambrians, Silurians,
rocks snarling at crags,
no nights in flames
and days in clouds of darkness.