The Revenge of the Mortal Hand

Of the poetic voices to come out of Poland after 1945 Wislawa Szymborska’s is probably the most elusive as well as the most distinctive. She defies the usual categories (“classicist,” “political”) used to describe writers on the Polish postwar literary scene. Moreover, she is isolated both in her writing and in her life, avoiding autobiography and remaining intensely private.

What is known about her could also, however, be said of many of her generation. Born in 1923 in Kornik, near Poznan, she spent her childhood and early youth in wartime Poland. She started to publish her first poems in literary periodicals just after the war, in the brief period of hope that was brutally terminated in 1948 by the overt Stalinization of the country. When she was about to publish her first volume of verse, which was found wanting in the propaganda requirements of socialist realism, she was faced—as were many of her contemporaries—with the alternatives of silence or compromise.

This dilemma, which came as a surprise to many who had grown up during the war, resulted in grave divisions within Polish cultural life. Some young poets, like Zbigniew Herbert and Miron Bialoszewski, decided to remain silent and survived doing menial jobs until 1956 when, as political life became relatively relaxed, they could again begin publishing their work. Some accepted the new requirements without objection and lent their talents, out of conviction or cynicism, to the regime. Others, like Szymborska herself, chose conformity with the formal and thematic demands of the new cultural policy while at the same time trying to maintain some degree of poetic authenticity and to preserve in their writing the traditional humanistic values that were endangered by the fear and desolation of the Stalinist years.

The limitations of poetic choice she encountered, and her painful attempts to avoid the ultimate lie, are reflected in her first two books of poetry: That’s What We Live For (1952) and Questions Put to Myself (1954). The first, later repudiated by the poet herself, contained the usual variations on officially inspired “political” themes; however, their gentler, more lyrical tone distinguished them from the standard work of that kind. The second book showed a retreat into more personal, traditionally “poetic” themes of love, death, and time—the only nonpolitical themes occasionally tolerated by the cultural policy of that period. Only after the political “thaw” in 1956, and with the publication of her third volume, Calling Out to Yeti (1957), was Szymborska to find her true poetic voice.

Poetry has remained her only occupation. She has published little prose except for the short, witty book reviews which appeared regularly in a Polish literary magazine—most of them on ostentatiously nonpoetic subjects: popular science, entertainment, dictionaries and encyclopedias. Only rarely is Szymborska’s voice heard on public issues. She signed a petition of Polish intellectuals protesting the ignominious amendment to the Polish constitution expressing “eternal friendship and cooperation with the Soviet Union,” and supported the “Flying University,” the semiclandestine network of intellectuals which was intended to…

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