Subversive Activities

View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems

by Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh
Harcourt Brace, 214 pp., $20.00; $12.00 (paper)

Wislawa Szymborska, with Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Rózewicz, is one of the major living Polish poets of the generation after Milosz. Of the four Szymborska is the least well-known in America, perhaps because she has remained in Poland, and because she shuns the public eye. Little is known about her private life; she has rarely been interviewed. Yet, as in the case of Elizabeth Bishop, her reticence is accompanied by considerable literary ambition. Like Herbert, she has mounted in her work a witty and tireless defense of individual subjectivity against collectivist thinking, and her poems, like his, are slyly subversive in a way that compels us to reconsider received opinion. In both, the rejection of dogma becomes the basis of a canny personal ethics.

Szymborska was born in 1923 in the small town of Bnin in the Poznan area of western Poland. She moved with her family to Cracow when she was eight years old and has lived there ever since. She attended school illegally during the German occupation, when the Nazis banned Polish secondary schools and universities, and after the war studied Polish literature and sociology at Jagiellonian University. From 1952 to 1981 she worked on the editorial staff of the cultural weekly Zycie Literackie (Literary Life). She has published nine collections of poems and several editions of her selected verse, as well as a volume of newspaper reviews and columns. She is also known to Polish readers as a distinguished translator of French poetry, mostly of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

View with a Grain of Sand, translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, brings together a hundred poems spanning nearly forty years of Szymborska’s work. It is by far the most extensive and readable edition of her poems yet to appear in English.1 The translators haven’t included anything from Szymborska’s early books, That’s What We Live For (1952) and Questions Put to Myself (1954), and only three poems from her transitional third collection, Calling Out to Yeti (1957). The later volumes, published after she managed to break free of political pressures to conform, are well-represented here: Salt (1962), No End of Fun (1967), Could Have (1972), A Large Number (1976), The People on the Bridge (1986), and The End and the Beginning (1993).

Szymborska comes through well in translation, but Baranczak and Cavanagh are the first to convey the full force of her fierce and unexpected wit. Their versions reproduce the rhythm and rhyme schemes of some of her early poems. They have come up with deft equivalents for her pervasive wordplay, and have recreated the jaunty, precise, deceptively casual free verse of her late work. My only complaint about this splendid book is that it comes without any supplementary information. It has no introduction, no commentary or notes, no afterword—the reader who wants help with Szymborska’s Polish references, or a sense of the biographical, linguistic, and political overtones of her work, has to look elsewhere.2

Szymborska came of age during…

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