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…

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