Two admirable postwar poets, Wislawa Szymborska (born in 1923 in Poland) and Tomas Tranströmer (born in 1931 in Sweden), troubled by what they saw as the moral insufficiencies of both formal religion and Marxist optimism, have sought spiritual understanding outside organized institutions. Of course, few reflective persons who lived through the same period were exempt from such thoughts. But lyric poets, who may be as aware as any novelist of what is happening in society, must condense social questions into personal ones and must transform written language by giving it rhythmic breath and musical cadence. Both Szymborska and Tranströmer are poets of striking brevity: Szymborska questions the conventional movements of thought in our mental and social life, while Tranströmer meditates on the powerful unseen, unconscious forces that underlie our moments of waking awareness. Szymborska was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1996; Tranströmer is frequently, and justly, mentioned as a poet deserving the same prize.

I have written on these poets before, always aware how much better a Polish or Swedish critic could describe their originality. Relying on translation, one has to trust the translator. Stanislaw Baranczak (whose translations of Shakespeare now appear on the Polish stage) and his American collaborator Clare Cavanagh have been translating Szymborska for some years, and Czeslaw Milosz has testified to Stanislaw Baranczak’s amazing versatility in finding English equivalents for Polish verse and Polish equivalents for English verse. The British poet Robin Fulton has for several years been composing and revising, with Tranströmer’s help and advice, the translations printed in this newest collection. I am grateful to Baranczak, Cavanagh, and Fulton (as well as other translators) for bringing me the work of these poets.

When I first read Szymborska, I was taken with her offbeat angle of vision; she treats bleak reality whimsically, mordantly. I thought sometimes of Emily Dickinson: just as Dickinson began with valentines and poems that were “appealing” in the manner allowed to nineteenth-century women, so Szymborska (in the earlier poems she has allowed to be translated, which come from her third volume and subsequent ones) sometimes begins in the fanciful tones of a reflective girl. In a poem called “Still Life with a Balloon,” for instance, Szymborska decides that at the moment of death, instead of seeing returning memories, she would prefer to re-encounter—so as to reject—“lost objects”:

Avalanches of gloves,
coats, suitcases, umbrellas—
come, and I’ll say at last:
What good’s all this?

Safety pins, two odd combs,
a paper rose, a knife,
some string—come, and I’ll say
at last: I haven’t missed you.

The list goes on to include a lost key, affidavits, permits, questionnaires, and a watch, and finally arrives at the poet’s first loss—a toy balloon “once kidnapped by the wind.” We could interpret this lightness with respect to a serious subject as in part a reaction by the poet to what has been described as the “heavy” socialist realism of her first two, untranslated, books.

It became Szymborska’s aim as a poet to find a way to incorporate her “serious” political and social concerns into a “light” manner, or (to put it in reverse) to find a way to incorporate the wry into the devastating. It is understandable that a tragic rhetoric would have been impossible for her. The facts of life in Poland—war, dictatorship, censorship, judicial murder, loss, and death—have overwhelmingly attracted tragic treatment, and when the tragic manner becomes predictable, freshness of perception and language are lost. Besides, Szymborska instinctively questions—overtly and mockingly—all received ideas. “An Effort”—an early poem responding (I presume) to Burns’s song “O my love is like a red, red rose”—is a woman’s impatient responseto male erotic idealization (known to be false even by the men who make it up):

Alack and woe, oh song: you’re mocking me;
try as I may, I’ll never be your red, red rose.
A rose is a rose is a rose. And you know it.

But Szymborska equally scorns her youthful self for trying to become the rose that men want her to be. We see her in adolescence:

I worked to sprout leaves. I tried to take root.
I held my breath to speed things up, and waited
for the petals to enclose me.

The poet is left in her thirties with her “lone, nonconvertible, unmetamorphic body,” unsure that she will please any man. The poem on the facing page (“Four A.M.”) defines bleak dawn as “the hour of thirty-year-olds” who feel estranged from nature, chilled by the loss of love, and appalled by the actuality of death: it is

The hour when the earth takes back its warm embrace.
The hour of cool drafts from extinguished stars.
The hour of do-we-vanish-too-without-a-trace.

These lines mark the limit of the mournful tone in the young Szymborska, and she immediately turns on herself with a salutary astringency:


No one feels fine at four a.m.
If ants feel fine at four a.m.,
we’re happy for the ants. And let five a.m. come
if we’ve got to go on living.

The poems I have been citing come from Szymborska’s third volume, Calling Out to Yeti, published in 1957. Forty years later, the tone has become more somber. One of the new poems in the present collection, “Some People,” concerns refugees, and renders their plight abstractly so that the poem could fit Rwanda or Indonesia or Bosnia:

Some people flee some other people.
In some country under a sun
and some clouds.

They abandon something close to all they’ve got,
sown fields, some chickens, dogs,
mirrors in which fire now preens.

Their shoulders bear pitchers and bundles…

So far, this is a visual poem—a magazine photograph. But soon the poem shows its superiority to photography by entering the feelings of the refugees, whose pitiful supplies are dwindling:

Their shoulders bear pitchers and bundles.
The emptier they get, the heavier they grow.

The poem becomes a film of successive events, and sound is added:

What happens quietly: someone’s dropping from exhaustion.
What happens loudly: someone’s bread is ripped away,
someone tries to shake a limp child back to life.

Whereas a “poem of witness” of the melodramatic sort would now go further into horror, Szymborska’s poem turns away from the dead child to show the bewildered tediousness of an interminable journey on foot through baffling foreign landscapes:

Always another wrong road ahead of them,
always another wrong bridge
across an oddly reddish river.

Even danger has become both sporadic and eternal:

Around them, some gunshots, now nearer, now farther away,
above them a plane seems to circle.

The intolerable uncertainty of their future affects the minds of the refugees, as the poet again turns to the reaction of the plodding families:

Some invisibility would come in handy,
some grayish stoniness,
or, better yet, some nonexistence
for a shorter or a longer while.

The refugees can hardly tell the difference any longer between apprehension and hope, as they peer dimly toward an unknowable end:

Something else will happen, only where and what.
Someone will come at them, only when and who,
in how many shapes, with what intentions.

In a final Szymborskan surprise, the refugees put their hope in free will: the “someone” they will encounter can perhaps choose to be a protector rather than an oppressor:

If he has a choice,
maybe he won’t be the enemy
and will let them live some sort of life.

“Some People” is typical of the mature work of Szymborska. 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 identifies with the oppressed; she cannot shut her eyes to her own privilege as it is refracted by suffering people elsewhere. It is both objective and subjective, both documentary and empathetic. And it is menacing: almost everything that is horrible has already been done to the refugees, and the probability is that what awaits them is more suffering and eventual death. Yet, “After the final no there comes a yes,” says Wallace Stevens in “The Well-Dressed Man with a Beard,” “and on that yes the future world depends.” The refugees—and Szymborska—want to think that a good person exists among the possibilities of the future. Typical of Szymborska is the arid “if”—“If he has a choice.” Her restless skepticism questions a categorical statement even as she makes it.

Szymborska’s writing frequently depends on questioning clichés. Here, for instance, are some lines any of us might have heard uttered about persons we knew who have died:

How many of those I knew
men, women
have crossed that threshold
passed over that bridge—

How many, after a shorter or longer life
good, because it’s beginning,
bad, because it’s over
have found themselves on the far shore—

I’ve been given no assurance
as concerns their future fate…

Except for the last two lines, such an utterance draws on conventions of funeral sermons:

Yes, we knew him well; he has now crossed the threshold to another world, passed over the bridge from time to eternity. He was fortunate to have lived his life, and though we must grieve that it came to an end, we know that he is now on that far shore of death.

In “Elegiac Calculation,” Szymborska explodes all these platitudes and carries further the hint of doubt in the last lines quoted. We can imagine her gritting her teeth as she finds the clichés—much as she hates them—rising in her very own mouth. All she can do is interrupt and interrogate them as they rise. Here is her actual poem of death, made out of the rags of her repetitively torn text of pieties:


How many of those I knew
(if I really knew them),
men, women
(if the distinction still holds)
have crossed that threshold
(if it is a threshold)
passed over that bridge
(if you can call it a bridge)—

How many, after a shorter or longer life
(if they still see a difference),
good, because it’s beginning,
bad, because it’s over
(if they don’t prefer the reverse),
have found themselves on the far shore
(if they found themselves at all
and if another shore exists)—

I’ve been given no assurance
as concerns their future fate
(if there is one common fate
and if it is still fate)—

The poem continues on in this way; and we must imagine all of Szymborska’s thoughts as having gone through a comparable ordeal-by-interrogation before they are permitted to appear on the page. Just as Dickinson’s poems are the cinders of a past conflagration, so Szymborska’s poems are the remnant of many refuted hypotheses.

In her Nobel lecture, “The Poet and the World,” Szymborska said, “Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.”‘ Ideologues, she remarks, always “know”: “They don’t want to find out about anything else, since that might diminish the force of their arguments.” Poets are different:

Poets, if they’re genuine, must also keep repeating, “I don’t know.” Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement, but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift, absolutely inadequate.

It is this “inadequacy” in poets—who on Tuesday find Monday’s view misleading, in March find January’s feelings untenable—that repels those who seek in writers a “philosophy of life” or consistent moral instruction. There can be moral insight in lyric—following on a new “I don’t know”—but it is provisional and personal. And when that insight is generalized, it is not in the form of a sermon to others, but in the form of self-criticism and self-doubt: If Szymborska should meet the refugees, would she be, could she be, the person they hope to find? Only by writing in this provisional way can the satirist, the analyst of circumstance, retain integrity.

The most self-revealing poem in Szymborska’s collection is called “Soliloquy for Cassandra.” In it, the intellectual prophetess envies those who do not feel driven to foresee, connect events to each other, and utter warnings. Her auditors do not believe her dark truths, and she feels remote from them:

I loved them.
But I loved them haughtily.
From heights beyond life.

They lived within life.
Pierced by that great wind.

They really knew what a moment means,
oh any moment, any one at all

It turns out I was right.
But nothing has come of it.
And this is my robe, slightly singed.
And this is my prophet’s junk.
And this is my twisted face.
A face that didn’t know it could be beautiful.

Because Szymborska knows the price of her own intellectual grasp, its clarity and its schematizing, she can look enviously, and even sentimentally (as Lawrence and Woolf, for instance, also did), toward those who seem to be able to live in the flesh and in the moment. But the poet leaves us thinking that Cassandra’s beauty, though she remained unaware of it, was the beauty of the spare, the harsh, the ascetic, and the undeceived.

If Szymborska is a master of social circumstance, Tranströmer, a psychologist by profession, is a master of the underside of the psyche. He lives under obligation to the signs made from the other side of consciousness, which present themselves to him as knockings, voices, faces, memories, tirelessly soliciting him. Most of us keep a well-defended wall between the haunted night of the mind and its rational day. For some, however, the wall is breached, and without their consent. When Tranströmer was a boy of fifteen, in a year of great physical change (“At the beginning of that autumn term I was one of the smallest in the class, but by its end I was one of the tallest”), he experienced an involuntary convulsion caused by anxiety:

Suddenly the atmosphere in the room was tense with dread. Something took total possession of me. Suddenly my body started shaking, especially my legs. I was a clockwork toy which had been wound up and now rattled and jumped helplessly. The cramps were quite beyond the control of my will, I had never experienced anything like this. I screamed for help and Mother came through. Gradually the cramps ebbed out. And did not return. But my dread intensified and from dusk to dawn would not leave me alone.

This experience, recalled in Tranströmer’s fragmentary autobiography, “Memories Look at Me,” was accompanied, in the subsequent weeks, by nightmares of horror at the unaesthetic:

If the crisis had arisen a few years later…I would have managed to feel a little more sympathy for and a little less dread of the deformed and the sick who invaded my nocturnal consciousness.

Such a crisis might have been resolved in two different ways: the young sufferer could have built up defenses against the sources of dread and denied his own vulnerability; or he could have allowed into waking consciousness all the terrors of that time, and brought them under intellectual and imaginative scrutiny. It is clear from Tranströmer’s poetry that it was the second of these that the poet (voluntarily or involuntarily) experienced. It is not that anxiety and depression and unwelcome images vanished: later writings testify to their continued presence in his life. It was rather that Tranströmer came to see such disorders as conferring a heightened aesthetic sense of peace and order. One poem investigating this effect ascribes Vermeer’s achievement of exquisite stillness, of “the second that’s allowed to live for centuries,” to the painter’s openness to human “noise,” his excruciating awareness of the chaos on the other side of his studio wall:

No protected world… Just behind the wall the noise begins,
the inn is there
with laughter and bickering, rows of teeth, tears, the din of bells
and the insane brother-in-law, the death-bringer we all must tremble

It’s the pressure from the other side of the wall.
It makes each fact float
and steadies the brush.

It hurts to go through walls, it makes you ill
but is necessary
The world is one. But walls…
And the wall is part of yourself—

The writer’s aim, as Tranströmer once put it, is “with shut eyes/[to] read the storm’s text.” In his earlier work there was a sober physical explicitness voiced in an earnest manner:

Over the world goes a graver storm.
It sets its mouth to our soul
And blows to produce a note. We dread
that the storm will blow us empty.

The poet’s fear that he will not be equal to his human task permeates many of the earlier poems, and a confession of failure is allowed to close some of the darker ones:

I lie down to sleep, I see strange pictures
and signs scribbling themselves behind my eyelids
on the wall of the dark. Into the slit between wakefulness and dream
a large letter tries to push itself in vain.

A more hopeful version of this half-conscious letterbox converts Tranströmer himself (in an astonishing metaphor) to a turnstile—the turnstile—through which current life can enter imaginative visibility:

Coming events, they’re there already!
I know it. They’re outside:

a murmuring crowd outside the gate.
They can pass only one by one.
They want in. Why? They’re coming
one by one. I am the turnstile.

As the young Tranströmer gained in confidence, the poems could place his own aesthetic predicament among the larger predicaments of his society. The poet, reflecting on the impotence and unreality of established religion, affirms the need for spiritual expression nonetheless, though it must lie somewhere among life’s “sewage tunnels”; and he finds a model in Nicodemus, who sought Jesus by night. The following are three of the five tercets of “The Dispersed Congregation”:


Inside the church: vaults and columns
white as plaster, like the plaster bandage
round the broken arm of faith.


But the church bells must go under the earth.
They hang in the sewage tunnels.
They toll under our steps.


The sleepwalker Nicodemus on his way
to the Address. Who has the address?
Don’t know. But that’s where we’re going.

If religion must be reformed, so must civic life. Poems, brief as they are, can rattle the cages of “approved ideas,” even if only for a moment. When Tranströmer writes to his friends behind the iron curtain, his words become chattering nuisances to the censor:


The letter is now at the censor’s. He lights his lamp.
In the glare my words fly up like monkeys on a grille,
rattle it, stop, and bare their teeth.

In “To Friends Behind a Frontier,” Tranströmer has perfected a form of his own: an aphoristic free-standing stanza. The middle stanza, just quoted, with words compared to monkeys “rattling” the censor, is preceded by a wistful one (“I wrote so meagrely to you”) in which thoughts censored from the letter swell and drift away “like an old-fashioned airship”; and it is followed by one in which hidden “bugs” in a Soviet hotel room—preventing conversation face to face—are destined to become fossils:


Read between the lines. We’ll meet in 200 years
when the microphones in the hotel walls are forgotten
and can at last sleep, become trilobites.

Self-reproach produces the first metaphor, the sagging blimp; aggression against censorship creates the rattling and glaring monkeys; and a yearning for rest brings the fossilizing slumber of both death and aesthetic expression. These are all equal and free-standing elements in Tranströmer’s mind as he experiences the dissatisfaction of writing a self-censored and politically censorable letter to an unreachable friend. These responses are not “integrated” and muted into one synthetic tone: instead they exist in conflict and mutual standoff. Holding three thoughts in mind at once (“I was of three minds,/Like a tree/In which there are three blackbirds”—Stevens) is, one could say, native to Tranströmer, who has learned to live in contradiction. What makes the three stanzas of “To Friends Behind a Frontier” one poem and not three poems is the figure of the poet, beset by his apologetic self-criticism, his hatred of the censor, and his consciousness of how all parts of life eventually sink into petrifaction.

All three responses, originally felt as emotions, are held at arm’s length until the mind sees them arise as images: a drifting airship, monkeys baring their teeth, sleeping trilobites. Only then, through these steady images, can the poem be written. Not for Tranströmer the rushing metaphors of Dylan Thomas or Hart Crane, or the steadily unrolling discourse of Stevens, or the quick-eyed particularity of Marianne Moore. He looks deep into the pool of the mind until an image looks back at him, and he holds it steady—this is the quality of imagination that is most original in him.

Of all the aspects of social life, it is the psychological complexity of even the most “ordinary” person that absorbs the older Tranströmer. He sees individual souls in his everyday work as a psychologist:

…each one of us has his own encyclopedia written, it grows out of
each soul,

it’s written from birth onwards, the hundreds of thousands of
pages….The book of contradictions.

What’s there changes by the hour, the pictures retouch themselves,
the words flicker.

It is not Szymborska’s “I don’t know” that animates Tranströmer so much as the wish to find a way to uncover the pictures that endlessly retouch themselves on the flickering screen of feeling. Until he has understood the still image that can preserve on the page the sensation of the flicker, he cannot write the poem. As he himself said, in a 1956 letter quoted by the translator, Robin Fulton:

Here is a man ploughing. It means something. Why have I now for half a year seen that man who is ploughing? No, it’ll soon be a whole year. What does it mean? A month ago I finally understood…. At first I thought it was in a Swedish landscape in autumn—I was tricked by the lighting. No, it’s Yugoslavia, in the middle of the day, and the sun is burning. It has something to do with the war. Or at least there are many dead people in the background—they move away later but what is really going on? It’s no epic, it’s a bagatelle, five lines perhaps. Yet terribly important to me…

This persistent image-in-motion, at first unidentifiable by time or place to the poet who “sees” it for a year on end, gave rise to the first stanza of a poem called “The Journey’s Formulae,” with the subhead “from the Balkans, 1955“:


A murmur of voices behind the ploughman.
He doesn’t look round. The empty fields.
A murmur of voices behind the ploughman.
One by one the shadows break loose
and plunge into the summer sky’s abyss.

This poem—like Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”—shows death taking place in the presence of the ordinary, but one can see that Tranströmer will not offer explicit comment, that he wishes the independent image to be strong enough to bear the weight of meaning.

Tranströmer suffered a severe stroke several years ago. Nevertheless, he continues to write, and the poems in the 1996 collection The Sad Gondola (the most recent included here) show, if anything, an increase in imaginative power. I mentioned at the beginning of this essay the need of both Szymborska and Tranströmer to find an independent faith, one that is not nostalgic for lost institutional forms. This faith—which is not stoic but affirmative—is apparent in many poems in The Sad Gondola, but nowhere more so than in the poet’s exact and painful account of his own condition. “Like Being a Child,” a poem phrased in the “you” that makes it apply to all of us, finds an almost blinding image for physical disability:

Like being a child and a sudden insult
is jerked over your head like a sack
through its mesh you catch a glimpse of the sun
and hear the cherry trees humming.

No help in that—the great insult
covers your head your torso your knees
you can move sporadically
but can’t look forward to spring.

Glimmering woolly hat, pull it down over your face
stare through the stitches.
On the straits the water-rings are crowding soundlessly.
Green leaves are darkening the earth.

I regret not being able to read this steady, dark, truthful, and contemplative poem in Swedish. I expect that some day I will remember the great insult, the sack jerked over the head. If I can then still stare through its weave at the water-rings and the leaves on a page, it will be, in part at least, because of Tranströmer and his poem. And there are many more such lyrics to keep one company in a bad time: “Take up your grave and walk,” says one poem, translating Jesus into memorable secular aphorism. Both Szymborska and Tranströmer are stoic, moving poets in whose work we perceive how poems can—in the most stringent conditions—tenderly clothe consciousness in the “glimmering woolly hat” of faithful form.

This Issue

October 8, 1998