In Praise of Wisława Szymborska

Wislawa Szymborska July 2, 1923 - February 1, 2012

"The world is astonishing, no matter what else we can say about it."

You may have never heard of Wisława Szymborska or her poetry. I am writing this to spread her fame a little wider. This Polish poet, winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature, died in her sleep on February 1, 2012. She was 88 years young. How fitting her going, for she wrote in her poem “I’m Working on the World”:

Death? It comes in your sleep,

exactly as it should.

When it comes, you’ll be dreaming

that you don’t need to breathe;

that breathless silence is

the music of the dark

and it’s part of the rhythm

to vanish like a spark.

Only a death like that. A rose

could prick you harder, I suppose;

you’d feel more terror at the sound

of petals falling to the ground.

Only a world like that. To die

just that much. And to live just so.

And all the rest is Bach’s fugue, played

for the time being

on a saw.

The sardonic twist at the end is typical of her poetry. That wry humor suffuses her whole body of work in which she observes the extraordinary and the ironic in the familiar objects that she never finds ordinary. From plates and fans in a museum, to plants, to clouds, to an onion, everything around her astonishes. Her own penchant for poetry, she finds amusing as she writes in “In Praise of My Sister,” a sister who doesn’t write poems. In another poem “Poetry Reading,” she wryly reflects that a boxing match draws a bigger crowd:

To be a boxer, or not to be there

at all. O Muse, where are our teeming crowds?

Twelve people in the room, eight seats to spare–

it’s time to start this cultural affair.

Half came inside because it started raining,

the rest are relatives. O Muse.

. . . .

In the first row, a sweet old man’s soft snore:

he dreams his wife’s alive again. What’s more,

she’s making him that tart she used to bake.

Aflame, but carefully–don’t burn his cake!–

we start to read. O Muse.

I love the way Szymborska uses concrete images; I love the way she thinks of things I would never think of. Her poetry teems with her playful look at subjects. Who else would write a poem “In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself” or a poem about Hitler’s baby picture:

And who’s this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe?

That’s tiny baby Adolf, the Hitlers’ little boy!

Will he grow up to be an L.L.D?

Or a tenor in Vienna’s Opera House?

Whose teensy hand is this, whose little ear and eye and nose?

Whose tummy full of milk, we just don’t know:

printer’s, doctor’s merchant’s, priest’s?

Where will those tootsy-wootsies finally wander?

To a garden, to a school, to an office, to  a bride?

Maybe to the Bürgermeister’s daughter?

Szymborska’s humor can be black, but her understatements always astound and pack such a wallop, that I wish I could have written a poem nearly as good as her poem that I just finished reading. One of her poems that sticks long in my memory (and there are too many to choose from) is “The End and the Beginning,” possibly the best poem ever written on the subject of war because of its powerful understatement.  The poem begins:

After every war

someone has to tidy up.

Things won’t pick

themselves up, after all.

Someone has to shove

the rubble to the roadsides

so the carts loaded with corpses

can get by.

In her Nobel Prize lecture I discovered the reason why I like poetry more than politics. She states: “Poets, if they’re genuine, must also keep repeating, ‘I don’t know.'” Politicians are always telling us they have the answers; they hold the truth. Szymborska contends “Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know’. Each poem is an effort to answer a question. She continues in her lecture: “But any knowledge that doesn’t lead to new questions quickly dies out: it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life. In the most extreme cases, cases well-known from ancient and modern history, it even poses a lethal threat to society.”

She bases her poetic credo on the belief that the world is astonishing; nothing is obvious. She writes, “But in the language of poetry . . . nothing is usual or normal . Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it . . . . And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in the world.” Like many of her poems, she cannot resist ending her lecture with an understatement: “It looks as though poets will always have their work cut out for them.”

I recommend you start exploration of Wisława Szymborska with Poems New and Collected 1957-1997. It includes all the poems in View with a Grain of Sand and also the complete text of her 1996 Nobel lecture. A new collection, Here, contains poetry she wrote since she won the Nobel Prize. She also has some unpublished poems in manuscript form that were not ready for publication at the time of her death.  The collaborative translation by Stanislaw Barańczak, Professor of Polish Language and Literature at Harvard and a Polish poet himself, and Clare Cavanagh, Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at Northwestern University, is so good that, as far as I am concerned, the poems could have been written originally in English.

Two interesting notes about her fame in Poland: her poem “Nothing Twice” set to music became a popular song. The Polish film director Krzysztof Kieślowski is said to have been inspired by her poem “Love at First Sight” in the making of Red, from The Three Colors Trilogy: Blue, White, Red–three wonderful films.

I wish my mother were still alive. If she were, I would ask her to read aloud in Polish to me all of Szymborska’s poetry and ask for her comments on them. Maybe I should write a poem in which I imagine Alice Dzierzgowska doing this?


6 responses to this post.

  1. Thank you so much for writing about her work Olivia. This is a beautiful and concise introduction to a master of the craft- and a true mystic teacher. I first discovered her about 15 years ago (about the same time as I found the work of Wallace Stevens). They have been my poetic grandparents so to speak. Szymborska allows THINGS to sing their song- to open up to us so that the light spills out of them. For like us “things” are only appearances manufactured by the way materiality seems to form a skin. We assume we (and they) end where the surface manifests. She explodes this. Everything in her poems in illuminated and full of openings and peepholes- hence the title of her masterpiece “View with a Grain of Sand”. She sees and writes into the heart of the world, like Blake advised, through every facet of its manifold and glorious mundanity.


    • You describe her work and vision so beautifully. You and I have shared a love of Szymborska’s work for a long time. She believed in trashing her less than the best poems, so all her poems are keepers; whereas I tend to keep the dross, maybe for historical interest, a record of passage; but what poems of hers stick out in your mind if you had to chose a few?


      • Hi Olivia- The ones that have really stuck with me over time seem to be those related to the history of art or visual culture (big surprise) “A Paleolithic Fertility Fetish”, “Two Monkeys by Brueghel” and the deliciously bizarre “A Byzantine Mosaic”– she really, really gets into the power of images to speak for themselves! Or rather she understands how images can speak to us- she ironically gives them a voice- knowing full well they have one already… though most people don’t understand how to “listen” to the visual speech of images… or at least they have a hard time articulating the experience of the speaking image.

      • I reread those three poems. They’re wonderful. She has so many poems in response to her contemplation of art. I love her poem “Ruebens’ Women.” Her interests are far-ranging. I admire her keen observation and sheer imaginative power to get inside, all around and beyond whatever her eyes focus upon.

  2. Posted by Carole Mertz on February 14, 2012 at 3:44 pm

    Yes, do write that poem, Olivia–that one about your mother reading Szymborska. Once again your informative post drew me in. I found these poems so well done in English that I began to think she’d done them so, originally. Thanks for furnishing the translation information.I like so much your comments and the excerpts you’ve chosen (though not the Hitler poem) to introduce her to us.I will certainly try to obtain the 1957 to 1997 collection.I was in Europe during 1959 to 1960.It was then that my ears were opened to new rhythms from eastern Europe and also from the USSR, not to mention people like Goethe and Rilke. It’s as if people were beginning to be awakened following the war years. I only realized to what extent years later.Thank you for this ongoing broadening for me and other readers! Congratulations on the recent news about your publications which I read in the RWG newsletter. If I brag there a bit about my winning 3rd in your January Challenge, will that cause you some conflict of interest, or whatever we should call it? Your responder Lahman cites Stevens, so I say in closing in tribute to Szymborska: “She sang beyond the genius of the sea…”


    • It’s nice to know you are a member of RWG too. When I lived in Rockford I was an active member, served as program chair for a while and editor of review from 1989-90. I’m finding most avid readers and followers of modern poetry know and love Szymborska’s work. What post-WWII European writers did you discover? I think a discussion of European, particularly eastern European authors, would be very lively and informative. Thanks for your commentary. I hope to see your work in the Rockford Review.


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