Posts Tagged ‘Clare Cavanagh’

More of Szymborska

For decades the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska wrote a newspaper column that she called Nonrequired Reading. When I learned that some of these columns had been translated into English and published in 2002 under the title Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces, I ordered the book.  As she explains in her author’s notes, these are not the usual literary book reviews. Her choice of books is quirky and varied, more often than not they are non-fiction. The book is an excuse to write equally quirky pieces of one paragraph extending for no more than two pages, the topic suggested by the reading. Szymborska tells us right off the bat she is not interested in writing a treatise on the merits or the contents of the book. We are in for the unexpected, and she delivers.  I don’t recall ever laughing out loud so many times while reading a book, not even one reputed to be a humorous work.

Springboards for Szymborska’s column come from books on reptiles, the Chinese alphabet, home improvement, the history of clothing, graphology, a button museum, comic strips, and Alfred Hitchcock, to name but a few of her far-ranging interests. She comes away from these books with her characteristic oblique, odd twist on the subjects, and wry slants, which only Szymborska could think of, making us laugh at the understated or absurd aspects of the subject that the book’s author may never have considered. Szymborska has a delightful way of posing questions that makes me burst out laughing time and time again. Her response to a book on yoga is hilarious. Describing at length yoga’s bodily contortions on the “road to perfection” as corporeal macramé, she concludes the piece with: “At this moment the skeptic begins to disentangle himself from the Kukkutasana. We hope he’ll succeed without the help of paramedics.”  I thought this piece was hysterically funny until I got to her review of One Hundred Minutes for Beauty, in which she satirizes the exercise and beauty tips offered a woman all for the sake of making herself attractive to a husband who eventually moves out of  the house to allow his wife more space for jogging and long-distance jumping. “And do you know whom he’ll move in with, that husband?” Szymborska asks, and answers “With Bozena, who begins steps from her knees, stands in line with slumped shoulders, and, can you imagine, looks her age. . . ”

I guarantee you will also find something to tickle your funny bone in this collection of ninety-five short pieces–and this is only a selection from the three volumes of Nonrequired Reading (Lektury Nadobowiazkowe) that Clare Cavanagh chose to translate.

I will keep Nonrequired Reading in the bathroom and reread these little essays in my bubble bath.

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?