Posts Tagged ‘Wislawa Szymborska’

Do I Hate Poetry?

The other day I read a review of Ben Lerner’s new book The Hatred of Poetry, which elicited my own examination of conscience on the matter as a person who has spent much of her life reading, critiquing, and writing poetry. Do I hate poetry? The truthful answer is that I dislike, or do not much care for, most of the contemporary poems I’ve read in The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, London Review of Books, the prestigious Poetry magazine, and numerous literary journals. Although dislike is a milder term than hate, a more accurate description of my attitude toward most of the poetry being published today is that the poems leave me unmoved or uncomprehending; therefore, I cannot really dislike poems that I don’t understand. To like or dislike a poem, I would first have to know what the intent of the poem is and then decide if I like the way the ideas of the poem are crafted in prosody.  I do not ascribe to the postmodernist notion that a poem should be a brain teaser puzzle nor to the Hallmark school of versification. Nor do I think poetry is an exercise in the purely autobiographical. Some would accuse me of being a lazy poetry reader and argue that poetry is not for mental lightweights. I will take the criticism like a woman.

But I do like poetry. I like the poetry of Derek Walcott, Dana Gioia, May Sarton, Czeslaw Milosz, and Wisława Szymborska–to name only a few. I never tire of T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman–my pantheon of poets. All poets present their own complexities, but what I find eminently likable about the poetry I do like are these traits, which conversely, I find lacking in much of the poetry being published today: cadence or musicality, linguistic virtuosity, a spiritual dimension, universality. There are many ways to achieve sound effects in poetry, but when I don’t hear them when the poem is read aloud, the language is prosaic, and meaning is banal or obscure; then the poem is a car with a flat tire going nowhere in my mental and emotional landscape. Too much of the contemporary poetry I read is too lackluster linguistically and unmelodic for me to get excited about.

So do I hate poetry? I am an indifferent lover of much of the poetry being published today, but hatred of poetry is not one of my sins. I plead not guilty. Poetry stands at the pinnacle of the literary arts, and this art attracts novices, hacks, mediocre practitioners, and artisans. Everyone loved poetry as a young child, and everyone can love it again. It is just more difficult to find poems to love in the morass of uninspiring, pedestrian, incomprehensible, and unmusical poems in the limelight today.


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”or dying in her sleep as the desirable way to go, comparing it to music in the dark. She concludes this poem with a sardonic twist, typical of her poetry, describing the rest of life as playing a Bach fugue on a saw.

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 reflects that a boxing match draws a bigger crowd. She imagines that the snoring man in the first row of her poetry audience is dreaming that his wife is still alive and is baking him a tart. At that point, the poets reading to a room of twelve people and eight empty seats.

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. ” In “Hitler’s First Photograph,” she pictures him full of milk and his growing up to be a tenor at the Vienna Opera House, a doctor, a priest, and marrying the burgermeister’s daughter. Even the adult monster was once a cute little baby. The image jars the reader’s sensibilities.

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 with the homely statement that someone always has to tidy up after a war as if the task is a housewifely duty and ends by dropping the grisly matter-of-fact observation that rubble has to be shoved to the roadsides so the carts can be loaded with corpses. This is the type of startling, surprise tour de force that frequently concludes her poems.

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?