In spite of the proliferation of prizes in the literary community, a phenomenon studied by James F. English, who has determined that there are about one hundred prizes for every one thousand books published in the United States, the Nobel Prize in Literature stands far above and beyond the others, coveted by writers regardless of their nationality and conveying both prestige and, at least temporarily, the imprimatur of the world’s literati. Some of the recent selections by the Swedish committee have been not only unknown to most American readers but inaccessible and even baffling to many. The Italian playwright Dario Fo’s award in 1997 drew anger and confusion, while the award to the Austrian novelist and playwright Elfriede Jelinek in 2004 led to a response of “Who?” from even readers with a solid cultural context. Wisawa Szymborska’s award in 1996, on the other hand, while initially startling many serious readers, has been generally acknowledged as a superb choice as more people in the Anglo/American literary community have become familiar with her work.
While a European writer such as Günter Grass, the Nobel laureate of 2002, has been received with appreciation and understanding in the United States since the publication of Die Blechtrommel (1959; The Tin Drum, 1961), the subject matter and sensibility of writers such as Fo and Jelinekeven when their work has found a comfortable equivalent in English translationshas not reached readers beyond a small core of specialists. For Szymborska, however, the benefit of several excellent translators (most nobably Clare Cavanagh and Stanisaw Baraczak, working together, and Joanna Trzeciak), plus a unique ability to convey a sense of the contemporary world previously inarticulate for Americans yet resonating significantly with them, has made her work both admired and enjoyed by a considerably wider range of readers than customarily exists for a writer with a background such as Szymborska’s.
Perhaps most crucially, Szymborska’s poetry is clear and readable, communicating on a primary level of understanding without the need for analysis or exegesis. American poets laureate Robert Haas and Billy Collins, in his lucid introduction to Monologue of a Dog, have testified to the inviting availability of her work. As pleasing as these qualities are, though, they would not be sufficient to interest the Nobel Committeeor Haas and Collins eitherwere it not for several additional distinguishing characteristics. Born in 1923, Szyborska endured the agony of World War II and then the oppression of her country during the Cold War. The full title of the poem which gives the book its name is “Monologue of a Dog Ensnared in History,” a modern working of a medieval allegory, deriving from her experiences under the Nazi and communist conquests. Szymborska’s first book was suppressed by the puppet government in Poland in 1948 on the grounds that it was “too obscure for the masses.” The effect of these trials has resulted in a way of seeing that carries a moral gravity built on a confrontation with the worst in human behavior, joined to a persistent faith in the worth of human existence, a very difficult combination to convey in suitable language. Her poem “Photograph from September 11” is heartbreaking in its description of a much-too-familiar scene:
They jumped from the burning floorsone, two, a few more,higher, lower.The photograph halted them in life,and now keeps themabove the earth toward the earth.
This indelible image remains shattering no matter how much it has been reproduced. Szyborska’s description touches on human mortality in its implications of a destiny that reaches all human beings. The poem continues with devastating details and concludes with what seems like an exceptionally appropriate response, the instinct to assist terribly thwarted, the idea of assistance offering the only consolation available. Szymborska’s paradox is especially poignant in its urge to accomplish the impossible: “I can do only two things for them/ describe this flight/ and not add a last line.”
The subject here requires a somber tone, one which is not uncommon in many of Szymborska’s poems, but much of her work has a kind of comic slant that is startling and disconcerting, as well as heartening in way, partially thanks to its occurrence in poems where no trace of humor is expected. It enables Szymborska to inject a kind of highly qualified optimism that recalls Samuel Beckett, whose well-known injunction “Ever tried....
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