Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1943
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. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” is a reflection of hard-won courage in the face of facts that discount any reason to be encouraged, and operates in accordance with her idea that “Generally speaking, life is so rich and full of variety; you have to remember all the time that there is a comical side to everything.” In “A Contribution to Statistics,” Szymborska begins with a complete sample, somewhat akin to a government report, “Out of a hundred people,” and then, in a matter-of-fact tone, divides the sample statistically, into “those who always know better/ fifty-two;” continuing each short stanzaa consistent feature of her workwith the results of the study, as “those who” are
doubting every stepnearly all the rest,glad to lend a handif it doesn’t take too longas high as forty-nine,always goodbecause they can’t be otherwisefour, well, maybe five,
The accumulative effect of this catalog is to present a knowing, realistic but not quite resigned portrait of humanity, from the dark vision of “those who” are “living in constant fear/ of someone or something/ seventy-seven” to the far fewer who are “capable of happiness/ twenty-something tops,” onto the final stanza, which summarizes “mortal/ a hundred out of a hundred./ Thus far this figure still remains unchanged.”
The “thus far” carries the glimmer of a better world which inhabits Szymborska’s poetry in all but the worst circumstances and resides even in those by implication in the context of the entire volume. It becomes apparent quickly that the numbers in the separate stanzas exceed “a hundred,” so the categories are not absolutely confining, suggesting the multiple possibilities of human existence, and a resistance to the compartmentalization of totalitarian regimes. The seemingly casual asides, delivered in a vernacular as “better not to know,” or “just a couple more,” or “I wish I were wrong” contrast sharply with the impression of meticulous calculation and lead to a comic mood through the sharp juxtaposition of disparate observations. It is this subtle manipulation of tone that is the hallmark of Szymborska’s poetry, and just how delicately and deftly it has been managed can be perceived in a comparison of the translation by Cavanagh and Baraczak of “First Love” with Trzeciak’s rendition.
The first three lines are identical: “They say/ the first love’s most important./ That’s very romantic.” Cavanagh and Baraczak conclude the stanza with “but not my experience,” while Trzeciak has it “but it’s not the case with me.” The my/me variant determines a degree of distance from the subject, while Trzeciak’s line has an iambic swing that the much blunter version in the book cuts short. From there, the two English poems are fairly similar, so that each alternate choice strikes a distinctly different chord. Cavanagh and Baraczak begin the third stanza “My hands never tremble,” while Trzeciak proclaims “My hands don’t tremble,” again underscoring the distance of the poet from the subject by contrasting an immediate present with an ongoing, recollective one. Defining “First Love” as the “something ” that “transpired and expired” (Trzeciak) or “went on and went away” (Cavanagh and Baraczak) sets the finality of end rhyme against a softer, less conclusive alliterative repetition. Although most English-understanding readers will not have sufficient Polish to make the original on the facing page useful, in this case it is interesting to consider the lines that led to “expired” or “went away”: Co midzy nami byo i nie byo,/ dziao s i podziao. Because its end-rhyme is apparent, while its internal rhyme is also evident, the translator must make a choice dependent on the full flavor of the poem.
This becomes clear in terms of the ways in which the last line, oswaja mnie ze mierci, has been translated. Trzeciak’s rendering of this line, “it accustoms me to death,” is a summary of everything about “First Love” that the poem contains. Cavanagh and Baraczak’s “it introduces me to death” is also a summary, and here the word choice demarks the difference between the abrupt jolt of an introduction and the deepening distribution of an emotion that gradually pervades consciousness. These “minute particulars” (as Allen Ginsberg described them in a commentary on Emily Dickinson) are the telling touches that give Szymborska’s poetry its signature and account for the voice in her later poems which is discernibly distinct, identifying Szymborska alone even among the company of the other great international writersCzesaw Miosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Pablo Nerudawhom Collins cites as her peers.
The concentration on history and linguistic nuance, on a wry, ironic kind of wit in other meditative poems such as “Plato, or Why,” “A Few Words on the Soul,” or “Clouds” might suggest that Szymborska’s poetry lacks the lyric impulse which is at the root of song/poetry itself. When appropriate, Szymborska reveals a singing strength which carries her poems into emotional realms that can connect a reader (or listener, as in the sublimely evocative “The Courtesy of the Blind”), through the power of a vivid image, toward the beauty that John Keats so forcefully argued is “its own excuse for being.” In “Among the Multitudes,” the first stanza is a characteristic statement of being, a philosophical proposition calling for metaphysical contemplation in the spirit of centuries of thought: “I am who I am./ A coincidence no less unthinkable/ than any other.” The poem proceeds from this bold assertion with a smooth shift toward the realm of nature, the “I” or essential, unadorned Self taking its form from “Nature’s wardrobe” which “holds a fair supply of costumes,” a joining of René Descartes and W. B. Yeats, one might say. The linking of the individual’s consciousness with elements of the landscape leads to a series of metaphors that extends the philosphical concept in terms of:
A tree rooted to the groundas the fire draws near.A grass blade trampled by a stampedeof incomprehensible events.A shady type whose darknessdazzled some.
Presenting herself as “something swimming under a square of glass” focuses attention on the correspondence between the human and other forms of life, as well as maintaining the conceit of sentience as an aspect of a nonhuman organism. The succession of images in this poem takes the philosphical proposition into the tangible world, one of the most important and traditional of artistic tasks. It is a way for Szymborska to carry an existential outlook out of or beyond the language of its discipline (as Albert Camus did) and into the active world of immediate human experience, something she does prominently in “List” (“I’ve made a list of questions/ to which I no longer expect answers”) and “The Ball” (“As long as nothing can be known for sure”) and which reaches a kind of ultimate clarity and compression in “The Three Oddest Words”:
When I pronounce the word Future,the first syllable already belongs to the past.When I pronounce the world Silence,I destroy it.When I pronounce the word Nothing,I make something no nonbeing can hold.
As in many of the poems in this collection, the most abstract and theoretical of philosophical conceptsintellectually removed from the fundamentally humanis emphatically redefined through the use of language in terms of the most personal of pronouncements, the “I” of the poet as maker of meaning.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8
Booklist 102, no. 5 (November 1, 2005): 14.
Library Journal 130, no. 16 (October 1, 2005): 81-82.
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