Critical Reading and Analysis

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Many readers of contemporary poetry know that the poetry written in Poland after 1945 is particularly original and dynamic. American readers have become familiar with the work of Czesław Miłosz, Tadeusz Rozewicz, Zbigniew Herbert, and Miron Bialoszewski. Wisława Szymborska has been slower to reach the attention of the English-speaking public. Born in 1923, a member of the same generation as the last three names mentioned above, Szymborska crafts poetry that is on the same high level.

Some critics have claimed that each new volume by Szymborska has become better and better—and the observation contains some truth. Her 1993 volume The End and the Beginning (Koniec i poczatek) has a large proportion of superb poems; they consistently excite and dazzle, are genuinely meaningful, and are marked by high formal achievement. On the other hand, readers should be reminded that Szymborska has been writing fine poems for some time. “Conversation with a Stone” and “The Joy of Writing” were written in the 1960’s and are as good as anything she has written subsequently. It can be argued that each volume after Salt (Sol, 1962) has had as high a proportion of successful poems as her latest collection.

Two reasons might be found for the tardy recognition of Szymborska. The first is that many of her earlier poems exhibited unfortunate and irritating mannerisms. Rereading poems from Salt that are included in the present selection of translations, one can see what Szymborska has successfully avoided in subsequent volumes: schematic approach, preciosity, and overfacile, disdainful irony. “O Muse,” she exclaimed at the end of her poem “Poetry Reading,” with evident fatigue. Her fre- quent self-referential glances were dangerous, and as a procedure they narrowed her perspective.

A second reason is that she was an antipolitical poet. For a generation steeped in the poetry of Miłosz and Herbert—even in the mid-1990’s a controversy between the two poets was being kept alive in Polish periodicals—it is difficult to define Szymborska’s place, and she defies political categorization. Her poems were not relevant to topical matters such as Solidarity, martial law, or censorship, at least on the level of narrow partisanship. They were entirely relevant, however, on a level of broader experience. Her poems address universal topics such as hatred, imperfection, utopia, death, and the body.

Szymborska’s breadth of reference can be seen in many poems included in the present volume. A good example is the excellent “Utopia,” originally included in Szymborska’s 1976 collection A Large Number (Wielka liczba). The poem, typically, addresses not a single “issue” but a concept that underlies many issues. The poem is satirical and playfully compares utopia to an island. “Island where all becomes clear,” the poem begins. The flora on the island is only too familiar—for example,

The Tree of Understanding, dazzlingly straight and simple,
sprouts by the spring called Now I Get It.

The description of valleys, caves, springs, and other topographical features proves to contain remarkable parallels to human intellectual and political history. The ending of the poem displays one of Szymborska’s great strengths, her dynamism. The poem is not a static allegory but contains as many contradictions as human nature and history contain. Though the island is uninhabited, it has countless footprints that lead toward the sea. All one can do on the island, she writes, is leave it, “and plunge, never to return, into the depths./ Into unfathomable life.” All along, it turns out, the poem was not describing a really...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem exhibits a subtle musicality of language, as when Szymborska writes of the glass in the window that is “colorless, shapeless,/ soundless, odorless, and painless.” Besides an implied pun (in English) on “pane,” the repeated syllable “less” provides a rhythmic feel for the reader. This rhythm is further emphasized by occasional rhyme, as in stanza 4, in which Szymborska writes “The lake’s floor exists floorlessly,/ and its shore exists shorelessly,” pairing not only the final adverbs in each line but also their corresponding nouns “floor” and “shore.” The use of sound echoes (not always true rhymes but repetition of sounds within words such as “sky” and “skyless” in the fifth stanza) enlivens what would otherwise seem almost like simple prose. Although there are noticeably more such rhymes and echoes in Polish, where conjugations and declensions provide many words with the same final syllables and thus make rhyming somewhat easier, enough of the strategy survives in English to give a free, almost floating quality to the verse. The diverse lengths of the lines also reinforce this impression: In English, the lines vary from three to fifteen syllables in length (which resembles the original version’s range of five to fourteen syllables per line). The unfettered quality of the poetry suggests private reflection or reverie, especially appropriate to the subject of the mind considering its own perceptions.

The subject, beginning with a tiny grain of sand and moving through increasingly large concepts to time itself, creates a perception similar to that established in motion pictures when a camera changes focus from a small detail to a vast panorama in one movement—the microcosm has been replaced by the macrocosm, and the reader is encouraged to reflect that all existence is similar to that of the items, both small and large, that Szymborska has mentioned. What she claims for a grain of sand, a lake, the wind, the sky, the sun, and even time might equally be said of anything in the universe. Just as the casual-sounding language is given shape and rhythm by careful arrangement of sound, the insight into existential philosophy that forms the content of the poem is made far more accessible by Szymborska’s use of specific physical objects and places to anchor and clarify what otherwise might be too abstract to present in an effective poem.