Critical Reading and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1519

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.

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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 isolated island, but an island set in the surrounding sea.

The mode of inquiry in these poems almost always begins from a point that is purely personal. On the other hand, they consistently reach a high degree of generality in their closure. Szymborska’s forms are consistent. The first lines are usually relaxed, observational, and direct, proceeding into the rest of the poem in a listlike, incremental manner. From the first word the reader is persuaded that this is the world, hers but also mine, our common reality. She registers the world around her as it is, ordinary and without suspicion of bias. It is the endings of the poems that achieve great force, but the beginnings are important as foils. In the poem “Seen from Above,” the first line reads simply, “A dead beetle lies on the path through the field.” The poem “View with a Grain of Sand” begins, “We call it a grain of sand.” From these relaxed starting points each poem proceeds gradually, effortlessly, toward unexpected realizations about the nature of death and the nature of time. This effortlessness conceals a prodigious amount of art and synthesis.

Much of the drama in a typical Szymborska poem comes from a tension between lightness on one hand and breadth on the other; this is as true of the texture of individual lines as of the larger structures. Her trick is to maintain the lightness and breadth at the same time. As she wrote at the end of the poem “Under One Small Star,” “Don’t bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words,/ then labor heavily so that they may seem light.”

The translations of this collection are careful, and they always show a thorough knowledge of the original texts; at the same time, they display a resourceful use of English. These virtues are expected from Stanisław Barañczak a master translator from English to Polish and fine poet himself, and his cotranslator Clare Cavanagh, who is at home with the American idiom. The translations are invariably smooth, easy to read, and attractive. Richard Howard has called them “dapper.” Some have a breezy quality; several might even be called jazzy.

One caveat might be registered, however, about the colloquialness of a few translations. Although successfully carried out in the great majority of these poems, colloquial speech or the translators’ colloquial voice sometimes lacks modulation. This can be seen in the translation of the short poem “In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself”:

The buzzard never says it is to blame.
The panther wouldn’t know what scruples mean.
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they’d claim their hands were clean.

A jackal doesn’t understand remorse.

Lions and lice don’t waver in their course.
Why should they, when they know they’re right?

Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton,

in every other way they’re light.

On this third planet of the sun

among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is Number One.

The original poem is highly compressed and contains ironic contradictions. In paraphrase, it states that a variety of predatory animals have no conscience, or have at least a clear conscience; this is characteristic of our planet. Humans are omitted from the list, but the ironic final stanza suggests that humans are included after all: They too are characterized by a clear conscience, or more likely a lack of one. The poem’s title, however, directly praises the opposite of this “clear conscience.”

The following is a more literal translation of the same poem, which is titled “In Praise of Self-Deprecation”:

The buzzard has nothing to fault himself with.
Scruples are alien to the black panther.
Piranhas do not doubt the rightness of their actions.
The rattlesnake approves of himself without reservations.

The self-critical jackal does not exist.

The locust, alligator, trichina, horsefly
live as they live and are glad of it.

A hundred kilograms weighs the killer-whale’s heart,

but in another respect it is light.

There is nothing more animal-like

than a clear conscience
on the third planet of the Sun.

This second version, by Magnus Krynski and Robert Maguire, indicates some alternate interpretations of the poem. The translation lacks colloquialness entirely; it is literal, prosaic, often flat. Some lines are awkward and even archaic. Yet the more literal title and a few word choices render some meanings skirted or absent in the more graceful translation by Barañczak and Cavanagh, whose “feeling bad about yourself” is probably too talky. The English rhymes have a tone that is slightly childish. Szymborska’s notion of “clear conscience” (really the opposite of conscience) begs for sharp irony.

The translation of this particular poem is exceptional, not typical of the others in the book, which are almost always distinguished by resourcefulness and care. The translators make use of a broad range of the tools available in the English language and writing skills, applying them creatively to Szymborska’s poetry. Too often translations are impoverished by excessive literalness, and it is a pleasure to observe in this collection the resources of the writer joined to those of the translator. Barañczak and Cavanagh consistently carry out a double task: On the one hand, the original text and its meanings are carefully preserved and interpreted; on the other hand, attractive texts are built up in English. They have presented a great poet in English with admirable skill.

Sources for Further Study

Library Journal. CXX, July, 1995, p. 85.

The New Republic. CCXIV, January 1, 1996, p. 36.

Salmagundi. Summer, 1994, p. 252.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, July 30, 1995, p. 8.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 389

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.

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Themes