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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