Wislawa Szymborska

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Jaroslaw Anders (review date 21 October 1982)

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SOURCE: Anders, Jaroslaw. “The Revenge of the Mortal Hand.” New York Review of Books 29, no. 16 (21 October 1982): 47-9.

[In the following review, Anders compliments Szymborska's attention to the often overlooked aspects of life in Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems, commenting that Szymborska's emphasis on the fleeting nature of memory sets her poetry apart from the works of other notable Polish poets.]

Of the poetic voices to come out of Poland after 1945 Wislawa Szymborska's is probably the most elusive as well as the most distinctive. She defies the usual categories (“classicist,” “political”) used to describe writers on the Polish postwar literary scene. Moreover, she is isolated both in her writing and in her life, avoiding autobiography and remaining intensely private.

What is known about her could also, however, be said of many of her generation. Born in 1923 in Kornik, near Poznan, she spent her childhood and early youth in wartime Poland. She started to publish her first poems in literary periodicals just after the war, in the brief period of hope that was brutally terminated in 1948 by the overt Stalinization of the country. When she was about to publish her first volume of verse, which was found wanting in the propaganda requirements of socialist realism, she was faced—as were many of her contemporaries—with the alternatives of silence or compromise.

This dilemma, which came as a surprise to many who had grown up during the war, resulted in grave divisions within Polish cultural life. Some young poets, like Zbigniew Herbert and Miron Bialoszewski, decided to remain silent and survived doing menial jobs until 1956 when, as political life became relatively relaxed, they could again begin publishing their work. Some accepted the new requirements without objection and lent their talents, out of conviction or cynicism, to the regime. Others, like Szymborska herself, chose conformity with the formal and thematic demands of the new cultural policy while at the same time trying to maintain some degree of poetic authenticity and to preserve in their writing the traditional humanistic values that were endangered by the fear and desolation of the Stalinist years.

The limitations of poetic choice she encountered, and her painful attempts to avoid the ultimate lie, are reflected in her first two books of poetry: That's What We Live For (1952) and Questions Put to Myself (1954). The first, later repudiated by the poet herself, contained the usual variations on officially inspired “political” themes; however, their gentler, more lyrical tone distinguished them from the standard work of that kind. The second book showed a retreat into more personal, traditionally “poetic” themes of love, death, and time—the only nonpolitical themes occasionally tolerated by the cultural policy of that period. Only after the political “thaw” in 1956, and with the publication of her third volume, Calling out to Yeti (1957), was Szymborska to find her true poetic voice.

Poetry has remained her only occupation. She has published little prose except for the short, witty book reviews which appeared regularly in a Polish literary magazine—most of them on ostentatiously nonpoetic subjects: popular science, entertainment, dictionaries and encyclopedias. Only rarely is Szymborska's voice heard on public issues. She signed a petition of Polish intellectuals protesting the ignominious amendment to the Polish constitution expressing “eternal friendship and cooperation with the Soviet Union,” and supported the “Flying University,” the semi-clandestine network of intellectuals which was intended to prevent Polish culture from being destroyed by the tightening ideological control over historical studies and literature. Yet she remained one of the most apolitical of Polish writers during the intensely political 1960s and 1970s.

(This entire section contains 2585 words.)

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Poetry has remained her only occupation. She has published little prose except for the short, witty book reviews which appeared regularly in a Polish literary magazine—most of them on ostentatiously nonpoetic subjects: popular science, entertainment, dictionaries and encyclopedias. Only rarely is Szymborska's voice heard on public issues. She signed a petition of Polish intellectuals protesting the ignominious amendment to the Polish constitution expressing “eternal friendship and cooperation with the Soviet Union,” and supported the “Flying University,” the semi-clandestine network of intellectuals which was intended to prevent Polish culture from being destroyed by the tightening ideological control over historical studies and literature. Yet she remained one of the most apolitical of Polish writers during the intensely political 1960s and 1970s.

Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts contains poems from her five books written since 1957, comprising more or less half of what the poet herself considers her canon. Its publication is of interest not only because of Szymborska's importance as a poet, but also because her work demonstrates that the diversity of poetic modes in Poland is much greater than is usually perceived.

She is often compared with her contemporaries, Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Rozewicz, and indeed she shares with them the same avoidance of formalism, the same subdued, temperate tone in which highly purified poetic language is rendered almost as prose. She shares with them as well the classical preoccupation with balance and symmetry in a world of unsettled values. Yet here the similarities end. If the voices of Herbert and Rozewicz can be compared to solid, verbal masonry, hers is much more supple. Her voice can be highly succinct and precise and it can be conversational; she can be playfully commonplace, alternating dense and elaborately constructed phrases with long lists or incantations.

The difference of tone in Szymborska's work gives it a different perspective and presents a different lyrical self, whose scrutiny of the world we are invited to participate in. In Herbert's work we encounter the skeptical, yet affirmative “Mr. Cogito”; Rozewicz's tone is that of a nihilistic, sardonic “survivor.” Both seem protected against the insanities of life and history: one by the heritage of culture he embodies, the other by the depth of his disillusionment. Szymborska presents us with a less defined, more protean persona who readily lends her voice to a woman, a child, even a small animal. The characters she evokes constantly refuse—often in spite of their superior knowledge or experience—to view the human drama “from above,” from the upper circle occupied by philosophers, aesthetes, and priests of history. They try to meet life on its own terms and open themselves up to its contingency, like the scoffing space travelers in “Warning,” who “feel best in the crevices dividing / practice and theory, / cause and effect. …”

The language and the poetic perspective in Szymborska's writing convey the sense of a deliberately chosen vulnerability, and a deliberate openness to the enchantment and pain of being exposed to the variety and mutability of life:

Why to excess then in one single
This one not that? And why am I
On a day that's a Tuesday? In a
          house not a nest?
In skin not in scales? With a face
          not a leaf?
Why only once in my very own
Precisely on earth? Under this little
After so many eras of not being


Diversity and mutability seem to be the underlying themes of Szymborska's writing, recurring in numerous variations, in almost every poem in the collection. Most frequently a perceptive mind is confronted with an unexpected variety of impressions that unsettle previous knowledge and question the validity of perception itself. When this happens, the feeling is one of amazement and uneasiness. When on the hill of Troy seven cities are discovered, “The hexameters are bursting asunder, / unnarrated brick protrudes from the cracks”; our vision becomes crowded:

twin brothers of Hector the eagle,
          fully his equal in valor,
thousands and thousands of indi-
          vidual faces,
each the first and the last in time,
and each with a pair of unique


Similarly, the multitude of barbarian tribes, real and legendary, disturb the symmetry of Roman culture in “Voices”; the dead artifacts collected “for want of eternity” recall the human world of sensuality and emotion that used to surround them. Besides history there is also nature, the Great Chain of Being, multiplying the possible forms of existence ad infinitum. The poet's mind appears as aleph, the magical point at which time and space meet—time and space in a sense larger than the physical one—and includes mermaids, fauns, and angels (in the poem “Thomas Mann”), and imaginary Atlantis. The cosmos breaks up into myriads of separate entities, each endowed with its own unique center and radiant with purposefulness: “Innumerable, infinite, / yet individual to the very filament, / the grain of sand, the drop of water / —landscapes” (“Travel Elegy”). Yet in human perception the multitude of things in the world depends on the individual perceiving “I” and acquires only the degree of existence and duration that the perceiving “I” decides to invest it with. This does not seem right to the poet. It is a kind of violation of the world committed continuously and involuntarily by our consciousness: “What's important is valid supposedly for us. / For just our life, for just our death, / a death that enjoys an extorted primacy” (“Seen from Above”).

The variety that Szymborska's poems celebrate also fades before our eyes—like the forgotten places in “Travel Elegy” or the mysterious undefined presence in “Still Alive.” The prevailing nostalgic tone comes from the poet's sense of failure in dealing with the “infinite” and the “innumerable,” from the sad recognition of the necessity of using abstraction and “great numbers” instead of attending to the specific. Our imagination is both helpless and erratic: “Flitting through darkness like a flashlight beam, / it picks out only the faces that are nearest, / meanwhile the rest are lost to blind oversight, / non-thought and non-regret” (“A Great Number”). What our memory or perception rejects, what we overlook or ignore is condemned to nonexistence or is banished to the dim realm of the merely probable and potential. Szymborska is anxious not to neglect anything that is or may be “Hypothetical. Dubious. / Unimmortalized. / Unextracted from air, / from fire, from water, from earth” (“Atlantis”) and therefore she is intensely aware of what is forgotten, left outside the frame of a painting, unrecorded, rejected by a scientific paradigm. Ambiguous existences beyond our knowledge and certainty disturb—evoking a sense of guilt. This helps to account for the apologetic note in many of her poems:

I apologize to time for the
          muchness of the world over-
                    looked per second. …
I apologize to everything that I
          cannot be everywhere.
I apologize to everyone that I
          cannot be every man and woman.
I know that as long as I live
          nothing can justify me,
because I myself am an obstacle
          to myself.

(“Under a Certain Little Star”)

In these poems the nostalgia also comes from the awareness that what is really important to us—the momentary and elusive, the real texture of life—is constantly receding from our view. What seems to be growth is in fact steady loss. In “The Museum,” life is presented as a “race with [a] dress” that strives to outlive its owner. The final victory belongs always to a dead object and an empty stage: a museum piece, a family album, letters of the dead, a suicide's room.

Yet for Szymborska the fascination with memory and imagination has moral significance. She seems to suggest that the same arbitrary perception that blinds us to the variety of existence and makes us forget what we have seen can be responsible for real crimes, can condemn the real world to death, as in the poems “Written in a Hotel,” “Vietnam,” and “Still”—all on the subject of genocide. Kyoto was saved because of its remarkable and memorable beauty. Yet less beautiful Hiroshima was sentenced to death, as any other city may be where “… a wall is a plain old brick wall, / a tower is old, well, just old” because what is ordinary is less real, belongs to a “great number” and becomes more vulnerable to the human folly of destruction. When in “Seen from Above” a bug dies “as if nothing important has befallen him,” the poem suggests the callousness that men have often used against other men.

For Szymborska, then, the poet's task is to be a custodian of different views, to translate “great numbers” into “individual faces” and “unique eyes” to bring back to life the names of murdered Jews, even to try to enter the closed interior of a stone. The joy of writing is “The power of preserving. / The revenge of the mortal hand.” This is doubtless the task of all poetry, for which the sense of loss, the Heraclitean flight of the universe seems to be the most ancient impulse. But it is also true that this impulse becomes dominant in places where the sense of loss and disinheritance from the familiar world is the most momentous and decisive element in human experience and where it assumes historical proportions. Poland is such a place and the preoccupation with memory and the significance of a particular moment reflecting—in a miraculous way—a large part of life has become a distinctive motif of contemporary Polish poetry. When the visible world undergoes constant and dramatic changes and the “reality” appears as a falsehood or a nightmare, the true reality finds shelter in poetic imagination capable of extracting a moment from the stream of time. It is this paradox, which is at the heart of all poetry and of Polish poetry in particular, that Czeslaw Milosz speaks about when he writes:

—Take a moment, just one, and
          when its fine shell,
Two joined palms, slowly opens
What do you see?
                                                            —A pearl, a second.
—Inside a second, a pearl, in that
          star saved from time,
What do you see when the wind of
          mutability ceases?
—The earth, the sky and the sea,
          richly cargoed ships,
Spring morning full of dew and
          faraway princedoms.

(“A Frivolous Conversation”)

Yet in Szymborska's poetry we encounter a deeper kind of sadness—not only the sadness of buried peoples and cities, the destructive work of history, but also the sadness that comes when what the poet herself had chosen to save fades and becomes forgotten. For Szymborska knows that the task she has assigned herself is impossible and that the victories of a mortal hand are only an illusion.

I won't retain one blade of grass
in sharp contour.
Greeting and farewell
in a single glance.
For excess and for lack
a single movement of the neck.

(“Travel Elegy”)

Every translation of a poem is an inevitable compromise between its different levels of meaning—from the visual form and the pattern of sounds to the precise meaning of its words—only a few of which can be rendered simultaneously into another language. The most sensible approach of a translator is to concentrate on the level that carries the largest weight of meaning. Accordingly, the other values of the text are honored only so far as they do not interfere with the main one. Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire (the translators of The Survivor, a collection of poems by Tadeusz Rozewicz) concentrate on verbal precision, the subtleties of meaning, and the characteristic irony of the text. This quest for the accurate word and respect for meaning result in a certain lengthening of line, frequent departures from the rhythmic pattern of the poems, and the exclusion of Szymborska's rhymed verse from the collection.

Yet the choice seems to be the right one. Szymborska is a poet whose values are clarity and sense, and any effort to reproduce the more formal qualities of her work at the expense of the precision of its meaning would put us at a distance from the original rather than bring us closer to it.

Szymborska's quiet “apolitical” voice is a distinct force in today's Poland. Its influence is visible in a number of poets of the younger generation, of whom Eva Lipska, born in 1945, is perhaps the most prominent example. Yet until recently Szymborska was little known in the West. The interest in Polish writing tends to follow the erratic rhythm of historical disasters and focuses on phenomena that bear more or less directly on political events. Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts, the only presentation of this major poet's work in English, in a translation both elegant and reticent, should be welcomed as a token of deeper and more systematic understanding of what is best in Eastern European writing today.


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Wislawa Szymborska 1923-

(Also rendered as Wisława Szymborska; has also written under the pseudonym Stanczykowna) Polish poet, critic, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Szymborska's career through 2002. See also Wislawa Szymborska Criticism (Volume 99) and Wislawa Szymborska Poetry Criticism.

Szymborska is considered one of the most accomplished European poets of the second half of the twentieth century. Her unsurpassed popularity in her native Poland evolved into international recognition in 1996 with her receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature. While her literary output is relatively slight, including little more than two hundred poems published over five decades, Szymborska is nevertheless regarded as a leading figure of contemporary European letters. In her measured and elegant verse, Szymborska celebrates the miraculous qualities of the ordinary and seemingly insignificant events. Offering concrete images that suggest their own universality, Szymborska's poems evince her skeptical philosophy, often aided by her sense of humor and Socratic pose of the naïve questioner, stripping away clichés to uncover hidden truths.

Biographical Information

Szymborska was born on July 2, 1923, in Prowent-Bnin, near Poznań, Poland. Her family moved to Kraków when she was eight years old, and Szymborska has lived in Kraków ever since. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, Szymborska defied official sanctions and secretly attended a banned Polish secondary school. After World War II, she entered Jagellonian University, studying Polish literature and sociology. In 1948 she married fellow poet and editor Adam Wlodek, but their marriage ended in divorce six years later. In 1952 Szymborska joined the editorial staff of the cultural periodical Zycie literackie, devoting most of her attention to literary criticism. Selections of her reviews were subsequently collected in Lektury nadobowiazkowe (1974; Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces), which shares its title with the column Szymborska continued to write until 1981—“Recommended Reading.” Approximately thirty of Szymborska's earliest poems appeared in the Kraków newspaper Dziennik Polski in 1945, but her initial attempts to publish a collection in 1949 were met with the disapproval of communist censors. Her first poetic collection, Dlatego zyjemy, was not published until 1952, followed soon after by Pytania zadawane sobie (1954). Marked by a strong socialist realism, both works were later rejected and renounced by Szymborska in the post-Stalinist era. In the ensuing decades, Szymborska has achieved an unparalleled level of popularity for a woman poet in Poland. A reclusive and exacting writer, she has published small volumes of verse every three to five years for the remainder of the century. Her first major collection to appear in English, Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems, was published in 1981. During the early 1980s, however, Poland became a nation under martial law. Szymborska was forced to assume the pseudonym “Stanczykowna” and print her poetry in such dissident and exile publications as the Polish magazine Arka and the Parisian journal Kultura Paryska. The political situation in Poland and the subsequent fall of Soviet communism had little effect on Szymborska's popularity within Poland—in 1995 her poem “Nothing Twice” was transformed into a hit Polish rock song. The following year, the intensely private poet, largely unrecognized outside of Poland, achieved overnight international recognition by being named as the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. Szymborska's subsequent worldwide acclaim has inspired several reprints of her past volumes as well as new translations of her poetry into English and numerous other languages.

Major Works

Excluding only Szymborska's self-renounced pre-1957 poems, View with a Grain of Sand (1995) collects English translations of verse from Szymborska's seven major volumes of poetry published prior to her Nobel award—ranging from such early works as Wolanie do Yeti (1957) and Sól (1962) to such later works as Ludzie na moście (1986; People on a Bridge) and Koniec i początek (1993). The collection includes the noted poem “Calling out to Yeti,” in which the speaker stands in the icy Himalayan Mountains, speaking to the Abominable Snowman and metaphorically addressing former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. The speaker cries out: “Yeti, not only crimes / are possible among us. / Yeti, not all words / are death sentences.” Another well-known piece, “Brueghel's Two Monkeys,” which originally appeared in Wolanie do Yeti, opens with an image from a famous Brueghel painting in order to question the relationship between language and reality. Commentators have observed that personal memory is a significant thematic and structural principle in several of Szymborska's poetic works, particularly in Koniec i początek, which features one of Szymborska's most oft-cited poems, “Cat in an Empty Apartment.” In the poem, Szymborska displaces her narrative perspective on the death of a loved one onto the mind of the deceased's household pet, following the thoughts of the perplexed creature as it petulantly vows to teach its master a lesson when he returns. “A Great Number,” from Wielka liczba (1976), also illustrates several of Szymborska's underlying poetic themes, including the relationship between the individual and the universal, humankind's fleeting grasp of memory and knowledge, apprehension at the essential randomness of the universe, and a belief in the potential of poetry to offer understanding and consolation. In such pieces as “Children of Our Age” and “The Century's Decline,” Szymborska turns her ironist's view to the hollow rhetoric of a political era and to the unfulfilled promises of Marxism in the modern age. Miracle Fair: Selected Poems of Wislawa Szymborska (2001) is a retrospective collection of Szymborska's poetry that includes selections from her first two volumes—many of them being translated into English for the first time. In the title poem, “Miracle Fair,” Szymborska celebrates the small miracles of life that occur every day, but which typically escape our distracted attention. Offering a near comprehensive selection of Szymborska's poetic oeuvre, Poems, New and Collected, 1957-1997 (1998) includes the poem “Under a Single Star,” a work that captures the humble stance of the poet as she apologizes to language itself for her clumsy attempts to relay understanding through words.

Critical Reception

Although her first poems were heavily influenced by the dominant socialist realism of the early Stalinist era in Poland, Szymborska has denounced her early verse, commenting that she made the “mistake” of loving mankind rather than loving the individual human being in her work. Though these initial publications have been largely ignored by critics, Szymborska's post-1957 poetry has attracted nearly unanimous praise, culminating in her 1996 Nobel Prize. Several of her peers have been equally forthcoming in their esteem for Szymborska's verse. Fellow Polish Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz has been somewhat reserved in his praise of Szymborska's poetry, though he has complimented the insight and strength of her poems. Milosz has stated that, “[f]or me, Szymborska is first of all a poet of consciousness. This means that she speaks to us, living at the same time, as one of us, reserving her private matters for herself, operating at a certain remove, but also referring to what everybody knows from one's own life.” Observers have noted that Szymborska frequently opens poems with a seemingly innocent question, and through the body of the poem, uncovers a series of harsh truths. Commentators have consistently lauded Szymborska's wit, wisdom, irony, and adept use of simple and straightforward language. Acknowledging that Szymborska's poetry is extremely focused on the everyday and the manifestly realistic, reviewers have maintained that her works embody a universal appeal that demonstrates her poetic joy in life's miraculous potential, tempered by her strong skepticism of easy solutions and her acute awareness of suffering. This all-encompassing worldview, coupled with her precise language, has facilitated the conveyance of concepts when Szymborska's works undergo translation. Critics have noted that, although translations vary in quality, due to Szymborska's concise language and understated lyricism, very little of her original ideas are lost in translation, though some commentators have acknowledged that Szymborska's puns and play on words are often difficult to render in another language.

Krzysztof Karasek (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Karasek, Krzysztof. “Mozartian Joy: The Poetry of Wislawa Szymborska.” In The Mature Laurel: Essays on Modern Polish Poetry, edited by Adam Czerniawski, pp. 191-98. Wales, U.K.: Poetry Wales Press, Ltd/Seren Books/Dufour, 1991.

[In the following essay, Karasek examines how Szymborska is able to portray “the totality of art” within her poetry and argues that “each of [Szymborska's] poems is an autonomous world, a world in itself.”]

In the twentieth century the Word has become—like it or not—a dramatic battleground. At the same time, a shrinking of art's domain and the annexation of this area by knowledge (in the case of the avant-garde) and politics (in the case of committed art)—just as in the Middle Ages it had been annexed by religion—has contracted the territory of autonomous poetic reality, the reality of a poetry which draws strength from its own resources; it has in effect contracted the realm of true poetry, and therefore of what can be called poetry. Nevertheless, it remains a territory sufficiently large to express within it the reality of human fate on earth, the reality of humans immersed in time and aware of it, without recourse to any other categories beside the Word. Pursued by the Chimera of reality or metaphysics, mutilated by the Erynies of history and the demons of internal contradictions, poets dedicate less and less space to poetry as art, to poetry perceived as a perfect shape, a fulfilment. A sketch, a hasty drawing, a barely-pronounced expression of the mouth, a line of the lips, convey the fullness of the world. A curtailment of the intellect, a curtailment of the imagination, specifically excludes elements of thought. Linguistic and epistemological density replaces form. Contemporary poetry at its best has embodied itself most completely in forms that are hurried, sketchy, full of drama and tensions. And yet the deeper we plunge in time (or rather, the deeper time plunges us), we discover all the more certainly that the Chimera of obsessions cannot be tamed; we cannot cure the imagination by fighting it. The Chimera gorges herself at our expense, and the more we struggle with her, the more we define her symmetry, the more we confirm her domain.

So we are overcome with nostalgia for art in its fullness and distinctiveness, in which it would again be possible to grasp ‘the totality’ of art—not of the sketch, but of the full shape, of plenitude. An art which is not a morass but a hard, rocky base—which instead of a quagmire offers something more durable on which to stand, or even (who knows?)—perhaps even build a house. Something not lacking either joy or tragedy, but retaining in our human dimensions a full warmth of the dramatic. Art which offers something on which we lean, in which one might take shelter during “a pestilential time”, “a wretched time” (“what use a poet in wretched times?”), a hostile time. And time is indeed hostile to man and his reveries, above all those focussed on the Word.

There are very few figures in Polish poetry who achieve this, poets who create such a world-house—among them only Zbigniew Herbert and Wislawa Szymborska (poets of wise maturity) have tried to create a language which keeps pace with elementary human needs. But they each lead us to very different world-houses: Herbert's is inhabited from cellar to roof; from floor to ceiling with gods and memories of history—both of history happening within us and of that which precedes us, with the relicts of a ruined and defeated world, though its artefacts survive and preserve its name. Here precisely in its human-historical and sacral dimensions lies the saving strength of objects. Szymborska's is the world-house of our daily lives, our ordinary life and death. A world where tears are salty and rain is wet, in which ‘love’—in Herbert's words—“means love, and death means death”.

Poets of wise maturity find their true voice late. How high a price they pay for the moderation of their passions, for the defeat of the Chimera, can be known only by someone who had himself pitted his strength against hers. We, who are the true offspring of Dionysus, that is of Chaos, are well aware that the secret extorted from Apollo is rarely won without punishment. ‘Apollo and Marsyas’, one of Herbert's most personal poems, portrays this quarrel between logic and imagination, rules and exceptions, and between the known and the incomprehensible, in a way that is moving and accessible even to a novice.

A poet of obsession discharges his tensions and fears, while the Apollonian poet suppresses them by an effort of will and intellect. But they constantly live in him, return to him; if he choked them he would cease to be a good poet and become a didact, a rhetorician, a fiddler constantly scraping the same old tunes. These tensions and fears return at the most inappropriate moments. Chimeras, Harpies, Erynies and Maenads return to mutilate the poet's flesh, the flesh of Orpheus, Orestes and Marsyas; for extorting secrets from them, they tear him to shreds. Poets of wise maturity are a fixed point of reference in our bustling, excessively bustling world. The very fact that they exist lightens our own existence and strengthens us in our identity and in the certainty that the world nevertheless exists and not merely is. Can our world become a house? If we ask that question when reading Szymborska, then perhaps we are already on its threshold.

Most importantly, we must first know what is most important in the house, we must establish a hierarchy of values. A hierarchy for us. Our own hierarchy, verifiable by us, because those others were fixed without us, before our arrival in the world, and are therefore not sufficient for us. They include father and mother as basic categories, a common point of departure. This is best seen in Herbert, whose world begins with a description of his own (and thus first) parents. Father, a first visible god (or a substitute for God), the giver of values, a signpost through the world's dark by-ways; and mother, the earth's warm embrace, always ready to welcome the errant wanderer. Then the world of objects: table, chair, bed, a glass on the table, a window, a view onto the street (“Eyes are hands”, says Voltaire), a door; these are the elements defining the boundaries of our visible world, our home. A bond grows between objects and people; and thus language is born. It is created by a need to give expression to the drama of existence. A drama occurring between men and objects. A drama also of language, since words are objects in motion and like objects they undergo destruction, corruption, erasure, are insufficient, transient, and in their deepest essence betray men and choose the world.

Wislawa Szymborska belongs to this world. She is a poet of material objects, of insignificant everyday events, commonplace conversations, everyday reality; the theme of myth, of culture, only rarely enters her work, usually only as a justification of ordinariness. Perhaps her option is realistic (if such a term has any sense whatever in poetry) because in poetry, as nowhere else, the illusoriness of the real world manifests itself. In some sense, everything here is at once the same and not the same; the character of Szymborska's vision is comparable to representational painting. Her deformations do not exceed either Picasso's Cubism or the Impressionists' diffused colour (in relation to objects this means either polarisation or valuation). Reality in her poems is undoubtedly ‘objective’, but this objectivity is illusory: while undergoing deformation, it does not in any sense turn into meta-reality, a reverie of the imagination; it does not cross boundaries drawn long ago by Horace in his ‘The Art of Poetry’:

Suppose some painter, as a tour de force,
Should couple head of man with neck of horse,
Invest them both with feathers, stead of hair,
And tack on limbs picked up from here and there,
So that the figure, when complete, should show
A maid above, a hideous fish below:
Should you be favoured with a private view,
You'd laugh, my friends […]

Szymborska's poetry sprang from the poetics of the poster. Posters are images with simplified interiors. For years she has been enriching her perception of the image, deepening her perception of things. Like the Old Masters, she has studied sketches and nature, spotting the ever-new complexities, discovering ever-new by-ways and possibilities of the visible. Until the image became an icon: that is, something which by its links with objective reality began to take on magical—or religious, in the pagan sense—characteristics. But it did not turn into a calligramme, a sign stretched between writing and the heavens, even though Szymborska does gravitate towards calligraphy. Is not the title-poem of her collection Ludzie na moście (People on a Bridge) evidence of this?

The image is her primary, basic and most natural form of expression; during the creative process it came to be questioned and subjected to revision, as in “Lot's Wife”, “Utopia” or “Medieval Miniature” in Wielka liczba (A Great Number). But the process actually began earlier in Szymborska's first important collection: in “Atlantis” and “A Midsummer Night's Dream” in Wolanie do Yeti (Calling out to Yeti). It wasn't the case that words began to be surprised by words or sentences by sentences, or that language itself, like a snake, began swallowing its own tail; it was rather that the image began to swallow the image.

This questioning of the image first began when a conviction arose that eyes are an illusory means of uncovering the truth; a revelation which had great formal consequences. The image is now subjected to an intellectual scrutiny and therefore distanced. Attitudes to it become cooler, less ecstatic—admittedly hers was never such in the fullest sense—more critical. They are saturated with irony, the duality of vision and of sight, they follow a zig-zagging course along which truth moves, with the dialectical ‘yes’ answered by the dialectical ‘no’. The poem becomes an object in the game of intellect and imagination; feelings are around to be played with cat-and-mouse, revealing their mild, though unavoidable disablement. Scepticism and relativism direct the imagination, whose tool becomes the “snake language”, as in the Icelandic Gunlaug's Saga.

The way language functions in Szymborska's work might be called semantic flirtation. The imagination never moves in a straight line, but rather ‘bi-laterally’, like the joystick of an aircraft. This corresponds to the movement of thought which in Szymborska's case simultaneously places under suspicion everything she says. Whatever the poet asserts is almost immediately called into question. Imagination is thus compelled to incessant mobility, incessant attack and defence, dualities of meaning are ‘forced’ out of her: mirrored, twinned, mutually matched non-Baudelairean “correspondences”. At every moment the poet seems to withdraw everything she has asserted. One can detect here both an intellectual quality and a spectacular exploitation by the poet of her femininity, fashioning from it a tool of both formal and epistemological inquisitiveness. It is in this extraordinary mobility—already noticeable at the level of ‘small’ images—that I would look for the fullest realisation of femininity in poetry: the idea of constant change as the most permanent characteristic of feminine nature.

Jerzy Kwiatkowski has already pointed out the malleability of this language. For each poem Szymborska creates a distinct linguistic code, employs different styles, depending on whichever she deems appropriate. But it is difficult to agree with Kwiatkowski when he claims that in Szymborska's work language therefore fulfils an ancillary or subordinate function, though not an utilitarian one. Although this may not seem obvious—due to an illusion created by formal perfection—in the case of a true poet language always performs a creative function and is the driving force. The a priori, both in relation to the object and to the intention, is the expression which orders the reality of the poem, though with such an excellent poet as Szymborska one is left with the impression that, precisely thanks to her stylistics, things are here very different from Rimbaud's case—which does not mean that I consider Rimbaud less perfect: he is quite simply unique. Here Szymborska is not alone. The arch-poet Adam Mickiewicz once dreamt of “a pliable language that would express everything the head thinks”. But mercifully he confined himself to dreaming; otherwise, would we have had his ‘Oda do młodości’ (‘Ode to Youth’) or Dziady (The Forefathers' Eve)? In any case, Mickiewicz amended his postulate; the formula of “fervent reason” in some sense defines an extreme possibility of the participation of the rational in poetic activity and cognition. After all, it was Plato—at once the greatest rationalist in human thought and the greatest dreamer—who claimed that “the gods speak through the mouths of poets”; in other words, the powers which transcend poets and which establish the Categorical Imperative of their language. Irrespective of whether the result of this Imperative is a seemingly objective description, speech pregnant with meanings or a narrative epic like The Illiad or Pan Tadeusz; or even a Rimbaudesque vision, an “illumination”: it amounts to a break-in both into the areas of cognition and into the mystery of fate.

Szymborska's poetry has many opponents. Particularly among poets. I understand their criticisms, but I don't share them. They say: Szymborska doesn't offer cognitive revelations—puzzlement as a cognitive category isn't enough. How mistaken this judgment is! By aiming at puzzlement, Szymborska aims at the very heart of poetry's cognitive energy, at the very source of its life. Indeed, it's from there, from that ‘small’ or ‘great’ puzzlement, that ‘everything’ comes—that first and last glimmer of cognition. It accompanies the birth of a child's language and therefore of its world; and it's there when a man closes his eyes in death: “So that's all? So nothing more? Now's the end?”—he asks himself; it is the last basis of his cognition. This is primary in poetry, and primary means both first—and thus, simplest; and last—thus, chief and fundamental.

Isn't this the source of poetic mastery: To give an original expression to one's own puzzlement? Not even posing questions: this is a secondary characteristic for a poet—though primary for a philosopher. And poetry is not philosophy. What separates it from simple philosophical schemes is language which sparkles, shines, lives, burns, freezes and never leaves one indifferent; which reanimates the dead structures of the image, fills it with living contents, empathetic puzzlement. Yet also from this perspective Szymborska is under fire: aren't questions indicative of philosophical puzzlement? The questions Szymborska raises concern existence rather than redemption. Historically speaking, one might say that her poetry concerns the ‘here’ rather than the ‘now’. Another reproach: Szymborska's poems are devoid of mystery, as if for her metaphysics didn't exist. Certainly, the author of Sto pociech (A Hundred Joys) and Wielka liczba isn't a metaphysician, and certainly not a mystic; that simply isn't her area. And if one is to categorise her in these terms, she is rather an epistemologist or a phenomenologist of revelation. Her patrons are Descartes and Pascal—and speaking of Pascal I don't have in mind his paradoxes of division but the sensation of sudden experience, of epiphanies. So, on the one hand, a rational, investigative, almost scientific relation to the object—this brings Szymborska close to the Age of Enlightenment, and also to the cognitive passions of the twentieth century: Ponge's dispassionate descriptions or the ideas of the French Nouveau Roman; and, on the other hand, Pascal with his celebration of cognition: “I am incompetent in truth and goodness” and: “Man is nothingness in the face of infinity, everything in the face of nothingness and a mediator between everything and nothing”. Both these assertions define to the same degree the cognitive scepticism of both Pascal and Szymborska, leading Pascal to a conception of the emotional nature of knowledge and the presence of mystical intuition; and Szymborska to the cognitive nature of emotions as a game of the intellect, a semantic flirtation whose meaning is primarily epistemological.

It is true, there is no mystery in her poems. At any rate, not in the sense that Pascal understood it: as the presence of mystical intuition. But this does not mean that their cognitive stratum has been reduced, that they are ‘ordinary’ or ‘obvious’. Only the concrete is ordinary, the object in which the poet is mirrored and discovers himself. And it is here that the Cartesianism of her imagination reveals itself—perhaps even of her poetic thinking. From its ‘centre’ the mind embraces everything: appears to highlight, to foreground and to cover all things. On the canvas of this ordinariness Szymborska builds her extra-ordinariness, her non-ordinariness, her strangeness. She shows from inside, from underneath, from below, from above, from the centre. From the side of nothingness too. It might be said that she realises in the highest sense William Blake's postulate in the opening lines of his ‘Auguries of Innocence’:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the Palm of your Hand
And Eternity in an Hour.

There is in Szymborska's poetry something which radiates authentic joy, as does the music of Mozart. A joy which issues from the sensation of a game of intellect and imagination; but above all, from the unaffectedness of her language. I stress: from unaffectedness, not naturalness; like every true artist, Szymborska is not natural. Art is artificial; this banal tautology fully conveys the basic condition of its existence, a condition apparently often overlooked today. The work she performs in the sphere of language is, as with all true masters, almost invisible, unostentatious. This work—this asceticism—has deepened in the last decade; the diction has become prosaic, as if the poet were trying to test whether, under the pressure of the commonplace, joy can pass the test of puzzlement and to what extent. Sometimes (as in “Pogrzeb” (“Funeral”)) in Ludzie na moście it seems that she has crossed the boundaries reserved for Miron Białoszewski, where once she steered rather towards the aphorisms of Stanisław Jerzy Lec.

Szymborska is one of the few contemporary poets who writes poems. That is, each of her poems is an autonomous world, a world in itself, and if someone wants to know her ‘as a whole’, complete, he can acquire such a comprehensive view from just a single poem, while other poets need a whole volume for self-definition. At the other extreme is Białoszewski, whose poems, with the exception of his first collection Obroty rzeczy (The Revolution of Things) seem mutually to complete and explicate each other, as though each poem is only understood fully through others. One could say that Białoszewski is a poet of a single linguistic gesture, which he expands, enriches and deepens; of one key, a key to the world, to reality. Whereas poets like Szymborska and Herbert call up such a key, which is different every time and every time exclusive to the world of the particular poem. In this sense Szymborska is traditional—or better, operates in the spirit of tradition, that is, of completeness, whereas Białoszewski functions in the spirit of modernity, that is, of specialisation and fragmentariness.

Principal Works

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Dlatego zyjemy (poetry) 1952

Pytania zadawane sobie (poetry) 1954

Wolanie do Yeti (poetry) 1957

Sól (poetry) 1962

Wiersze wybrane (poetry) 1964

Poezje wybrane (poetry) 1967

Sto pociech: wiersze (poetry) 1967

Poezje (poetry) 1970

Wybór poezji (poetry) 1970

Wszelki wypadek (poetry) 1972

Wybór wierszy (poetry) 1973

Lektury nadobowiazkowe [Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces] (essays and criticism) 1974

Tarsjusz i inne wiersze (poetry) 1976

Wielka liczba (poetry) 1976

Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems (poetry) 1981

Selected Poems (poetry) 1982

Poezje wybrane (II) (poetry) 1983

Ludzie na moście [People on a Bridge] (poetry) 1986

Poezje = Poems (poetry) 1989

Wieczór autorski: wiersze (poetry) 1992

Koniec i początek (poetry) 1993

View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems (poetry) 1995

*O asmierci bez przesady (poetry) 1996

Widok z ziarnkiem piasku: 102 Wiersze (poetry) 1996

Nothing Twice: Selected Poems (poetry) 1997

Nulla e in regalo (poetry) 1998

Poems, New and Collected, 1957-1997 (poetry) 1998

Miracle Fair: Selected Poems of Wislawa Szymborska (poetry) 2001

Chwila (poetry) 2002

*O asmierci bez przesady has been translated into French under the title De la mort sans exagérer.

Stanislaw Baranczak (essay date summer 1994)

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SOURCE: Baranczak, Stanislaw. “The Szymborska Phenomenon.” Salmagundi, no. 103 (summer 1994): 252-65.

[In the following essay, Baranczak praises Szymborska's skillful use of language throughout her works of poetry, exploring both her popularity in Poland and the questioning nature of her verse.]

More than three decades ago, in 1962, a slim book of poems bearing the monosyllabic and hardly soul-stirring title of Sól (Salt) came out in Poland. Its author, a woman then in her late thirties, had apparently considered it fitting to include in her collection, among other poems, her own verse epitaph. Obviously a tongue in cheek performance, this piece nonetheless seems to be quite serious about two things: first, it is an epitaph of no one but the author herself (identified by her surname in the poem's final line); second, it is an epitaph of a self-declared “oldfashioned” poet, a hopelessly backward user of rhyme and punctuation who “had failed to join the avant-garde, of course.” The punishment for her inability (or unwillingness?) to keep pace with the spirit of the time is, naturally enough, oblivion. The interred “authoress of verse” accepts this verdict with equanimity; indeed, in her final exhortation of the “passerby” to “take his electronic brain out of his briefcase / and meditate on Szymborska's fate for a moment” (thus in literal translation) we somehow don't detect much belief in posterity's eager cooperation.

Thirty-two years have passed and we can safely say that there has never been a prophecy so wide of the mark as this little poem. Just about everything in it has, in fact, turned out its exact opposite. The poet is, fortunately for all of us, still very much alive; rhymes and commas have not totally disappeared from present-day verse; the joining of an avant-garde, if anything can be termed so these days, is no longer de rigueur for a contemporary poet; the expression “electronic brain” sounds as obsolete today as “velocipede” or “zeppelin,” while it seems incomprehensible to us that the notion of carrying a computer around in one's briefcase could have ever worked for anyone as an absurd joke; and finally, “Szymborska's fate” so far can only be described as consistent ascension to worldwide fame rather than a sinking into oblivion.

It was precisely Salt, her fourth book of poems (featuring such classics as “Rubens's Women,” “Coloratura,” “In Heraclitus's River,” or probably the most frequently anthologized poem she ever wrote, “Conversation with a Stone”), that turned her into that strangest of all God's creatures: a modern poet whose poems and collections are actually widely read and eagerly awaited. Another poem included in Salt, “Poetry Reading”, a self-ironic vignette in which the poet faces “teeming crowds” of admirers that consist of “Twelve people in the room, eight seats to spare … / Half came inside because it started raining, / the rest are relatives,” was for her the last opportunity to complain, even half-seriously, of the lack of readers. In fact, she had been recognized as a major talent at least since 1957, when her third book, Calling out to Yeti, came out. If her beginnings had not shown much promise, it was History, rather than herself, that was to blame. Born in 1923, she had the bad luck of having to launch her literary career at the worst possible historic time: during the first decade of Communist rule. Under the circumstances of Poland's own version of Stalinist culture, any literary work that dared be either innovative or candid was doomed. Even though she was a sincere believer in Communism at this point, Szymborska was also too good a poet not to have sinned on both these accounts at once. The first collection that she prepared for publication was initially accepted but later scrapped, as aesthetically and ideologically not orthodox enough. Her debut, a heavily re-worked collection titled, with characteristically Socialist-Realist self-assertion, That's What We Live For, came out at last in 1952, much later than the first books of most of her coevals.

Symbolically enough, Szymborska's second collection, published in 1954, was titled Questions Put to Myself—and it is with this title's first word that the genuine Szymborska begins. From one volume to the next, her “That's why,” turns into an unspoken “Why?”; the cocksure self-confidence of someone who has a ready answer to anything gives way to doubt expressed in a “question,” or rather a series of “questions put to myself”; and what is perhaps the most significant, the plural “we” is replaced with the singular “I.” In one of the most recent of very few interviews which Szymborska has consented to give in the course of her career, she sums up the “mistake” underlying her early writing by saying that she tried then “to love humankind instead of loving human beings.” One might complement this extremely insightful observation by saying that the aesthetics of Socialist Realism demanded “love” for nothing less general than humankind while at the same time, ironically, narrowing down the multidimensionality of human life to just one, social, dimension; contrariwise, it is Szymborska's seemingly narrow focus on the individual and her continuous defense of whatever is unique about a given human being that allows her to view human reality in all its troublesome complication. “Questions Put to Myself” have remained, for the past four decades, the essence of her writing.

What I have just typed sounds, in fact, more apt in English than it would in Polish, since the English word “question” gives more balance to its two basic meanings, that of “a problem” and that of “an interrogative sentence.” The uniqueness of Szymborska's writing is a straight consequence of the fact that most of her poems are “questions” in that double, philosophical and syntactic, sense. And the incomparable success of her work with the reading public, particularly in recent years, has resulted not merely from the fact that the “questions” she raises are problems of utmost importance for both humankind as a whole and each and every one of us separately; it also stems from the fact that these are “questions” she actually asks. It is precisely her inimitable way of asking or “putting a question to herself” (and to others) that matters the most here. Szymborska's poems are indeed based, as a rule, on the structural model of a question, inquiry, or sometimes even quite literal interrogation-like questioning. The principal tenet of her individual poetics is, in nearly every poem she has written, to bring up this or another assertion or opinion that is dogmatic, sanctified, widely accepted, and never put in doubt—and to ask a well-aimed NAIVE QUESTION that, in its ultimate consequences, forces the dogmatic pseudo-truth to reveal its own shakiness or downright falsity.

The strange thing about Szymborska's reception is that, popular and critically acclaimed as she is, she is still waiting for some major critical work to tackle all the complexity of her art. Particularly after the publication in Poland, in May of 1993, of her bestselling latest collection, The End and the Beginning, but also earlier, after a comparable success in 1986 of the volume titled The People on the Bridge, Szymborska has presented a peculiar problem for her critics. The problem lies in the fact that it's nearly impossible to write about the work of a poet who has attained the status of a contemporary classic while at the same time refusing stubbornly to be cast in marble. Szymborska represents such a case perhaps to a greater extent than anyone else in today's Polish poetry, with the possible exception of Czeslaw Milosz. On the one hand, at least since the early 1960s there could have been no doubt that her work belongs among the most lasting contributions of Polish poetry to world literature; no time or distance has been necessary for the critic to be able to appreciate her poems' historic significance. On the other hand, Szymborska's work seems to be anything but a closed chapter of literary history; on the contrary, it surprises the critic with its constant and consistent renewal. Her unique voice is instantly recognizable, while no single new poem of hers is predictable. We are dead sure, as it were, that we have a great poet in our midst but, as her greatness consists, among other things, precisely in her uncanny ability to surprise us, we can never give it its due, because we prove simply unable to catch up with this poet's rapid evolution.

“Rapid” may sound funny to those who remember that Szymborska, as far as sheer numbers are concerned, strikes the critic as one of the least prolific contemporary Polish poets. Over the past couple of decades, she has published sparingly in the literary press—as a rule, one or two new poems here and there every six months or so—and her slim collections remind one of those by Philip Larkin or Elizabeth Bishop, volumes divided by seven-to-ten-year-long intervals. Yet her development as a poet is—here's another paradox—indeed systematically accelerated rather than slowed down, and emphasized rather than obscured, by this scarcity. What happens is not that she enjoys her readers respect in spite of some prolonged writer's block, but, rather, the opposite of that: she writes deliberately little because she holds the highest standards for herself. Szymborska, quite simply, does not write irrelevant poems.

This could even suffice as the shortest possible definition of her incomparable stature in modem poetry: “Szymborska = a poet whose each and every poem matters.” I remember how much my American collaborator Clare Cavanagh and I were awestruck by this peculiar feature of Szymborska's work when we deliberated several years ago on the selection of poems from her aforementioned volume The People on the Bridge to be included in our anthology of most recent Polish poetry, Spoiling Cannibals' Fun. After many hours of scrutinizing, one after another, each of the 22 poems that form Szymborska's collection and trying to play a pair of devil's advocates ready to pounce on any noticeable flaw, we couldn't help but come to the conclusion that we were facing a veritable miracle: a book in which every single poem is equally necessary and irreplaceable. There was no other way: we simply had to translate and include all 22 of them. That this was no mere accident has recently been confirmed by our analogous scrutiny of Szymborska's most recent volume, The End and the Beginning. In this, even slimmer, collection featuring just 18 poems, each one is nothing less than a discovery: some became famous immediately after their first appearances in literary periodicals, and at least one of these, the amazing and moving “Cat in an Empty Apartment” (in which the absence of someone who is dead is presented from the perspective of the house pet he left behind) is already something of a cult object among Polish readers.

As to her audience in the West, Szymborska has thus far been introduced to the English-speaking readers by as many as three different book-length selections, two of them published in the U.S.A. and one, more recently, in England. View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems, translated by Clare Cavanagh and myself, and scheduled to come out next spring through Harcourt Brace, differs from the existing selections in one essential point: it includes 120 poems, that is to say, at least about twice as many as in each of the three earlier publications (the largest of them, the Princeton University Press bilingual volume, contains 70 poems). Insofar as Szymborska's output since the late fifties has not, as I have already said, included a single irrelevant or artistically inferior poem, any larger selection of her work is simply a better selection of her work, because it offers the reader a larger number of excellent poems.

But the effect of such a broadened selection will be, we hope, not merely quantitative. It will also show Szymborska in a new light by making the reader realize the enormous scope of her thematic concerns and versatility of her technical means. In the earlier translations certain crucial aspects of her work are heavily underrepresented as a result of the translators' reluctance to cope with specific kinds of poems—those which offer a higher degree of stylistic organization or certain aesthetic qualities that may seem resistant to transplantation into another language. The reader of those selections may, for instance, never really find out that Szymborska's chief asset is her humor, particularly the kind of humor that her clever puns and witty ambiguities produce; that she can be stylistically opulent as well as ascetic; and, last but not least, that Szymborska has written a number of poems in rhymed and metrically regular verse.

Contrary to what her translators usually make her look like, Szymborska is clearly a poet for whom language is not just a transparent pane in a window opening to some outside, view but a “question” or problem in its own right. An effervescent example of that is “Coloratura,” a poem which can sound to a superficial reader like merely a parodistic imitation of the phonetics of the operatic bel canto. But Szymborska's clever and comical sound orchestration ultimately produces the poem's basic concept: in the original, two words, “hair” and “voice,” which form a full rhyme in Polish, find their ultimate rhyming echo in the third word, the meaning of which is “fate.” If we need art to reflect our human fate, is this task also performed by such an extremely detached and super-conventional kind of art for art's sake as the operatic coloratura? Are we supposed to ridicule the self-absorption of such art, or perhaps try to find in its mannerisms some human sense of its own? This would be the central “question” of this poem, one asked indirectly, by means of highlighting specific (here, phonetic) correspondences concealed underneath the surface of language and making them “stand for” certain ideas or issues.

Another great example of Szymborska's use of phonetic correspondences is the poem “Birthday,” where the brilliantly executed structural conceit—making a poem of a series of enumerations of elements of nature selected according to the principle of the phonetic similarity of their names—helps make clear the poem's central “question” (= problem), which is the abundance of the world's individual components that overwhelms each of us from the moment of our births. The related, also central “question” (= inquiry): how is the mere mortal supposed to cope with all this? Is the world's bounty a gift or a burden, a blessing or a curse?

Three more examples will show unexpected uses that Szymborska may make of word construction, grammar, and syntax. In “The Onion,” an almost philosophical (though also very comical) argument about the human individual's irreversible exclusion from the world of nature (in a sense, a variation on Pascal's “thinking reed” motif) makes its point by, among other things, introducing a couple of abstract-sounding neologisms stemming from the rather trivial “onion,” thus underscoring the onion's “idiotic onionoid perfection” that remains inaccessible to humans. In “A Medieval Miniature” it is the superlative of adjectives that becomes a sort of grammatical protagonist of the poem's lyrical action: its conceit-generating role becomes clear as we gradually come to realize that the poem, ostensibly being just a description of a painting, is in fact a miniature treatise on the role that the idealization of reality plays in art. Finally, in “In Broad Daylight” a corresponding question concerning the role of heroic myth in human society, its relation to the essentially non-heroic nature of actual life, emerges as a result of Szymborska's skillful manipulation of the dominating feature of the poem's language, which is its use of the conditional (the poem speculates on what would have become of the young poet who died a hero's death during the war, had he survived and gone through the prosaic experiences of an average life).

Brilliant as they are, these technical feats are nevertheless only partly responsible for Szymborska's popular success. To be sure, it never hurts to ask why a popular poet is popular. This is true particularly of our age, in which a poet's genuine popularity is such a rare phenomenon that it almost inevitably arouses suspicions. We are used to the fact that the poet's popular appeal is, as a rule, a commodity purchased in exchange for some concessions, for the poet's renunciation of at least a part of what constitutes the natural complexity of his or her self. Compared to that prevailing norm, Szymborska seems to be endowed with an almost superhuman ability to speak of matters of universal importance without compromising her intellectual or artistic integrity and yet in a way which enables her to address successfully an impressively wide circle of readers. She seems to possess the secret of how to be complex and yet comprehensible, ambitious and yet approachable, individualistic and yet involved.

If this secret can be rationally explained at all, it most certainly has to do with the adoption and masterful use by Szymborska of one particular model of a lyrical situation that I have already identified: the situation of “asking a question,” inquiring, questioning, etc. It is a model that, even though disguised in a variety of ways in different poems, makes its presence felt with striking frequency and insistence throughout her entire work. In the concluding part of her poem “The Century's Decline,” Szymborska even prompts us with a fit adjective to denote the specific—and crucially important—quality that marks all the “questions” she asks. The preceding, much longer part of this poem might be called a sequence of inverted variations upon the theme stated in line 1: “Our 20th century was going to improve on the others.” I refer to them as inverted, since in each of the “variations”—consecutive brief sections of the poem—this past hope is shown as ultimately thwarted by the eternal and, in fact, incorrigible flaws of our humanity. The poem concludes as follows:

“How should we live?” someone asked me in a letter.
I had meant to ask him
the same question.
Again, and as ever,
as may be seen above,
the most pressing questions
are naive ones.

Once again, the English semantics help the translator bring into relief the double meaning of the word “pytanie”: faced with the most “pressing questions” (= dilemmas) of human life (manifesting itself in extremely varied areas: from a historical drama of existence as such to contemporary politics), the individual tries to solve them, or at least disarm them, by asking his or her own “naive questions.” To be more precise, in Szymborska's poetry the “naive question” usually pricks the balloon not so much of the issue per se as the prevailing (mostly anonymous), commonly shared opinion or viewpoint on it. To stage the clash between a widely held opinion and her own “naive question,” Szymborska employs an astonishing variety of means and devices. Such a commonplace or “received idea” can be put forward directly by a speaker delivering a dramatic monologue and representing a value system drastically different from that of the author (example: “There's nothing more debauched than thinking,” the opening line of “An Opinion on the Question of Pornography”); it can be brought up, as a sort of quasi-quote, and then contradicted by another type of dramatic-monologue speaker, one with whom the author at least partly identifies (example: “They say I looked back out of curiosity. / But I could have had other reasons,” the beginning of “Lot's Wife”); it can be quoted, quasi-quoted or alluded to by the author's porte-parole (example: “You expected a hermit to live in the wilderness, / but he's got a little house and a garden,” from the poem “Hermitage”); and finally, it also may be “silently” present in the poem's background as an unspoken assumption, one so widely held that it does not even require quoting.

In any case, what actually triggers the poem's lyrical “action,” is the moment when this or another widespread opinion, thoughtlessly approved of and adopted by most people, is put into doubt by the poet's “naive question.” This is why the most effective among Szymborska's poems are those which do not waste time on quoting or rephrasing the opinion that they are about to demolish, but go straight to asking this or that “naive question,” leaving the task of “reconstructing” the challenged assertion to the reader. This, in turn, helps one understand why so many poems of Szymborska begin with what could be called a poetic sound bite: a concise, gnomic statement, usually a one-liner, which condenses in itself the paradox underlying the poem's central “question.” The poem “Museum,” for instance, opens with the line: “Here are plates, but no appetite,” and this simple observation, of the kind that every visitor to the museum of crafts would be able to make, evolves in the following lines into a much more complex vision of the relationship between the material and the spiritual, the immortality of a dead object and the immortality of a human soul, etc. Interestingly, the first line of a Szymborska poem is, as a rule, not paradoxical per se (although it may function as a “sound bite” thanks to the unusual statement it makes or image it conjures up); its paradoxical quality results, rather, from its semantic clash with either the preceding or the following piece of information, that is to say, either the poem's title or its next line(s). The first line “Conceived on a mattress made of human hair,” for instance, is undeniably striking, but it comes to function as a paradoxical “question” only when we realize that the poem's title is “Innocence.” The line “And who's this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe?” is not even striking (unless we consider it striking in the stylistic context of poetry, because of its utter colloquiality); but what a difference if we realize that it comes on the heels of the poem's title, which is “Hitler's First Photograph”! Similarly, the first line that reads “Nothing can ever happen twice” may even be considered philosophically banal; it becomes, however, paradoxical with the arrival of the next three lines, which do not do much more than draw a conclusion from the initial statement, one apparently logical but pregnant with unexpected meanings:

Nothing can ever happen twice.
In consequence, the sorry fact is
that we arrive here improvised
and leave without the chance to practice.

The term “paradox” implies a clash of mutually opposite statements. In an earlier essay on Szymborska, I attempted to reduce all specific embodiments of such oppositions to their common denominator, which might be put as the phrase, or rather the beginning of a phrase: “All right, but …”. This (usually unspoken, yet detectable) signal of mental objection is the crucial part of every poem of Szymborska. It functions as a logical and rhetorical link between the (expressed openly or, more frequently, programmed into the “naive question”) generally accepted belief or opinion and the rest of the poem which presents, as it were, evidence to the contrary. The poem “The Century's Decline” that I have already quoted is a clear-cut example of how this sort of technique usually works. The initial line, “Our 20th century was going to improve on the others,” is actually a quasi-quote; it refers to an easily recognizable and widely shared opinion (in this case, the optimistic outlook of those who in the beginning of our century used to put an equation mark between the notion of technological progress and that of mankind's potential for moral self-improvement). An unspoken “All right, but …” has to be mentally inserted between this initial line and the next in order for the reader to understand that the entire ensuing part of the poem is actually one extended “naive question” asked to undermine theoretical optimism with empirical doubt: “[You have once said:] ‘Our 20th century was going to improve on the others.’ [And I am asking now:] All right, but what to do with the fact that the century is nearing its end and there's still no improvement in sight?”

In “The Century's Decline” this implied logical construction is relatively transparent. Let's look at a poem where Szymborska employs the more complex technique that I have already mentioned—the method of referring to the basic premise of some generally shared opinion without actually quoting it. The reader's required cooperation consists here not only in making a necessary logical connection by putting the missing “all right, but …” in its place, but also in reconstructing the belief that the speaker's “naive question” undermines. A brilliant example of this method of handling the poem's implied reader is provided by “On Death, Without Exaggeration.” What we are confronted with here is not any stated opinion at all but, as in John Donne's “Death, Be Not Proud,” a detailed list of failures that Death can be accused of, or achievements that remain beyond its reach:

It can't take a joke,
find a star, make a bridge,
it knows nothing about weaving, meaning farming,
building ships or baking cakes.
Oh, it has its triumphs,
but look at its countless defeats,
missed blows
and repeat attempts!

The unspoken initial assumption and the (also unexpressed directly) “naive question” could be, then, put as follows: “You say that death conquers all, that it is omnipotent and ultimately triumphant. All right, but what is to be admired in a triumph that occurs only once in a long while, after a multitude of botched attempts? Isn't such an apparent winner in fact a loser, like an aging Don Juan who sometimes gets what he wants, but only because he woos, just in case, each and every woman he meets?”

Finally, just one example from Szymborska's latest collection. Its title poem, “The End and the Beginning,” opens with a statement which sounds so disarmingly trivial that, when read or heard separately, it does not seem to contain any startling revelation at all:

After every war
someone's got to tidy up.
Things won't pick
themselves up, after all.

Yet the “naive question” implied in this poem concerns no less of a “pressing issue” than the meaning of human history—or perhaps the senselessness thereof—exemplified by the trail of destruction left behind by every war. The “All right, but …” line of argument starts, in this case, from a singularly “naive” observation—one which would sound perfectly natural coming, say, from an average TV viewer watching the evening news and giving vent to his common-sense realization of the discrepancy between the official announcement and what he sees with his own eyes: “You say that the war in the country X has ended and that peace has been restored. All right, but what about those mountains of rubble? Who's gonna clean up all that mess? What kind of peace is that, if your home is ruined, not to mention you might not have survived at all?”

What makes this poem particularly interesting is that its basic “naive question” almost imperceptibly moves to another plane. The action of “cleaning up the mess” turns, by metaphoric equation, into the process of forgetting. Both are equally natural and, in fact, necessary for mankind to live on after every disastrous experience brought about by the course of history. Just as you must remove the rubble, you must remove the remembrance of human evil from your memory and the premonition of its eventual resurgence from your imagination—otherwise, the burden of living will be unbearable. But this necessity means, in effect, that we never learn from history. That which saves us—our ability to forget—makes us, at the same time, repeatedly commit the same tragic blunders. “The End” of each cataclysm not only precedes “the Beginning” of another but is that Beginning, contains it inextricably within itself.

The typical lyrical situation on which a Szymborska poem is founded seems to be, then, the confrontation between the directly quoted or indirectly implied opinion on some “pressing issue” and the “naive question” that tries to put into doubt this opinion's validity. As we have seen, certain regularities can be discerned here. The “opinion” not only reflects some widely shared belief or is representative of some widespread outlook, but also, as a rule, has a certain doctrinaire ring to it: the philosophy behind it is usually speculative, anti-empirical, prone to hasty generalizations, collectivist, dogmatic, and intolerant. As opposed to this philosophy, the “naive question” is always concrete and down-to-earth, based on experience, preferring specificity over typicality, expressing an individual viewpoint, open to change, and far from imposing.

One crucial thing has to be added here: the irony that the clash between the “dogmatic opinion” and “naive question” never fails to provoke (needless to say, irony is the most efficient offensive weapon of the “naive question” in that duel) is, in a way, brought by the “dogmatic opinion” on itself. Being dogmatic, it naturally tends to strengthen its authoritarian appearance by sounding as self-confident and categorical as possible. As an ironic result, it ends up patching its logical and moral holes by resorting to blatant oversimplifications, unjustified generalizations, and blindly optimistic (or blindly pessimistic, for that matter) predictions—and such patches, being particularly easy to discern, almost invite ironic treatment from the skeptical individualist. The more all-encompassing ambitions a generalization has, the easier it is, naturally enough, for the skeptic to find a specific example or two which will punch new holes in the already patched-over cloth. The common denominator of the contradictory relationship between the “dogmatic opinion” and “naive question” is, then, that the latter is always a pars pro toto in regard to the former. The “naive question” always brings the “dogmatic opinion” down to the level of an individual exception that contradicts the general rule and by the same token renders it, if not invalid, then at least suspect.

The dominance of this kind of operation in Szymborska's poems sheds additional light on the individualistic and fundamentally anti-utopian nature of her outlook. In fact, her notion of the function that the poet in the human world should perform may be compressed into one brief phrase: the poet should be a spoilsport. The poet should be someone who calls any bluff and lays bare any dirty trick in the game played by the earthly and unearthly powers, where the chief gambling strategy is dogmatic generalization and the stakes are the souls of each and every one of us.

Helen Vendler (review date 1 January 1996)

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SOURCE: Vendler, Helen. “Unfathomable Life.” New Republic 214, no. 1 (1 January 1996): 36-9.

[In the following review, Vendler analyzes the recurring thematic elements in View with a Grain of Sand and discusses the irony, simplicity, and universality of Szymborska's poems.]

“Again, and as ever, … the most pressing questions / are naïve ones.” The remarkable poet Wislawa Szymborska closes, with this remark, a late poem, “The Century's Decline,” on the collapse of Marxist utopian hopes, after uttering one of her deliberately “naïve” questions: “How should we live?” Szymborska, one of a generation of notable Polish poets (she was born in 1923), was brought to American attention by Czeslaw Milosz in his history of Polish poetry, by two slim collections of translations, and by Stanislaw Baranczak in Spoiling Cannibals' Fun, his recent anthology of Polish poetry of the last two decades of Communist rule. Now Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, his collaborator in that anthology, have brought out [in View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems,] the largest selection of Szymborska—100 poems—in English.

They draw from seven of Szymborska's volumes, ranging from Calling out to Yeti, her third collection, which appeared in 1957, through The End and the Beginning, which appeared in 1993. Their admirable versions, most of them readable as English poems owing to the exceptional gifts of the translators, make it possible to follow Szymborska's career, as she evolves from the high-spirited young poet—inspired equally by Marxist aspirations and by an antic sense of words—through the mature poet asking, in her “naïve” way, embarrassing political questions, to the older poet grieving for companions lost and hopes betrayed.

In spite of the translators' inventive substitutions, Szymborska's language-play as rendered in English is probably only a shadow of the felicitous original. Szymborska “translates well” because her poems, with all their local linguistic liveliness, adhere to a determined simplicity of narration. They are also resolutely “anonymous”: their speaker is identified only rarely by gender, and never by age or nationality or ethnicity or local habitation. No lyric writer has ever been more confident of the universality of human response. Szymborska writes not for Poles alone, nor for women alone, nor for the twentieth century alone: she believes fiercely in a common epistemology and a common ethic, at least within the Western culture she writes from and to.

This new collection, regrettably, lacks an introduction that would set Szymborska in context for English-speaking readers. In a brief essay on the poet published in 1994 in Salmagundi, Baranczak recalls her beginnings:

Under the circumstances of Poland's own version of Stalinist culture, any literary work that dared be either innovative or candid was doomed. Even though she was a sincere believer in Communism at this point, Szymborska was also too good a poet not to have sinned on both these accounts at once. The first collection that she prepared for publication was initially accepted but later scrapped, as aesthetically and ideologically not orthodox enough. Her debut, a heavily re-worked collection titled, with characteristically Socialist-Realist self-assertion, That's What We Live For, came out at last in 1952, much later than the first books of most of her coevals. Symbolically enough, Szymborska's second collection, published in 1954, was titled Questions Put to Myself. … [In a recent interview], she sums up the “mistake” underlying her early writing by saying that she tried then “to love humankind instead of loving human beings.”

The difficulty in writing anonymously and generally—allegorically, almost—is that one will distance oneself from the personal, the local, the intimate. Szymborska feared, early on, her own tendency toward the overview, and the lofty aloofness it fostered. As she (in an early poem) ascends to the chilly Himalayas, she addresses the Yeti who is thinking of visiting the earth:

Yeti, we've got Shakespeare there.
Yeti, we play solitaire
and violin, At nightfall,
we turn lights on, Yeti.
Up here it's neither moon nor earth.
Tears freeze.
Oh Yeti, semi-moonman,
turn back, think again!

The still void of the Himalayas appeals to her, yet she half-ironically defends the earth's virtue and its “sentences,” even as she flees its crime and its unjust “justice”:

Yeti, crime is not all
we're up to down there.
Yeti, not every sentence there
means death.

Later, speaking through the voice of Cassandra, Szymborska admits the prophetess's distance in relation to her countrymen, a distance she fears in herself:

I loved them.
But I loved them haughtily.
From heights beyond life.

Despite her aesthetic fastidiousness, and the intellectual haughtiness that is natural to her, Szymborska reluctantly admits, in her most famous early poem, that her “final exam” will be a historical and ethical one: as long as there is cruelty, her voice must be at the service of suffering. Here is the poem entire, which includes (as a simpler protest poem would not) the recurrent temptation to a skeptical impatience with ethical imperatives. The poem incorporates, besides its moral import, that necessary component to art, imagination's dream (here stimulated by the Brueghel painting described in the first stanza):


This is what I see in my dreams about
          final exams:
two monkeys, chained to the floor, sit
          on the windowsill,
the sky behind them flutters,
the sea is taking its bath.
The exam is History of Mankind.
I stammer and hedge.
One monkey stares and listens with
          mocking disdain,
the other seems to be dreaming away—
but when it's clear I don't know what to say
he prompts me with a gentle
clinking of his chain.

Szymborska's narrative manner will not change notably over her writing life, but her rendition of suffering will enlarge as she sees the full brutality of life in Poland from the '40s through the '80s. A poem of 1985 called “Tortures” begins each of its five stanzas with the sentence, “Nothing has changed.” The first stanza remarks on the unchangingness of the body over the centuries: “it has a good supply of teeth and fingernails; / its bones can be broken; its joints can be stretched.” The second concerns the body's responsiveness: “The body still trembles as it trembled / before Rome was founded and after, / in the twentieth century before and after Christ.” The third notes the contemporary multiplication of offenses “requiring” torture—“new offenses have sprung up beside the old ones— / real, make-believe, short-lived, and nonexistent”—yet the body's cry “was, is, and will be a cry of innocence.” The poem rises to a climax in its fourth stanza:

Nothing has changed.
Except perhaps the manners, ceremonies,
The gesture of the hands shielding the
has nonetheless remained the same.
The body writhes, jerks, and tugs,
falls to the ground when shoved, pulls up
          its knees,
bruises, swells, drools, and bleeds.

The universality of suffering is Szymborska's chief life-theme, and reiterative narration (interspersed with epigram) is her usual rhetorical mode. Of course, neither theme nor mode, nor both together, would suffice to make a poem. Every lyric poem is the trace left by an emotion; and the entire trace (not merely the thematic or narrative content of the poem) defines the emotion, as a footprint defines a foot. Szymborska is a most ingenious constructor of traces. And her ingenuity is not factitious; it is, rather, philosophical. Each line in a poem—and each white space in a poem—must be weighed for the new imaginative information they bring.

Consider “Utopia,” surely one of the classic treatments of the Soviet utopia as it was consolidated in Poland. The poem begins with the promise and desirability of utopia, both moral and intellectual, but sees that each promise has left suffering in its wake. Szymborska does justice both to the initial suffering under the ancien régime that provoked a hope for a new system, and to the later suffering caused by that system's betrayal of its utopian promises. Each successive line bears meditation, as—in the fiction of the poem—a populace, wrung by their destructive experience in the (politically irrational) ocean, at last comes ashore on a (Marxist) island:

Island where all becomes clear.
Solid ground beneath your feet.
The only roads are those that offer access.
Bushes bend beneath the weight of
          proofs …
If any doubts arise, the wind dispels them
          instantly. …
Unshakable Confidence towers over the
Its peak offers an excellent view of the
          Essence of Things.

And then, after twelve such dawning statements about utopia, the poem makes its bleak sardonic turn:

For all its charms, the island is uninhabited,
and the faint footprints scattered on its
turn without exception to the sea.
As if all you can do here is leave
and plunge, never to return, into the
Into unfathomable life.

Utopia is uninhabitable. It will always lose to unfathomable, dangerous, and chaotic life. Szymborska's poem enacts both the conviction of the early Marxists and their gradual disillusion, step by step, space by space, thought by thought.

Since Szymborska's sibylline and oracular sentences—formed in that same apodictic mode so congenial to universal system—risk being themselves examples of Unshakable Confidence, her admission that life is always unfathomable means that her sentences must also consider themselves provisional. An unexpected energy, often reactive (as in the case of her plunge into the ocean, away from the totalization of utopia) upsets and revivifies her lines. We deduce the extent of the anterior suffering by the energy needed to counteract it. Plunging into the sea—“never to return”—is usually a figure for suicide: Szymborska, writing “Utopia” in the '70s, is in a Poland where self-liberation and suicide are hardly distinguishable.

For intellectuals—and Szymborska is one—epistemological perplexity is also a form of suffering. The clean and perpendicular lines of her poetry reflect her wish to be absolutely exact, even transparent. “Don't bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words, / then labor heavily so that they may seem light.” And yet language is heavy with anthropocentric perspectives. Thus the simplest sentence—“The window has a wonderful view of a lake”—immediately sets up Szymborska's rigorous denials:

but the view doesn't view itself.
It exists in this world
colorless, shapeless,
soundless, odorless, and painless.
The lake's floor exists floorlessly,
and its shore exists shorelessly.
Its water feels itself neither wet nor dry
and its waves to themselves are neither
          singular nor plural.

How, then, can one speak of the view, the floor of the lake, the shore, the waves? Is it possible to de-anthropomorphize language, and not say “the sun sets,” or “time passes”?

Time has passed like a courier with urgent
But that's just our simile.
The character is invented, his haste is
his news inhuman.

Every poem by Szymborska is a struggle against taking common ways of expression for granted, or thinking that a single phrase can cover all the possibilities. In a revolt against her own genre—the generalizing poem—she multiplies instances in order to cover all bases, certain that any one example will be humanly insufficient. Her poem “Clothes,” about medical suspicion and relief, wittily offers a multiple-choice checklist which will certainly, she intimates, cover your apprehensive visit to the doctor as well as hers:

You take off, we take off, they take off
coats, jackets, blouses, double-breasted
made of wool, cotton, cotton-polyester …
for now, the doctor says, it's not too bad,
you may get dressed, get rested up, get out
          of town,
take one in case, at bedtime, after lunch …
you see, and you thought, and we were
          afraid that,
and he imagined, and you all believed;
it's time to tie, to fasten with shaking hands
shoelaces, buckles, velcro, zippers, snaps,
belts, buttons, cuff links, collars, neckties,
and to pull out of handbags, pockets,
a crumpled, dotted, flowered, checkered
whose usefulness has suddenly been

It is the awful normalcy and generality of the dreaded verdict-visit that comes through in Szymborska's rendition: all over the world people are stripping in doctor's offices and expecting the worst. For Szymborska, the awful is, all too often, the normal, and her even tone embraces, in one of her most accomplished poems, the act of terrorism itself—which is, of course, entirely normal to its perpetrator:


The bomb in the bar will explode at
          thirteen twenty.
Now it's just thirteen sixteen.
There's still time for some to go in,
and some to come out.
The terrorist has already crossed the street.
The distance keeps him out of danger,
and what a view—just like the movies:
A woman in a yellow jacket, she's going in.
A man in dark glasses, he's coming out.
Teenagers in jeans, they're talking.
Thirteen seventeen and four seconds.
The short one, he's lucky, he's getting on
          a scooter,
but the tall one, he's going in.
Thirteen seventeen and forty seconds.
That girl, she's walking along with a green
          ribbon in her hair.
But then a bus suddenly pulls in front of
Thirteen eighteen.
The girl's gone.
Was she that dumb, did she go in or not,
We'll see when they carry them out.
Thirteen nineteen.
Somehow no one's going in.
Another guy, fat, bald, is leaving, though.
Wait a second, looks like he's looking for
          something in his pockets and
at thirteen twenty minus ten seconds
he goes back in for his crummy gloves.
Thirteen twenty exactly.
This waiting, it's taking forever.
Any second now.
No, not yet.
Yes, now.
The bomb, it explodes.

A poem such as this one was inconceivable, stylistically, before the twentieth century; it defines an epoch, a type, an ethic. It stands for Lockerbie and Belfast, Jerusalem and Oklahoma. It was, one could say, hanging in the air waiting to be written, one of those poems that inscribes itself without effort on the mind receiving it.

Though Szymborska excels in such grim impersonal narratives, she is equally able to evoke—always obliquely, always originally—intense tenderness. The death of someone beloved, for example, is narrated from the point of view of his “Cat in an Empty Apartment”:

Nothing seems different here,
but nothing is the same.
Nothing has been moved,
but there's more space.
And at nighttime no lamps are lit. …
Someone was always, always here,
then suddenly disappeared
and stubbornly stays disappeared. …
Just wait till he turns up,
just let him show his face.
Will he ever get a lesson
on what not to do to a cat.
Sidle toward him
as if unwilling
and ever so slow
on visibly offended paws,
and no leaps or squeals at least to start.

The equally wrenching elegy for Krzysztof Baczynski, a poet who died at 23 in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, exhibits another of Szymborska's characteristically unexpected angles of approach. She heartbreakingly creates the poet as he would be had he continued to live till now, imagining him “Goateed, balding, / gray-haired,” eating his lunch:

Sometimes someone would
yell from the doorway: “Mr. Baczynski,
          phone call for you”—
and there'd be nothing strange about that
being him, about him standing up, straightening
          his sweater,
and slowly moving toward the door.

Syzmborska is not sentimental. She sees that the 65-year-old man would have coarsened “as if clay had covered up the angelic marble” of his exalted youth: “The price, after all, for not having died already / goes up not in leaps but step by step, and he would / pay that price, too.” She speaks from the knowledge of the price that she has herself paid for aging. But the ethical observation would be inert were it not for the poet's initial leap of imagination extending Baczynski's short life—a human wish so powerful it creates a full-scale scenario, down to the yearning phone call.

It would be wrong to consider Szymborska without asking whether, the anonymity of her stance notwithstanding, she does not sometimes write “as a woman.” The answer is yes and no. Yes, she writes as Cassandra and as Lot's wife, she writes on Isadora Duncan, on a prehistoric figure of the Great Mother, and on Rubens's women; and all of these could legitimately be taken as reflections on femaleness. Yet the poem on Cassandra is chiefly a meditation on how prophets, any prophets, are hated; and Lot's wife accounts for her halt by citing her “age … Distance. … / The futility of wandering. Torpor. / … in desolation. / In shame”—all of them gender-neutral factors. It seems to me that Szymborska writes most “as a woman” when she chooses a “humble” subject such as an onion (as a symbol of a non-dualist conception of nature); or when her imagination darts to a fantasy on Hitler's actual baby-photograph:

And who's this little fellow in his itty-bitty
That's tiny baby Adolf, the Hitlers' little
          boy! …
Whose teensy hand is this, whose little ear
          and eye and nose? …
A little pacifier, diaper, rattle, bib,
our bouncing boy, thank God and knock
          on wood, is well,
looks just like his folks, like a kitten in a
like the tots in every other family album.
Sh-h-h, let's not start crying, sugar.
The camera will click from under that
          black hood.
The Klinger Atelier, Grabenstrasse,
And Braunen is a small but worthy town—
honest businesses, obliging neighbors,
smell of yeast dough, of gray soap.
No one hears howling dogs, or fate's
A history teacher loosens his collar
and yawns over homework.

“Hitler's First Photograph” is not Szymborska's best poem, but its opening is startling and daring, its black humor confronting—as only a woman might think to do—the mystery of how babies turn out. Szymborska often approaches ethical issues from just such an odd (and perhaps implicitly female) vantage; her poem “Voices,” about what we now call ethnic cleansing, simply lets us in on conversations between Roman governors:

You can't move an inch, my dear Marcus
without Aborigines sprouting up as if from
          the earth itself. …
These irksome little nations, thick as flies.
It's enough to make you sick, dear Quintus
          Decius. …
They drive us mild-mannered sorts to
          sterner measures
with every new mountain we cross, dear
          Gaius Cloelius.
If only they weren't always in the way,
          the Auruncians, the Marsians,
but they always do get in the way, dear
          Spurius Manlius. …
Little nations do have little minds.
The circle of thick skulls expands around
Reprehensible customs, Backward laws.
Ineffectual gods, my dear Titus Vilius. …

This seditious little poem of communications among the Spurious and the Vile was probably protected from the censors in 1972 only by its historical setting. It may be that Szymborska's resolute impersonality, anonymity and allegorical stance were forced into being by Polish censorship; but it is equally possible that her view of lyric as that which describes the irreducible human invariables evoked her geometrical abstraction of voice and her aloof narrations “from above.”

In a time when it is being metaphysically denied that any human universals exist, it is salutary to read Szymborska on the ancientness of human evil. Mercifully, Szymborska also notes the perpetual resurgence of hope and the deep rewards of human attachment. “My identifying features,” she says in the poem “Sky,” “are rapture and despair.” Both are found here, but perhaps more despair than rapture, in Szymborska's stern and unforgiving scan of the savage world that she has learned to understand.

Further Reading

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Franklin, Ruth. Review of Miracle Fair: Selected Poems, by Wislawa Szymborska. New Republic 224, no. 23 (4 June 2001): 58-61.

Franklin remarks on the elements of humor in Miracle Fair: Selected Poems, noting that several of Szymborska's poems appear in English for the first time in the collection.

Freedman, John. “The Possibilities and Limitations of Poetry: Wislawa Szymborska's Wielka liczba.Polish Review 31, nos. 2-3 (1986): 137-47.

Freedman interprets the title poem of Wielka liczba as representative of Szymborska's dominant themes and techniques.

Rosslyn, Felicity. “No End of Fun on the Back of the Tapestry.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4888 (6 December 1996): 14.

Rosslyn praises Szymborska's range of poems in View with a Grain of Sand.

Sukhonos, Natalya. Review of Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces, by Wislawa Szymborska. New York Times Book Review (20 October 2002): 24.

Sukhonos notes Szymborska's “eye for absurdities” in Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces.

Wills, Clair. “How Real Is Reality?” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5033 (17 September 1999): 25.

Wills lauds the poems presented in Poems, New and Collected, 1957-1997 as “simple in premise yet deeper in meaning.”

Additional coverage of Szymborska's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 4; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 154; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 91; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 99; Contemporary Women Poets; Contemporary World Writers, Ed. 2; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 232; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1996; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 44; Poetry for Students, Vol. 15; and Reference Guide to World Literature, Ed. 3.

Czeslaw Milosz (essay date 14 November 1996)

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SOURCE: Milosz, Czeslaw. “On Szymborska.” New York Review of Books 43, no. 18 (14 November 1996): 17.

[Milosz is a Polish Nobel Prize-winning poet and essayist. In the following essay, Milosz analyzes the dominant thematic motifs in Polish poetry, commenting on Szymborska's place within the Polish literary community and how her poems focus on the mundane moments that are universal to the human experience.]

I have been saying that Polish poetry is strong and distinguished upon the background of world poetry by certain traits. Those traits can be found in the poems of a few eminent Polish poets, including Wisława Szymborska. Her Nobel Prize is her personal triumph but at the same time it confirms the place of the “Polish school of poetry.” Perhaps it is not necessary to recall that the language of that poetry is the language of a country where the crime of genocide was perpetrated on a mass scale. Links between the word and historical experiences can be of various kinds, and there is no simple relationship of cause and effect. And yet a certain fact is not without significance: Szymborska, like Tadeusz Rożewicz and Zbigniew Herbert, writes in the place of the generation of poets who made their debut during the war and did not survive.

What does the poetry of Szymborska, marked as it is by such a lightness of touch, skeptically smiling, playful, have to do with the history of the twentieth, or any other, century? In its beginnings, it had much to do with it, but its mature phase moves away from images of linear time rushing toward utopia or an apocalyptic catastrophe, as the just-ending century liked to believe. Her dimension is personal, of one person who reflects on the human condition. It is true that her reflection goes together with a remarkable reticence, as if the poet found herself on a stage with the decor for a preceding play, a play which changed the individual into nothing, an anonymous cipher, and in such circumstances to talk about oneself is not indicated.

Szymborska's poems explore private situations, yet they are sufficiently generalized, so that she is able to avoid confessions. In her well-known poem about a cat in an empty apartment, instead of complaint about the loss of the husband of a friend, we hear: “To die / one does not do that to a cat.” Reticence and an ironic distance toward herself may testify to special predilections of the poet; nevertheless, since in this she resembles some of her Polish contemporaries, one could successfully defend the thesis that their common feature is their attempt to exorcise the past. In this task they practice a peculiar distillation, and the raw materials they use are often difficult to detect.

For me, Szymborska is first of all a poet of consciousness. This means that she speaks to us, living at the same time, as one of us, reserving her private matters for herself, operating at a certain remove, but also referring to what everybody knows from one's own life. For do we not remember our undressing before a medical examination, or our wondering at coincidences, or reading letters of people who are no more? Hence, as if in drawings that capture scenes of familiar everyday events, we recognize ourselves in these poems as beings kindred to each other, with a subjectivity which is different in each person and which exists, as it were, between parentheses. We are related also because we are contemporaries, thus submitted to the same circuit of information. Words—orientation signals—mean more or less the same to us: the theory of evolution, spaceships, Hiroshima, but also Homer, Vermeer, or the uncertainty principle, namely, a whole repertory of notions we receive at home, at school, in the mass media.

Szymborska's poems are built through juggling, as if with colored balls, the components of our common knowledge; they surprise us with its paradoxes and show the human world as tragicomic. The consciousness that finds its expression in them is a consciousness after—after Darwin, after Einstein, after many others—for, after all, the civilization in which we live submerged preserves their traces. Confronted with poetry so insouciantly dancing, as if written effortlessly, we hesitate to mention the landmarks of science, yet because they have existed, Szymborska's thought and our thought, whether we wish it or not, is complex and devious. Nowhere is this better seen than where she questions the place of man in the chain of evolution. Thus, for instance, the poem “Four in the Morning” opposes our anxiety, not allowing us to sleep, to the automatic busying of ants.

No one feels good at four in the
If ants feel good at four in the
—three cheers for the ants. And
          let five o'clock come
if we're to go on living.

Another poem, “In Praise of Self-Deprecation,” draws a line between the clear conscience characterizing all live nature and the moral torments which are our part:

The self-critical jackal does not
The locust, alligator, trichina,
live as they live and are glad of it.

The poem “Autonomy” begins:

When in danger the sea-cucumber
          divides itself in two

and the argument that follows revindicates the human privilege, that of creating art—in spite of and against death:

We know how to divide ourselves,
          how true, we too.
But only into a body and an
          interrupted whisper.
Into body and poetry.

Szymborska would not have been a poet of the period of great doubts had she not invoked salvation through art. “The revenge of a mortal hand” appears in her poems in various forms, including fun at her own expense.

A couple of years ago, reading her poems in public in English translation, I found out that their intellectual brilliance hiding serious content was well understood, and applauded by, a mostly young audience. I should reveal what it was they liked the most. The listeners of both sexes laughed a lot (and I with them) hearing the poem “In Praise of My Sister”:

My sister does not write poems,
and it's unlikely she'll suddenly
          start writing poems.

I thought that at least half of those present must have had writing poems on their conscience, and that is why they found the poem so funny.

Wislawa Szymborska (essay date 7 December 1996)

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SOURCE: Szymborska, Wislawa. “I Don't Know: The 1996 Nobel Lecture.” World Literature Today 71, no. 1 (winter 1997): 5-7.

[In the following transcript of Szymborska's Nobel Lecture, originally delivered on December 7, 1996, the author claims that poetic inspiration surrounds everyone and is captured in the quest to gain understanding of the world.]

They say that the first sentence in any speech is always the hardest. Well, that one's behind me. But I have a feeling that the sentences to come—the third, the sixth, the tenth, and so on, up to the final line—will be just as hard, since I'm supposed to talk about poetry. I've said very little on the subject—next to nothing, in fact. And whenever I have said anything, I've always had the sneaking suspicion that I'm not very good at it. This is why my lecture will be rather short. Imperfection is easier to tolerate if served up in small doses.

Contemporary poets are skeptical and suspicious even, or perhaps especially, about themselves. They confess to being poets only reluctantly, as if they were a little ashamed of it. But in our clamorous times it's much easier to acknowledge your faults, at least if they're attractively packaged, than to recognize your merits, since these are hidden deeper and you never quite believe in them yourself. When they fill out questionnaires or chat with strangers—that is, when they can't avoid revealing their profession—poets prefer to use the general term “writer,” or to replace “poet” with the name of whatever job they do in addition to writing. Bureaucrats and bus passengers respond with a touch of incredulity and alarm when they discover that they're dealing with a poet. I suppose philosophers meet with a similar reaction. Still, they are in a better position, since as often as not they can embellish their calling with some kind of scholarly title. Professors of philosophy—now that sounds much more respectable.

But there are no professors of poetry. This would mean, after all, that poetry is an occupation requiring specialized study, regular examinations, theoretical articles with bibliographies and footnotes attached and, finally, ceremoniously conferred diplomas. And this would mean, in turn, that it's not enough to cover pages with even the most exquisite poems in order to become a poet. The crucial element is some slip of paper bearing an official stamp. Let us recall that the pride of Russian poetry, the future Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky, was once sentenced to internal exile precisely on such grounds. They called him a “parasite,” since he lacked official certification granting him the right to be a poet.

Several years ago, I had the honor and pleasure of meeting Brodsky in person. And I noticed that, of all the poets I've known, he was the only one who enjoyed calling himself a poet. He pronounced the word without inhibitions. Just the opposite—he spoke it with defiant freedom. This must have been, it seems to me, because he recalled the brutal humiliations he had experienced in his youth.

In more fortunate countries, where human dignity isn't assaulted so readily, poets yearn, of course, to be published, read, and understood, but they do little, if anything, to set themselves above the common herd and the daily grind. And yet it wasn't so long ago, in this century's first decades, that poets strove to shock us with their extravagant dress and their eccentric behavior. But all this was merely for the sake of public display. The moment always came when poets had to close the doors behind them, strip off their mantles, fripperies, and other poetic paraphernalia, and confront—silently, patiently awaiting their own selves—the still-white sheet of paper. For finally that is what really counts.

It's not accidental that film biographies of great scientists and artists are produced in droves. The more ambitious directors seek to reproduce convincingly the creative process that led to important scientific discoveries or to the emergence of masterpieces. And one can depict certain kinds of scientific labor with some success. Laboratories, sundry instruments, elaborate machinery brought to life: such scenes may hold an audience's interest for a while. And those moments of uncertainty—will the experiment, conducted for the thousandth time with some tiny modification, finally yield the desired result?—can be quite dramatic. Films about painters can be spectacular, as they go about re-creating every stage of a famous painting's evolution, from the first penciled line to the final brushstroke. And music swells in films about composers: the first bars of the melody that rings in the musician's ears finally emerge as a mature work in symphonic form. Of course, this is all quite naïve and doesn't explain the strange mental state popularly known as inspiration, but at least there's something to look at and listen to.

But poets are the worst. Their work is hopelessly unphotogenic. Someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling. Once in a while this person writes down several lines, only to cross out one of them fifteen minutes later, and then another hour passes, during which nothing happens. Who could stand to watch this kind of thing?

I've mentioned inspiration. Contemporary poets answer evasively when asked what it is, and if it actually exists. It's not that they've never known the blessing of this inner impulse. It's just not easy to explain to someone else what you don't understand yourself.

When I'm asked about this on occasion, I hedge too. But my answer is this: inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists. There is, there has been, there will always be, a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It's made up of all those who've consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners—I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem that they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it's born from a continuous “I don't know.”

There aren't many such people. Most of the earth's inhabitants work to get by. They work because they have to. They didn't pick this or that kind of job out of passion; the circumstances of their lives did the choosing for them. Loveless work, boring work, work valued only because others haven't even got that much—this is one of the harshest human miseries. And there's no sign that the coming centuries will produce any changes for the better as far as this goes. And so, though I deny poets their monopoly on inspiration, I still place them in a select group of Fortune's darlings.

By this point, though, certain doubts may arise in my audience. All sorts of torturers, dictators, fanatics, and demagogues struggling for power with a few loudly shouted slogans also enjoy their jobs. They too perform their duties with inventive fervor. Well, yes; but they “know,” and what they know is enough for them once and for all. They don't want to find out about anything else, since that might diminish the force of their arguments. But knowledge that doesn't lead to new questions quickly dies out. It fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life. In the most extreme cases, well known from ancient and modern history, it even poses a lethal threat to society.

This is why I value that little phrase “I don't know” so highly. It's small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include spaces within us as well as the outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself “I don't know,” the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones, and, at best, he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself “I don't know,” she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and have ended her days performing that perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying “I don't know,” and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize.

Poets, if they're genuine, must also keep repeating “I don't know.” Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement: but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift, and absolutely inadequate to boot. So poets keep on trying, and sooner or later the consecutive results of their self-dissatisfaction are clipped together with a giant paperclip by literary historians and called their “oeuvre.”

I sometimes dream of a situation that can't possibly come true. I audaciously imagine that I have a chance to chat with the Ecclesiastes, the author of that moving lament on the vanity of all human endeavors. I would bow very deeply before him, because he is one of the greatest poets, for me at least. Then I would grab his hand. “‘There's nothing new under the sun’: that's what you wrote, Ecclesiastes. But you yourself were new under the sun. And the poem you created is also new under the sun, since no one wrote it down before you. And all your readers are also new under the sun, since those who lived before you couldn't read your poem. And that cypress under which you're sitting hasn't been growing since the dawn of time. It came into being by way of another cypress similar to yours, but not exactly the same.” “And Ecclesiastes,” I'd also like to ask: “What new thing under the sun are you planning to work on now? A further supplement to thoughts that you've already expressed? Or maybe you're tempted to contradict some of them? In your earlier work you mentioned joy—so what if it's fleeting? So maybe your new-under-the-sun poem will be about joy? Have you taken notes yet, do you have drafts? I doubt that you'll say, ‘I've written everything down, I've got nothing left to add.’ There's no poet in the world who can say this, least of all a great poet like yourself.”

The world—whatever we might think when we're terrified by its vastness and our impotence, embittered by its indifference to the individual suffering of people, animals, and perhaps even plants (for why are we so sure that plants feel no pain?); whatever we might think of its expanses pierced by the rays of stars surrounded by planets that we've just begun to discover—planets already dead? still dead? we just don't know—whatever we might think of this measureless theater to which we've got reserved tickets, but tickets whose lifespan is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates—whatever else we might think of this world, it is astonishing.

But “astonishing” is an epithet concealing a logical trap. We're astonished, after all, by things that deviate from some well-known and universally acknowledged norm, from an obviousness to which we've grown accustomed. But the point is, there is no such obvious world. Our astonishment exists per se, and it isn't based on a comparison with something else.

Granted, in daily speech, where we don't stop to consider every word, we all use phrases such as “the ordinary world,” “ordinary life,” “the ordinary course of events.” But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone's existence in this world.

It looks like poets will always have their work cut out for them.

Bogdana Carpenter (essay date winter 1997)

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SOURCE: Carpenter, Bogdana. “Wislawa Szymborska and the Importance of the Unimportant.” World Literature Today 71, no. 1 (winter 1997): 8-12.

[In the following essay, Carpenter highlights the realist and nonemotional elements in Szymborska's poetry, noting the importance that Szymborska places in common, everyday events and experiences.]

I am no longer certain
that what is important
is more important than the unimportant.

—“No Title Required”

For the second time in sixteen years, a Polish poet has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. This is not a coincidence: the decision of the Swedish Academy to bestow the world's most prestigious literary award on Czesław Miłosz in 19801 and on Wisława Szymborska in 1996 is tribute to the exceptional vitality and prominence of contemporary Polish poetry. More than anyone else, it is Czesław Miłosz who gave Polish poetry its international visibility, both as a poet and translator and its enthusiastic promoter in America. It is Miłosz's seminal anthology Postwar Polish Poetry, first published in 1965, that contained—together with twenty other poets—the first English translations of Szymborska's verse. But Miłosz's significance is even deeper, and lies in the impact he has had on the shape of post-war Polish poetry. More than any other twentieth-century poet, Miłosz has created a model and a yardstick against which younger poets have to measure themselves. Wisława Szymborska is the one who has done so with the greatest success.

To most readers outside Poland, Szymborska's Nobel Prize came as a surprise. Long recognized in her native country as a leading voice in contemporary poetry, Szymborska has not achieved the same popularity in the English-speaking world enjoyed by other poets of her generation such as Zbigniew Herbert, Tadeusz Różewicz, and Miron Białoszewski. Not a political poet (though some of her early poems were written according to the precepts of socialist realism), Szymborska drew little attention at a time when Western interest in Eastern Europe had a largely political motivation. She defied the “mold” used to describe literature “behind the iron curtain.” However, a number of English translations of her poetry had appeared: Miłosz's anthology was followed in 1981 by the translations of Magnus Kryński and Robert Maguire, published as Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems;2 Adam Czerniawski brought out People on a Bridge3 in England in 1990; and in 1995 there appeared the comprehensive collection View with a Grain of Sand, a set of award-winning translations by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh. It is only with this most recent publication that Szymborska's poetry came fully into the view of the English-speaking audience.

In contrast, Szymborska's reputation in Poland has been steadily growing ever since her third volume, Wołanie do Yeti (Calling out to Yeti), appeared in 1957. The publication of each successive volume—Sól (Salt; 1962), Sto pociech (No End of Fun; 1967), Wszelki wypadek (Could Have; 1972), Wielka liczba (A Large Number; 1976), Ludzie na moście (1986; Eng. People on a Bridge), and Koniec i początek (The End and the Beginning; 1993)—has been an important poetic event, winning the author an ever-widening audience. Szymborska's ability to speak in simple language has made her poetry accessible and attractive to an unusually broad spectrum of readers.

Paradoxically, Szymborska's very simplicity and directness present the greatest challenge to a critic, and probably also account for a relative dearth of studies about her poetry. The analytic language of literary criticism often seems powerless and inadequate when dealing with these deceptively transparent poems; it is heavy-handed and clumsy in comparison with the lightness and agility of the poetic lines. Attempts at description and analysis frequently end in a frustrating realization of failure and the necessity to go back to the poems themselves, to let the poet speak with her own voice and defend herself against the awkward approximations of the critic. An important and integral part of her poetics, Szymborska's apparent ease conceals a conscious and determined effort. Her simplicity is careful, a result of struggle, and is hard to trace since the poet covers her tracks: “I borrow weighty words, / then labor heavily so that they may seem light.”4

Szymborska is a poet of philosophical reflection. Like most Polish poets of her generation, she avoids personal effusions and an emotional tone. Absent as a person, she is nevertheless strongly present as a voice—a voice which is unmistakably her own and impossible to confuse with that of any other poet. It is a voice of a Cartesian consciousness and of a cognitive subject, a voice that narrates and at the same time reflects upon the meaning and implications of its own narrative. Often the very structure of Szymborska's poems reproduces the cognitive process, and the poems become a direct and unrhetorical form of “thinking aloud.”

It has come to this: I'm sitting under a tree
beside a river
on a sunny morning.
. …
And since I'm here
I must have come from somewhere,
and before that
I must have turned up in many other places.


They may search memory, as in “May 16, 1973”: “One of those many dates / that no longer ring a bell. // Where I was going that day, / what I was doing—I don't know” (199). Most often, they pose a question: “Maybe all this / is happening in some lab? / Under one lamp by day / and billions by night?” (201).

Szymborska's reflection rarely takes the form of categorical statements, and this is especially true of her later poetry. Reluctant to provide definitive answers, the poet prefers a margin of uncertainty. It is the initial premise of Descartes's formula, the “dubito” that describes best her philosophical attitude. But unlike the French philosopher, the Polish poet is unwilling to cross the threshold of uncertainty and step into the bright light of certitude: “certainty is beautiful, / but uncertainty is more beautiful still,” she admits (197). Szymborska's reluctance is not the result of a lack of moral determination, but rather an expression of openness. It is an awareness that truth is complex and ambiguous, that reality is thick and consists of a myriad details, all of which need to be taken into account. In Szymborska's version of the well-known biblical story, Lot's wife looks back not only out of curiosity but with a number of different motives: regret, fear, anger, shame, the desire to go back. The poet shuns the didactic clarity of the biblical account in favor of a more tentative conclusion, but one closer to the complexity of psychological truth: “It's not inconceivable that my eyes were open. / It's possible I fell facing the city” (102).

In another poem Szymborska praises ignorance: “We're extremely fortunate / not to know precisely / the kind of world we live in” (213). What appears to be an ironic, tongue-in-cheek statement has in fact a deeper meaning, for the choice of ignorance is tantamount to an acceptance of the human condition, together with all its temporal, spatial, and cognitive limitations. It is a choice of the human over the inhuman, the concrete over the abstract, the particular over the universal. Szymborska's island of Utopia, where “all is elucidated” and dominated by “Unshaken Confidence,” is uninhabited. Footprints point toward the sea, “As if all you can do here is leave / and plunge, never to return, into the depths” (128). Written in the 1970s, the poem can be read as an allusion to communist ideology and a depiction of the totalitarian state. It functions beyond its political context, however, and expresses the author's dislike of easy solutions and categorical assertions. Avoiding anything that might smack of dogmaticism or didacticism, Szymborska prefers to conclude her poems with an admission of ignorance or doubt: “I am,” she says, “a question answering a question” (174).

This philosophical option explains also her predilection for paradox, a stylistic figure that undermines accepted truths and leaves questions open. For example, “To change so that nothing changes,” reads a line from the poem “A Feminine Portrait.” Elsewhere we find: “You expected a hermit to live in the wilderness, / but he has a little house and a garden, / surrounded by cheerful birch groves, / ten minutes off the highway. / Just follow the signs” (114). In “Elegiac Calculations,” a metaphysical poem about death, each statement is followed by a parenthetic clause in the conditional mode.

How many of those I knew
(if I really knew them),
men, women
(if the distinction still holds)
have crossed that threshold
(if it is a threshold)
passed over that bridge
(if you can call it a bridge)—

The poem concludes on a note of uncertainty: “I've been given no assurance / as concerns their future fate” (188).

One of the most striking features of Szymborska's poetry is that reflections are prompted not by abstract ideas but by concrete and ordinary experiences: the sight of the sky, sitting on the shore of a river, looking at a painting, a visit to the doctor. Like Białoszewski, although in a different idiom, Szymborska extols the everyday and the ordinary: her “miracle fair” is made up of barking dogs, trees reflected in a pond, gentle breezes, and gusty storms—the world “ever-present.” At the theater she is moved by a glimpse of actors caught beneath the curtain more than by tragic tirades. The very triviality of these experiences betrays a philosophical parti pris on the part of the poet, who questions and at the same time reverses the accepted opinion of what is important and what is unimportant. The usual hierarchies are stood on their head. Is the death of an insect less important than our own? Only if seen from “high above,” that is from a human perspective, according to which “important matters are reserved for us” (103). Metaphysics are not above everyday reality, and need not be sought in the “starry night” of the philosophers; they pervade every aspect of our existence. In a series of paradoxes, Szymborska questions the division into the high and the low, the meta- and the physical, the earth and the sky.

Even the highest mountains
are no closer to the sky
than the deepest valleys.
There is no more of it in one place
than another.
The sky weighs on a cloud
as much as on a grave.
A mole is no less in seventh heaven
than the owl spreading her wings.
The object that falls in an abyss
falls from sky to sky.


In Szymborska's poetry, reality is “democratized,” and “anniversaries of revolutions” are much less prominent than “ants stitching in the grass” and “the pattern of a wave.” Szymborska pitches ontology against history and politics, the private and the individual against the public and the collective, and here she reveals a deep affinity with Czesław Miłosz. Common and humble reality is put forward at the expense of history and politics: “Even a passing moment has its fertile past, / its Friday before Saturday, / its May before June. / Its horizons are no less real / than those that a marshal's field glasses might scan” (175).

For Szymborska, man's life is short and marked by suffering and death. No historical event can alter or has altered this basic existential condition: “Nothing has changed. / The body still trembles as it trembled / before Rome was founded and after, / in the twentieth century before and after Christ” (151). On the contrary, history has only added to human suffering through wars and oppression. In her early and well-known poem “Brueghel's Two Monkeys” she wrote:

This is what I see in my dreams about final exams:
two monkeys, chained to the floor, sit on the win-
the sky behind them flutters,
the sea is taking its bath.
The exam is History of Mankind.
I stammer and hedge.
One monkey stares and listens with mocking disdain,
the other seems to be dreaming away—
but when it's clear I don't know what to say
he prompts me with a gentle
clinking of his chain.


History is not a manifestation of the human spirit, or an extension of the individual and man's projection into time, but a force inimical to man. A deeply humanistic poet, Szymborska sees history as the principal source of evil. Disrespectful of human life, it fails to account for the number of its victims, as it “rounds out skeletons to the nearest zero” (“A Hunger Camp at Jasło”). It provides fertile ground for hatred, as in the poem “Hatred”: “Gifted, diligent, hard-working. / Need we mention all the songs it has composed? / All the pages it has added to our history books? / All the human carpets it has spread / over countless city squares and football fields?” (182).

The sharpest edge of Szymborska's irony is reserved for politics. In an age which she ironically describes as “political,” everything becomes “food” for politics.

To acquire a political meaning
you don't even have to be human.
Raw material will do,
or protein feed, or crude oil,
or a conference table whose shape
was quarreled over for months:
Should we arbitrate life and death
at a round table or a square one.


A pacifist, Szymborska sides with ordinary people against history: “I prefer the earth in civilian clothes. / I prefer conquered rather than conquering countries. /. … / I prefer Grimm's fairy tales to the first pages of newspapers” (“Possibilities”).

Szymborska has a deep respect for reality and a sense of wonder at its diversity and inexhaustible richness. This once again brings her close to Miłosz: “So much world all at once—how it rustles and bustles!” (79). This is accompanied by a realization that there is a disparity between the unlimited vastness of reality and the limitations of the poetic imagination: “Four billion people on this earth, / but my imagination is still the same” (95). The mathematical value of π comes closer to expressing the infinite richness of the universe than does the poetic imagination: “It can't be comprehended six five three five at a glance, / eight nine by calculation, / seven nine or imagination, / not even three two three eight by wit, that is, by comparison” (129). Art can seize only individual facts and existences, a fraction of reality.

On the hill where Troy used to be
seven cities have been discovered.
Seven cities. Six too many
for a single epic poem.
What can be done with them? What can be done?
The hexameters are bursting.

(“Population Census”)

The poet describes her own imagination as one that is moved not by “large numbers” but by what is particular, by that which can be described only in the singular. Even her dreams, she concedes, are not populous and “hold more solitude than noisy crowds.” With a touch of irony, she speaks of herself as “a mouse at the foot of the maternal mountain,” as a “jester” who prefers “Thursday over infinity” (119). Poetry, marked by insufficiency and imperfection, is a selection, a renunciation, a passing over in silence, and a “sigh” rather than a “full breath.” Like anyone else, the poet is unable to step outside her own “I,” her own particular existence. Being herself, she cannot be what she is not: “My apologies to everything that I can't be everywhere at once. / My apologies to everyone that I can't be each woman and each man. / I know I won't be justified as long as I live, / since I myself stand in my own way” (92).

Faced with a task that is impossible, Szymborska makes a choice—to describe what is immediate and accessible, the ordinary and the small: “Inexhaustible, unembraceable, / but particular to the smallest fiber, / grain of sand, / drop of water— / landscapes” (19). After all, every particle reflects the whole, every drop of water contains the entire universe: “A drop of water fell on my hand, / drawn from the Ganges and the Nile, // from hoarfrost ascended to heaven off a seal's whiskers, / from jugs broken in the cities of Ys and Tyre” (28).

In the opposition between reality and art, life and intellect, the poet declares herself on the side of reality and life. Ideas are most often pretexts to kill, a deadly weapon whether under the guise of an artistic experiment (“Experiment”), a political Utopia (“Utopia”), or ideological fanaticism (“The Terrorist, He's Watching”). Even poetry is “a revenge of a mortal hand” (“The Joy of Writing”). Szymborska sides with reality against art and ideology, and this choice situates her in the mainstream of postwar Polish poetry alongside Miłosz, Herbert, and Białoszewski.

Despite its familiarity and ordinariness, Szymborska's poetry is neither relaxing nor comforting. It is permeated by a consciousness of death, temporariness, and human vulnerability.

Nothing's a gift, it's all on loan.
I'm drowning in debt up to my ears.
I'll have to pay for myself
with my self,
give up my life for my life.
. …
Every tissue in us lies
on the debit side.
Not a tentacle or tendril
is for keeps.
The inventory, infinitely detailed,
implies we'll be left
not just empty-handed
but handless, too.


Not only do we live on credit, but life is a constant improvisation, a rehearsal in an unfamiliar setting, a play without a script. What is more, the rehearsal is also the only performance we are granted, and all our actions—regardless how tentative—acquire the permanence of a perfective tense: “And whatever I'll do, / will turn for ever into what I've done” (“Instant Living”).

In Szymborska's world, man is alone and distinct from the world of nature and objects; the division between the human and nonhuman world is unbridgeable, as in “Conversation with a Stone.”

I knock at the stone's front door.
“It's only me, let me come in.
I want to enter your insides,
have a look round,
breathe my fill of you.”
“Go away,” says the stone.
“I'm shut tight.
Even if you break me to pieces,
we'll all still be closed.
You can grind us to sand,
we still won't let you in.”


The ontology of objects is beyond man's reach, and giving them anthropomorphic features is a misunderstanding. Consciousness is a human attribute; nature is unaware of itself. The sense of time, place, and purpose, colors, shapes, sounds, and names are products of human consciousness alone.

We call it a grain of sand,
but it calls itself neither grain nor sand.
It does just fine without a name,
whether general, particular,
permanent, passing,
incorrect, or apt.
Our glance, our touch mean nothing to it.
It doesn't feel itself seen and touched.
And that it fell on the windowsill
is only our experience, not its.


There is a contrast between nature's pure externality and its lack of self-awareness, on the one hand, and man's tortured consciousness on the other: “Our skin is just a coverup / for the land where none dare go, / an internal inferno, /. … / In an onion there's only onion / from its top to its toe” (120). Because it lacks consciousness, nature is spared existential despair and metaphysical anxiety, and seems to us to be edenic. The communication between man and the external world is one-way, from human consciousness toward external reality, from man to objects. But the two realms remain distinct and strange to each other.

Szymborska's poetry is one of existential terror, but what makes it even more terrifying is that it avoids spectacular decorations and a tragic tone. Szymborska's tone is matter-of-fact, constantly kept in check: “if joy, then with a touch of fear; / if despair, then not without some quiet hope” (144). The tragic content is attenuated by humor, wit, and an abundance of verbal games and puns: “Life, however long, will always be short. / Too short for anything to be added” (144). The situations are trivial, and the effect is often a result of contrast between the triviality of the scene and the metaphysical dimension of the event.

A dead beetle lies on the path through the field.
Three pairs of legs folded neatly on its belly.
Instead of death's confusion, tidiness and order.
The horror of this sight is moderate,
its scope is strictly local, from the wheat grass to the
The grief is quarantined
The sky is blue.


Death is banal and inscrutable in its mystery. The room of a suicide gives no clues to the man's tragedy.

I'll bet you think the room was empty.
Wrong. There were three chairs with sturdy backs.
A lamp, good for fighting the dark.
A desk, and on the desk a wallet, some newspapers.
A carefree Buddha and a worried Christ.
Seven lucky elephants, a notebook in a drawer.
You think our addresses weren't in it?


In one of her most popular and finest poems, “Cat in an Empty Apartment,” the poet describes grief—and the sense of emptiness after the death of someone close—from the perspective of a cat.

Die—you can't do that to a cat.
Since what can a cat do
in an empty apartment?
Climb the walls?
Rub up against furniture?
Nothing seems different here,
but nothing is the same.
Nothing has been moved,
but there's more space.
And at nighttime no lamps are lit.


Wisława Szymborska is not a prolific writer, and her poetic oeuvre consists of only some two hundred poems. Each poem, however, is a masterpiece. In crystalline and carefully wrought language, with a tone that is unpretentious, this poetry speaks to everyone and is about everyone. The ostensibly “unimportant” questions it poses prove to be the only questions that truly matter.


  1. On Miłosz, see WLT 52:3 (Summer 1978), pp. 357-425, and WLT 55:1 (Winter 1981), pp. 5-6.

  2. Wisława Szymborska, Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems, trs. Magnus J. Kryński and Robert A. Maguire, Princeton (N.J.), Princeton University Press, 1981. For a review, see WLT 56:2 (Spring 1982), p. 368.

  3. Wisława Szymborska, People on a Bridge, tr. Adam Czerniawski, London, Forest Books, 1990. For a review, see WLT 66:1 (Winter 1992), p. 163.

  4. All quotations referred to by page number come from Wisława Szymborska, View with a Grain of Sand, trs. Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh, New York, Harcourt Brace, 1995. Citations without page references are my own translations.

Wislawa Szymborska and Joanna Trzeciak (interview date 7 April 1997)

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SOURCE: Szymborska, Wislawa, and Joanna Trzeciak. “Wislawa Szymborska: The Enchantment of Everyday Objects.” Publishers Weekly 244, no. 14 (7 April 1997): 68-9.

[In the following interview, Szymborska discusses her personal history, her writing career, translations of her works, and authors she admires.]

“I'm drowning in papers,” exclaims Wislawa Szymborska, pointing to piles of mail in the study of her fifth-floor, three-room walk-up in Kraków. Since receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in December, this reluctant literary celebrity, previously little known to readers outside of Europe, has found that her sparsely furnished apartment is growing uncomfortably small, and she is preparing to move to a larger flat in this nondescript residential neighborhood.

“People confuse the Nobel Prize with a beauty pageant,” she quips, recounting a conversation she overheard between two women in the fruit market. “‘Did you see the Nobel Prize winner?’ says one. ‘Not much to look at, is she’ says the other.” Szymborska laughs.

In the aftermath of the Nobel announcement, which found the poet tucked away in Astoria, a writers' retreat in the southern mountain town of Zakopane, her life has changed considerably. For a poet accustomed to pen, paper, telephone and typewriter, life in the limelight has brought with it a whirlwind of modernization, as her capable young staff—a lawyer and secretary—manages the steady flow of faxes, voice mail, e-mail and the suddenly complicated contractual issues that confront a poet who has suddenly vaulted to international attention.

As the second Polish writer, after Czeslaw Milosz, to take the prize in the last 20 years, Szymborska has brought renewed attention to the poetry of her native land. In a rare interview with this writer, who has been translating her poetry since 1988, Szymborska lets on that she found the weeks leading up to the Nobel ceremony an anxious time. Never one to comment much on her work, averse to travel and reluctant to appear on television, she surprised even herself in Stockholm: accidentally reversing the ceremony's elaborate bowing sequence, she enlivened the proceedings with characteristic aplomb, getting on royally with Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustav, and by some accounts, establishing a record for the longest ovation ever at a Nobel address.

In its award citation, the Swedish Academy noted the “veritable ease with which [Szymborska's] words seem to fall into place.” But it is that seeming ease in treating uneasy issues that has caught the attention of American poet and critic Edward Hirsch, who lauds Szymborska's gift for investigating “large unanswerable questions with terrific delicacy.” Czeslaw Milosz calls Szymborska's triumph a confirmation of the place of “the Polish school of poetry.” Szymborska, with characteristic modesty, would agree. “Poetic talent doesn't operate in a vacuum. There is a spirit of Polish poetry,” she says. An elegant dresser, tall and slender, with a graceful carriage, Szymborska has a kind face and eyes that smile when she does. She seems much younger than her 73 years.


Interest in Szymborska in the United States was pioneered by translators Magnus Krynski and Robert Maguire with their en face collection titled Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems by Wislawa Szymborska (Princeton University Press, 1981). Philologically faithful and insightfully annotated, it is an invaluable companion to the more extensive View with a Grain of Sand (Harcourt Brace, 1995), translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Claire Cavanagh, a collection of poems published between 1957 and 1993. (Since the announcement of the prize, Harcourt has printed more than 70,000 copies in paperback.) A third translation, by Adam Czerniawski, is distributed Stateside by Dufour.

The most successful of these translations convey the wit and clarity of Szymborska's turns of phrase. Under her pen, simple language becomes striking. Ever the gentle subversive, she stubbornly refuses to see anything in the world as ordinary. The result is a poetry of elegance and irony, full of surprising turns. “You can find the entire cosmos lurking in its least remarkable objects,” she is fond of saying. Inspiration, she explained in her Nobel speech, is the domain not only of poets, but of anyone who finds fulfillment in their work. For Szymborska, it originates with an inquisitive spirit that spurs sophisticated explorations of such everyday objects as a postcard, a rock or a cloud.

All of which befits a woman who has perfected the art of asking questions, but does not shy away from answering them, in poetry or in conversation, with an emphatic “I don't know.” When asked to explain the sources from which her own writing springs, she replies that her inspiration is often indirect and mysterious. “It's just not easy to explain to someone else what you don't understand yourself,” she says.


Named after Poland's largest river, the Vistula [Wisla in Polish], Wislawa Szymborska (pronounced Vees-WAH-vah Shim-BOR-skah) was born in Kórnik, in central west Poland, famed for its beautiful manor houses and gardens. When she was eight, the family moved to Kraków. Szymborska recalls that her father actively supported her first stabs at writing by giving her candy money for each poem she wrote. “I started earning a living as a poet rather early on,” she says. German occupation forced her to attend an underground school, since regular schools and universities were closed to Poles. After the war, she studied Polish literature and sociology at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, but never graduated, and to this day remains a little suspicious of academia.

Szymborska's life and literary activities have centered around Kraków. Her poetry came to public attention in 1945, with her debut in the Polish Daily. Over the next three years, she published in the press regularly but the political climate kept a planned first volume from ever appearing in print. Her subsequent two volumes, What We Live For (1952) and Questions Put to Myself (1954), contain only a few poems that survive the test of time. The remainder today read like socialist propaganda set to chamber music. While her youthful experimentation with socialism left her deeply distrustful of ideology, the idealism that motivated it matured into a deep humanitarianism as seen in Calling out to Yeti (1957), her transitional volume. The collection that marked her arrival as a major poet was Salt (1962). Since then, Szymborska's popularity and critical acclaim have grown with every volume.

To escape from the city, she often slips out of Kraków to the nearby mountains. Nature suffuses her poetry, but her contacts with the natural environment are grounded in the simplest of observations. She finds in such objects as a piece of bone, a sprig of mistletoe or the sky itself ways of meditating upon our own contingent place in the cosmos. On another visit, while accompanying this writer along a steep path in Lubomierz, in the foothills of the Tatry Mountains, she quipped, “I like being near the top of a mountain. One can't get lost here.” One would expect a comment about the splendid vistas laid out before us, but that's not Szymborska's style. To miss her subversion of expectations is to miss the essence of Szymborska's poetry. Irony permeates her verse, whether she is writing about nature, history, love or poetic craft, her dominant themes.


In a day and age when many writers have declared reality a social construct, Szymborska stands sober. Deeply touched by historical events that befell Poland—World War II, the Holocaust and Communism—she and the best Polish writers of her generation do not and cannot engage in the excesses of postmodernism, as she made clear in her 1991 Goethe Award address in Frankfurt, one of very few public speeches she's given: “All the best have something in common […] a regard for reality, an agreement to its primacy over the imagination. … Even the richest, most surprising and wild imagination is not as rich, wild and surprising as reality. The task of the poet is to pick singular threads from this dense, colorful fabric.”

Yet her depictions of events such as war and other atrocities, often include an element of the absurd and the comic. “In every tragedy, an element of comedy is preserved. Comedy is just tragedy reversed,” she explains. In her poetry and her rare comments on poetry, Szymborska warns us not to lose sight of the individual. She has compared ideology to one of Charlie Chaplin's flimsy suitcases—too small to fit what we try to stuff into it.

Her poems about love are often laced with irony, whether she is evoking the ways physical closeness creates emotional distance or the ways love's fantasies labor to keep its realities at bay. The End and the Beginning finds its footing in yet another aspect of love: the strength of presence that absence can have. The volume is in large part an elegy for Szymborska's companion of 23 years, Kornel Filipowicz, a gifted poet and prose writer, who died in 1990. Outside of her poems, it's not a topic Szymborska talks much about.

One glance around her living room demonstrates that Szymborska's reading habits are both voracious and democratic. As usual, there are more books of every ilk than shelves to hold them. Her collection of whimsical book reviews, entitled Extracurricular Readings, features selections from her weekly column that ran for eight years in Literary Life, a magazine on whose editorial board she served from 1953 to 1976. At Literary Life, she reviewed books on topics ranging from Kant to cacti. Asked if any of these subjects stand out as influences on her poetry, Szymborska answers obliquely: “Even the worst book can give us something to think about.”

Her eclectic reading helps to set Szymborska apart from any intellectual or literary movements. When this interviewer broaches the topic of her contemporaries who perished in World War II, the poet Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski, whose name appears in a poem of hers, comes up. Szymborska refuses to brook any attempts at comparison: “When I mention somebody, that doesn't necessarily mean that I identify with him, personally or poetically. I'm extremely happy when I encounter poets who are different than I am. The ones who have their own distinct poetics provide me with the greatest experiences.”

At the mention of American literature, Szymborska's eyes light up. “I've had the good fortune to read a lot of great American writers in translation, and my absolute beloved, for me one of the greatest writers ever, is Mark Twain. Yes, yes, yes. And Whitman, from whom the whole of 20th-century poetry sprung up. Whitman was the origin of things, someone with a completely different outlook. But I think that he's the father of the new wave in the world's poetry which to this very day is hitting the shore.”

Have these readings nourished her own work? Szymborska replies with a shrug: “Well, one is inspired by the whole of life, one's own and somebody else's. You know how sometimes you hear great music, and music is completely untranslatable into words, into any words. A certain tension that is born when one listens to music could aid you in expressing something absolutely different.”

For a poet who habitually shies away such topics, it is as direct an answer as we are likely to hear. “I cannot speak for more than an hour exclusively about poetry,” she declares with an impish smile. At that point, life itself takes over again.

Edyta M. Bojanowska (essay date summer 1997)

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SOURCE: Bojanowska, Edyta M. “Wislawa Szymborska: Naturalist and Humanist.” Slavic and East European Journal 41, no. 2 (summer 1997): 199-223.

[In the following essay, Bojanowska studies Szymborska's interpretation of mankind's importance and placement in nature, drawing particular emphasis to Szymborska's focus on man's inevitable attempts to assert themselves as the masters of nature's hierarchy.]

Wisława Szymborska (b. 1923), the author of nine slim volumes of poetry that span nearly half a century, is a foremost figure in contemporary Polish poetry. Her recognition was slow in the coming. Unlike such established giants of post-war Polish poetry as Czesław Miłosz or Zbigniew Herbert, until 1996 Szymborska had not earned a single book-length scholarly study either in Poland or abroad. Only recent years have brought a surge of interest.1 While Polish articles represent an important step toward a scholarly analysis of Szymborska's poetry—and I will acknowledge their insights—they too often aim at holistic views of the poet's Weltanschauung in which the diversity of the poet's voices becomes lost (the most notable exceptions being the works by Barańczak, Balcerzan, and Ligęza). In an attempt to limit my scope, I will use the theme of nature as a point of entry into Szymborska's poetic world and through close readings of particular poems within this thematic group I hope to identify crucial aspects of Szymborska's poetics.

Szymborska's scant poetic output, her few translations of French poetry2, and her numerous essayistic book review-feuilletons (Szymborska's idiosyncratic genre; most of them do not concern belles-lettres), are complemented by very few non-literary utterances on literature. The two significant instances include a preface to her selected poems (the only one she wrote) and a 1966 interview.3 This paucity of Szymborska's self-commentary increases its weight. It makes the concerns she chose to address and the attitudes she displayed particularly worthy of attention. For the purpose of this article, the metaphoric framework of the following passage from the poet's preface is especially revealing:

I would prefer not to grant myself the right of writing about my own poems. The longer I engage in composing them, the lesser are my willingness and need to formulate a poetic credo—the more embarrassing and premature it seems. I would feel like an insect that for unknown reasons chases itself into a glass box and pins itself down.

Biology describes man as a creature that lacks specialization, seeing in that the guarantee of his further development. Allow me, dear Reader, to cherish the hope that I myself am an unspecialized poet, who does not want to link herself to any one theme and any one way of expressing things that are of importance to her.

(emphasis mine)4

Szymborska's use of biological jargon in her account of herself as a poet might seem rather peculiar. Yet it exemplifies an abiding concern of Szymborska's poetic practice: the dialogue of the humanistic and the biological discourses.

This article will examine the “human interest” of Szymborska's nature poems, the analogies they draw and the contrasts they establish between nature and the condition of man. This thematic pairing often takes the form of striking juxtapositions in Szymborska's poems: she compares human beings to such unusual natural specimens as onions or dinosaurs. The philosophy/biology duality informs Szymborska's views of both nature and man. Man in her poetry is simultaneously a sapient creature and a primate. Nature too is a fusion of matter and idea, biology and philosophy. Her view of nature is essentially anti-romantic and anti-mystical: nature is not a projection of the lyrical self, nor does it represent a window to another world. Rather, it has an existence unto itself, material and independent. This empirical conception of nature drives Szymborska to concern herself with concrete, observable phenomena. According to her, any claims about the essence of humanity or man's place in the universe must be rooted in the physical, tangible repository of information that only a materialist and biological conception of nature can provide. In other words, Szymborska values nature as an epistemological resource, but only if it is examined empirically.

By expanding poetry's scope to include science as an inspiration and scientism as a method of lyrical investigation (she frequently structures her poems as reasoned arguments, either proving or disproving a thesis) Szymborska feels she is returning to poetry's ancient roots. As she explains in her 1966 interview:

In the beginning poetry could be anything. Crafted speech was used to express both feelings and the most basic information, ranging from prayers, through codes of savoir vivre and historical chronicles, to the rules of the art of writing … It is precisely from [poetry] that ever more numerous branches of science emerged. Poetry then began shrinking more and more, and as the most extreme consequence of this process there only remains writing poems about writing poems … I do not accept this. … It would be a good thing to recapture some of those territories from which poetry withdrew or was pushed out of.


The unquenchable curiosity that pervades her poems has also found expression in her book reviews, which for decades have been published primarily in the literary weekly Życie Literackie.6 Claiming no scholarly expertise, digressing extensively, often abandoning the reviewer's stance altogether, Szymborska has surveyed a stunning range of works that includes home repair manuals and cookbooks, as well as works on psychiatry, history, biology, and geology. While some critics have noted in passing the stylistic similarities between Szymborska's reviews and her poetry, they have largely ignored the themes they share. Szymborska's reviews frequently function as postscripts to her poems: they recast or develop the issues she had previously worked out in her poetry (in all instances known to me the poems precede the reviews). Both often employ the same line of thought and rhetorical patterns. I will refer to these reviews in my discussion of Szymborska's poems.

Szymborska's nature poems center around four major themes: consciousness, perfection, evolution, and death. These themes will provide the framework for my discussion.


Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. … [E]ven if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows none of this. Thus all our dignity consists in thought.

(Pascal 66)

Pascal's famous notion of man as a “thinking reed” resounds throughout Szymborska's poetry. She shares Pascal's notion of consciousness as man's defining characteristic and plays with it in her “View with a Grain of Sand” (PB [Ludzie na moście; People on a Bridge]). The poem ponders the idea that whatever names, values, states, or actions we ascribe to nature, they are all but outgrowths of our consciousness, human imputations, rather than nature's inherent characteristics. Nature remains unaware, as it were, of its own nature.

We call it a grain of sand,
but it calls itself neither grain nor sand.
It does just fine without a name,
whether general, particular,
permanent, passing,
incorrect, or apt.
Our glance, our touch mean nothing to it.
It doesn't feel itself seen or touched.
And that it fell on the windowsill
is only our experience, not its.


Although the poet does not doubt the real, material existence of the world, its aesthetic and sensual values exist, according to her, only in our perceptions of them:

The window has a wonderful view of a lake,
but the view doesn't view itself.
It exists in this world
colorless, shapeless,
soundless, odorless, and painless.


The poem describes the pace of time as also a human invention, since the three seconds that have passed in viewing the landscape are “three seconds only for us.”

“View with a Grain of Sand” may be seen as an elaboration of Ruskin's notion of pathetic fallacy, the poetic convention of endowing nature with human feelings, the overuse of which he criticized. Szymborska broadens the bounds of this “fallacy” to include the very act of perceiving nature. The poem underscores the idea that any observation is first and foremost an experience of the perceiving subject, and that the sole indisputable truth it conveys is the blueprint of the viewer's perspective, his ways of seeing. The insistent focus on the human-specific lens foregrounds Szymborska's exploration of the epistemological value of individual perception vis-à-vis objective reality.

Indeed, the poem questions the ability of human perception to accurately comprehend the world. Our perception yields refractions rather than reflections, cognitive skepticism being Szymborska's and Pascal's common trait. At the same time, our human viewpoint so thoroughly pervades and determines how we think about nature and verbalize our thoughts that occasional falsification is inevitable. The poem paints an image of human speech as a fossil that bears the imprints of our past cognitive blunders:

And all of this beneath a sky by nature skyless
in which the sun sets without setting at all
and hides without hiding behind an unminding cloud.
The wind ruffles it, its only reason being
that it blows.


Scientific facts constitute an important underpinning of the poem. Science has demystified some of our cherished assumptions about nature. There really is no “sky,” there is only air. A “sunset” is only an illusion created by the earth's rotation. Clouds cannot possibly “hide” the sun: they can merely intrude on our line of vision. Yet while deconstructing this non-referential idiom, the poet demonstrates its indispensability in describing the world. The impasse is not merely linguistic. The poem paints an image of man's complete alienation from nature: on the one hand—the inscrutable Ding an sich, on the other—man's persistent, if quixotic, quest to comprehend it.

Szymborska differs from Pascal with respect to the value of human consciousness. The French philosopher considers it a sign of greatness that man realizes his wretchedness, while a tree—though just as wretched—lacks this awareness (Pascal 29). In contrast, Szymborska's position as evident in “View with a Grain of Sand” is essentially ambivalent. She carefully avoids asserting that consciousness elevates us over “consciousless” nature and merely notes it as a point of difference, which is in keeping with her anti-anthropocentric views. Szymborska does not concern herself in this poem with the question of whether a grain of sand is any worse off by virtue of not knowing its name or realizing where it fell.

She does take up this question in another poem, “The Apple Tree” (LN [Wielka liczba; A Large Number]). Szymborska's choice of a tree in the context of the theme of consciousness is reminiscent of Pascal's “wretched tree” metaphor, which might suggest that Szymborska's polemic with Pascal is indeed intended. The apple tree's lack of consciousness is conveyed, as in the previous poem, by a series of negatives. This lack, however, hardly implies a deficiency. The apple tree's “conscious-less-ness” allows it to maintain freedom, peace, and a harmonious union with nature (incidentally, the diminutive in the poem's title, “Jabłonka,” unlike its neutral equivalent “jabłoń,” has a homey, peaceful ring to it). By contrast, the poem's human protagonist—encumbered by consciousness—feels “imprisoned” and restless. She revels in the soothing conscious-lessness of the apple tree that

… brims with flowers, as with laughter;
that is unaware of good and evil,
shrugs its branches about it;
that is no one's, whoever may say mine about it;
burdened with the foreboding of fruit only;
that is uninterested about which year it is, which country,
which planet, and whereto it circles;
[…] carefree about whatever happens,
shivering with patience with each of its leaves …(8)

The comparison of the tree with a human being hinges on a clever transformation of common idioms that usually refer to human emotions. For example, the tree shrugs its branches just as people shrug their shoulders. Yet this nonchalant gesture is juxtaposed with moral categories (“good and evil”), which for humans usually represent a cause for grave concern. The state of “shivering,” usually associated with fear, excitement, or anticipation, is combined here with a quite incongruous patience. Furthermore, the natural semantic pull of the word “foreboding” anticipates an object that will signify something bad or harmful. Instead, the tree has a foreboding of fruit, of life. Thus the word “burdened,” which at first seems to denote psychological distress, returns to its original meaning of “encumbered with physical weight” when it becomes related to the expectation of heavy fruit. The context of fruit and expectation, in turn, draws attention to the root “-ciąż-,” which the word “burdened” (obciążona) shares with the word “pregnancy” (ciąża). Thus within one line the initially negative ring of the word “burdened” becomes returned twice: into a neutral and then positive tone. In sum, the tree's lack of consciousness actually betokens a benefit. Even more—it recalls prelapsarian bliss: the apple tree is unaware of good and evil and inhabits “may paradise.” Grammatically speaking, the poem consists of one sentence without a predicate. Its main clause, interrupted by an extended description of the tree, expresses the speaker's wish to remain in its shadow instead of returning home, since “only prisoners wish to return home.” As Wojciech Ligęza rightly notes, consciousness in Szymborska's poetry appears as both a curse and a blessing (1993, 5). In “The Apple Tree” it appears as the former.

Interestingly, a poem that presents the opposite view, “In Praise of Feeling Bad about Yourself” directly follows “The Apple Tree” in the volume (LN). This proximity of the negative and positive views of consciousness may imply that the poet considers them inseparable and equally valid. “In Praise” contains an encomium to conscience, itself a corollary of consciousness, characteristic of humans but unknown in the animal world:

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.
… 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.

Pascal believed man to be great because he knows himself to be wretched. Szymborska's poem gives Pascal's idea a significant twist: man is great because he realizes that his actions cause others to be wretched, while piranhas and killer whales do not. Although the poem clearly applauds the human experience of pangs of conscience, as even the title suggests, Szymborska's criticism of remorselessness sounds a muted tone, so characteristic of her poetry in general. To call a clear conscience “bestial” may imply fierce condemnation, but in the context of the poem it may also suggest a mere statement of fact: a clear conscience is characteristic of beasts, that is, animals (the Polish word “zwierzęce” functions more freely on both these levels than its English counterpart). This tension between the idiomatic and literal meanings of words and phrases greatly contributes to Szymborska's “muted” quality.

Temperamentally and ideologically, Szymborska is a poet of moderation and skepticism. She prefers understatement to confident assertion, ambivalence to resolve, doubt to dogmatism, concreteness to abstraction, particularity to typicality, and exceptions to rules.9 Moderation and skepticism also characterize her portrayal of nature and man, which maintains her typical dynamic of “on the one hand”/“on the other hand.” Her affinity with Pascal emerges here again, since he believed each thing partly true and partly false, and considered contradiction no more a sign of falsehood than lack thereof an indication of truth (54). Szymborska's penchant for dwelling on contradictions to generally accepted truths and her refusal to commit herself entirely to one side of an issue inspires her extensive use of a “naive question” strategy, as Stanisław Barańczak has brilliantly observed. This technique “always brings the ‘dogmatic opinion’ down to the level of an individual exception that contradicts the general rule and by the same token renders it, if not invalid, then at least suspect” (1994: 264). I would add that Szymborska does not presume to propose new truths or to entirely deconstruct the ones she “naively questions.” Rather, she attempts to reconstruct a full picture, which for her—as for Pascal—includes at once the truth and falsity about each thing. Szymborska does not create her own version of the world, she merely “adds glosses ‘on the margin’ of the established version of reality” (Ligęza 1983, 89).


The question of nature's perfection, like that of human-specific consciousness, inspires such qualifying “glosses” in Szymborska's poetry. The poem “The Onion” (LN) describes the eponymous vegetable as an impressive work of nature, perfect in its simplicity:

At peace, of a piece,
internally at rest.
Inside it, there's a smaller one
of undiminished worth.
The second holds a third one,
the third contains a fourth.
A centripetal fugue.
Polyphony compressed.
Nature's rotundest tummy,
its greatest success story,
the onion drapes itself in its
own aureoles of glory.


The essence of onionness that emerges in the poem consists in sameness and self-containment. The onion's multiple identical layers are described by a startlingly paradoxical metaphor of monophonic polyphony: “echo combined into chorus” [echo złożone w chór; B&C [View with a Grain of Sand]: “Polyphony compressed”].10 The poem also accentuates the onion's inward focus and utter self-sufficiency: it is “a centripetal fugue” that requires no external confirmation of its own greatness, since it “drapes itself in its own aureoles of glory.” Szymborska taps the geometric connotation of the aureole (a halo) as well as its metaphoric one. The word is particularly fitting in its geometric aspect since both the aureole and the onion are round. In its metaphoric aspect, the image of the aureole as an emblem of saintliness resonates with the description of the onion as the height of nature's perfection.

The contrast between the onion and human beings is stated overtly in the poem:

Our skin is just a coverup
for the land where none dare go,
an internal inferno,
the anathema of anatomy.
In an onion there's only onion
from its top to its toe,
onionymous monomania,
unanimous omninudity.


The rigorous and fair-minded poet recognizes the need of common terms for comparing the onion and man, hence she focuses on their bodily constitution. She juxtaposes the onion's simplicity to man's “internal inferno” and his tangled mass of bowels. The onion has no other constituent than itself: “Its innards don't exist. / Nothing but pure onionhood / fills this devout onionist.” In contrast, the human interior and exterior differ, and only a thin layer of skin covers the “foreignness” and “wildness” or “fierceness” inside (both implied by “dzikość”). The obverse of this physical description, however, is a more abstract plane of thought. Szymborska contrasts the idea of “onionhood” with the idea of being human in a philosophical sense. She juxtaposes the onion's simplicity to human complexity. Humans are ex-centric, rather than concentric; they are not sufficient unto themselves but need contact with the outside world for physical as well as spiritual sustenance. The onion is “an existence free of contradictions” [niesprzeczny byt] while human existence is ridden with contradictions. (Similarly, Pascal views man as a contradictory mixture of opposites: a brute and an angel [31].)

The poem's evaluation of the difference between the onion and man follows the logic of a “naive question.” In all but the last two lines, the speaker expresses exaltation over the onion's perfect simplicity and irritation with man's execrable “internal inferno.” However, this voice is ironically undermined by certain phraseologisms that expose its naive simplemindedness. Already the poem's opening line strikes one this way: “The onion, now that's something else” [Co innego cebula]. The last stanza features an awkward solecism: “The onion, that I understand” [Cebula, to ja rozumiem]. These phrases betray a callow, gullible simpleton in his artless yet shallow admiration. The syntactic primitivism of the third stanza's first two lines contributes to this effect: “A contradiction-free existence, that onion, / the onion, now that's a clever thing” [Byt niesprzeczny cebula, / udany cebula twór].11 It should be noted, however, that the conceptual and literary aspects of the comparison reveal great insight, ingenuity, and poetic craftsmanship, as lines such as “A centripetal fugue. / Polyphony compressed” exemplify. It is the judgment that associates perfection with simplicity that is ironized here. This ironic distance is made explicit in the poem's final lines:

We hold veins, nerves, and fat,
secretions' secret sections.
Not for us such idiotic
onionoid perfections.


If the onion's characteristics are a mark of perfection, then such perfection is idiocy, the poem's finale announces. The assumption that nature is perfect becomes qualified in the process of the poet's “naive” investigation. Adam Zagajewski reminds us that the word “idiocy” particularly fits this context since it derives from the Greek idios denoting “singularity,” “selfness”; an idiot is a person focused entirely on his own biological existence with no contact with the outside world (112). These are precisely the terms in which the onion has been described in the poem. The notion of perfection lingers already in the “penumbra” of the first stanza: “The onion is purely itself / to the point of onionness” [Jest sobą na wskroś cebula / do stopnia cebuliczności]. The phrase “to the point of” usually denotes an extreme form of some feature; in this particular context we would expect the word “perfection” to follow (Pol. “doskonałość” would also fit in the metric and rhyming schema of the stanza). Yet Szymborska withholds this word until the last line and replaces it here with a neologism “onionness,” thereby frustrating our expectation of a word that would describe an extreme degree of the onion's integrity. The tautological effect is comparable to the sentence “John is himself to the point of johnness.”

However, Zagajewski errs when he interprets the poem as Szymborska's assertion that man with his complexity and diversity is by default the perfect one. The poem does not exclude this possibility, yet such a conclusion remains beyond its scope. The poem merely suggests that if the onion were to be an exemplar of perfection, then man should rejoice at his imperfection. While “The Apple Tree” nostalgically deplores man's dissociation from nature, the consciousness that he acquires at the cost of equanimity, “The Onion” celebrates his difference.12

Szymborska questions the notions of biologic determinism and the immutability and logic of the laws of nature. That nature may err and have its own glitches is shown, for example, in “Returning Birds” (NE [Sto pociech; No End of Fun]). The poem subverts an unspoken premise that instinct ensures nature's smooth functioning by describing a premature return of birds from winter migration that proves fatal for them. This catastrophe invalidates the commonly upheld dichotomy between the infallible natural instinct and fallible human reason:

This spring the birds came back again too early.
Rejoice, O reason: instinct can err, too.
It gathers wool, it doses off—and down they fall
into the snow …


The anthropomorphization of instinct in its act of erring (third line) accentuates its ironic juxtaposition with fallible human reason. The poem implies that instinct can fail animals just as reason can fail man, and nature may sometimes be no better than man. (Szymborska also appears as a moderate defender of reason in “Options,” where she says “I prefer not to claim / that reason is to blame for everything.”)

Malfunctioning instinct is also a subject of one of Szymborska's review-feuilletons. She discusses a book about lemmings, whose “hormonal fate” leads them, when their lairs become overcrowded, to a mass exodus to the sea in which they drown. She supports her argument about the drawbacks of instinct with the example of migrating birds:

The instinct that makes them fly away in the fall and travel sometimes several thousand kilometers only appears to aid and preserve the birds' safety. If finding a good feeding ground in a milder climate were the only goal, many bird species could finish their arduous flight much earlier. Meanwhile, these insane creatures fly further, over the mountains, where, caught in a storm, they crash against the rocks … Merciless selection is not always nature's goal: there are disasters in which the weak and the strong specimens die side by side.

(Lektury nadobowiazkowe 1992, 39)

She also mentions a certain species of geese which experience the migration instinct before they are fully fledged. They embark on their journey on “foot” and become prey for predators. “A bird is a lunatic unconscious of its lunacy”—concludes Szymborska, again as if echoing Pascal.

Most of “Returning Birds” focuses on demonstrating that these animals have no physical defect that could inspire their creator, nature, to “take them off the market.” The poem eulogizes nature's creative ingenuity and craftsmanship. The birds' death

… doesn't suit their well-wrought throats and splendid claws,
their honest cartilage and conscientious webbing,
the heart's sensible sluice, the entrails' maze,
the nave of ribs, the vertebrae in [a] stunning [row en suite],
feathers deserving their own wing in any crafts museum,
the Benedictine patience of the beak.


In view of such mastery and accomplishment,13 the premature demise of the birds is inexplicable. Nature, then, can also be senseless, “irrational,” even by its own standards. It is interesting that not a hint of the accusation of cruelty enters the poem. In her discourse with nature Szymborska adopts nature's own logic—just as in “The Onion” she describes man on the vegetable's terms—which is why her denunciation proves so damaging. The poem explores a paradox: if nature indeed concerns itself with the survival of the fittest individuals and species, who most successfully adapt to the environment, how can one explain the senseless death of these marvelous creatures, the fit and the less fit alike? It is nature's wastefulness rather than cruelty that inspires the poet's censure: “This is not a dirge—no, it's only indignation.” The dead bird falls upon a stone that views life as “a chain of failed attempts.” The poet rejects this view as “archaic” and “simpleminded,” an inappropriate way of thinking about life. Thus it becomes clear that her concurrence with nature has been only rhetorical.

Besides, the birds represent nature's successful attempt. Their intricacy is described in terms of craftsmanship and artistry. Their cartilages and webbing are “honest” and “conscientious,” (the words used in the Polish usually describe artisans), their feathers merit “a wing in any crafts museum.” Their rib cage resembles a church nave, their spine—rooms en suite, in the doorway-path of which there runs a spinal cord.14 The perfection of the birds' bodily design inspires a biblical comparison: “[a]n angel made of earthbound protein, / … with glands straight from the Song of Songs.” And finally, a literary simile appears: “its tissues tied into a common knot / of place and time, as in an Aristotelian drama.” In short, nature has certainly succeeded in its creative attempt; the birds' premature death betrays an error.

However, Szymborska does not propose that nature's misgovernance should cause man to gloat over his superiority. Nature in many ways is wiser than man, as the poem “Psalm” (LN) demonstrates. “Oh, the leaky boundaries of man-made states!” exclaims the poet in the opening line, and lists examples of how nature violates the borders established by humans. Clouds, sand, pebbles, and birds pass through them with impunity. So do innumerable insects, like an ant that “between the border guard's left and right boots / blithely ignor[es] the question ‘Where from?’ and ‘Where to?’” The tone of pretended indignation at such ostentatious disrespect of man-made enclosures escalates in the poem:

Oh, to register in detail, at a glance, the chaos
prevailing on every continent!
Isn't that a privet on the far bank
smuggling its hundred-thousandth leaf across the river?
And who but the octopus, with impudent long arms,
would disrupt the sacred bounds of territorial waters?
And how can we talk of order overall
when the very placement of the stars
leaves us doubting just what shines for whom?


The poem juxtaposes man's border-delimiting zeal, his belief that the world can be artificially partitioned, with an utter rejection of this notion in the world of nature. Man's instinct for acquisition, his “privatization” of nature, is most explicitly ridiculed in the postulate that stars might be relocated so one could tell which one shines for whom. The tone of indignation at unruly nature masks the poet's praise of it. Like “The Onion,” “Psalm” uses a double-voiced lyrical persona. Here, the scandalized tone is ironized throughout the poem (to demand of clouds and insects their conformity with human borders is absurd) and is ultimately rejected in the last couplet: “Only what is human can truly be foreign. / The rest is mixed vegetation, subversive moles, and wind.” These pithy lines condemn man's acquisitive and border-making drive, and praise nature's harmonious interconnectedness. Szymborska plays on a famous Latin maxim “homo sum; humani nihil a me alienum puto” (“I am a man; I count nothing that is human indifferent to me”), which celebrates human interconnectedness. By transforming this saying, she paints an image of man that stresses his proclivity for alienation, rather than for bonding.

“Psalm” also juxtaposes nature's organic chaos to man's artificial order—to the latter's disadvantage. This juxtaposition mirrors the one expressed in “Options,” in which, to quote it yet again, the poet expresses her preference for “the hell of chaos over the hell of order.” In fact, “Psalm” suggests, nature is only apparently chaotic; it has its internal order that makes far more sense than any order that man might create.


Impossibility—meaning a stone wall? Well, of course, the laws of nature, the conclusions of natural science, mathematics. Once it's proved to you, for example, that you descended from an ape, there's no use making a wry face, just take it for what it is … [G]o ahead and accept it, there's nothing to be done, because two times two is—mathematics. Try objecting to that.

(Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground 13)

Szymborska takes up the Underground Man's challenge to stand up to the “stone wall” of the laws of nature and natural science. However, unlike the renowned paradoxalist, Szymborska refrains from sticking her tongue out at this wall and making a wry face. Instead, her “face” bears the ironic smirk of a composed and rational adversary. The previous section has shown the poet subvert the notion of nature's perfection; this section will show her arguing with evolution. Not that she minds our simian descent. On the contrary, she embraces it as a critical check on man's anthropocentric hubris. Yet she also questions the inner logic of the evolutionary process and proposes unorthodox ways to evaluate it.

In her poems on evolution Szymborska frequently uses judgment as her poetic strategy. Zagajewski considers this strategy fundamental to Szymborska's poetry. In its “permanent Last Judgment,” “[w]hoever was forgotten shall be remembered, whoever was wronged shall be righted” (114). This corrective judgment allows the poet to evaluate nature's performance and evolutionary history. Responding to this aspect of Szymborska's poetry, Balcerzan calls it “the poetry of revindication” (35). According to him, the poet first discovers a trace of something that has not survived in the cultural memory and then attempts to imagine “the consequences of lack,” to stage “the drama of nonexistence” (35). Szymborska's poems on evolution represent such an attempt to “revindicate” lost worlds and species.

“A Speech in the Lost-and-Found Office” portrays the end result of man's evolution as an account of losses. The poet takes these losses very personally and with remarkable conscientiousness starts ab ovo: she first lists a loss of her few gods, then her stars, then her islands that sank in the sea. Next comes the negative balance sheet of her bodily appendages and faculties:

I don't even know for sure where I left my claws,
who walks around in my fur, who inhabits my shell.
My kith and kin died off when I crawled out onto land,
and only some small bone within me celebrates the anniversary.
I've jumped out of my skin, squandered vertebrae and legs,
taken leave of my senses many and many a time.

(K&M [Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems by Wisława Szymborska] 133)

The passage is an extravaganza of linguistic ingenuity, Szymborska's trademark, as she transforms the idiom of modern everyday life to relate prehistoric processes. “Who walks around in my fur?”—is an appropriate question about a lost coat, but not about a lost pelage. “I've jumped out of my skin” is meant here very literally, as is the colloquial phrase “I've taken leave of my senses” (i.e., human beings used to be equipped with more than five senses, but have since lost some of them). The speaker who recounts this ruinous balance views herself personally involved at each step of the evolutionary extortion. Her self-definition in the poem's conclusion epitomizes Szymborska's tendency of seeing man in the perspective of all existence: “an individual being, for the moment of human kind.” This formulation cautions against viewing man as nature's finished product: the context of all time and all life necessitates a qualification about the provisional nature of his current status quo.15

Another poem, “Thomas Mann” (NE), portrays man as nature's whimsical byproduct, a result of negligent oversight. The poet assumes the position of a spokesperson for nature's interests who explains to mermaids, fauns, and angels nature's reasons for casting them out. The speaker asserts that although mother nature does not lack imagination, the mermaids' and fauns' wild rhapsody of fanciful and intricate bodily traits would overwhelm her too much:

… your arms alongside, not instead of, wings,
                    … this morphogenetic potpourri, those
finned or furry frills and furbelows, the couplets
pairing human/huron with such cunning
that their offspring knows all, is immortal, and can fly,
you must admit that it would be a nasty joke,
excessive, everlasting, and no end of bother,
one that mother nature wouldn't like and won't allow.


Although the speaker supports nature's verdict that excludes these creatures from life, she is clearly impressed with them.16 She applauds unusual, fanciful life forms despite her seeming concurrence with the frugal and “level-headed” nature which considers them an extravagance and a “bother.” Thus, without openly contesting nature's verdict, the speaker rejoices at its marvelous oversights, such as flying fish. The speaker feels consoled by detecting exceptions in nature's own rules since they attest to a certain flexibility and unpredictability that are essential “for the world to be a world” (53). She is grateful that nature “consoles our rule-bound world” (“pociecha w regule”) and “reprieves it from necessity's confines” (“ułaskawienie z powszechnej konieczności”). The Polish text's unusual phraseological combinations can be unravelled as follows. The first phrase smuggles in an implicit claim that a rule is actually a sorrow, or misfortune, in the world of homo sapiens, since the semantic pull of the word “pociecha” (“consolation”) makes one expect words denoting such feelings and states. In the second instance, necessity is implicitly likened to a prison sentence or confinement, since only these circumstances would warrant a reprieve or a pardon. Such indirectness and innuendo alert us to the fact that the speaker is trying to conceal her true feelings on the subject. We are led to think that although the speaker's gratitude toward nature rings genuine, she accepts nature's reasons with certain reservations: if it were up to her, she would run the world with greater flair.

Throughout the poem the reader may wonder what all the “Devonian tails,” “cloven feet,” and “furry frills” have to do with the titular hero, Thomas Mann. The last line holds the surprise. The great German writer is put on a par with nature's freaks, the flying fish and platypus, and is likewise introduced in terms of an anatomical curiosity: as a mammal “with his hand miraculously [quilled] by a fountain pen.”17 Anna Kamieńska rightly observes that this juxtaposition may appear at once degrading and ennobling. Yet she misinterprets the poem when she claims that by putting Mann in the context of evolution the poet suggests that “the entire history of life on earth was leading to this miraculous accident the name of which is Thomas Mann” (251). Precisely the opposite is true. The poem suggests that there really was no reason why a thinking and creative being like man—and Mann in particular; the writer's name, incidentally, denotes “man” in German—should appear in mother nature's line of ordinary products. Fortunately, she let this curious exception survive and “console” our “rule-bound world.” Yet the poem denies uniqueness to man's status as nature's nonconformist offspring, the status conferred upon him thanks to his creativity.18 One might add that such view of man appears degrading only if one assumes man's centrality to all earthly life, but Szymborska never shared this assumption. Anti-anthropocentrism may well represent Szymborska's one consistent and firmly upheld belief.

Indeed, anthropocentrism is the object of ridicule in “Dinosaur Skeleton” (CH [Wszelki wypadek; Could Have]). The poem's voice belongs presumably to a tour-guide in a natural history museum. The speaker persists in addressing the listeners very formally. Though his opening “Beloved Brethren” attests to a basic human equality and fraternity, the phrases that follow tend to put the addressees on a pedestal. They become ever more exalted as the cajoling speaker assumes an ever greater distance between himself and his audience. Through “Honored Dignitaries” and “Distinguished Guests,” he spirals to the lofty heights of “Supremest of Courts.” This manic proliferation of honorific titles becomes a testimonial to our human weakness: the sweet temptation to think ourselves more important than we actually are.

The speaker firmly believes in man's superiority to a dinosaur. He considers the dinosaur an example of faulty proportions: too long a tail, too small a head, too much appetite, too little brain power. In criticizing the dinosaur he draws on a set of purely human notions about proper psychic and somatic make-up. The juxtaposition of man and the dinosaur reveals inexhaustible layers of human hubris:

Distinguished Guests,
we're in far better shape in this regard,
life is beautiful and the world is ours—
Venerated Delegation,
the starry sky above the thinking reed
and moral law within it—
Most Revered Deputation,
such success does not come twice
and perhaps beneath this single sun alone—
Inestimable Council,
how deft the hands,
how eloquent the lips,
what a head on these shoulders—
Supremest of Courts,
so much responsibility in place of a vanished tail—


This monologue marks the speaker as a rather obtuse specimen of the species he so jubilantly extols, which is Szymborska's way of ironizing the beliefs he represents. His panegyric overflows with utter trivialities, such as “life is beautiful and the world is ours.” By conflating Kant and Pascal he creates a hodgepodge of incongruous notions (the second of the quoted stanzas), as the first believed in man's privileged position in the universe, while the other questioned it. The assertion of man's superiority on the basis of his deft hands and eloquent lips reveals the full extent of the speaker's bias: the partiality for eloquent lips over a long neck betrays a purely arbitrary judgment. Moreover, if being well-proportioned were to constitute the main criterion of comparison, man fares no better than a dinosaur, since his excessively large brain corresponds to the latter's excessively long tail, as the poem's final line implies. A view of man as nature's greatest work, the telos of natural history, is groundless.19

Nonetheless, man's relatively short evolutionary history allows for moderate pride in his achievements, as “No End of Fun” (NE) demonstrates. In a half-amused, half-amazed tone, the poem ponders man's daring to make such extravagant claims as happiness, truth, eternity, or freedom despite his fragility and precocity:

only just realized that he is he;
only just whittled with his hand né fin
a flint, a rocket ship,
easily drowned in the ocean's teaspoon,
… sees only with his eyes;
hears only with his ears;
his speech's personal best is the conditional;
he uses his reason to pick holes in reason.
In short, he's next to no one,
but his head's full of freedom, omniscience, and the Being
beyond his foolish meat—
did you ever!


As in “A Speech in a Lost-and-Found Office,” man is seen here in the totality of evolutionary history. Lines 2-3 above convey this idea in a cleverly compressed metaphor that may be unfolded the following way: hardly has man's hand evolved from a fin, and already it whittles a flint, only to move shortly thereafter to the task of building a spaceship! Yet the speaker denies man his status as the crown of existence by calling him a “crystal's deviant descendant,” and moreover denies our world a centrality in the universe by calling our sun “one of the more parochial stars.” (The speaker's identity and gender are unspecified, but his—or her—perspective is clearly not human; it could be divine or extraterrestrial.) The poem exemplifies Szymborska's conflation of the biological and humanistic views of man. Man appears here as a crystal, meat, a finned creature, but also as a thinking, creative, philosophizing, and inquisitive individual: “And considering his difficult childhood / spent kowtowing to the herd's needs, / he's already quite an individual indeed / —did you ever!” Irony, as Barańczak perceptively notes, plays a key role in Szymborska's view of man since it safeguards her humanism from the contamination of anthropocentric hubris (1979: 135).


In “Seen from Above” (LN) Szymborska uses the theme of nature to talk about human death. The poem describes a dead beetle that:

          … lies on the path through the field.
Three pairs of legs folded neatly on its belly.
Instead of death's confusion—tidiness and order.
The horror of this sight is moderate,
its scope strictly local, from the wheat grass to the mint.
The grief is quarantined.
The sky is blue.


The poem contrasts the messy and terrifying human death with the tidy and merely “moderately” horrible beetle death. While people view human death as an event on a cosmic scale, the beetle's death has a “strictly local” dimension, the lament of fellow-beetles does not ensue. Nature runs its natural course.20

People attribute the differences between the beetle and human deaths to the differences between the beetle and human existence:

To preserve our peace of mind, animals die
more shallowly: they aren't deceased, they're dead.
They leave behind, we'd like to think, less feeling and less world,
departing, we suppose, from a stage less tragic.

(103, emphasis mine)

The poet avoids direct speech and insistently qualifies these statements as mere opinions. She thus casts doubt on the notion of the lesser profundity of the animal death relative to ours if it were to be based on an assumption that animals feel and know less. She stresses the arbitrariness of such a view, the possibility that it may only be our wishful thinking (“to preserve our peace of mind”). We can know what another creature feels just as much as we can imagine how a grain of sand views itself.

In fact, the poem implies a lack of difference between animal and human deaths:

… clearly nothing much has happened to it.
Important matters are [supposedly] reserved for us,
for [just] our life and [just] our death
that always claims the right of way.

(103, emphasis mine)21

The poet's insistence on dissociating herself from the views presented implies that she subjects them to her “naive question” strategy, that she intends to show them only “supposedly” true. Szymborska denounces the hierarchical order we impose on the world as our own ridiculous construct, as Barańczak points out (1979: 135). If, then, the opposite is true—that animals and people die a similar death—two conclusions are possible. First, the death of animals has the same cosmic scope that people think their own death has. Second, human death has a “local,” insignificant scope, like the death of animals, and all the importance we attach to it is unwarranted. The poem maintains the tension between these two possibilities, but the last line shifts the balance toward the second option. Not only does death “claim” the right of way (B&C), it violates it (“wymuszonym cieszy się pierwszeństwem”). The word “wymuszone” moreover conveys the sense of “extortion” (K&M accentuates this overtone, though it loses the traffic imagery). This line paints the image of death as a forcible driver: death violates the rules in order to gain primacy. Thus the final line suggests that the prominence of death in our systems of thought rests on a usurpation.

In another poem, “Autonomy” (CH), Szymborska counters the implicitly invoked belief in the supremacy of death with an example to the contrary. She describes the holothurian, a primitive sea creature which, when attacked, cuts itself in two, thus sacrificing one part of its body to the assailant, and preserving and then regenerating the other:

It violently divides into doom and salvation,
retribution and reward, what has been and what will be.
An abyss appears in the middle of its body
between what instantly becomes two foreign shores.
Life on the one shore, death on the other.
Here hope and there despair.
If there are scales, the pans don't move.
If there is justice, this is it.


The scales of life and death remain balanced: the holothurian dies without excess, only as much as is necessary, and grows back “just what's needed from what's left.” This is “justice” because both the holothurian and its attacker get something; their encounter is not a winner-take-all situation.

The holothurian's ability to split endlessly into life and death would appear to make it an immortal creature. In another of her reviews Szymborska engages in a thought-provoking meditation about the curious mixture of life and death that exists in nature:

For hundreds of millions of years life lived itself [wyżywało sie] in single-cell creatures that reproduced by fission. Now, fission cannot be called birth, since we're dealing with one and the same cell, only in two twin copies. It is also hard to say that these twins are its children, since one cannot be one's own child. … The mother cell simply disappears in fission—and this is quite different from the death that is known to other, more complicated animals. A corpse is needed in order to pronounce death, as is the case in any proper criminal investigation. In view of all that: where do we have the corpse?. … The sort of ideas that primordially came into nature's head, really! It used to create organisms that live, but are neither born properly, nor fated to die. And even if they die, death comes to them from the outside, as an unfortunate accident, rather than … an internal necessity of an organism. It's as if death were taking casual part-time jobs before eventual promotion to a permanent position. One could say that … these creatures still rub shoulders with immortality in a quite familiar way. For reasons known only to itself, nature began moving away from its original concept and launched the production of mortal creatures …

(Lektury 1992, 193-4)

“Autonomy” claims that human beings also “rub shoulders with immortality,” though in a much more intangible fashion, since our division into life and death occurs along lines different than those of the holothurian:

We, too can divide ourselves, it's true.
But only into flesh and a broken whisper.
Into flesh and poetry.
The throat on the one side, laughter on the other,
quiet, quickly dying out.
Here the heavy heart, there non omnis moriar—
just three little words, like a flight's three feathers.
The abyss doesn't divide us.
The abyss surrounds us.


The human body is destined for the “shore of death”; only “poetry” can ensure man's survival, if only (or perhaps—even?) a spiritual one. As in “Thomas Mann,” artistic creativity represents man's distinguishing and ennobling feature (the poem is devoted to the memory of a writer as well, the Polish poet Halina Poświatowska). Yet this poem broadens the notion of poetry to encompass consciousness, thought, our ability to philosophize. The line “Here the heavy heart, there non omnis moriar” exemplifies once again Szymborska's penchant for activating the literal sense of an idiom.22 In both Polish and English, the phrase “heavy heart” denotes sorrow, burdensome distress. Yet Szymborska also means it in the sense of “a heavy organ” by which she maintains the parallel with the preceding line that contrasts flesh with poetry (“heavy heart” also alludes to Poświatowska, who died young of a heart disease and wrote mostly love lyrics). Thus, the heart as a bodily organ is juxtaposed to poetry and philosophy, which themselves are the products of the heart, but now conceived as a seat of the soul.

While the holothurian's survival is material and tangible, man's survival is immaterial and intangible: it consists in the immortality of thought. The poet introduces the idea of human survival ironically. The manner in which she first mentions it resembles footnoting or appending the text proper. The interjection “och prawda” (B&C: “it's true”) suggests a sudden recollection of an almost forgotten trifle. The human “shore of life” harbors ephemeral diminutions: a broken whisper, quiet laughter that dies out quickly, three words like “a flight's three feathers.”

The difference between the holothurian's and man's survival may be explained by what threatens the one and the other. “The abyss” cuts through the middle of the holothurian's body, while man is surrounded by it. In other words, the holothurian is assailed by a tangible presence, another animal, while man is threatened in a spiritual sense, by the “abysmal” mystery of the universe and existence. The poem conveys a sense that in comparison with the holothurian, man's survival may not amount to much, but under the circumstances it actually means a great deal.

Szymborska extends the jurisdiction of her poetic “Last Judgment” (as Zagajewski calls it) to include even death. In her crusade to set its limits, “On Death, Without Exaggeration” (PB) represents a landmark case. This poem, as “Autonomy,” evokes the notion of death's omnipotence only implicitly. Among the arguments to the contrary the poet notes death's incompetence in matters of weaving, mining, farming, or baking cakes. Omnipotence implies the ability to do everything. Since death cannot do a great deal of things, one should not consider it all-powerful. It proves incapable of even the simplest tasks connected with its trade: digging a grave or making a coffin. The world of nature wins over death many a time:

All those bulbs, pods,
tentacles, fins, trachea,
nuptial plumage, and winter fur
show that it has fallen behind
with its half-hearted work.
… Hearts beat inside eggs.
Babies' skeletons grow.
Seeds, hard at work, sprout their first tiny pair of leaves
and sometimes even tall trees far away.
Whoever claims that it's omnipotent
is himself living proof
that it's not.
There's no life
that couldn't be immortal
if only for a moment.


The self-perpetuation of all life contradicts death's omnipotence. Death is a series of failed attempts. Seeds, bulbs, and pods keep on sprouting. Organisms develop features that improve their capacity of outmaneuvering death, such as tentacles or fins that allow them to detect and swiftly escape danger. Nature encourages procreation (“nuptial plumage”) and survival (“winter fur”). All living creatures are “living proof” (again, Szymborska's conflation of the literal and the metaphoric senses) of the basic immortality of all life—“if only for a moment.” This pointedly contradictory qualification redirects our customary way of thinking about death. Rather than to belittle the value of life in the face of inexorable death, the poet emphasizes life's—however fleeting—“moment” as a victorious stronghold against death's encroachments.

Although Szymborska uses nature in her investigation of human predicament, nature in itself remains for her an inscrutable mystery, in the face of which amazement and wonder are the only appropriate reactions. Numerous poems, such as “Miracle Fair” (PB), “Birthday” (CH), “Allegro ma non troppo” (CH), or “Wonderment” (CH) convey precisely this sentiment. So does her review of a book on extinct reptiles. The book's author dismisses all the sensationalism connected with them as unnecessary. Szymborska counters:

I disagree with the author emphatically. I am not so blasé as to see any life form as normal. There has never been and never will be a normal animal. Thus the work of paleontologists, despite its daily tediousness, is a visit to the land of magic wonders. What's most interesting, the theory of evolution has not been able to disclose the secrets of this magic. On the contrary, life appears all the more amazing, the more logical appears its development.

(Lektury 1973, 124)

In depicting the onion with its simplicity and inward, con-centric focus Szymborska may well have created a negative image of her own poetic world. The “ex-centricity” with which Baranowska credits Szymborska—meant as an avoidance of the center—may on the other hand serve as an apt characterization of the poet's oeuvre, of the way she thinks about the world, responds to its fluidity and change, and approaches her poetic material (the “naive question” strategy). Although Baranowska is right to consider ex-centricity the cornerstone of Szymborska's poetry, she fails to specify her use of this metaphor. The term “ex-centricity” should not lead one to think that Szymborska deals with peripheral issues. On the contrary, she confronts central matters of reality, such as life and death or man's place in the universe. Ex-centricity in her case implies a peripheral vantage point, a selection of less well-trodden paths from which to approach these central issues. More fundamentally, as her “View with a Grain of Sand” suggests, since a direct insight into the heart of things is impossible, the epistemological quest by its nature implies a peripheral position with respect to the unreachable Ding an Sich. If, then, the approximation of reality is the best we can hope for, the proliferation of viewpoints, often from peripheral and unexpected perspectives, will likely yield the most promising results.

Szymborska's move to the periphery may also be viewed ideologically. What the poet leaves behind—that is, in the center—are, as Barańczak insightfully notes, hasty generalizations, views that are speculative, dogmatic, intolerant (1994: 264). A belief in anthropocentrism and either man's or nature's perfection belong to such an ideological “center.” The ideas that Szymborska gathers on the periphery are, in contrast, empirical, “preferring specificity over typicality, … open to change, and far from imposing” (Barańczak 1994, 264). Such predilection for the periphery implies a preference for individual and partial truths. The open-endedness of her poems on nature, often achieved by pervasive and multidirectional irony, and the diversity of perspectives that different poems represent, aid her in staying away from “centrist” dogmatism.

Szymborska's humor likewise represents a corollary of her ex-centricity. One cannot write a serious poem that compares man to an object that is lyrically as peripheral as the onion. The poet's humorous disposition is coupled with a conviction that poetry can successfully combine profundity with entertainment. The poet's humor also represents a way of “recapturing” poetry's “lost territories” (see the interview I quote in my introduction). To those who wish to classify her as an existential poet, Szymborska replies: “I do not engage in philosophy but in modest poetry. Existentialists are monumental and monotonously serious, they don't like to joke … I don't subscribe to this way of thinking. I always find something funny in excessive seriousness. Excessive joy, on the other hand, or robust enthusiasm, saddens me, even terrifies me” (Nastulanka 305).

“Robust enthusiasm” may well be the least appropriate label for Szymborska's poetry. I would nonetheless argue that her poetry strikes a note of qualified optimism, optimism filtered through doubt, skepticism, and hesitation. Her view of man and his place in nature combines despair and rapture, the abyss and the miracle, and this complex mixture is covered with an overlay of acceptance and the feeling of complete awe in the face of the mystery of life. I therefore believe that Miłosz, one of the least perceptive of Szymborska's readers, could not have been farther off the mark when he attributed “bitterness” and “a vision of despair” to Szymborska's poetry (7). On the contrary, Szymborska is a moderately and cautiously hopeful poet, though her hopefulness does indeed have a bitter taste to it.


  1. From the 1995 honorary degree by the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, through the Polish PEN Club poetry awarded, recognition for Szymborska culminated in the Nobel Prize awarded to her on October 3, 1996. Book-length publications about Szymborska started appearing only at the end of 1996, and the most scholarly of them are the critical essays collected in Radość czytania Szymborskiej and the works by Stanisław Balbus and Dorota Wojda (these three also contain extensive bibliographies). I was told that Wojciech Ligeza is currently preparing a monograph.

  2. For example, a translation of the fragments of Théodore Agrippa D'Aubigné's epic Les Tragiques. See Jerzy Lisowski, ed., Antologia poezji francuskiej (Warszawa: Czytelnik, 1966: 599-608). See Balbus (31) for more information about Szymborska's translating activity.

  3. The preface accompanies Poezje wybrane. The interview appeared in Nastulanka's collection (since the announcement of the Nobel Prize, there has been a flurry of interviews, but they tend to be brief). It is characteristic that in her 1995 A. Mickiewicz University speech Szymborska explicitly declined to talk about poetry, much less her own, and instead took the occasion to address larger issues of contemporary Polish readership (see Arkusz). The personal note is also absent from her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the writing of which became her instant worry upon learning about the award (see The New York Times issue; see The New Republic for her Nobel lecture).

  4. All translations from Polish texts other than Szymborska's poems are mine.

  5. I have omitted the conversational references to the interviewer in the quote.

  6. In addition, Szymborska's reviews have been collected for the 1973 and 1992 volumes of Lektury nadobowiązkowe. She has recently continued them in Książki, a monthly supplement of Gazeta Wyborcza.

  7. The translations of Szymborska's poems, unless otherwise noted, come from Barańczak and Cavanagh's collection.

  8. The quotes from “The Apple Tree” are accompanied by my own translations.

  9. She explicitly states the latter in “Options” (PB). The poem is a list of things the poet prefers, moderation being embedded even in her choice of the verb. Rather than proclaiming what is right or wrong, better or worse, the poet merely states her preference.

  10. Polish phrases in the square brackets follow my own translations.

  11. Szymborska uses a similar trick in the poem “The Terrorist, He's Watching” (LN). The redundant repetition of the personal pronouns coextensive with the subject serves as a glimpse into the terrorist's slightly retarded, half-illiterate mind.

  12. Grażyna Borkowska overlooks entirely the central irony of “The Onion,” which results in an unfortunate misreading. She argues that the phrase “the idiocy of perfection” reflects the poet's frustration at man's inability to return to self-sufficient, homogenous existence (56). Precisely the opposite is true.

  13. Szymborska's review in Lektury (1992) of a book on birds contains a similarly enthusiastic description: “I like birds for … diving in waters and clouds. For their bones filled with air. For the waterproof fluff under their feathers. For their claws, lost at the wings and preserved at the feet. … For their staring eyes, which see us in their own way. … I value highly the grayness of their feathers that is never monotonous …” (203).

  14. “[T]he nave of ribs, the vertebrae in [a] stunning [row en suite].” The Polish word “amfilada” (Fr. enfilade) denotes a row of rooms connected by doorways, characteristic of the 17th and 18th century palaces, rather than, as the B&C translation suggests, an “enfilade,” a column-like arrangement of troops.

  15. “A Speech” resembles another of Szymborska's poems, “Wonderment” (CH), which lists perplexed questions about the elementary facts of human existence:

    Why to excess then in one single person?
    This one and not that? And why am I here?
    On a day that's a Tuesday? In a house not a nest?
    In skin not in scales? With a face not a leaf?
    Why only once in my very own person?
    Precisely on earth? Under this little star?
    After so many eras of not being here?

    (K&M 135)

  16. I see nothing in the poem that would support Balcerzan's view that the poet ridicules the “plagiarizing” character of the human imagination that invented these creatures (34). The speaker is genuinely captivated with mermaids and fauns. Balcerzan is right that there is irony in the poem; however, it is directed elsewhere.

  17. I prefer the K&M translation of the word “upierzoną” as “quilled” since, like the Polish, it conveys the meanings of both a “feather” and a “writing implement” (cf.: B&C “feathered”). On the other hand, the B&C rendition of the word “cudownie” as “miraculously” seems more appropriate in the context of the poem: man is a miracle of nature (cf.: K&M “wondrously”).

  18. Lektury includes a review of a book on giants and dwarfs in the world of nature in which Szymborska's line of thought resembles that of “Thomas Mann.” The idea that giants and dwarfs do not mix inspires Szymborska to conclude that “man can be Gulliver only among Gullivers.” As a “consolation” she adds that “man only in these—extremely narrow—dimensions of its kind could have exerted himself so as to come up with Swift and his marvelous tale” (1992: 137-8).

  19. In “Tarsier” (NE), another of Szymborska's “evolutionary” poems, man usurps nature's function as the arbiter of evolution: he condemns some species to extinction and propagates others. Szymborska takes up this issue also in a review of a book on deer hunting (Lektury 1992: 117-8).

  20. Several other of Szymborska's poems explore the differences in human and animal perspectives. The poem “The Dream of the Old Turtle” (LN) describes the turtle's dream about its past encounter with Napoleon. In the turtle's perception, the great warrior exists as a pair of legs, from heels to knees, shod in black shoes. Another poem, “Cat in an Empty Apartment” (EB [Koniec i początek; The End and the Beginning]), tries to imagine a pet's thoughts on its owner's death.

  21. I have added the words in square brackets to transmit the Polish text more literally.

  22. The quote “non omnis moriar” [“I shall not wholly die”] comes from Horace's Ode XXX.

I would like to thank Professor Stanisław Barańczak, Professor Robert Maguire, Dr. Betsy Moeller-Sally, and Giorgio DiMauro for their invaluable assistance when preparing this article.

Works Cited

Arkusz 6 (June 1995): 1.

Balbus, Stanisław and Dorota Wojda, eds. Radość czytania Szymborkiej. Wybór tekstów krytycznych. Kraków: Znak, 1996.

———. Świat ze wszystkich stron świata. O Wisławie Szymborskiej. Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1996.

Balcerzan, Edward. “W szkole świata.” Teksty Drugie 4 (1991): 30-44.

Barańczak, Stanisław. Etyka i poetyka. Paryż: Instytut Literacki, 1979.

———. “The Szymborska Phenomenon.” Salmagundi 103 (Summer 1994): 252-65.

Borkowska, Grażyna. “Szymborska eks-centryczna.” Teksty Drugie 4 (1991): 45-58.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, trans. New York: Vintage, 1994.

Kamieńska, Anna. “Heroizm racjonalności.” Od Leśmiana. Warszawa: Iskry, 1974.

Ligęza, Wojciech. “Świat w stanie korekty.” Twórczość 29.9 (Oct. 1983): 89-102.

———. preface to: Wisława Szymborska. Wieczór autorski. Warszawa: Anagram, 1993.

Miłosz, Czesław. “Poezja jako świadomość.” Teksty Drugie 4 (1991): 5-7.

Nastulanka, Krystyna. Sami o sobie. Rozmowy z pisarzami i uczonymi. Warszawa: Czytelnik, 1966. 298-308.

New Republic (December 30, 1996): 27-9.

New York Times (October 4, 1996): C5.

Pascal, Blaise. Pensées. A. J. Krailsheimer, trans. Penguin, 1995.

Szymborska, Wisława. Sto pociech [No End of Fun]. Warszawa, 1967 [NE].

———. Wszelki wypadek [Could Have]. Warszawa, 1972 [CH].

———. Wielka liczba [A Large Number]. Warszawa: Czytelnik, 1977 [LN].

———. Ludzie na moście [People on a Bridge]. Warszawa: Czytelnik, 1986 [PB].

———. Koniec i początek [The End and the Beginning]. Poznań: Wyd. a5, 1993 [EB].

———. Poezje wybrane. Warszawa. Ludowa Spółdzielnia Wydawnicza, 1967.

———. Lektury nadobowiązkowe. Kraków: Wyd. Literackie, 1973.

———. ———. Kraków: Wyd. Literackie, 1992.

———. Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems by Wisława Szymborska. Magnus J. Kryński, Robert A. Maguire, trans. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1981 [K&M].

———. View with a Grain of Sand. Stanisław Barańczak, Clare Cavanagh, trans. Harcourt Brace, 1995 [B&C].

Wojda, Dorota. Milczenie słowa: o poezji Wisławy Szymborskiej. Kraków: Universitas, 1996.

Zagajewski, Adam. Drugi oddech. Kraków: Znak, 1978.

Alice-Catherine Carls (review date summer 1997)

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SOURCE: Carls, Alice-Catherine. Review of De la mort sans exagérer, by Wislawa Szymborska. World Literature Today 71, no. 3 (summer 1997): 617-18.

[In the following review, Carls examines the French translations of Szymborska's poetry presented in De la mort sans exagérer.]

Before discussing yet another translation of the 1996 Nobel Prize laureate, one should pay homage to the early translators of Wisława Szymborska, particularly the German Karl Dedecius, who published a first volume of her works in 1973, and the team of Magnus J. Kryński and Robert A. Maguire, who introduced her to the American public in 1981. French readers had to wait until 1995, despite several translators' efforts in the 1980s and early 1990s to win Szymborska a place in the French market. De la mort sans exagérer was released in December 1996. In the spring of 1997 Fayard added a second title, Je ne sais quels gens, also in Piotr Kaminski's translation.

A careful reading of Szymborska's poems in the original language reveals a verse whose succinctness and density have been well characterized by another of her English translators, Stanisław Barańczak. Szymborska's verse is extraordinarily rich in harmonies, “sound-plays,” plays on words, and layered meanings that give her individual works their beyond-the-poem dimension. More important, although few of her poems are rhymed or have a traditional meter, each line is able to stand alone, a universe in itself, light, balanced, and poised like a bird ready to take flight. There are also subtle humor and a delicate vulnerability in her poems which create a “state of grace.” Images are especially important in her work, because their fullness relies on the writing techniques described above. Thus they require particular care in translation. The best translations neither alter nor truncate images, but instead give them their full resonance in the target language. This principle transcends other technical requirements of translation work.

The Fayard volume, which opens with a short foreword by Kaminski, includes selections spanning Szymborska's entire literary career, from Calling out to Yeti (1957), Salt (1962), and There But for the Grace (1972), to A Great Number (1976), People on a Bridge (1986), and The End and the Beginning (1993). Also incorporated are such well-known poems as “Rubens's Women,” “Water,” “Conversation with a Stone,” “Autonomy,” “Utopia,” “View with a Grain of Sand,” “People on a Bridge,” “Some Like Poetry,” and “Cat in an Empty Apartment.”

John R. Carpenter (essay date winter 1998)

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SOURCE: Carpenter, John R. “Three Polish Poets, Two Nobel Prizes.” Kenyon Review 20, no. 1 (winter 1998): 153-56.

[In the following excerpt, Carpenter evaluates the underlying themes in Szymborska's poetry and studies the subtle differences between translations of her poems.]

When the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska won the Nobel Prize for Literature in late 1996, [Czeslaw] Milosz was one of the first to congratulate her, telephoning from California. Szymborska's work was not well known in the West, but soon after the announcement of the prize, several translations of her poetry were published to fill the gap. Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems by Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Magnus Krynski and Robert Maguire, was put out in a new paperback edition by Princeton University Press, and these are the most literal, faithful renderings of her work. They are a good place for a reader to make the acquaintance of this remarkable poet.

The critic invariably feels clumsy when describing Szymborska's work. She is a highly accomplished craftsman but always covers her tracks—she leaves almost no signs of labor or awkwardness, approximate solutions, or grasping for meaning. She ends the poem “Under a Certain Little Star”:

Take it not amiss, speech, that I borrow weighty words,
and later try hard to make them seem light.


Szymborska approaches the concept of technique from a different angle in her poem “The Acrobat.” The poem is ostensibly about an acrobat in a circus and the acrobat's ability to make everything seem easy. The rhythms mimic the continuity of the acrobat's movements:

                                                                      Do you see
how he crouches to spring into flight, do you know
how he plots from head to foot
against such as he; do you know, do you see
how shrewdly he threads himself through his former shape and
to grasp in hand the swaying world
how he pulls from himself the new born arms—
beautiful above all else at just this
at just this—now it's gone—moment.


It is possible to speak of Szymborska as a metaphysical poet because she often deals with concepts and broader, universal meanings in her poems. But she transforms these at each step, with grace and sleight of hand, into the textures of everyday life, and the reader is often unaware of the intellectual content of the poem—that is, until the last possible moment, when the poem has reached its conclusion. In their introduction, Krynski and Maguire write that Szymborska's work is serious and lighthearted in equal measure; we would stress, however, that these two always overlap. The serious and lighthearted meanings occur simultaneously, and the overlap is complete.

For Szymborska, technique is a vehicle for meaning; she rarely calls attention to it for its own sake. She states clearly in one of her finest poems, “The Joy of Writing,” that writing is nothing less than a means to preserve life. The poem begins with an extended metaphor: as she writes, with a pen on white paper, the pen forms the letters that make up words, and a concrete scene takes shape. Gradually, a doe comes into being:

Poised on four fragile legs borrowed from truth
she pricks up her ears under my fingers.
Stillness—this word also rustles across the paper
and parts
the branches brought forth by the word “forest.”
Above the blank page, lurking, set to spring
are letters that may compose themselves all wrong,
besieging sentences
from which there is no rescue.


The act of writing gives rise not just to life, but to endangered life. She imagines hunters in her forest scene. But there is much more; the diversity and life of the setting she has imagined has no end. “The twinkling of an eye will last as long as I wish, / will consent to be divided into small eternities / full of bullets stopped in flight.” But if she commands it, nothing will happen at all—such is the power of verbal representation and of writing. The period or punctuation marks she might put on the paper are as lethal as any bullets (the metaphor is deft). It is not a matter of writing badly or writing well, but something more fundamental still: the imperative to create, and preserve, life by the act of writing. The poem ends by posing three questions, and succinctly answering them:

Is there then such a world
whose fate is my sole and absolute dominion?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence perpetuated at my command?
The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
The revenge of a mortal hand.

The themes Szymborska chooses to explore and develop are deceptively simple. They are based on the basic experiences shared by everyone without exception, and the things that surround us every minute of the day. Having chosen a theme, however, she deepens it in an unexpected way until it achieves a measure of universality. In an early poem from the volume Salt (1962), she writes about a museum, observing that it contains only inanimate objects. We all know that this is true—at first glance it might not seem to be a promising topic for a poem. She writes:

There are plates but no appetite.
Wedding rings but no reciprocation
for at least three hundred years.
There is a fan—where are the rosy cheeks?
There are swords—where is the anger?

(“Museum,” 37)

The initial ordinary observation is deepened, and gradually the poem's real theme is isolated, carried from each object that she describes to the next: this is the living context or living function that surrounds every object in a “museum” and defines it in its most real sense. But these are precisely what is absent in a museum; Szymborska has effectively turned the concept of the museum on its head.

Szymborska develops a similar procedure with the notion of possession (“Travel Elegy”). She writes that she owns … nothing. Everything she has done and experienced in the past—every object seen, touched, or encountered—has become fragmentary, smaller in time, and distorted in unexpected ways, turning into grotesque phantasms. The concept of a “tranquilizer” is subjected to a similar procedure in the poem “Advertisement”: through a series of everyday analogies it is deepened, a new theme is isolated, and in a surprising, ironic twist at the poem's end becomes the old-fashioned Christian devil. And so it is with the notion of a census (“Census”): it becomes a springboard for reflections on the difficulty of any act of selection and preservation among alternatives. Our most rudimentary notions are rethought, shown in an entirely new light, and redefined.

A large number of Szymborska's poems are about ostensibly scientific topics such as evolution or zoology, yet the reader probably does not think of these poems as “scientific.” Szymborska relates her subjects to familiar observations from ordinary human life in such a manner that the reader feels an immediate shock of recognition with each line. For example, in her poem on the sea cucumber (“Autonomy”) she is able to write: “We know how to divide ourselves, how true, we too” (137)—and proceeds to develop a persuasive analogy between sea cucumbers and human beings. Her procedure could be described as a kind of translation: she firmly grasps a metaphysical insight or universal and translates it into the most common textures of everyday life.

Many of the beginnings of Szymborska's poems appear like lists, yet the lists are deceptive, taking the reader far—very far—from their point of departure. In addition—and this is a procedure increasingly used in her recent poems—they often take the reader in the opposite direction from what is expected. A Szymborska poem almost always produces an effect of surprise.

If someone were to ask whether Szymborska is a poet of the intellect or of life we would probably answer “life,” but would this be the correct answer? She is a poet of powerful intellectual structures, and just as much a metaphysician as, for example, Wallace Stevens. One of the fascinations of Szymborska's poems is that they are powerfully conceptual and yet cling so closely to the familiar textures of life that any distinction between “intellect” or “life” becomes completely blurred. The two operate simultaneously. Stevens once wrote that he chose a language “above sea level”; Szymborska chooses a very different language that seems to be on the level of the ground, yet her breadth and range are vast.

The translations in Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts end with a generous selection from Szymborska's 1976 volume, A Great Number. Since then, Szymborska's poetry has become increasingly accomplished; Joseph Brodsky (who knew Polish) remarked around 1990 that Szymborska's work just seems to get better and better. To find English translations of Szymborska's poems written in the last decade, the reader should turn to the translations by Stanislaw Baranczak and Claire Cavanaugh in their volume View with a Grain of Sand (Harcourt Brace, 1995).

At present Szymborska is writing at the top of her form. The same can be said for the other Nobel Prize winner, Czeslaw Milosz. It is a pleasure to be alive at the same time as these two excellent poets and contemporaries, and to be able to follow their new work.

Theodore Worozbyt (review date summer 1999)

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SOURCE: Worozbyt, Theodore. Review of View with a Grain of Sand and Selected Poems, by Wislawa Szymborska. Prairie Schooner 73 (summer 1999): 197-202.

[In the following review, Worozbyt notes the subtle differences between the English translations of View with a Grain of Sand and Selected Poems, arguing that each translation provides valuable insight and retrospection on Szymborska's verse.]

Few tasks present the reviewer more difficulty than assessing a poet's work in translation. Add to this reviewer's dilemma a total unfamiliarity with the language of original composition, in this case Polish, and the resulting stewpot of critical and aesthetic conundrums effuses, once set to simmer, an aroma of rather tart vexation. Robert Frost's remark that what we lose in the translation of a poem is precisely the poetry itself inevitably and unhappily drifts into mind. But to what varying degrees is this true? Certain poets seem, by their very working methods—densely compressed syntax and imagery, the use of colloquial language, deployment of metrics and rhyme—to powerfully resist translation (the Robert Bly and James Wright translations of Neruda, though certainly admirable and fine, end up sounding quite a bit like Bly and Wright). Imagine the Sisyphean task of translating Joan Retallack's language experiments, even into Derridean French. Such a venture seems at base almost ludicrous. Perhaps then what we are really after, in the reading of certain translations, is some essence, some flavor, if you will, of the original. A thin broth, after all, is better than none.

There is a certain brand of review (and reviewer) made immortally famous and entertaining by Randall Jarrell; his scathing columns and lightning quick estimations continue to be read and emulated—moreso, I'd wager sadly, than his poems. In such a review the work is funneled through the presiding intelligence of the critic, and the resulting essay arcs through an argument about the poet and of the critic's making. Poised before a volume of translations, one by needs grows more humble, preferring instead the methods of explication to those of assessment, those of comprehension to judgment. In such a review, one hopes first to find and illuminate those moments of reader-translator-author convergence that give voice to the arguments of the poems. Frost might have retorted that only a profoundly discursive poetry allows for such a critical posture, and I am fortunate to have, in the extraordinary poems of Szymborska, precisely that. In such cases when the monolingual reviewer is limited to a single translator, or group of translators, the translations must be regarded simply as poems in their own right. For better or worse, one proceeds by that single beam of light. My added advantage here lies in having two discrete volumes, [View with a Grain of Sand and Selected Poems,] enabling my comparative analysis between “arguing” translators. Such an analysis may well be fruitful in the pursuit of the poet's original intentions and achievements.

Both these volumes present a poet who is deeply aware of the argumentative nature of her texts. Baranczak, in his essay “The Szymborska Phenomenon” (Salmagundi, Summer, 1994) remarks that Szymborska “has published sparingly in the literary press … and her slim collections remind one of those by Philip Larkin.” Despite the vast gulf between Larkin, the intimate auditor of private moments of despair, and Szymborska, whose voice and purpose seem almost Old Testament in their communal and cultural sweep, I too find myself thinking of Larkin when I read the two volumes under consideration here. For, like Larkin, Szymborska is first and foremost a poet of poems. Each piece, despite recurrent themes, images, and rhetorical gestures, seems utterly distinct. Also, too, in the Baranczak/Cavanaugh volume, one finds the apparent concern with formal schemes of rhyme and meter. It seems to me, as Larkin once remarked of his own work, that Szymborska often posits the question to herself not of when to rhyme, but of when not to. And of course there exists the shared question of both poets' immense popularity with the general public. Szymborska, through keen wit, a tone that seems almost conversational at times, and the construction of a pronominal “I” that is so effaced that the reader almost comes to feel that the voice is listening rather than speaking, achieves an intimacy with her audience that brings to mind Puck's asides. I feel, when reading these poems, as if I am being told something fascinating, worldly, and just a little bit wicked—as if I am the lucky recipient of delightful and bracing whispers from a companion enduring, with me, an interminable and second-rate performance of Die Walküre.

The methods of translation differ somewhat between these two volumes. The Selected Poems, in a “Note on the translations,” informs us that each poem was first translated by Grazyna Drabik, then worked on with either Austin Flint or Sharon Olds. In the final stage, each poem was reworked with the second translator as well. Judging from the syntax of Drabnik's foreword (“Szymborska's reputation is firmly based on the large and diversified body of work that secured her the admiration of the artistic community as well as a wider following”), I assume that she first rendered the poems in literal translation, and that they were subsequently given firmer poetic shape by the remaining pair. Indeed, in comparing the volumes I seem to sense the sensibility of Olds—one more personally darkened, more rhetorically heightened, I think, than that of Baranczak—sprinkled throughout the Selected Poems. Though we are given only the slightest indication of the method of Baranczak and Cavanaugh (the back cover and title page of View with a Grain of Sand both somewhat cryptically assert that the poems were “Translated from the Polish” by the two) it seems reasonable to assume that Baranczak, a multilingual poet of considerable reputation and gifts himself, was more directly responsible for the totalities of these translations, more in touch with the poetical potentials of the original Polish than Olds or Flint. The result of this less mediated treatment seems often to produce a crisper, more effectively argued poem. Consider these lines from Selected Poems:

Surely you think the room was empty.
But there—three chairs with strong backs.
A good lamp against the darkness.
A desk. On the desk a wallet, newspapers.
A serene Buddha, a sorrowful Jesus.
Seven elephants for good luck, and in a drawer, a notebook.
You think our addresses were not there?

“The Room of a Suicide”

And now the same stanza, from View with a Grain of Sand:

I'll bet you think the room was empty.
Wrong. There were three chairs with sturdy backs.
A lamp, good for fighting the dark.
A desk, and on the desk a wallet, some newspapers.
A carefree Buddha and a worried Christ.
Seven lucky elephants, a notebook, in a drawer.
You think our addresses weren't in it?

“The Suicide's Room”

The tonal differences between these two passages are dramatic. The former is latent, reserved, elegiac. The result of this reserve is the striking of a posture of remove, as if the voice were speaking from on high, judging the pronominal “you” in the initial line. The second line places the narrator in the room itself; the finger points to what the “you” has hitherto left unobserved. The latter translation sets quite another stage. The tone is conversational, idiomatic, the language of an equal speaking to an equal. The mocking, daring tone of “I'll bet you think the room was empty,” followed by the too quick, monosyllabic sentence of line two, reveals a speaker who herself (himself?) feels implicated in the scene. A stain of guilt colors the speech. “A good lamp against the darkness” suggests none of the struggle by the “suicide” that “fighting the dark” reveals. The more classical images of “serene Buddha, [and] a sorrowful Jesus” stand apart from the poem's subject in a way that the “carefree Buddha” and the “worried Christ,” with their more demotic emotional states, do not. The concluding line of the stanza is imprecise in the former; in the Baranczak/Cavanaugh translation the location, the positing of the addresses is exact: they were in the notebook. Friends are reduced to anonymous text (recall the verb form of “address”), just as the “suicide” is reduced here, on the page, to cipher, sign and symbol. “The Room of a Suicide” as a title is more abstracted, by its own ambiguity, than “The Suicide's Room.” In the latter, the “suicide” is regarded not as a categorical act, but a human being; the nominal approaches the pronominal. Selected Poems offers both potentials, diluting the strength of one of Szymborska's primary arguments, that of the primacy of the individual life over the manifold forces—death, despair, culture, political upheaval—which seek to subsume and erase it.

Another of Szymborska's concerns is the time-arresting self-reflexivity of the act of poem-making; many of her poems brilliantly explore the problems of the paradoxical attempt to embody and convey the sensual world through language, paradoxical because of the attempt's inherent futility in apposition to the knowledge that language is the only means we have of understanding any notion of “world.”

Though admittedly with less conviction here than in the example above, I return to what I feel must be Baranczak's more highly developed understanding of the potentials of English to faithfully represent the Polish. Again, compare the following passages from identically titled translations:

Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?
For a drink of written water from a spring
whose surface will xerox her soft muzzle?
Why does she lift her head; does she hear something?
Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth,
She pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips.
Silence—this word also rustles across the page
and parts the boughs
that have sprouted from the word “woods.”

“The Joy of Writing”

Where is this written doe running through the written forest?
Does she want to drink from the written water
reflecting her mouth like carbon paper?
Why is she lifting her head? Does she hear something?
Poised on four fragile legs borrowed from the truth,
she pricks her ears under my hand.
Silence—this word rustles on the page
and parts the branches
created by forest.

“The Joy of Writing”

Line one of the first passage seems superior to that of the second passage. “[W]oods” strikes my ear as a bit more specific, a bit less allegorical, than “forest,” and avoidance of internal allegory seems appropriate here, since the prevailing tensions are between the page and the eye, not the text and the subject. More subtle, and more delightful to discover, is the choice of “bound” over “running,” since “bound” cannot but suggest the production of the ultimate textual artifact, the book which contains, which binds, the poem between the twin boundaries of its covers. Less successful is the deployment of the more techno-current “xerox[ing] her soft muzzle” in place of the more precise and beautiful “reflecting her mouth like carbon paper.” Since carbon paper does in fact resemble water both in color and sheen, the simile is more finely drawn; and the choice of “mouth” over “muzzle” allows the reader to contemplate the doe in terms of the physical locus of human speech. A “spring,” however, is visually superior to “water;” “fingertips” conveys more tactility than “hands,” and when the word rustles “across” rather than “on” the page, field boundaries complexify. Need I point out that I reversed the order this time, and the first passage is from Baranczak and Cavanaugh? But no volume of translations will perhaps ever be definitive, or definitively and utterly superior to those which preceded it. Each here offers its own rewards, and each informs the other, a reading opportunity for which I'm grateful.

Interestingly, in these twin stanzas, those words regarded as words are textualized in utterly different ways. The italicizing of “Silence” and “forest” exists in odd apposition to the less conventional, and presumably more interpretive “Silence” and “‘woods.’” That the latter here is embedded so quietly into the text seems to acknowledge how far we have come, in the thirteen years that separate these volumes, toward the automatic assumption of the word as text-object, just as the quotation marks around “woods” (and the inevitable semiotic collision of “word” into its more solid but perhaps less durable sentence-mate here) signal the post-structural gulf between the word and what we strive to make it strive to stand for. And the deceptively simple addition of “also” into this line greatly complicates the issues of presence and absence of logos Szymborska argues for, with, and against.

Szymborska's style is lean and fierce, a paring down of particulars to their essence. Reading and rereading these poems, in any translation, is like staring not at white and dark space on a page, but at a series of white linen canvases lettered with signs that are painted in bone. Images are few, and point, in the end, not so much toward their own hermetic depth and resonance as to some larger statement of the poem, the moment when all possibilities of argument have broken down, like compost, into their essential organic matter; when atrocities and erasures have been finalized and reduced to “a history teacher [who] loosens his collar / and yawns over homework”; when all human perspectives are collapsed into “an antic on the scale of just a couple of galaxies,” and what remains is a disembodied voice, unpolitical at last, a green plant rising from a particular mouth in hayseed and innocent silences:

Someone who has to lie there
in the grass that covers up
the causes and effects
with a cornstalk in his teeth,
gawking at clouds.

“The End and the Beginning”

Clare Cavanagh (essay date fall 1999)

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SOURCE: Cavanagh, Clare. “Poetry and Ideology: The Example of Wislawa Szymborska.” Literary Imagination: The Review of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics 1, no. 2 (fall 1999): 174-90.

[In the following essay, Cavanagh analyzes the political and often apolitical themes in Szymborska's writing, exploring Szymborska's ironic portrayal of modern humanity's feelings of intellectual and moral superiority.]

For a frequently conquered country speaking an obscure language in which every other letter seems to be z, Poland has established an enviable track record in poetry. To the unhappily marginalized poets of the West, Poland must epitomize what Seamus Heaney calls “the unacknowledged legislator's dream.” Since Romanticism, its poets have apparently wielded precisely the power that Percy Bysshe Shelley imagines in his “Defense of Poetry” (1821). In this fallen modern age, Shelley laments, poets function only as the world's “unacknowledged legislators” (hence Heaney's phrase). Though they stand unfailingly on the side of “great and free developments of the national will,” they are spurned by the very nations whose interests they seek to serve. Shelley speaks wistfully of “earlier epochs” in which poets were revered as priests and prophets, and he ponders the “circumstances of the age and nation” that might lead once more to the poet's proper valuation.1

If modern Polish history is any example, the circumstances that foster acknowledged bards and prophets may not be worth the price. Poets took the place of the state when Prussia, Austria, and Russia divided Poland between them in the late eighteenth century, erasing it from the map of Europe for over a hundred years. Poets fought and died in the Home Army that opposed the Nazi invaders during World War II. And poets served as the moral “second government,” in Solzhenitsyn's phrase, that countered the illegitimate regime imported from Soviet Russia following the war. They enjoyed a prestige and popularity their Western counterparts could only dream of. (In the modern Anglo-American tradition, only T. S. Eliot and perhaps Robert Frost have achieved the kind of readership and regard commanded by, say, Czesław Miłosz or Zbigniew Herbert in Poland.) And the Polish reading public's taste has apparently been vindicated by the remarkable quality and range of poets Poland has produced in recent decades. Czesław Miłosz, Aleksander Wat, Zbigniew Herbert, Adam Zagajewski, Stanisław Baranczak, and, of course, Wisława Szymborska: all are poets of the first magnitude, as great as any the post-war era has to offer.

Joseph Brodsky announced on more than one occasion that Poland possesses the single richest poetic tradition in twentieth-century literature. This may sound like typical Brodskian hyperbole. But his judgment appears to have been ratified by the Swedish Academy, which recently honored its second Polish poet in the space of sixteen years. Czesław Miłosz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980, and Wisława Szymborska received the same honor in 1996. This seems to suggest a special kind of poetic power that accrues when poets engage in the affairs of state, when they function as acknowledged, if unofficial, legislators and their voices are heeded by friends and foes alike. “Poetry is power,” Osip Mandelštam once remarked, and he took Stalin's persecution as a perverse indication of the esteem in which the dictator held the poet's work. This esteem apparently led to one distinctive, rather chilling way in which Stalin managed to overfulfill the Five Year Plan. Only in the Soviet Union, Mandelštam boasted, “do they really respect poetry—they kill because of it. More people die for poetry here than anywhere else.”2

The People's Republic of Poland apparently respected poetry a little less than its neighbor to the East. Its rulers did not kill its poets—but it showed its regard nonetheless by making life quite uncomfortable for those who chose to oppose it. It is no accident that four of the poets whose names I've mentioned—Wat, Miłosz, Zagajewski, and Baranczak—ended up writing in exile, as their great precursor Adam Mickiewicz had before them. “I have never been a political writer,” Szymborska's fellow laureate, Czesław Miłosz, protests. But Miłosz first made his name in the West with his brilliant critique of the totalitarian ethos, The Captive Mind (Zniewolony umysl, 1953, tr. 1955), and all his writing, before and since, shows his sympathy for the vision of the poet-bard he sketches in The Captive Mind. “In Central and Eastern Europe,” Miłosz observes, “the word ‘poet’ has a somewhat different meaning from what it has in the West. There a poet does not merely arrange words in beautiful order. Tradition demands that he be a ‘bard,’ that his songs linger on many lips, that he speak in his poems of subjects of interest to all the citizens.” Miłosz's poetry and prose reveal his skepticism towards the mantle of the poet-prophet he has inherited from his Romantic forebears. He wears it, nonetheless, as he makes his many pronouncements on life, death, history, fate, the place of poetry in the modern age, and, yes, politics. (In this ambivalent relationship to the role of poet-prophet, a role he both relishes and suspects, he resembles another Nobel laureate from a downtrodden Catholic nation, William Butler Yeats.)3

Perhaps this is why so many of Miłosz's remarks on Wisława Szymborska reveal a kind of bafflement. For Szymborska is that rare creature, an Eastern European poet who is congenitally allergic to bard-dom. She does not want to be a prophet, with or without honor, in her own country or anywhere else. It is precisely for this reason, I suspect, that Miłosz, in praising her work, can sound at times perplexed or even patronizing. In his History of Polish Literature (1983), Miłosz lauds Szymborska's subtlety and precision, but laments a certain tendency “toward preciosity” in her work and concludes that “she is probably at her best where her woman's sensibility outweighs” her philosophical concerns. This is entirely wrong: Szymborska is as great a philosophical poet as Miłosz himself. But Miłosz's confusion is not surprising. As poets, he and Szymborska occupy opposite ends of the poetic spectrum. Miłosz mistrusts the poet's public voice even as he employs it to great effect. But in her unassuming way Szymborska works systematically to deflate this voice: in her “Soliloquy for Cassandra,” for example, the prophet bemoans the bardic stance that serves only to distance her from the cares and joys of ordinary life. This may be why Miłosz recently described Szymborska's own poetic voice as “attenuated,” a mere “whisper.” She speaks at a pitch that is nearly inaudible to prophets' ears.4

Like Miłosz, Szymborska insists that her writing is not political. But unlike Miłosz or Brodsky, Szymborska has not given us tomes of essays or volumes of public lectures to place alongside her lyrics. She makes no overt pronouncements on the great themes that have preoccupied other Eastern European writers. Her prose writing consists chiefly of the miniature book reviews cum prose poems that pop up periodically in a couple of Polish newspapers; they have been collected in several editions under the resolutely unbard-like title Nonrequired Reading.5

Yet even the Nobel Committee, which assessed Szymborska's gifts so astutely in its citation, was reluctant to part with the paradigm of the politically engaged Eastern European poet-prophet. The committee noted Szymborska's early volumes of socialist realist poetry, volumes she has long since disavowed. But the members of the academy needed a turning point, a moment of revelation in which Szymborska explicitly disowns her misguided early politics and takes her place among her fellow poets on the barricades arrayed against the state. The committee took the title of Szymborska's collection Calling out to Yeti (Wołanie do Yeti, 1957) to indicate her change of heart. It chose to read the poem from which the title was taken, “Notes from a Non-Existent Himalayan Expedition,” as an improbable posthumous apostrophe to Stalin-as-abominable-snowman (the “Great Father and Teacher” had died some four years earlier). “Yeti, we've got Shakespeare there. / Yeti, we play solitaire / and violin,” the poem's speaker pleads as she works to lure the monster down to earth. As a response to Stalin's terrors, such entreaties would be plain silly or worse. Who on earth could imagine that the dictator's heart might be softened by “Wednesday, bread and alphabets” and “two times two is four”? What simpleton would struggle to keep Stalin from leaving town by begging “Oh Yeti, semi-moonman, / turn back, think again!” (PNC [Poems, New and Collected, 1957-1997], 18) Efforts to fit Szymborska into a preconceived mold of the Eastern European poet-rebel yield only such absurdities even as they obscure the truly innovative ways in which she tackles the problems of politics, and more largely ideology as such, in her poetry.6

For in a different sense “Notes from a Non-Existent Himalayan Expedition” does give us a clue, an important one, on how to read Szymborska's post-Stalinist poetry and how to decipher the relationship to politics that marks her mature work generally. The poem concerns human life as seen from an inhuman point of view, and it tacitly reminds us that inhumanity is not the province of monsters alone. “Yeti, not every sentence there [on earth] / means death,” she tells the snowman, and the implications are obvious: on earth too often our sentences do mean death (PNC, 18). By calling out to Yeti, Szymborska seeks ways to make human beings comprehensible not only to the imaginary monster, but to ourselves. She tries to find an outside viewpoint from which to examine human nature. What is it that makes us human, and what is it in us that resists our own humanity? How human can we actually claim to be? These are questions she addresses throughout her mature poetry, and her chief means of approaching these issues is precisely through point of view. What might human beings look like if seen from above, by creatures from outer space, for example? What do we look like when viewed from below, as in her poem “Tarsier,” where we are scrutinized by a cousin of the lemur too lowly to merit human attention? What happens when you set different views of human nature against one another, when you juxtapose human nature as conceived by different epochs, different art forms or philosophies, different ideologies? What are the limits and the possibilities of humanness?

In Szymborska's early socialist realist verse such questions were inconceivable. There is only one voice in evidence, a public and collective voice, and only one prism through which to view the world: teleological, triumphal, and resolutely Marxist-Leninist. This Is Why We Live the title of her first collection insists, and even outer space will eventually come around to our point of view, or so its final poem suggests:

the grave in which this Adam [i.e. Vladimir Lenin]
of a new human race lies
will be crowned by flowers
from planets still unknown.

“Lenin” (1952)7

In an interview of 1991, Szymborska speaks of the unexpected benefits she drew from her years as a true believer. “If it weren't for the sadness, the sense of guilt,” she observes, “I might not even regret the experience of those years. Without it, I wouldn't know what belief in the one true cause really is. And how easy it is not to know what you don't want to know. And what mental gymnastics you're capable of when you're confronted with other worldviews.” Szymborska knows at first hand the very human temptation to impose a fixed and rigid order on a reality, human or otherwise, that constantly eludes our grasp. “Reality,” she remarks elsewhere,

sometimes seems so chaotic, so terrifyingly incomprehensible that you long to uncover its permanent order, to distinguish once and for all between what's important and what's trivial, what's outdated and what's new, what's useful and what's obstructive. It's a dangerous temptation, since so often a theory, an ideology that promises to classify and explain everything instead sets up a barrier between the world and [our notion of] progress.

Perhaps this is why Szymborska the poet values fluidity so highly; one early lyric celebrates water itself, with its endless capacity for motion and metamorphosis (“Water,” PNC, 58-59). She understands all too well the seductions of a single, unyielding frame of reference, and she resists them in her verse through the suppleness and shifts of her own poetic voice, through her astonishing range of styles, subjects, and points of view.8

And this, in turn, may explain why Szymborska never tackles the Soviet totalitarian state directly in her mature poetry. Her subject is not a single oppressive system, however pernicious. It is the human impulse that gets such systems built, the impulse that leads to what the critic Gary Saul Morson has called “semiotic totalitarianism.”9 Our vision of the world is necessarily conditioned by accidents like the time and place of our birth—and this is part of the glory and burden of being human, or so Szymborska's poetry suggests. We run into trouble, though, when we mistake our imperfect, partial vision, with its singular strengths and limits, for the big picture, and then proceed to snip off all the bits and pieces that don't fit.

This definition of Szymborska's poetic project might seem puzzling in light of recent literary theory. Contemporary critics all too often take the lyric to be precisely the kind of procrustean bed that Szymborska's poetry is intended to resist. They have taken their lead from the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin in creating a lyric antipode to the particular vision of art and society that they themselves wish to advance. The lyric, as Bakhtin sees it, is a deplorably anti-social genre. The poet's “utopian” goal is to “speak timelessly” from an “Edenic world” “far removed from the petty rounds of everyday life.” “Authoritarian, dogmatic and conservative,” Bakhtin's poet struggles to assume “a complete single-personed hegemony over his own language,” destroying in the process “all traces … of other people, … of social heteroglossia and diversity of language.”10

It is not surprising that this reactionary foe of otherness and diversity should find itself under fire in the American academy today. To critics reared on poststructuralist theory, lyric poetry manifests a suspicious commitment to a slew of discredited values. It stubbornly buttresses the bourgeois myth of individual autonomy, or so the argument runs. It privileges personal voice over postmodern textuality; it seeks to circumvent history through attention to aesthetic form; it turns its back on the public realm in its quest for private truths; and it places transcendent timelessness over active engagement in the here and now. The Romantic clichés from which these charges stem have been challenged by disgruntled New Historicists and die-hard formalists alike. Still they persist; they have become staples of recent criticism.11

Indeed, in much current theory the lyric now serves as a stand-in for “aesthetic isolationism” generally, that is, for art's apparent “refusal of life actually conducted in actual society,” which in fact amounts to a “complicity with class-interested strategies of smoothing over historical conflict and contradictions with claims of natural and innate organization.” With the advent of Romanticism, Terry Eagleton explains, all art was ostensibly rescued “from the material practices, social relations and ideological meanings in which it is always caught up, and raised to the status of a solitary fetish.” And Romanticism's favored form, the lyric, is invariably the worst offender in such socially irresponsible sleight-of-hand.12

Bakhtin and his hegemonic lyric notwithstanding, Eastern Europe is virtually absent from recent discussions of the lyric. This omission is troubling on two counts. The underpinnings of current ideological criticism are explicitly Marxist. Yet, in a peculiarly un-Marxist move, contemporary Marxist literary theory has virtually divorced itself from Marxist practice as we've seen it in this century. The ideological critics close their eyes to the morally bankrupt regimes that have tumbled recently in Eastern Europe. They refuse to account for the disparity between the methodology they follow in their writings and its real-life consequences in the totalitarian states of the former Soviet bloc. If totalitarianism comes up at all in their discussions, it is only as a kind of shorthand for the evils of modern industrial society generally.13

Not surprisingly, these critics also overlook the distinctive role that poetry has played in modern Eastern European history. And this is unfortunate, since that role runs directly counter to the assumptions informing current discussions of the lyric. Plato, of course, expelled all trouble-making poets from his ideal kingdom of the mind: Plato's poet, a natural democrat, was “of no use to heads of state,” as Mark Edmundson remarks. The Polish poet Aleksander Wat was quick to see the analogy between Plato's republic and the repressive regimes of post-war Eastern Europe. “Plato ordered us cast out / of the City where Wisdom reigns. / In a new Ivory Tower made of (human) bones,” he writes in his poem “Dark Light.”14 But why should the lyric poets who, according to current doctrine, complacently uphold the bourgeois status quo prove to be so troublesome to left-wing dictators? How do the self-absorbed reactionaries of recent theory become Eastern Europe's subversives?

The answers to these questions lie outside the scope of this essay. But a closer look at Szymborska's poetic practice may give some hints as to what current criticism is missing in its ethnocentric refusal to consider the nature and function of poetry in the so-called “second world,” in Russia and its satellites in the former Soviet bloc. A friend once mentioned, in connection with an anthology of Polish poetry I cotranslated, how atypical the index of first lines was from an American perspective. Poems were told from the viewpoint of an egg noodle, a crumb of bread, a prison padlock, a visitor from outer space; relatively few featured what might be considered a traditional lyric speaker, rooted in ostensibly autobiographical experience.15 This is one reason why I find Polish poetry so valuable in addressing recent critiques of the lyric as a kind of dubious life-support system for the ailing bourgeois subject. But even within the Polish context, critics have seen Szymborska's poetry as exceptionally “unlyrical” in its apparent impersonality, in the extended range of viewpoints that seem to embrace all forms of both terrestrial and extraterrestrial being, but omit almost any explicit reference to her own lived experience. She “breaks with the traditional concept of lyricism as mood and feeling,” the poet Anna Kamienska remarks. Nor are her poems lyrics in our modern “twentieth-century understanding of poetry,” another poet, Julian Przybos, comments.16 What Szymborska gives us instead of readily recognizable lyric poems is a series of experiments performed upon the very notion of the lyric point of view. Her poetry is lyrical in a way that Bakhtin and the ideological critics who follow in his wake cannot imagine. It is intensely self-critical, an extended—if implicit—philosophical meditation on what it means to have an individual viewpoint, and what is lost or gained each time we take up this or that angle of vision. Szymborska's poetry, taken as a whole, might be conceived as an exploration—and critique—of the nature of lyric vision as such.

Perhaps this is why Szymborska's poem “Children of Our Age” seems so timely; it might have taken the pitfalls of current ideological criticism as its starting point. But the urge to explain the world in political terms is not new. The poem dates from Poland's years of martial law: it appeared in her collection The People on the Bridge (Ludzie na moście, 1986). And it is clearly the work of a writer with extensive first-hand knowledge of life within a system that reduces all human experience to one comprehensive master-term.

We are children of our age,
it's a political age.
All day long, all through the night,
all affairs—yours, ours, theirs—
are political affairs.
Whether you like it or not,
your genes have a political past,
your skin, a political cast,
your eyes, a political slant.
Whatever you say reverberates,
whatever you don't say speaks for itself.
So either way you're talking politics.
Even when you take to the woods,
you're taking political steps
on political grounds.
Apolitical poems are also political
and above us shines a moon
no longer purely lunar.
To be or not to be, that is the question.
And though it troubles the digestion
it's a question, as always, of politics.
To acquire a political meaning
you don't even have to be human.
Raw material will do,
or protein feed, or crude oil,
or a conference table whose shape
was quarreled over for months:
Should we arbitrate life and death
at a round table or a square one.
Meanwhile, people perished,
animals died,
houses burned,
and the fields ran wild
just as in times immemorial
and less political.

(PNS, 200-01)

Szymborska's lyric might seem to root her, as I've suggested, in a specific time and place. But the poem itself makes no explicit reference to Poland beneath the heel of the Soviet state. It begins in the collective voice of a group of unwavering true believers whose actual belief system remains reassuringly vague. We all know what we mean anyway, since “We are children of our age, / it's a political age,” as they announce in the poem's opening line. By the third stanza, though, it is clear that this implacable “we” have found a doubter in their midst; “Whether you like it or not, / your genes have a political past, / your skin, a political cast, / your eyes, a political slant,” they remind the skeptic. The “you” they address is singular (ty in Polish) and speechless: the doubter doesn't utter a word throughout this lopsided discussion. But that doesn't stop his or her non-responses from being interpreted and rebutted. “You may try to escape our notice by keeping mum,” the “we” proclaims. “But your very body betrays you. Your silence speaks for itself.” Trying to bypass politics entirely, to step outside its magic ring, is no less futile: “Even when you take to the woods, / you're taking political steps / on political grounds.” And heaven forbid that you should try writing your way out of this vicious circle, since “apolitical poems are also political.”

Explanations come easily to those possessed of the master key to all the mysteries, since it all comes down to the same thing anyway. Szymborska's collective keepers of the flame are not daunted by their failure to provide concrete examples to support their sweeping claims. Proof is beside the point in any case; such procedures rely on assertion, not evidence. We are dealing here with something akin to Frederic Jameson's famous “political unconscious,” with a world in which silence, repression, and sins of omission are no less grievous than overt racism, imperialism, or sexism might be.

There is no answering back within such a system, for the true nature of your complaint and the response it will generate are both known in advance: we're all children of our age, after all. But step outside this frame of reference and the picture looks rather different. And this is what Szymborska does in the poem's final stanzas. Politics literally has the last word throughout the poem's opening segment: in the original, forms of the adjective polityczny conclude each of the first six stanzas. But the argument that looks initially to be so irrefutable stands revealed as purely academic by the poem's conclusion. This politics consists exclusively of the ritual repetition of its own name. It has no bearing on the larger reality it purports to explain: “Meanwhile, people perished, / Animals died, / houses burned, / and the fields ran wild.” Indeed it teeters on the brink of those cardinal lyric sins, solipsism and formalism, as its adherents argue endlessly over the shape of the table at which they should conduct the business of legislating life and death. By the poem's end, what had seemed to be this age's claim to enlightenment turns out to be only its own particular brand of self-deception: for all our superior knowledge, life goes on just as it had in “less political” times.

“Children of Our Age” would seem to place Szymborska at some remove from the current theoretical emphasis on ideology. In other ways, though, her poetic procedures betray strong affinities with key strains of poststructuralist thought. Like the poststructuralists, Szymborska is in many ways a skeptic and a relativist. Her great question is finally “What does it mean to be human?” And her unsettling answers never fall back on platitudes about the innately human gifts of mind and spirit that set us at the pinnacle of creation. She's seen such verbal salutes to humanity go astray too often to place much faith in their soothing platitudes: “I prefer myself liking people / to myself loving mankind,” she writes in her poem “Possibilities” (PNS, 214). Like recent theorists, she is suspicious of essentialism and universalism; she mistrusts all systems of thought that claim to explain both human nature and its role in the grand scheme of things once and for all.

I have mentioned the way that Szymborska juxtaposes various worldviews or ideologies in her writing as part of her ongoing exploration of humanness. It is here perhaps that she comes closest to the goals and methods of current literary scholarship. Recent theory teaches us to tease out the tacit ideology that lies concealed behind even—especially?—what appear to be the purest, most high-minded artworks. The critic's task is to explore not so much what is actually in the picture as what has been expurgated or repressed. One can see a similar impulse at work in Szymborska's many poems on artworks of various periods and cultures. Like contemporary cultural critics, Szymborska sees a society's artistic conventions as mirroring its larger structures, its governing systems of belief. And Szymborska likewise finds that the limits of an artwork and its era are best explained by what lies beyond the picture's frame. She is intrigued, as Wojciech Ligeza remarks, precisely by “whatever doesn't fit within the limits of a [given] style.” Let me turn here to two of what Ligeza calls Szymborska's “negative tales,” poems which explore the story left untold by the work of art that is their ostensible subject.17

In “A Medieval Miniature,” Szymborska begins by inventing verbal equivalents for the immaculate elegance of medieval landscape paintings such as those in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry:18

Up the verdantest of hills,
in this most equestrian of pageants,
wearing the silkiest of cloaks.
Towards a castle with seven towers,
each of them by far the tallest.
In the foreground, a duke
most flatteringly unrotund;
by his side, his duchess
young and fair beyond compare …

Superlatives abound in the poem's first six stanzas, which recreate the unnamed medieval miniature of the title. But a more sinister reality emerges in the poem's final stanzas, as Szymborska turns her attention to what has been omitted from the aristocratic paradise evoked by this “feudalest of realisms”:

Whereas whosoever is downcast and weary,
cross-eyed and out at elbows,
is most manifestly left out of the scene.
Even the least pressing of questions,
burgherish or peasantish,
cannot survive beneath this most azure of skies.
And not even the eaglest of eyes
could spy even the tiniest of gallows—
nothing casts the slightest shadow of a doubt.

(PNC, 156-57)

Szymborska employs a tactic we recognize from “Children of Our Age.” She begins by exploring life as seen from within a given worldview only to undermine its claims to comprehensiveness by stepping outside its seemingly impenetrable borders. Szymborska lost her faith in the class-free utopia promised by Polish Communism early on. But in “Medieval Miniature” she apparently finds a partial truth in the Marxist vision of a history shaped by governing classes whose task is to suppress all traces of the labor that makes their dominion possible. “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” Walter Benjamin remarks.19 For Szymborska, the pleasures of medieval art cannot be divorced from the price they exact. It is not only the “least pressing” of “burgerish or peasantish” questions that may not survive “beneath this most azure of skies.” The “burgerish” or “peasantish” types who persist in asking such questions may find themselves dangling from the tiny gallows that the picture keeps so carefully out of sight, or so the poem implies.

For Szymborska, though, Marxist philosophy is hardly the universal master key that its twentieth-century adherents have claimed. It can no more explain the miracles of medieval artistry than the “feudalist of realisms” can do justice to the peasants and burghers who violate its aristocratic code. “Feudal realism” is, of course, a product of a given historical moment, with all its limits—but so is its latter-day Soviet variant, socialist realism, or so Szymborska's poem hints. And the heights scaled by medieval “realism”—“each [tower] by far the tallest”—tacitly underscore the aesthetic poverty and formulaic monotony of its distant, less imaginative, descendant. Not all realisms are created equal.

If “A Medieval Miniature” has certain affinities with recent Marxist criticism, then “Rubens's Women” deals with an issue that lies at the heart of much recent feminist writing. It playfully explores the socially conditioned norms of beauty that banish from sight all those who fail to meet their measure. Like “A Medieval Miniature,” the poem begins by verbally recreating the visual riches of its subject, in this case the sensuous excess of Rubens' paintings:

Titanettes, female fauna,
naked as the rumbling of barrels.
They roost in trampled beds,
asleep, with mouths agape, ready to crow.
Their pupils have fled into flesh
and sound the glandular depths
from which yeast seeps into their blood.
Daughters of the Baroque. Dough
thickens in troughs, baths steam, wines blush,
cloudy piglets careen across the sky,
triumphant trumpets neigh the carnal alarm.
O pumpkin plump! O pumped-up corpulence
inflated double by disrobing
and tripled by your tumultuous poses
O fatty dishes of love!

True to form, though, Szymborska turns in the poem's second part to all that this opulent realm of the senses excludes. Her final stanzas describe the “skinny sisters” who stroll unnoticed “along the canvas's unpainted side,” “exiled by style,” left stranded by Baroque extravagance:

The thirteenth century would have given them golden
The twentieth, silver screens.
The seventeenth, alas, holds nothing for the

(PNC, 47)

Once again Szymborska takes us beyond the picture's frame in order to remind us of the limits of any one worldview, and to undercut its claims to comprehensiveness.

Szymborska's attention to those marginalized by their society's prevailing ideology or aesthetic—assuming, of course, that the second term is not wholly subsumed by the first—would seem to bring her close to recent criticism, with its relentless stress on all that the dominant culture works to suppress. But these poems reveal a key difference between Szymborska's mode of operation and that of contemporary literary scholarship. They do not function as exposés, as unmaskings of the oppressive ideology that lurks behind an aesthetically pleasing façade. Szymborska begins each poem with an affectionate recreation of the world whose limits she gently reveals in her conclusion. But the question of class cannot explain the heights to which aristocratic hyperbole rises (“a castle with seven towers / each of them by far the tallest”) in “A Medieval Miniature.” In “Rubens's Women” Szymborska reminds us that the “skinny sisters,” too, will have their day as their chubby counterparts find themselves exiled by style three centuries later. This might seem simply to underscore what could be construed as the poem's feminist point: that woman's flesh has been subject for centuries to the dictates of a male-dominated society. But such a reading cannot accommodate the verbal revelry that Rubens' paintings inspire in Szymborska's poem. It cannot deflate the outsized pleasures of the flesh that Rubens' paintings celebrate, and that Szymborska invites us to enjoy through her gleeful imitation.

Szymborska asserts the pleasure of aesthetic experience even as she recognizes its inevitable enmeshment in what current criticism would call the cultural ideologies of the past. Indeed the aesthetic pleasure provided by the paintings she describes exists precisely because their creators inhabited their native time and place unabashedly and wholeheartedly in a way that we, perennial latecomers and ironic outsiders, can never match—or so the poems suggest. The history of literature, Osip Mandelštam warns, records as many losses as gains: “The theory of evolution is particularly dangerous for literature, but the theory of progress is nothing short of suicidal.”20 Szymborska likewise opposes any notion of progress presuming that we, as the final, finest link in the great chain of being, now hold the key to interpreting all earthly existence, all human history. Szymborska's poetry reminds us that human vision is partial by definition: it is both incomplete and partisan. And her writing requires that we register the losses entailed by our inevitable failure to participate fully in other viewpoints, be they past or present. She warns against the seductive dangers of assuming a freedom from the historical and ideological entanglements we are so quick to perceive in others. To criticize the past for being the past is to miss its pastness entirely; it means tacitly to subscribe to a misguided notion of historical progress as we mistake our belatedness for superior knowledge and take our limitations for enlightenment.

“Apolitical poems are also political,” Szymborska remarks in “Children of Our Age,” and the line sounds eerily familiar to the student of recent critiques of the lyric. It is informed, of course, by her own years of experience with the socialist realist thought that dominated state-sponsored scholarship in Eastern Europe until recently. But Szymborska is also addressing her own ambivalent position within both the People's Republic of Poland and the Polish prophetic tradition, which since Romanticism has invariably taken the side of the oppressed against the incursions of tyrants, overlords, and invaders. With characteristic off-handed humor, she defends herself against both a state and a literary culture that have long struggled in different ways to define their poets in political terms. Szymborska refused to side openly either with or against the state, for this would risk reducing her work to a single term, politics. Only by tacitly dissenting against both the state and the camps of the dissenters could Szymborska attend to the chief job of her particular brand of poetry: the task of puncturing all human systems that pretend to inhuman completion.


  1. Seamus Heaney, “The Unacknowledged Legislator's Dream,” in Poems, 1965-1975 (New York, 1980), p. 211. Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” Poetry and Prose (New York, 1977), pp. 478-510.

  2. Nadezhda Mandelštam quotes her husband in Vospominaniia: Kniga pervaia, 3d ed. (Paris, 1982), p. 178.

  3. Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind, trans. Jane Zielonko (New York, 1981), p. 175.

  4. Miłosz, History of Polish Literature (Berkeley, 1983), p. 485. Miłosz, interview, National Public Radio, October 4, 1996.

    It is only fair to note that Miłosz has reversed himself in more recent assessments of Szymborska's importance as a philosophical poet: “I particularly value her precisely because of her distinctive contribution to philosophical poetry,” he remarks in one such statement (“Wydaje mi sie,” in Radosc czytania Szymborskiej, ed. Stanisław Balbus and Dorota Wojda [Krakow, 1996]), p. 35, subsequently referred to here as RcS.

    Wisława Szymborska, Poems, New and Collected, 1957-1997, trans. Stanisław Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh (New York, 1998), pp. 83-84, subsequently referred to here as PNC.

  5. Lektury nadobowiazkowe (Krakow, 1973, 1981, 1993, 1997).

  6. “Press Release in English. The Nobel Prize for Literature 1996: Wisława Szymborska,” October 3, 1996, Swedish Academy, Stockholm, Sweden. The academy very likely derived this interpretation from what is otherwise one of the best pieces on Szymborska's writing in English to date, Edward Hirsch's splendid essay “Subversive Activities,” New York Review of Books (April 18, 1986), pp. 35-36.

  7. Dlatego zyjemy (Warsaw, 1952), p. 42.

  8. Wojciech Ligeza, “Przepustowosc owiec: Rozmowa z Wisława Szymborska,” Teksty drugie, 10 vols. (1991), 4:153, subsequently referred to here as Td. Edward Balcerzan, “Laudatio,” Wokol Szymborskiej: Poznanskie studia polonistyczne, Seria literacka 2.22 (Poznan, 1995), p. 26.

  9. Gary Saul Morson, Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time (New Haven, 1995), passim.

  10. Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson, Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics (Stanford, 1990), pp. 322-23. Mikhail Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel,” in Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Mikhail Holquist (Austin, 1981), pp. 287, 296-98.

  11. For recent accounts of the lyric under seige see inter alia: Paul Breslin, “Shabine among the Fishmongers: Derek Walcott and the Suspicion of Essences” (unpublished essay); Mark Edmundson, Literature against Philosophy, Plato to Derrida: A Defense of Poetry (Cambridge, 1995), subsequently referred to here as LAP; Eileen Gregory, H. D. and Hellenism: Classical Lines (Cambridge, 1997), esp. pp. 129-39; Mark Jeffreys, “Ideologies of Lyric: A Problem of Genre in Contemporary Anglophone Poetics,” PMLA 110.2 (1995), pp. 196-205; Susan J. Wolfson, “‘Romantic Ideology’ and the Values of Aesthetic Form,” Aesthetics and Ideology, ed. George Levine (New Brunswick, 1994), pp. 188-218; Sarah Zimmerman, Romanticism, Lyricism, and History (Albany, 1999).

  12. Frank Lentricchia, Criticism and Social Change (Chicago, 1983), pp. 94-95, subsequently referred to here as CSC. Susan Wolfson, “‘Romantic Ideology,’” pp. 191-92. Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis, 1983), p. 21.

  13. In Marxism and Form, for example, Fredric Jameson laments the “new totalitarian organization of things, people, and colonies into a single market-system … a new systematization of the world itself, of which the so-called totalitarian regimes are only a symptom” ([Princeton, 1971], pp. 35-36). Still, this is preferable to the easy analogy Lentricchia draws between the oppressions of “capitalist and Stalinist society” in CSC, p. 15.

    I have come across only two critics thus far who note the reluctance of academic Marxists to grapple with this century's history of failed Marxist regimes. Mark Edmundson devotes several eloquent pages to this issue in LAP, 116-20. And Thomas McFarland rebukes Marxist critics for refusing to recognize that “their theoria has been contradicted by the massive praxis of communism's collapse” in Romanticism and the Heritage of Rousseau (Oxford, 1995), pp. 31-32.

  14. Edmundson, LAP, 6. Aleksander Wat, Ciemne swiecidlo (Paris, 1968), p. 11.

  15. Spoiling Cannibals' Fun: Polish Poetry of the Last Two Decades of Martial Law, ed. and trans. Stanisław Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh (Evanston, 1991).

  16. Anna Kamienska, “Heroism racjonalizmu,” in RcS, p. 350. Julian Przybos, “Poezja Szymborskiej,” in RcS, p. 30.2

  17. Wojciech Ligeza, “Swiat w stanie korekty: O poezji Wisławy Szymborskiej,” in RcS, pp. 118, 120.

  18. I am following Ligaza's suggestion in Td, p. 119.

  19. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York, 1969), p. 256.

  20. Osip Mandelštam, “On the Nature of the Word,” The Complete Critical Prose and Letters, ed. Jane Gary Harris, trans. Jane Gary Harris and Constance Link (Ann Arbor, 1979), p. 119.

John Blazina (essay date January 2001)

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SOURCE: Blazina, John. “Szymborska's Two Monkeys: The Stammering Poet and the Chain of Signs.” Modern Language Review 96, no. 1 (January 2001): 130-39.

[In the following essay, Blazina offers a critical reading of Szymborska's poem “Brueghel's Two Monkeys,” emphasizing how the poet uses the image of the two monkeys to symbolize “two aspects of her own ‘marginal’ voice.”]

Like the hero of folktales, the speaker of ‘Brueghel's Two Monkeys’, by Wisława Szymborska, is confronted by a test, an interrogation. She is taking her graduation exam, experiencing a rite of passage marking the transition from schooling to life, and she is failing. She stammers and falls silent when asked about the history of humanity. Answering a question or writing a poem about human history, in Poland after Auschwitz, cannot be easy. What is there to say if she can no longer parrot the party line of progress toward utopia? But help is at hand. As so often in folk tales, an animal offers help to the heroine. A monkey rattles its chain, uses its chain as a sign, and a conversation begins.

‘Brueghel's Two Monkeys’ appeared in the literary weekly Zycie Literackie in June 1957, and again in July, in Szymborska's third collection, Waiting for the Yeti1. In 1956 workers' riots and student demonstrations led to the crisis and compromise of October when, with Soviet troops massed along the border, Poland narrowly avoided the fate of Hungary. These events provide a ready context for the usual reading of the poem as a reference to Stalinist oppression.2 Another context has been less remarked. ‘Brueghel's Two Monkeys’ is an ecphrastic poem, a poem about a painting. This context allows us to predict that the conversation might be about poetry itself, and specifically about the relation between language and reality. Poets and painters worry intermittently about whether their chosen medium adequately represents or does justice to their subject matter. The painting might be a metaphor for this relation or lack of relation. In either case the monkeys, conventionally associated with subversive imitation, are the key element of painting and poem. Chained to a window, they are signs of poesis, emblems of Szymborska's anxiety about her art.

The speaker begins by describing a dream in which she is answering questions on an exam about ‘the History of Mankind’ and receiving help from a monkey. We are in a dream world where the speaker is anxiously trying to get the right answer and where monkeys are ironic and wise:

Tak wygląda mój wielki maturalny sen:
siedzą w oknie dwie małpy przykute łañcuchem,
za oknem fruwa niebo
i kąpie się morze.
Zdaję z historii ludzi.
Jąkam się i brnę.
Małpa, wpatrzona we mnie, ironicznie słucha,
druga niby to drzemie—
a kiedy po pytaniu nastaje milczenie,
podpowiada mi
cichym brząkaniem łañcucha.
(Here's what my great dream of my final exam is like:
two chained monkeys are sitting in a window,
the sky is fluttering outside
and the ocean is bathing.
I'm being examined on human history.
I stammer and cast about for words.
One monkey, staring at me, listens ironically;
the other appears to be dozing—
but when silence descends after a question
he coaches me
with the soft rattling of his chain.)(3)

There is a strong sense of formal and semantic closure in the third stanza. A rhyme scheme (abbca) provides a sense of order achieved, of something understood, after the first two rhymeless and irregular stanzas. The rattling chain seems to resolve the sharp disparity between fluttering (or flying) and stammering, and the point made is at once ironic and poignant. The creature in chains helps those who chain it understand their own imprisonment. There is a sense too of something unresolved. In the first few lines there is a striking and even puzzling transition. After the prosaic notation of line 2, lines 3 and 4 introduce a surreal, figurative note: ‘the sky is fluttering outside | and the ocean is bathing’ (or B and C [Poems, New and Collected, 1957-1997], p. 15: ‘the sea is taking a bath’). These lines describe features of Brueghel's painting distorted by what we take to be dreamwork. They take their cue from but also add something to the painting. As interpretations rather than descriptions, they make it clear that someone is observing the painting. Before we examine these lines, however, we need to question the general thematic relevance of the painting to the poem. Why mention it in the title?

The main elements of the painting are already in the poem: the monkeys, their chains, and the window as the site of oppositions between confinement and freedom, culture and nature. The reader has no need to look at the painting to see a simple assertion in the image of chained monkeys: we have failed the test of history. Nor is the painting necessary for the reader's recognition that received oppositions between animal and human, freedom and bondage, human history and nature have been dissolved by the ironic reversal of competence displayed in the final lines. In Szymborska's world, Poland under communism, the correct answer to the exam question would appear to be progress toward some utopian dream of perfection, but the speaker's ability to wallow in the usual human presumption is disrupted by one monkey's ironic gaze. The poem contests the human claim to evolutionary progress, to civilization, to superiority over the animal world. The monkey seemingly asleep provides the imaginative, subversive answer. Human history is all that the chains imply: cruelty, bondage, and increasing estrangement from nature. Humanity is less, not more, ‘civilized’ than the ‘lower primates’ it enslaves for entertainment and self-aggrandizement.

Szymborska makes the point repeatedly, from the perspective of animals, that human beings are cruelly anthropocentric and ‘unforgivably stupid’.4 The sight of animals trained to ‘ape’ human beings, a dog dancing, a monkey riding a bicycle, arouses shame in the speaker of ‘Circus Animals’. In ‘The Monkey’ the animal is ‘worshipped in Egypt’, ‘deprived of a soul’ in Europe, and ‘considered edible in China’ (B and C, p. 27). In ‘Tarsier’ the eponymous speaker is relieved at being of absolutely no use to human beings. An ironic distance, or dissonance, between the possible meanings of ‘humanity’ (ludze) is one component of the stammering in ‘Brueghel's Two Monkeys’.

If reading the poem as moral and political allegory were sufficient, why does Szymborska refer specifically to Brueghel in her title? Are there aspects of the painting that would clarify or complicate our reading of the poem? If we look closely at the painting we see (the poem's title forces us to see) that the foreground consists of a window occupying most of the frame and set in a wall several feet thick. The monkeys are chained on either side of a large ring anchored in the centre of the sill, one facing away and looking down at a scattering of nutshells, the other facing the viewer but also looking down. Their tails curl elegantly in toward the centre and complete a circle originating in the window's arch and passing through the unnaturally curved bodies of the monkeys. Behind them, and intensely contrasting with the brown hues of the monkeys and the walls, are birds in the bright sky and boats in the harbour of a town indistinctly seen through a bluish haze.

Does Szymborska merely want us to envision the monkeys, and if so, why? There seems to be very little in common between the abject monkeys of the painting, usually referred to as downcast, dejected, mournful, sad, and those of the poem, one seeming to sleep, the other ironic. The poem is very different in tone from the painting: spare, self-mocking, almost a set of notes. There is a lack of detail, and the opening lines only hint at the visual force of the painting's contrast between the dark, fortress-like embrasure (suggesting both power and imprisonment) and the light-filled space beyond. Nevertheless, the title encourages us to bring if not its details, then the painting to the poem and to reflect on their relation.

We bring not only the painting but also the culture in which it is, or was, embedded. We bring the painting as a sign that makes sense in terms of that culture and of parallel or antecedent texts. Christian iconography, for example, took ‘apes in high places’ to figure ‘the pride of the powerful’.5 Fettered monkeys could mean folly, or reason enslaved by passion, the human descending to the level of the animal in the great chain of being.6 The nutshells alone would have disposed some of Brueghel's contemporaries to read the painting allegorically, in the spirit of patristic exegesis, discovering the kernel of spiritual truth (or political: there is evidence that the painting was read as a political allegory referring to Spain's domination of the Netherlands),7 and dismissing the earthly husk or shell, however accurately visualized. Her title functions in the same way for Szymborska's contemporaries. It gathers the dark, densely allegorical potential of the painting between the lines of her own spare commentary. It also summons the double vision of Brueghel's work as a whole: the world of The Cripples,The Blind Leading the Blind,The Battle between Carnival and Lent, a world of cruelty, suffering, the sheer folly of human being; a world also of subversive play, pleasure, and participation in the natural world.

Like the painting, the poem is chained to its time and place, and evokes the themes, metaphors, and evasions of Szymborska's contemporaries. Writing in Poland under Communist rule in the 1950s, the poet summons the painting as an analogue, to reinforce as well as distance her own allegorical point. The painting's stark contrast between entrapment and freedom underlines the gap between the reality and the delusive utopianism of Stalinist power. Freedom, from this ironic perspective, is reduced to a figment of propaganda, the fantasy of animals imprisoned by ideology. The poet is necessarily oblique in making her subversive point. There are parallels, she implies, between the Lowlands oppressed by Spain and Poland oppressed by Communism. It would be foolish, if not fatal, to propose this analogy explicitly. Instead, like the dreaming monkey she hints at the resemblance by rattling a chain, her title, suggesting that meaning and history are continuous, not disjunct.

There is a problem, however, in the apparent ease of this reading. The monkeys present an image almost too rich for interpretive taste. Indifferently they reflect power, possession, pride, deracination, alienation. They translate too easily into oppressed workers, oppressed humanity, the natural world in general, or even the primate of choice for scientific research. Clearly differentiated in poem and painting (in posture, position, direction of gaze), they can suggest polar responses to ideological power: ironic contempt on the one hand and keeping your head down on the other. We could say that one is listening and looking, in order to remember and witness, while the other is the imaginative, inventive side of the oppressed mind, free enough to provide a useful hint to the dreamer, whose life under communism is one of imminent graduation into some utopian future, so long as she finds and lives the right answers. These possibilities flow easily into contradiction. Given the conformity of Szymborska's first two collections to the dictates of socialist realism, we might read the poem as a Marxist allegory in which the speaker receives help from workers enslaved by bourgeois capitalism. This reading uneasily coexists with a subversive reading: the monkeys are workers still, but chained by the very ideology that proclaims their freedom, and part of a cruel experiment in utopian thinking. Taken out of context, Brueghel's image can reinforce or subvert Poland's dominant ideology, and the irony inherent in its ambiguity may be taken further.

The monkeys' impact in the painting can be measured against their imagined absence. Without them our view of the scene outside is untrammelled. Even the wall's oppressive thickness is cancelled by the viewer's unimpeded gaze. There is access to the wishful world beyond the window. The monkeys' presence, on the other hand, transforms the painting's space to one of pathos and boredom. Chained to the wall, blocking our view, they are lost to the world, one staring vacantly inside the room, the other gazing down at fragments of shell, as if contemplating the remnants of a lost wholeness. They take no notice of one another, and though chained together could not seem more separate. They belong nowhere. The wall now seems to manifest their terrifying lack of relation and the sheer weight of the boredom of captive animals. Chained to the monkeys, it not only divides, it diminishes and negates, it cancels out any possible relation between inside and outside for those capable of chaining (and painting!) a pair of monkeys. No allegorical substitution is worthy of this image. It rebuffs allegory, insofar as allegory depends on relatedness, and presents itself purely as a sign of absence.

If this image is what Szymborska's title has summoned to the poem, the reader is unable to establish a stable viewpoint. Poem and painting interact dialectically toward the disruption of thesis. The poem-monkeys, ironic and dreaming, take on the painting-monkeys' disruption of the viewer's gaze. As she moves back and forth, the reader is implicated, by an aesthetic of self-consciousness, in the creation of history, slavery, and meaning. The painting-monkeys make us aware of our gaze stumbling past them into the space beyond. Aware of ourselves seeing, and of the painting as something seen, we notice the latter's strong division into painted surface (the windowsill) and illusionistic space (sky and sea). The poem's own dialectical thrust comes into focus: between dream and reality, poem and painting, question and answer, animal and human, listening and seeing, analysis and empathy. The formal structure of the poem, varying line length, simple and complex syntax, and the simultaneous use of free and syllabic verse, is also antithetical, as Jacek Brzozowski has shown. Brzozowski finds, for example, a ‘semantic abyss’ between the elaborate syntax of the second line, speaking of enslavement: ‘siedzą w okni dwie małpy przykute łañcuchem’, and the brief, simple utterances of lines three and four, reflecting freedom: ‘za oknem fruwa niebo | i kąpie się morze’ (pp. 22-23). The poem's chief tropes (irony and personification) and its primary images (dream, chain and window) reinforce our growing conviction that Szymborska is less interested in a particular meaning than in the topic, or dialectic, of representation. The window is an especially pertinent image. A peculiar amalgam of near and far, inside and outside, both threshold and barrier, transparent to what it is not, the window captures and frames many paradoxes of representation. Like the chain, it connects and restricts. Both, and especially the chain used as a sign, direct us to the topic of language.

The poem's genre provides the appropriate context. ‘Brueghel's Two Monkeys’ is one of several ecphrastic poems by Szymborska. Their subject is the power of images: the power, in ‘People on the Bridge’, to pin down the moment for close analysis; the power, in ‘A Medieval Miniature’ and ‘Rubens's Women’, where slender women are ‘exiles of style’ (K and M [Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems], p. 51), to misrepresent and exclude by means of idealization;8 or the power to betray, in both senses, the repressed truth, as in ‘The Monkey’, where a ‘painter-monk’ portrays ‘a saint with palms so thin, they could be simian’ (B and C, p. 27). In ‘Brueghel's Two Monkeys’ Szymborska contemplates the apparent gulf between language and the representational transparency of the image, and more broadly, between language and reality. Poets have long questioned the analogy between poetry and painting epitomized in Horace's phrase ut pictura poesis.9 How could poetry compete with an illusion of grapes that deceived sparrows or with painted curtains that fooled another artist. How could poetry compete with and capture the truth of nature itself?

Parodist, trickster, ‘caricature of man’ in the margins of medieval discourse (Janson, pp. 14-15, 163), the monkey becomes the principal figure of this debate. Was the poet simia dei, the mere copyist or ‘ape’ of nature and god; were the arts merely simia naturae? Szymborska's painted monkeys seem to glance at these ecphrastic themes, and the one who ‘speaks’ with its chain evokes the related epigrammatic tradition (compare Keats's urn) of giving the mute statue or painting a voice (Hagstrum, pp. 22-23). They summon a long meditation on the subject of mimesis, the imitation in art of the world and consciousness of the world. Szymborska's voice in this debate asks the crucial question: how can poetry work with the very chains of language and culture that seem, irrevocably, to sever the human from its place in the natural world?

There have been many answers to the question of human history: a fall into sin; a struggle between classes; eternal recurrence; the sublimation of desire into civilization. The speaker's stammering, her very inability to choose between competing and contradictory answers, draws our attention to the seminal role of language in human, or rather animal evolution. Human history is that of the language-speaking animal that separates itself from a so-called nature, sees itself as separate from nature, by naming it, classifying it as nature. The human is defined as that which is not animal. However, these are words, and in ‘View with a Grain of Sand’ Szymborska asserts that the word is not the thing: ‘We call it a grain of sand | but it calls itself neither grain nor sand’ (B and C, p. 185). Far from an aperture, a transparent window on the world, the word can be an ideological wall obscuring the thing, abstracting us from contingent reality. Elsewhere, Szymborska has seen the apparent gulf between language and reality as liberating. In ‘The Joy of Writing’ she revels in ‘a time I bind with chains of signs’ (B and C, p. 67), but here she is concerned with the anxiety of representation induced by the nature of language as abstraction. The gift of language seems to carry a terrible price, separating us, like the window, from what it purports to describe. All we get is the wrapping. ‘Only what is human can truly be foreign’, she says in ‘Psalm’ (B and C, p. 148). Consciousness, as language, thickens the wall between us and the sky every time we say ‘I am not that’. Like an eye embedded in stone (the eye, oko, is in the window, okno), consciousness seems to be neither in the world nor even of the world but merely a window on the world, embedded in a thick wall of words incapable as abstractions of capturing the particular and indivisible. Is there a way to bridge this abyss? Is there really an abyss?

Animal helpers in folklore and myth turn nature (the social outcast) into culture.10 Animal tricksters, figures of irony, ambiguity and the liminal, turn culture into nature.11 Brueghel's monkeys do both. They are clearly part of, but excluded from, the natural world we see represented through the window. Removed from their ecological niche, trapped in a fortified niche, they now belong to nature only as defined by and in contrast to culture. Enforced by massive chains and intensified by the flight of birds behind them, their separation is cultural. The ‘human’ defines itself against nature and enforces the distinction by exploiting, enslaving, and degrading the natural. As animals the monkeys project our superiority to whatever we can dominate. Their chains signify our difference, our superiority: we humans are not monkeys; we have imprisoned them precisely to signify our own separation from nature and our own superiority to them as nature. They have become cultural signs and signs of culture. However, for Brueghel and Szymborska as well, the chained monkeys, observing and judging, undo the very distinctions they are designed to make, between human and animal, culture and nature: we too are separated from the natural world, and we alarmingly resemble the lower primates. We are also chained to the monkeys by our biology, our evolutionary history, and by our use of them, our idea of ourselves as different from them, superior to them, above and against nature, able to imprison and own and examine it. Further, we are chained by and to the language that is, ironically, our main claim to superiority, a claim deflated by the monkey's help in understanding history. Reduced to signs of human difference and superiority, the monkeys nevertheless expose these as figments of language, figures of speech.

The personifications of lines 3 and 4 also disrupt the cultural code of separation from nature: ‘the sky is fluttering outside | and the ocean is bathing’. Once monkeys and window figure separation, sea and sky become metaphors of union, self-identity, nature enjoying what it is in itself. How can the ocean bathe? The trope transfers agency to sea and sky, reconfigures the human use of nature into a gestalt in which the human is an implicit part of the natural world. The point of the joke is identity prior to differences imposed by language. The sky also flutters because in the painting there is a flock of birds and the sky is the flock of birds and the fluttering of the bird's wings. We, using abstract, referential language, see them as separate, bird opposed to air, boat (in Brueghel) to water, but they do not see themselves at all. They are what they are, we can strain holistically to say, they are where they are and what they do. They are not in nature, they are nature: unlike us, who see ourselves apart from the nature that in fact sustains us. We paint and write and categorize, we cast about for words that are barriers and fetters.

Except when transmuted by the art of poetry. In ‘Conversation with a Stone’ Szymborska's speaker, trying to enter into the stoneness of a stone, is told that entry into the stone requires ‘a sense of taking part’ and that she has ‘only a sense of what that sense should be, | only its seed, imagination’ (B and C, p. 63). Imagination, like dream and by way of metaphor, can hint at what ‘taking part’ might be like. We can apprehend our own participation in what we summarily call nature by means of metaphors that slip through (and monkey about with) the abstractions of language. We can take part insofar as we engage in the kind of imaginative reciprocity exemplified by a poem about a dream which looks like a painting of monkeys who speak to us (as in a play, prompting us) and we to them. There is a chain of meaning connecting the monkeys and the speaker,12 who does finally know or make an answer. She has successfully passed her final exam not by giving the required answers, and not by resigning herself to captivity in the fortress of language, but by redefining language, poetry, imaginative art in general, as dialogue.

The speaker dreams about exams (maturalny sen) because she wants to write poems that will pass the test of time, that are, as maturalny implies, mature. In Poland the matura, the final exam at the end of high school, is also called ‘egzamin dojrzałośći’, exam of maturity.13 In a brief discussion of examination dreams, Freud anticipates several of Szymborska's motifs. In his own dreams of failure, he says, ‘I am invariably examined in History, in which I did brilliantly’.14 Such dreams arise from ‘the relentless causal chains of real life [that] take charge of our education’ (p. 274). Past success is summoned, albeit ambiguously, to reassure the dreamer anxious about professional competence or failure. The word Matura, Freud adds, ‘also means maturity’ (p. 275). With or without Freud we can surmise that Szymborska is concerned about her poetic maturity, her graduation from the immaturity of poetry vitiated by ideology. The painting provides the relevant imagery for her desire: it is seen and seen through from a site of entrapment to a bright vision of flight and buoyancy, of perfect ease in one's medium. The poem picks up and develops this contrast. In its dream of a final exam we are in the presence of extreme anxiety about the writing of poetry, as well as shame generated by the judgement of the other. Stammering, inarticulate, the speaker is afraid of failing, of giving the wrong answer, of being seen and judged to be inadequate. She falls into silence. Failure is imminent. Then she hears the sound of a chain, a sound that breaks the spell of ignorance (and the dominance of the visual) and resolves the speaker's difficulties. The sadness and anxiety of the poem is resolved by unexpected kindness (we might even say ‘humanity’) when a monkey softly rattles a chain, uses the chain that imprisons her to communicate. A conversation has begun. The speaker is rescued from anxiety about mimesis by the idea of representation as conversation. The mimetic disadvantages of language disappear in the reciprocity of conversation. The distance of the eye dissolves into the empathy of the ear. The concluding rhyme of the poem, słucha/łañcucha (listens/chains), makes this point brilliantly audible, the sound echoing the sense and resolving into rhythmic utterance the meaningless repetition of sounds implied by ‘stammering’: the onomatopoeic word ‘brząkaniem’ (rattling, but also strumming, as on a lyre) is instrumental here.15 The poet is talking to the world and the world, the natural world endlessly generous with images and sounds, is talking back, in a poem.

Szymborska's readers will take part in this dialogue and dream. They will remember their own rites of passage, personal and, for some, political (October, 1956), and take the metaphor of chained monkeys literally. The reader's inevitable self-consciousness derives from the ambiguity of the poem's images and the interaction of its elements: the poem refers to a dream and is the dream. Szymborska's use of the present tense, Brzozowski suggests, conjoins the metaphorical and the occasional, the subjective and the objective, a sense of immediacy and an ‘atemporality’ conducive to allegory (pp. 14-16). There is an implicit atemporal claim, moreover, in ecphrastic poetry, a ‘topos of the stopped moment’ that Szymborska contemplates in ‘People on the Bridge’ and ‘The Joy of Writing’. The temporal flow of language is, figuratively, subsumed in the ‘still moment’ of painting as a spatial art.16 In the timeless, liminal realm of the dream vision, the reader links one thing with another, poem, painting, dream, and play coincide, and the chain resonates ambiguously as a symbol of connection as well as confinement, of poetic freedom as well as the ‘mind-forged manacles’ of ideology. The window, too, dissolves difference, fusing reader and poem, consciousness and world. The monkeys also provide a powerful double vision of what we deny and what we recognize: they are imprisoned by us and they are ourselves imprisoned: the gaoler jailed by his jailing. In stark contrast to the birds and the boats beyond the window, which are in their element, at one with their element, they seem to be part neither of the natural nor of the human world. Nevertheless, they connect those worlds, as do we when we are not brutally severing them. They are the trickster-poet, the monkey-poet turning, troping, the divisions of language and ideology into images of wholeness and connection: the last few lines, for example, unhook the great chain of being from hierarchy and fasten it to evolution, putting Darwin in a nutshell.17

The poem's personifications also participate in the chastening of Szymborska's reader. We too, we humans, are merely a trope, personified abstractions self-deceived, perceiving freedom as a distant prospect beyond the cell of self, as separation from, rather than immersion in, the natural world we have never left and can never leave. That world is language. We too are in our element, at one with our element, which is language, if we use it not to separate but to connect. Like a beak, language can hold a fledging or tear its prey to pieces. Language is the way we take part in the world, the way we enter and construe the world. ‘The ocean is bathing’. Language says ocean and bathing. It classifies and then undoes the classifications. Pun and personification override our eyes and our customary use of language to say this and that, A and not-A. They imply an identity of opposites that is the poem's enabling theme. They mock the narrow view of difference dividing culture from nature. Walls and windows, dream and exam, readers and monkeys mix and merge in the monstrous element, the language of poetry.

In the context, then, of an ecphrastic tradition conflating poet-apes, imitation, art, nature, and subversion, we can see Szymborska's monkeys as two aspects of her own ‘marginal’ voice,18 one taking an ironical view of the best of all possible worlds, the other dreaming an alternative world into existence, one expressing judgement and the other empathy. This double voice is stifled, however, stammering and silent, until it receives help from a chained monkey. The chain imprisons but it also connects. Like dream and window it serves as a sign of liminality, where opposites coincide, dialectic dissolves, and poem and painting fuse into an image of wholeness.


  1. Wisława Szymborska, Wotanie do Yeti (Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1957).

  2. Wislawa Szymborska, Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems, trans. by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981), p. 21 (hereafter K and M). See also Jacek Brzozowski, ‘Poetycki sen o dojrzałośći: O Dwóch małpach Bruegla’, in O wierszach Wisławy Szymborskiej, ed. by J. Brzozowski (Lodz: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu, 1996), pp. 9-25. Brzozowski reads the poem as ‘a clear summing up of experiences inspired by the October breakthrough’ and draws a precise parallel between Szymborska and Brueghel responding with ‘private, yet universal’ symbols to similar political crises (pp. 12, 20). For a useful collection of essays on Szymborska, see Radość czytania Szymborskiej: Wybór tekstów krytycznych, ed. by Stanislaw Balbus and Dorota Wojda (Cracow: Wydawnictwo Znak, 1996).

  3. Translation by Madeline G. Levine, Contemporary Polish Poetry, 1925-1975 (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981), pp. 95-96. Other selections are from Wislawa Szymborska, Poems, New and Collected, 1957-1997, trans. by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1998) (hereafter B and C).

  4. Graźyna Borkowska, ‘Szymborska eks-centryczna’, in Radość czytania Szymborskiej, 139-53 (p. 148). On the theme of nature in Szymborska, see Edyta M. Bojanowska, ‘Wislawa Szymborska: Naturalist and Humanist’, Slavic and East European Journal, 41 (Summer 1997), 199-223 (p. 213).

  5. Margaret A Sullivan, ‘Pieter Brueghel the Elder: Two Monkeys: A New Interpretation’, Art Bulletin, 63 (March 1981), 114-26 (p. 124).

  6. H. W. Janson, Apes and Ape Lore in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (London: Warburg Institute, 1952), p. 147.

  7. R. Kressman, quoted in Sullivan, p. 123.

  8. Referring to Szymborska's many poems on paintings, Stanisław Balbus observes that falseness is the price art pays for its idealization of the living world (Swiat ze wszystkich stron świata: O Wisławie Szymborskiej (Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1996), pp. 49-50).

  9. Jean H. Hagstrum, The Sister Arts: The Tradition of Literary Pictorialism and English Poetry from Dryden to Gray (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1958, repr. 1965), pp. 18, 23. On the generalization of ecphrasis, in the context of semiotic theory, into ‘a universal principal of poetics’ see W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays in Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 151-81 (p. 156).

  10. Louis Marin, ‘Puss in Boots: Power of Signs—Signs of Power’, Diacritics, 7 (June 1977), 54-63.

  11. On the trickster as liminal and the nature of liminality as ‘betwixt and between all fixed points of classification’, see Victor W. Turner, ‘Myth and Symbol’, International Encyclopœdia of the Social Sciences, ed. by David L. Sills, 17 vols (New York: Macmillan & The Free Press, 1968/9), 10, p. 580; Robert D. Pelton, The Trickster in West Africa: A Study of Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), pp. 31-36.

  12. Eva Karpinski, in correspondence, sees an allusion to the Asian sculpture of three monkeys who see, hear, and speak no evil. The speaker is the third monkey, unable to speak openly in a time of political repression. I am grateful to Eva Karpinski, York University, and Anna Passakas, Toronto, for reading and commenting on this paper.

  13. Implications of maturity may also be present in the fluttering (fruwa) sky. There is an echo in fruwa, for Eva Karpinski, of podfruwajka a word applied to young girls on the verge of maturity.

  14. Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. by James Strachey (New York: Basic Books, 1955), pp. 274-75.

  15. There is some precedent for Szymborska's play on stammering. On the ‘prophetic stammering’ of biblical figures overwhelmed by unutterable sublimity see Herbert Marks, ‘On Prophetic Stammering’, Yale Journal of Criticism, 1 (Fall 1987), 1-20. Nietzsche brings the pressure between language and the sublime home to poetry in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where a poet, stammering and ashamed, speaks to animals who offer him advice. When Zarathustra speaks of words as ‘illusive bridges between things that are eternally apart’, his animals advise him to fashion a new lyre for new songs (Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. by Walter Kauffman (New York: The Modern Library, 1995), pp. 197, 217-20). Szymborska's version of this dialogue explores the same disjunction between word and world.

  16. Wendy Steiner, The Colors of Rhetoric: Problems in the Relation between Modern Literature and Painting (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 33-50 (pp. 41-42).

  17. In ‘Returning Birds’ Szymborska returns to evolution as ‘a chain of failed attempts’ (B and C, p. 96).

  18. Szymborska's poetry is written, Wojciech Ligęza has aptly said, ‘on the margins’ (‘Świat w stanie korekty: O Poesji Wisławy Szymborskiej’, Twórczość, 29 (October 1983), 89-102 (p. 89).

Virginia Quarterly Review (review date autumn 2001)

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SOURCE: Review of Miracle Fair: Selected Poems, by Wislawa Szymborska. Virginia Quarterly Review 77, no. 4 (autumn 2001): 146-47.

[In the following review, the critic applauds the content and arrangement of Szymborska's poems in Miracle Fair: Selected Poems.]

In this collection [Miracle Fair: Selected Poems], the Nobel Prize winning poet presents an array of poems that date back into the 1950's. While they are culled from more than 40 years of work, Szymborska's preoccupations are consistent over time. In fact, Joanna Treciak who translated the pieces from the Polish, has assembled the pieces according to theme and not chronology and that proves to be the strength of this particular volume. Although the pieces are consistently bleak, with poems about hatred and the nearly absurd contingency of violence and violence of contingency, Szymborska's treatment is refreshing and insightful. Her power is in her ability to concentrate our collective gaze on the minutest of paradoxes—but always in relation to human issues: language, representation, power, emotion and consciousness. Her poetry succeeds in reducing the ego, in showing humanity as a part of a larger universe witnessed even in the tiniest of things. At 192 total pages including notes, a brief biography and a foreword by Czeslaw Milosz, and only 116 pages of poems this is a slim volume, truly a “selection.” Still, what's here hangs together very well, exhibits Szymborska in all her power and provides valuable context. It would, in fact, be a great book to familiarize yourself with the Polish poet, a wonderful place to start.

Peggy Rosenthal (review date 24 April-1 May 2002)

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SOURCE: Rosenthal, Peggy. “Grave Dreams.” Christian Century 119, no. 9 (24 April-1 May 2002): 8.

[In the following review, Rosenthal discusses how Szymborska's poem “Plotting with the Dead” illustrates the poet's insistence that all individuals have bonds with, guilt for, and responsibility to the dead.]

Wislawa Szymborska, a Nobel Prize winner, makes poetry out of unusual materials: lists of instructions, clothes items, apologies or questions. Her tone can be wry or playful or chilling. Her purpose is to shake us awake to how human history gets assembled from the smallest movements—impulsive or thoughtful, random or rational—of our minds and hearts.

“Plotting with the Dead” asks questions that almost assault us. They seem like the script of a police or courtroom interrogation, with us as the accused. “Under what conditions do you dream of the dead? / Do you often think of them before you fall asleep?” While every poem is a dialogue with the reader, inviting us into its world, rarely does a poem yank us in so aggressively.

We're given no chance to refuse this poem's (this interrogator's) assumption: that we “dream of the dead,” and often. Wait! we might want to say; I don't dream of the dead! But the poem won't let us register this objection. Instead, the first stanza's questions force us to personalize our dead. Who in particular appears to us? The implication is that if we don't dream of the dead, we ought to.

The second stanza gives our dead not only voice (“To what do they refer?”) but also living relationships. The questions imply that the dead are members of a community, and that they are connected to others both dead (“who's behind them?”) and alive (“who besides you sees them in his dreams?”).

The third stanza gives them bodies, which—unexpectedly, eerily—change as living bodies do. And as we're asked to picture the dead growing old or pale, suddenly an unsettling fact confronts us: violence as a reality in the life of the dead. Of all the ways that a person can die—old age, illness, accident, natural disaster, murder—only the last is mentioned. Again the poem is limiting the options we're allowed to consider: either a large proportion of the dead have been killed by other people, or those are the ones we dream about.

What Szymborska is doing is brilliantly subversive. Poetry is the art form that opens up language, drawing us out of the literal into newly imagined worlds. Yet Szymborska devises a poem in which language closes in on us, robbing us of possibility. It's as if she is saying: conditions are so extreme, so violently repressive even of imagination, that imagination (art) must turn itself inside out, must deny its nature, in order to speak the truth of the times.

The poem's interrogation continues. “What do they hold in their hands?” and infers that what they hold somehow implicates us in the manner of their deaths. We are even more directly implicated when the poem gives us only two options for what is “in their eyes”: “entreaty” or “threat.” The dead are either begging us for something or threatening us. In either case, they are not resting in peace, as we commonly pray when we bury them.

And in response, “Do you only chat about the weather?” The poet knows us well: in the face of the horrors that we inflict on one another, our self-protective impulse is to make small talk. She won't let us get away with this. The final stanza pounds us, revealing our guilt. The dead's questions are “awkward” because we continue to deny our complicity in deaths that we might have prevented. The poem's final three lines name the terms of our indictment, the ways we avoid our responsibility to human community: safely keeping quiet, evasively changing the subject, waking up just in time.

I can't think of a more unnerving poem. It is a prime sample of the genre that Carolyn Forché collects in her anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness. Forché argues that our usual literary distinction between “personal” and “political” writing doesn't work for poets who feel compelled to witness to social evils from which they have personally suffered. “Extremity demands new forms or alters older modes of poetic thought.” Forché says. To engage us intimately with the political, poets of witness invent a new literary space of “the social.” Often they “rely on the immediacies of direct address.”

Szymborska witnesses to evils she experienced as a Polish citizen under communist repression. Her poetry won't let us escape from our responsibility for one another's fates. Human bonds extend even to those whose lives were cut short by our failures. We are in community with the dead of Buchenwald, Rwanda, Palestine, El Salvador, Israel …

Nancy R. Ives (review date 1 November 2002)

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SOURCE: Ives, Nancy R. Review of Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces, by Wislawa Szymborska. Library Journal 127, no. 18 (1 November 2002): 91.

[In the following review, Ives offers a positive assessment of Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces, arguing that the essays showcase Szymborska's wit, social concerns, and mastery of language.]

Unknown to most Americans until she won the 1996 Nobel Prize in literature, Polish writer Szymborska is primarily a poet. This collection of short prose pieces [Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces] features book reviews she wrote while working as a columnist. Addressing a wide range of subjects, from the ancient Romans to the modern-day handyman, the reviews reflect her eclectic tastes and poetic sensibility. Unafraid to take an unpopular position, she, as a smoker, complains about the American penchant for demonizing anyone who cannot break the habit. In another piece, she reviews a book on early medical practices, pointing out that Louis XIV must have had an unusually resilient constitution to withstand the 2000 enemas and numerous bloodlettings to which he was subjected. On a weightier note, she tackles the question of why some civilizations succeed while others do not, given that humanity started out more or less the same. The skillful simplicity and lyric quality of these essays make them distinctive. With her poet's gift for compression, Szymborska captures large concepts and brilliantly reduces them to pithy, two-page essays. Strongly recommended for public and academic libraries.


Szymborska, Wislawa (Vol. 99)