In the introduction to "Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts" the translators* state that "Wisława Szymborska is that rarest of phenomena: a serious poet who commands a large audience in her native land", they also go on to say that as well as this she has the additional ability to get critics who otherwise would delight in disagreement to be consistently enthusiastic about her work. Although she was well-known in her homeland of Poland, it wasn't until she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996 that she received recognition on the international stage, and by god did she receive recognition – her first post award collection "View with a Grain of sand" was published in an edition of 120,000 in the U.S.A, this in a country where a popular collection of poetry would be lucky to sell 20,000. The German edition set new sales records (60,000) and this appears to be repeated in most places that editions of her work were published.
Wisława Szymborska was born on 2 July 1923 in Prowent, Poland (now part of Kórnik, Poland), the daughter of Wincenty and Anna (née Rottermund) Szymborski. Her father was at that time the steward of Count Władysław Zamoyski, a Polish patriot and charitable patron. After the death of Count Zamoyski in 1924, her family moved to Toruń, and in 1931 to Kraków, where she lived and worked until her death in early 2012.
When World War II broke out in 1939, she continued her education in underground classes. From 1943 she worked as a rail road employee and managed to avoid being deported to Germany as a forced labourer. It was during this time that her career as an artist began with illustrations for an English-language textbook. She also began writing stories and occasional poems. Beginning in 1945, she began studying Polish literature before switching to sociology at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. It was here that she became involved in the local writing scene, and met and was influenced by Czesław Miłosz. In March 1945, she published her first poem "Szukam słowa" ("Looking for words") in the daily newspaper, Dziennik Polski.
Comic Love Poem
I wear beads around my neck
Every day's a day of joy
Sustained by the touch
Of unforeseen events.
I only know the rhythm
To a melody so soft
That if you ever heard it,
You'd have to hum along.
I exist not in myself,
I'm an element's function.
A symbol in the air.
Or a circle on the water.
Each time your eyes open,
I only take what's mine.
I leave faithfully behind
Your earth, your fire.
(From unpublished collection 1944 – 48)
My introduction to Wisława as a writer was not long after starting this blog, her name surfaced as a suggestion in the comments on a post I'd written about another Nobel Prize winner. This led me to find out more and within a short period of I'd purchased both of the books mentioned above, and soon became enamoured by the poetry I came across, poetry such as:
In Praise Of Feeling Bad About Yourself
The buzzard never says it is to blame.
The panther wouldn't know what scruples mean.
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they'd claim their hands were clean
A jackal doesn't understand remorse.
Lions and lice don't waver in their course.
Why should they, when they know they're right?
Though hearts of Killer whales may weigh a ton,
In every other way they're light.
On this third planet of the sun
Among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is Number One
(From A Large Number 1976)
I had always meant to write a post highlighting some of her poetry, but as is the way things work out, something else caught my attention, some other new writer's pyrotechnics, new idea came to the fore, putting this intention on the back burner until that moment passed and something else ensnared my mind's focus – and yet the two books mentioned above, still remained with me, became almost a benchmark on how poetry should comport itself, the manner in how it could describe the most horrid of situations, and without clamouring would describe that horror.
There is also a quietness within her work, that does not speak meekly or with pathos, but that finds amazement in all, making her poetry a questing poetry, one searching for answers but doing so in a fashion that realises the likelihood of an answer, is more likely to be in the form of more questions, as stated in her Nobel Prize speech:
"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 that's absolutely inadequate to boot. So the 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". (Nobel Speech)
Her poetry seems to resonate with people because she has this ability to take serious ideas and within a few words encapsulate them, sometimes merely as a way of explaining them to herself/ourselves and sometimes to deflate them, using humour to show the error in these philosophies, sometimes the horror. Another reason is that at first glance the poems appear simple, it is in the process afterwards that you start to realise that there is a depth that warrants continual exploration that it takes more than splashing in the shallows to understand all that she has to say. Wisława combines the everyday minutiae, the dust and clatter of daily life, then holds it up to the grand and august mirror of history and both images hold true.
The reason I have now got around to writing about her work, is because a new collected volume MAP: Collected and Last Poems has just been published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. This collection contains work spanning her whole life, almost seven decades of her vision. From the early 1944 – 48 (unpublished) period through her first collection "Why We Live" in 1952 right up to her last poetry written just before her death in 2012, and translated for the first time within this collection. Making this the impetus I needed to highlight the poetry of this wonderful writer and also making this the ideal place to learn more, whether this is an introduction, or you're already familiar with her poetry.
Life is the only way
to get covered in leaves,
catch your breath on the sand,
rise on wings;
to be a dog
or stroke its warm fur
to tell pain
from everything it's not
to squeeze inside events,
dawdle in views,
to seek the least of all possible mistakes.
An extraordinary chance
to remember for a moment
a conversation held
with the lamp switched off;
and if only once
to stumble on a stone,
end up drenched in one downpour or another,
mislay your keys in the grass;
and to follow a spark on the wind with your eyes;
and to keep on not knowing
Clare Cavanagh, professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Northwestern, has received a PEN Translation Award for her work, with Stanisław Barańczak, on Szymborska's poetry. Among her many honours include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Social Science Research Council, and the American Council of Learned Societies. Her criticism and reviews have been widely published in the Times Literary Supplement, The New Yorker, Poetry, and the New York Review of Books, among others. She teaches Slavic and comparative literatures at Northwestern University.
Stanisław Barańczak (1946 – 2014) was a poet, literary critic, scholar, editor, translator and lecturer. He is perhaps most well-known for his English-to-Polish translations of the dramas of William Shakespeare and of the poetry of E.E. Cummings, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, W.H Auden, Seamus Heaney, Thomas Hardy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S Eliot, John Keats, Robert Frost, and Edward Lear . He also translated lyrics by the likes of the Beatles into Polish versions that "were singable". He was described as having "the rare talent of preserving the spirit and the beauty of the language of the original", and in 1996 he shared the US PEN Translation Prize with Clare Cavanagh for rendering into English a collection by his Polish compatriot, the Nobel Prize-winning poet Wisława Szymborska.
I received this book from the publishers via Netgalley and in the translators note Clare Cavanagh says "An old friend once inscribed his scholarly book on Szymborska's poetry as follows "To Wisława without whom this book could not have been written" she goes on to say that her variation on his theme would be to Wisława without whom this book could not have been written – Thank You" To this I would add my own two penneth by thanking the publishers for giving me the chance to read this wonderful collection in return for honest opinion.
* Magnus J. Krynski & Robert A. Maguire