Wislawa Szymborska was born in 1923 in Bnin, Poland and has lived in Krakow since 1931. She worked on the railroad during the Nazi occupation. Her first book, slated for publication in 1949, did not meet the standards of the socialist government so she was not published until the late 1950s. She has written about 250 poems, a small body of work some say, but she says she "revises and revises and revises." Her poems are characterized by playful wittiness and open, unambiguous diction, many of them convey a moral or at least an opinion. She won the Nobel Prize in 1996. And in her address said:
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, absolutely inadequate. 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 "oeuvres."
The world - whatever we might think when we're terrified by its vastness and our own impotence or when we're embittered by its indifference to individual suffering, or 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 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 life span is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think of this world - it is astonishing.
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 any one's existence in this world.
I just love that theater image.
I've selected the poems below from Wislawa Szymborska Poems New and Collected, translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh. Her full Nobel address is in it as well.
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I Am Too Close...
I am too close for him to dream of me.
I don't flutter over him, don't flee him
beneath the roots of trees. I am too close.
The caught fish doesn't sing with my voice.
The ring doesn't roll from my finger.
I am too close. The great house is on fire
without me calling for help. Too close
for one of my hairs to turn into the rope
of the alarm bell. Too close to enter
as the guest before whom walls retreat.
I'll never die again so lightly,
so far beyond my body, so unknowingly
as I did once in his dream. I am too close,
too close, I hear the word hiss
and see its glistening scales as I lie motionless
in his embrace. He's sleeping,
more accessible at this moment to an usherette
he saw once in a traveling circus with one lion,
than to me, who lies at his side.
A valley now grows within him for her,
rusty-leaved, with a snowcapped mountain at one end
rising in the azure air. I am too close
to fall from that sky like a gift from heaven.
My cry could only waken him. And what
a poor gift: I, confined to my own form,
when I used to be a birch, a lizard
shedding times and satin skins
in many shimmering hues. And I possessed
the gift of vanishing before astonished eyes,
which is the riches of all. I am too close,
too close for him to dream of me.
I slip my arm from underneath his sleeping head -
it's numb, swarming with imaginary pins.
A host of fallen angels perches on each tip,
waiting to be counted.
For me the tragedy's most important act is the sixth:
the raising of the dead from the stage's battlegrounds,
the straightening of wigs and fancy gowns,
removing knives from stricken breasts,
taking nooses from lifeless necks,
lining up among the living
to face the audience.
The bows, both solo and ensemble -
the pale hand on the wounded heart,
the curtsies of the hapless suicide,
the bobbing of the chopped-off head.
The bows in pairs -
rage extends its arm to meekness,
the victim's eyes smile at the torturer,
the rebel indulgently walks beside the tyrant.
Eternity trampled by the golden slipper's toe.
Redeeming values swept aside with the swish of a
wide brimmed hat.
The unrepentant urge to start all over tomorrow.
Now enter, single file, the hosts who died early on,
in Acts 3 and 4, or between scenes.
The miraculous return of all those lost without a trace.
The thought that they've been waiting patiently offstage
without taking off their makeup
or their costumes
moves me more than all the tragedy's tirades.
But the curtain's fall is the most uplifting part,
the things you see before it hits the floor:
here one hand quickly reaches for a flower,
there another hand picks up a fallen sword.
Only then, one last, unseen hand
does its duty
and grabs me by the throat.
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.
See how efficient it still is,
how it keeps itself in shape -
our century's hatred.
How easily it vaults the tallest obstacles.
How rapidly it pounces, tracks us down.
It's not like other feelings.
At once both older and younger.
It gives birth itself to the reasons
that give it life.
When it sleeps, it's never eternal rest.
And sleeplessness won't sap its strength; it feeds it.
One religion or another -
whatever gets it ready, in position.
One fatherland or another -
whatever helps it get a running start.
Justice also works well at the outset
until hate gets its own momentum going.
Its face twisted in a grimace
of erotic ecstasy.
Oh these other feelings,
Since when does brotherhood
ever finished first?
Does doubt ever really rouse the rabble?
Only hatred has just what it takes.
Gifted, diligent, hardworking.
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?
Let's face it:
it knows how to make beauty.
The splendid fire-glow in midnight skies.
Magnificent bursting bombs in rosy dawns.
You can't deny the inspiring pathos of ruins
and a certain bawdy humor to be found
in the sturdy column jutting from their midst.
Hatred is a master of contrast -
between explosions and dead quiet,
red blood and white snow.
Above all, it never tires
of its leitmotif - the impeccable executioner
towering over its soiled victim.
It's always ready for new challenges.
If it has to wait awhile, it will.
They say it's blind. Blind?
It has a sniper's keen sight
and gazes unflinchingly at the future
as only it can.
If there are angels,
I doubt they read
concerning thwarted hopes.
I'm afraid, alas,
they never touch the poems
that bear our grudges against the world.
The rantings and railings
of our plays
must drive them, I suspect,
Off duty, between angelic -
i.e. inhuman - occupations,
they watch instead
from the age of silent film.
To our dirge wailers,
and teeth gnashers,
they prefer, I suppose,
that poor devil
who grabs the drowning man by his toupee
or, starving, devours his own shoelaces
From the waist up, starch and aspirations;
below, a startled mouse
runs down his trousers.
that's what they call real entertainment.
A crazy chase in circles
ends up pursuing the pursuer.
The light at the end of the tunnel
turns out to be a tiger's eye.
A hundred disasters
mean a hundred comic somersaults
turned over a hundred abysses.
If there are angels,
they must, I hope,
find this convincing,
this merriment dangling from terror,
not even crying Save me Save me
since all of this takes place in silence.
I can even imagine
that they clap their wings
and tears run from their eyes
from laughter, if nothing else.