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Wislawa Szymborska: Transcending the Obvious with Thought
by Hayden Saunier

t
ell all the truth but tell it slant," that conspiratorial whisper from Emily Dickinson, packed with the idea of truth's plurality and the punch of the word slant, is a useful quotation with which to begin a discussion of the poetry of Wislawa Szymborska. However, I believe my initial question upon first reading this poet: "Is this a nice Polish woman or an extra-terrestrial?" is a good start too. Both the Dickinson quote and my initial question address a predominant, unmistakable feature of Szymborska's poems: the slanted angles and multiple points of view with which she approaches her subjects. The Dickinson quote, like many a Szymborska poem, is both straightforward and subversive. It recognizes subversion as most effective when performed quietly; messages are passed along covertly and fewer people get hurt, although that might not have been precisely what Dickinson had in mind. My initial question, like many a Szymborska poem, is essentially a joke based on juxtaposition, but that should recommend it, not dismiss it. Comedy works when it is based in reality: the comic mask doesn't wear a smile; it's the mask of tragedy with the corners of its mouth forced upward. To this collage of an introduction, and Ms. Szymborska is a collagist, let's allow Ms. Szymborska a moment to chime in with her own quotation: Montaigne's adage, "See how many ends this stick has!" which she calls "an unsurpassable model of the writer's craft and a constant encouragement to transcend the obvious with thought" (Krynski & Maguire 3).

To transcend the obvious with thought. That may well be what this poet is up to. She certainly challenges the fundamental ways we have been taught to think about ourselves and the world. Whether writing from the perspective of a small rodent, a god, an uptight lecturer, an extra-terrestrial, or from her perspective as a single and singular human being, Szymborska balances a clear, cold eye and an inhuman distance, often measured in light years, with lightness, wit and a compassion for all things human. Hers is a poetry of subtle shifts of perspective, but as with subtle shifts in plate tectonics-- the reverberations can add up to something very large indeed. Her subject, for the most part, is human beings and our position--or their position--depending on her point of view, both real and imagined, in the world.

Our usual approach in a discussion of a poet is to take a look at her personal biography for clues to how she has arrived at her point of view, her themes, her subjects, her voice. Here, Szymborska again plays a joke on us, the joke of modesty. She is not very interested in letting us know. Most biographical sketches include the same few details: Wislawa Szymborska was born in 1923 in Bnin, Poland, moved to Krakow with her family at the age of eight and has lived there ever since. She attended the Jagellonian University in Krakow between 1945 and 1948, studied Polish Literature and Sociology and published her first poem in 1945 and her first two collections of poetry in 1952 and 1954. From 1953-1981 she worked as poetry editor and as a columnist for a literary weekly magazine, "Zycie Literackie." This seems a bare outline, but even those of us with the vaguest sense of world history can come up with a background landscape for her that includes World War II, Nazi occupation, the Warsaw uprising, death camps, genocide, Russian partitionment, socialism, the Solidarity trade union movement, up to the current parliamentary democracy headed by a former communist. As background, this history answers some questions about why she might adopt a hefty ironic distance from the goings-on of man, and why she argues, albeit obliquely, always in favor of the privacy and primacy of the mind and the singularity of the individual.

"I prefer not to speak of my poems, and if I have to, then at no great length" (Krynski 6), she remarked in an early and rare interview. She has refused to ally herself with any literary school or division, identifying herself as a poet "who does not wish to declare allegiance to any single theme or any single mode of expression for matters that are of importance to her" (7).

Krynski and Maquire note that Szymborska's first collection was ready to be published in 1948, but the consolidation of power by the Communists and pressure for literature to support the new themes of building socialism cancelled its publication and led her to take "steps to revise her entire manner of writing." (4). "Later, Szymborska in effect repudiated this entire volume by not including a single poem from it in her collected works of 1970"(4). Only two poems from her second collection were included in that collected works. Adam Zagajewski suggests that her mature work's "wonderful warm skepticism--an entire, fully developed humanistic weltanschauung" was probably developed through her early experience endorsing socialist realism, "out of conviction, as she later commented" (187) and her later disillusionment.

Szymborska was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996 for "poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality" (Nobel prize). Her work has been translated into English by many, with Clare Cavanaugh and Stanislaw Baranczak translating her most recent English editions. As with any translation, versions vary, and we who have no knowledge of the particular language must trust to those who do to judge their success or failure--but Szymborska seems to write in a clear, unadorned voice, bent on communicating an idea or a thought, not an emotion or a state of being, and her ideas feel as though they have been distilled from her experience well before or perhaps through the act of writing. David Barber writes in an essay in The Atlantic Monthly, "One might. . .conjecture that her work loses less than most in the leap from one language to another because in a sense it has already been translated-- its emotional intensity transmuted into a lexicon of swift and supple fluency, its cerebral complication made to seem effortlessly offhand." The differing shadings in different translations, with a notable few exceptions, seem often more a matter of style than substance. "Even in her own language, Szymborska must be something of a will o' the wisp, infinitely adept at eluding the routine statement and overt sentiment, always managing to dance just beyond the reach of simple comprehension" (Barber).

Szymborska's poetry is dark, ironic, witty, playful, grim and often all at once. "More at ease with metaphysical speculation than with the raw materials of emotion and experience" (Barber), it is not surprising that she is also an essayist--having created her own form of book review/essay, translated into English by Clare Cavanagh and collected in a book entitled, Nonrequired Reading. Her poetry often walks a delicate line between poem and essay; borders and divisions do not appear to be of much use to Szymborska.

"O the leaky boundaries of man-made states!" exclaims "Psalm," a poem in which the plants, clouds, animals, and even the stars are subverting the will of humans, "Isn't that a privet on the far bank/smuggling its hundred-thousandth leaf across the river?" Here Szymborska applies a voice of mock outrage-- "Not to mention the fog's reprehensible drifting!/And dust blowing all over the steppes/as if they hadn't been partitioned!" The catalogue of chaotic, rebellious misbehaviors of the natural world surrounding human boundaries is heightened by this voice of propriety and pedantry and allows the poet to cheekily egg on the natural chaos, even as she upbraids it for misbehavior. The poem's close, after all the fun, is quick and cold: "Only what is human can be truly foreign./The rest is mixed vegetation, subversive moles, and wind."

Szymborska employs and plays with voice in varied and often theatrical ways. "View with a Grain of Sand," the title poem from the collection released after her Nobel prize win, is characteristic of many of her techniques and one of her predominant modes of voice--the "we." It is a collective, human "we," what Edward Hirsch calls the voice of a "wry moralist."(106)

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,
incorrect, or apt.

The voice is calm, reasonable, educated, unemotional and wry. The poem begins with a factual statement and immediately argues against it, "we call it a grain of sand/but it calls itself neither grain nor sand." She then follows a logical progression of considerations of the view, the sand, the window, the lake. As she considers these objects in all their objectivity, she is, in fact, exposing the subjects ("we") in all our subjectivity. She pursues this through negatives: what the objects are not defines their very being. The names and descriptions that "we" use to define them have no bearing on them; "we," the namers and definers, are pushed further and further out of the picture, out of the view, until, in the final line of the poem, we, in fact, don't exist. The poem ends on the final word: inhuman. She calls into question not only how we, as humans, think and perceive, but our position as part of the view at all. There's no malice, only a slight amusement at our inventions ("the characters, the similes.") We simply don't matter very much in the larger scheme. Szymborska manages this not by diminishing humanity in any direct way (just humanity's opinion of itself) but by giving equal weight to all manner of creation; clouds, plants, animals, stars, stones. The end of this poem achieves something like an existential silence. It's chilling, yet emancipating. Subtly underlying the poem is the implication that if the smallest grain of sand, or the lake, or the shore, or the sky has the power to resist what humans name it--so do humans have the power to resist being named, as well. No one, not the least herself, is immune from her own clear glance.

But how does Szymborska manage these startling angles of view? How does she transcend the obvious? Among her simplest techniques are inversion and via negativa, the use of negatives, focusing on what a thing is not, accomplished handily through inverting voice in the above poem. She names and renames, ("general, particular, incorrect, or apt") running through all the possibilities. She employs lists and differing scales to change perception and create paradox and uses all manner of juxtapositions: macrocosmic to microcosmic, abstract to material, mundane to metaphysical, serious to playful. She writes from the rhetorical stance of history ("Archeology,") evolution ("Speech at the Lost and Found") and from the voice of an entity observing from outer space, ("Maybe All This") as though when contemplating human beings that's about as close as she can stand to get. But even the voice in "No End of Fun," as it looks down at humans from heaven or another galaxy, sounds suspiciously familiar and authoritarian like an academic admissions committee member assessing an odd and unlikely student.

. . .he really tries quite hard.
Quite hard indeed--one must admit.
With that ring in his nose, with that toga, that sweater.
Poor little beggar.
A human if ever we saw one.
That authoritarian voice, tsk-tsking in its superior and reductive way, begs to be proven wrong, but the poet can't be pinned down on that.

Scale works on a number of levels in the poem "The End and the Beginning," including a visual, almost cinematic one.

After every war
someone has to tidy up.
Things won't pick
themselves up, after all.
Immediately we are confronted with an absurdity of scale through diction: "war" and "tidy up," followed by a comment, in a familiar, everyday idiom, that most everyone's mother has said at one time or another. Here it is applied to war as though to a mess in the kitchen, or the clean up after a party.

Someone has to shove
the rubble to the roadsides
so the carts loaded with corpses
can get by.

Someone has to trudge
through sludge and ashes,
through the sofa springs,
the shards of glass,
the bloody rags.

The abstract gives way to the particular detail, the close-up shot. Then back to the larger picture.

No sound bites, no photo opportunities,
and it takes years.
All the cameras have gone
to other wars.
Here she uses inversion again, showing us what isn't there, abstractions, at first; then the actual. The argument moves on to the general as the specifics fade away. We forget because we must, because it is how we go on.

Someone has to lie there
in the grass that covers up
the causes and effects
with a cornstalk in his teeth,
gawking at clouds.
Look at this paradoxical, yet hopeful, ending. The individual person, lazing and gawking at clouds, conjuring Whitman, on a carpet of grass above history, is in fact the beginning of hope. But what has been forgotten about the causes and effects of war in order to renew, assures that war will happen again. What saves us also dooms us. What dooms us also saves us. "A human, if I ever saw one."

"Symborska's "I," according to Czeslaw Milosz, is "an ascetic "I," cleansed not only of the desire to confess, but of any individuating features, and yet it is linked to the "I" of all others who share the human condition and thus deserve pity and compassion" (3). This "I" is engaged in an outward contemplation, singular and particular in its gentle musings; it is the poet, it is any of us. "Thanks to a thorough relinquishing of subjectivity, "I" and its particular form of personal depression, fall by the wayside" (4). This is a key aspect to her voice, that the personal has been distilled, clarified, the muddy details filtered and discarded. In a Szymborska poem, all personal pronouns, with the exception of 'they' seem to apply to us all. This voice of 'I' can be fanciful, rueful, realistic, astonished. It observes, skeptically. It sorts. It places itself democratically as an equal among other forms and by doing so celebrates its ability to observe and sort and think as one of its most marvelous adaptations.

In her well-known poem, "Conversation with a Stone" Szymborska's "I" knocks relentlessly at a "stone's front door" and asks to be let in. The stone refuses. The human persists. Again and again, they argue.

"You shall not enter," says the stone.
"You lack the sense of taking part.
No other sense can make up for your missing sense of taking part.
Even sight heightened to becoming all-seeing
will do you no good without a sense of taking part.
You shall not enter, you have only a sense of what that sense
should be,
only its seed, imagination."
The human continues to knock until the stone finally states: "I don't have a door." Compressed into this little performance of two voices is something of what is both absurd and marvelous in being human. Perhaps we have come so far through our relentlessness, our arrogance, our curiosity. Perhaps we have only come this far because of our narrowness, self-importance and lack of "partaking." There is, of course, that seed of imagination that might sometime make a door. But we've a long way to go, she seems to be saying, so we may as well laugh at ourselves. The other option is despair.

"Lot's Wife" is a dramatic monologue (by the loose definition) spoken in the voice of that infamous woman and it also employs another key aspect of Szymborska's poetry--her love of lists. "Lot's Wife" opens with a characteristic statement of fact.

They say I looked back out of curiosity.
But I could have had other reasons.
I looked back mourning my silver bowl.
Carelessly, while tying my sandal strap.
So I wouldn't have to keep staring at the righteous nape
of my husband Lot's neck.
From the sudden conviction that if I dropped dead
he wouldn't so much as hesitate.
From the disobedience of the meek.
Immediately, the contradictions and juxtapositions begin; our expectations and our allegiance to what "they say" is challenged. Each line contains another possibility; each possibility is equally possible; each one supplants the previous. The possibilities are very personal, particular, grand, petty, human, distinct. I'm particularly fond of "so I wouldn't have to keep looking at the righteous nape of my husband Lot's neck," compacting, as it does, the history of a marriage. The list continues and the possibilities accumulate.

Checking for pursuers.
Struck by the silence, hoping God had changed his mind.
Our two daughters were already vanishing over the hilltop.
I felt age within me. Distance.
The futility of wandering. Torpor.
I looked back setting my bundle down.
I looked back not knowing where to set my foot.

Plausible, human reasons. Veering wildly back and forth between mundane and mechanical to awe-struck and existential. Then, Szymborska widens the vision by moving from the interior to the exterior. Events have evened the scales and a landscape emerges around the woman,

Serpents appeared on my path,
spiders, field mice, baby vultures.
They were neither good nor evil now--every living thing
was simply creeping or hopping along in the mass panic.

I looked back in desolation.
In shame because we had stolen away.
Wanting to cry out, to go home.

These lines bring us back to a completely human condition: desolation, shame, despair.

Or only when a sudden gust of wind
unbound my hair and lifted up my robe.
It seemed to me that they were watching from the walls of Sodom
and bursting into thunderous laughter again and again.
I looked back in anger.
To savor their terrible fate.
I looked back for all the reasons given above.
I looked back involuntarily.
These last two pack a powerful one-two punch to the idea that single causes or reasons can be assigned to any action. Both are equally plausible; both stand in direct opposition to one another.

It was only a rock that turned underfoot, growling at me.
It was a sudden crack that stopped me in my tracks.
A hamster on its hind paws tottered on the edge.
It was then we both glanced back.
Again, like the resentment-packed moment provided by "the righteous nape," here is an almost playful moment-- the woman and the rodent mirror each other, behave identically, and are compatriots, equally small and helpless. And by the way, who else could get away with saying that under a rain of fire and brimstone a hamster had looked back out of idle curiosity and disobedience?

No, no. I ran on,
I crept, I flew upward
until darkness fell from the heavens
and with it scorching gravel and dead birds.
I couldn't breathe and spun around and around.
Anyone who saw me must have thought I was dancing.
It's not inconceivable that my eyes were open.
It's possible I fell facing the city.

After the litany of possible reasons and the dueling ideas that all reasons are true and that reason has nothing to do with it, here at the end, is the reality of this woman's death. In the terse description of her movements, she becomes like the other creatures who are fleeing, and the physical responses recognize that how the body might behave would allow for misinterpretation ("Anyone who saw me must have thought I was dancing.") Curiosity seems, after reading this poem, the least plausible reason Lot's wife looked back. The accepted view of this woman as a personification of disobedience, vanity and silliness appears more than suspect. Think of the possibilities, Szymborska is saying, she's human, she's far more interesting than the limitations of what "they" suggest.

In poem after poem, Szymborska takes the plain white light of a supposition and refracts it into its rainbow parts, examines each color, each thread. In doing so she stages "little insurrections of sense and sanity, and moral reckoning" (Barber) and brings to light small amazements, odd possibilities, cold realities. By "repeatedly shifting perspective, Szymborska's poetry embraces the modernist position that all views are partial and restricted, all truths relative." (Hirsch) She reminds us, again and again, in numerous ways, of the power of each individual mind as in this from the poem "Miracle Fair,"

An extra miracle, extra and ordinary:
the unthinkable can be thought.

In her Nobel Lecture, Szymborska challenges the notion of certainties, particularly in the political realm when she writes that torturers, dictators, fanatics and demagogues struggling for power "know. . ."

and whatever 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. . .. That is why I value the 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.

Surely, Szymborska should get the last word in any discussion about her work. She provides us a widely-cited summation of her ars poetica at the end of the poem "Under One Small Star,"

Don't bear me ill-will, Speech, that I borrow weighty words
and labor to make them seem light.

and this last word about the obvious world, and a challenge to poets, from her Nobel speech. . .

. . .whatever else we might think of the 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 obvious world. . .

Granted, in daily speech, where we don't stop to consider every word, we all use phrases like "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.

The End and the Beginning

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

Someone has to shove
the rubble to the roadsides
so the carts loaded with corpses
can get by.

Someone has to trudge
through sludge and ashes,
through the sofa springs,
the shards of glass,
the bloody rags.

Someone has to lug the post
to prop the wall,
someone has to glaze the window,
set the door in its frame.

No sound bites, no photo opportunities,
and it takes years.
All the cameras have gone
to other wars.

The bridges need to be rebuilt,
the railroad stations, too.
Shirtsleeves will be rolled
to shreds.

Someone, broom in hand,
still remembers how it was.
Someone else listens, nodding
his unshattered head.

But others are bound to be bustling nearby
who'll find all that
a little boring.

From time to time someone still must
dig up a rusted argument
from underneath a bush
and haul it off to the dump.

Those who knew
what this was all about
must make way for those
who know little.
And less than that.
And at last nothing less than nothing.

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

From Poems New and Collected 1957-1997, written by Wislawa Szymborska and translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh. Copyright 1997 by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

LOT'S WIFE

They say I looked back out of curiosity.
But I could have had other reasons.
I looked back mourning my silver bowl.
Carelessly, while tying my sandal strap.
So I wouldn't have to keep staring at the righteous nape
of my husband Lot's neck.
From the sudden conviction that if I dropped dead
he wouldn't so much as hesitate.
From the disobedience of the meek.
Checking for pursuers.
Struck by the silence, hoping God had changed his mind.
Our two daughters were already vanishing over the hilltop.
I felt age within me. Distance.
The futility of wandering. Torpor.
I looked back setting my bundle down.
I looked back not knowing where to set my foot.
Serpents appeared on my path,
spiders, field mice, baby vultures.
They were neither good nor evil now--every living thing
was simply creeping or hopping along in the mass panic.
I looked back in desolation.
In shame because we had stolen away.
Wanting to cry out, to go home.
Or only when a sudden gust of wind
unbound my hair and lifted up my robe.
It seemed to me that they were watching from the walls of Sodom
and bursting into thunderous laughter again and again.
I looked back in anger.
To savor their terrible fate.
I looked back for all the reasons given above.
I looked back involuntarily.
It was only a rock that turned underfoot, growling at me.
It was a sudden crack that stopped me in my tracks.
A hamster on its hind paws tottered on the edge.
It was then we both glanced back.
No, no. I ran on,
I crept, I flew upward
until darkness fell from the heavens
and with it scorching gravel and dead birds.
I couldn't breathe and spun around and around.
Anyone who saw me must have thought I was dancing.
It's not inconceivable that my eyes were open.
It's possible I fell facing the city.

From Poems New and Collected 1957-1997, written by Wislawa Szymborska and translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh. Copyright 1997 by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

WORKS CITED

Barber, David, "Poland's Blithe Spirit," The Atlantic Monthly, May 1997 http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/poetry/barber/dbszym.htm.

Dickinson, Emily "1129" Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. by Thomas H. Johnson, (Boston: Little Brown, 1960.)

Hass, Robert "Reading Milosz," Twentieth Century Pleasures, (New York: Ecco, 1984.)

Hirsch, Edward "Rapturous Skeptic," Responsive Reading, (University of Michigan Press, 1999.)

Krynski, Magnus J. and Robert A Maguire tranlators, Sounds, Feelings Thoughts: Seventy Poems by Wislawa Szymborska, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.)

Milosz, Czeslaw, Foreword, Miracle Fair by Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Joanna Trzeciak, (New York:W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.)

"The Nobel Prize in Literature 1996". Nobelprize.org. 2 Nov 2011 http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1996/

Szymborska, Wislawa, Poems, New and Collected, trans by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, (New York: Harcourt, Inc 1995.)

Szymborska, Wislawa, View with a Grain of Sand, trans by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company 1995)

Zagajewski, Adam, Polish Writers on Writing (Trinity University Press 2007).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Szymborska, Wislawa, Here, trans. by Clare Canavaugh and Stanislaw Baranczak, (Boston Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010.

Szymborska, Wislawa, Miracle Fair, trans. by Joanna Trzeciak, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.)

Szymborska, Wislawa, Monologue of a Dog, trans. by Clare Canavaugh and Stanislaw Baranczak, New York: Harcourt, Inc, 2006.

Szymborska, Wislawa, nonrequired reading, translated by Clare Cavanagh, (New York: Harcourt, Inc, 2002.)

Szymborska, Wislawa, Poems, New and Collected, trans by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, (New York: Harcourt, Inc 1995.)

Szymborska, Wislawa, People On A Bridge, trans by Adam Czerniawski, (Dufour Editions, London: 1990.)

Szymborska, Wislawa, Sounds, Feelings Thoughts: Seventy Poems by Wislawa Szymborska, trans by Magnus J Krynski and Robert A Maguire, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.)


































POET DATA
Wislawa Szymborska
Years: 1923-2012
Birthplace: Poland
Language(s): Polish, French
Forms: Adheres to none
Subjects: Human beings and their position in the world
Entry By: Hayden Saunier
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