Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
For good or bad–as is always the case with translation– the work of the Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska has undergone sea changes as it has been conveyed to English. Removed from its original culture where attenuating circumstances would be tacitly understood and separated from the variegated nuance of the Polish voice, the poetry causes the reader to become a collaborator in a process of being re-imagined. Though some of our pleasure with Szymborska arises from speculation about the poems in their original form, the unsettling but rich complication of her lines is evident in the English versions: "Memories come to mind like excavated statues / that have misplaced their heads." ("Travel Elegy")
The American reading public has been unusually appreciative of the poet's tart wit; her 1995 collection sold 80,000 copies in this country. The dust jacket and publicity for Poems: New and Collected are explicit in reassurance that the work is "accessible" and "readable," a distinction among books of poetry. Often engaged with disentangling perplexities from the commonplace, Szymborska is permeated with irony, brittle humor, more than a bit of pessimism. In a characteristic poem from the sixties, she remarks that a lover can be brought down to size after the introduction of his mother. Observing the "Genetrix of the man / with whom I leap through fire," the speaker reasons: If the "gray-eyed procreator" is mortal, the son must be mortal as well and so she looks fixedly upon "The boat in which, years ago, / he sailed to shore." Many of the poems begin with the recognition of simple but disorienting truths: "We call it a grain of sand, / but it calls itself neither grain nor sand" or the Audenesque "The world is never ready / for the birth of a child." And the lists that overfill the collection demonstrate both a playfulness and an acidic insight earned through more than a fair share of experience with her fellow man:
I prefer moralists
who promise nothing.
I prefer cunning kindness to the overtrustful kind.
These might be the broadest tendencies but the essence of the poems resides beneath the simple exterior. In a recent poem, "The Three Oddest Words," Szymborska demonstrates her aesthetics:
When I pronounce the word Future,
the first syllable already belongs to the past.
When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.
When I pronounce the word Nothing.
I make something no nonbeing can hold.
The surface is deceptively simple like the verse of Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson– or even certain poems ("One Art," for instance) by Elizabeth Bishop . You read it with ease and, after a pause, the startling and paradoxical layers of meaning seep in, each couplet standing as a riddle that has been solved ahead of time. One of the pleasures of riddles derives from an ancient trick (recorded lovingly in nursery rhymes: "Riddle me, riddle me ree, / A little man in a tree; / A stick in his hand, / a stone in his throat, / If you read me this riddle / I'll give you a groat." Solution: a hawthorn berry), demonstrating how something that seems meager-in this case, just speaking a word, or half a word-can also be large or have great power. Szymborska's word-play involves willful resistance that proves the substantial weight of the human voice-say the word silence and you break it-versus the fragility of the mind's abstractions. Of course, by showing the surprising strength of the spoken word, the poem draws our attention to what it is up against: future, silence, nothing-the sticking points of Western intellectual investigation. With a breathtaking ease, she has carried us to the place where awareness and existence collide. The consciousness of the poem is experienced, respectful of the dark, temperamentally patient, stubborn and searching.
Several different translators have tried their hand at Szymborska's work and the results, much like the restorations of any kind of lost art, throw different aspects of the original into relief while inadvertently reflecting the values and interests of the translators themselves. The volume under review has been translated by Stanislaw Baránczak, the Polish poet and professor of Slavic languages at Harvard, and Clare Cavanagh, professor of Slavic languages at the University of Wisconsin. They have, together, translated almost all of the great post war Polish poets and are esteemed for their accuracy, artfulness, and tenacity in reproducing in English many of the formal components of the poems. Their translation of one of Szymborska's poems, "Some People Like Poetry," caused a small stir in American literary circles when it appeared in the New Republic in the same week that Joanna Trzeciak's translation of the same poem appeared in the New Yorker.
Journalists were bothered that the two translations suggested very different interpretations of the poet's intentions, especially in the final stanza. Here is the Baránczak-Cavanagh version, which suggests that the poet clings to doubt and uncertainty (and this certainly her proclivity, if we recall her Nobel lecture, praising the simple phrase "I don't know"):
but what is poetry anyway?
More than one rickety answer
has tumbled since that question first was raised.
But I just keep on not knowing, and I cling to that
like a redemptive handrail.
Among other things, the Trzeciak rendering replaces the demonstrative pronoun,"that," with the impersonal pronoun, "it," and the result brings us closer to Marianne Moore's argument with poetry: "we / do not admire what / we cannot understand." Not able to define poetry, this translation seems to say that she grasps onto it nonetheless:
but what sort of thing is poetry?
More than one shaky answer
has been given to this question.
But I do not know and do not know and
clutch on to it,
as to a saving banister.
Predictably, the discussion among American poets has centered more upon the question of style and fluency than meaning: "but what is poetry anyway?" is starker, more impatient, for instance, than "but what sort of thing is poetry?" a more musical question. The final image, "a redemptive handrail" demonstrates a dramatic heightening that is softened and brought down to earth as "a saving banister." Czeslaw Milosz, a compatriot and fellow Nobel laureate, has written about Szymborska's "remarkable" reticence, characterizing her work as "just a whisper." In this respect he is suggesting a subtlety to her voice, attributing a quality that exists between the lines and is untranslatable.
The foundation of reticence, silence, serves a variety of purposes and the origin of those predilections must lie in the intimate nature of the Polish intellectual community. It is difficult for Americans to imagine the poignantly familial artistic circles of Warsaw or Cracow, comprised of a generation-now aging-that experienced war-time occupation together and afterwards lived in close quarters. When you write for friends, there are things that don't need to be said; the audience can read the silences: "You'll see how we give / birth among the ruins" the poet calls out to the Yeti in "Notes from a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition."
The lessons of European history, exper-ienced by the generation of the twenties,logically led to a degree of humility. Milosz commented on this in the New York Review of Books: "Szymborska, like Tadeusz Rozewicz and Zbigniew Herbert, writes in the place of the generation of poets who made their debut during the war and did not survive." It is interesting to contrast this with the inclination of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova's "Requiem" which begins with a remembered conversation outside Leningrad's prison lines:
"Can you describe this?"
And I said: "I can."
Then something like a smile passed fleetingly
over what had once been her face.
In Szymborska's work there is hesitancy and modesty-perhaps a matter of personality-an emphasis on the difficulty of telling the truth, to get it right, to thread one's way through a maze of official half-truths. In post-war Poland, which had lost more than 6,000,000 people to the Germans, it was not permissible to speak directly about the 2,000,000 Jews who died at Auschwitz or the indifference of certain segments of Polish society. The encounter with communism, which the Polish critic, Jan Kott, calls the "serpent's sting," insinuated itself into Polish art, leaving behind a hole of silence, representing what was sometimes compromised, sometimes excised. The poems in Szymborska's first two books, none of them reprinted in the collected work, reflected the requisite Stalinist themes that were standard in texts that made their way past publishing house censors.
One of only a handful of poems that concentrates directly on the atrocities of modern Polish history, "Starvation Camp Near Jaslo," seems mindful of the unresolved problems of documentation: "History rounds off skeletons to zero. / A thousand and one is still only a thousand." On the other hand, we know that, too often, the artistic rendering of the death camps turns the human beings who suffered into kitsch. The reflex of Szymborska's art is to shake off the confinement of particularity while acknowledging it as inescapable. She says, "That one. . . "-skeleton- "seems never to have existed. . . " and, as she re-imagines the commotion and the debris that existed while a thousand people starved together, nouns are generalized: "an empty cradle," "a bird." There is an ardor for the impossible interchange of things always balanced against a deep respect for the accident that makes every thing distinct. So we see her poem build upon approximation-the camp is near Jaslo, the landscape is nonspecific, the meadow with the "forest close by" could be the backdrop of any of the extermination sites in the Polish countryside. Szymborska looks out at the pristine scene: "It became flesh right here, on this meadow. / But the meadow's silent, like a witness who's been bought." Similarly, her figures are not overweighted with realism, but rather rough hewn: "A man swayed / on a grill of barbed wire." She rounds off the people with perhaps the same instinct as those twentieth century sculptors of coarsely shaped and often headless human forms.
One of the premises for this kind of art is an appreciation of silence (and the English reading audience may remark on similar inclinations evident in the work of W. S. Merwin and the circle of writers surrounding him who would roughly be her contemporaries). A portion of each poem remains held back, disinclined to give up its meaning, like the stone that Szymborska confronts:
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."
And our pleasure as an audience involves the experience following our first reading when the deep meaning of the poet's jokes on us is slowly released.
During the Cold War, in the "liberal" totalitarian countries of Eastern Europe, art (often erotic) responded to political risks, vacillating between intimacy and adamant privacy. L'arte pauvre was affectionately produced in those impoverished countries where the materials to make art were scarce. Poland, in particular, has a tradition of using fragile, soft, and perishable material that remind us of the inadequacies of the human being. Szymborska has worked alongside this tradition, composing her poems from simple things: ants, grasshoppers, the onion, clouds ("Next to clouds / even a stone seems like a brother, / someone you can trust, while they're just distant, flighty cousins") and combining these with odd bits of knowledge from natural history, the lives of the painters, Shakespeare, Latin class, aphorisms, study of the almanac, and philosophy. As might be expected, some of the sharp, perhaps restless, energy of the early poems gives way at the end when her ambivalence about specific representation of the individual is addressed most directly:
There's one thing I won't agree to:
my own return.
The privilege of presence-
I give it up. ("Parting with a View")
What does that make the reader do? When we read carefully, Szymborska's renunciation, so aptly put, "The privilege of presence– " is followed by a cascade of feelings, among them: anger, remorse, resistance, esteem.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.
Support us with a donation this giving season.