February 2, 2012

Hail & Farewell: Wislawa Szymborska


Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska died at her home in Krakow yesterday.  She was 88 years old. According to a New York Times obituary, “Szymborska, a heavy smoker, died in her sleep of lung cancer … surrounded by relatives and friends.” As the Times notes,

The Nobel award committee’s citation called her the “Mozart of poetry,” a woman who mixed the elegance of language with “the fury of Beethoven” and tackled serious subjects with humor. While she was arguably the most popular poet in Poland, most of the world had not heard of the shy, soft-spoken Szymborska before she won the Nobel prize.

Szymborska’s poetry was deceptively simple, using everyday language to talk about grander themes of love, loss and history.  [See poem below.] Its accessibility, humor and succinctness found a wide and receptive audience in Poland. And it also enabled her poetry to stretch beyond the borders of Poland and touch an international audience.

The simplicity and seeming ease of her poetry belied the great care she took in making her poems. As the Times reports, “Despite six decades of writing, Szymborska had less than 400 poems published. Asked why, she once said: ‘There is a trash bin in my room. A poem written in the evening is read again in the morning. It does not always survive.'”  She was reportedly working on new poems right up to her death.

Humor played a great part in her work, and in her life. Always very modest, she shied away from the limelight created by the Noble Prize, often using humor to deflect its rays. The opening of her Nobel Lecture, as good a time as any for an author to indulge in a little showboating, is a good example of her style:

They say the first sentence in any speech is always the hardest. Well, that one’s behind me, anyway. 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. All imperfection is easier to tolerate if served up in small doses.

According to the Times report:

Last year, President Bronislaw Komorowski honored Szymborska with Poland’s highest distinction, The Order of the White Eagle, in recognition of her contribution to her country’s culture.

In reaction to her death, Komorowski wrote that “for decades she infused Poles with optimism and with trust in the power of beauty and the might of the word.”

Szymborska was our “guardian spirit,” Komorowski wrote. “In her poems we could find brilliant advice which made the world easier to understand.”

Poland’s loss is also our own.


On Death, without Exaggeration

It can’t take a joke,
find a star, make a bridge.
It knows nothing about weaving, mining, farming,
building ships, or baking cakes.

In our planning for tomorrow,
it has the final word,
which is always beside the point.

It can’t even get the things done
that are part of its trade:
dig a grave,
make a coffin,
clean up after itself.

Preoccupied with killing,
it does the job awkwardly,
without system or skill.
As though each of us were its first kill.

Oh, it has its triumphs,
but look at its countless defeats,
missed blows,
and repeat attempts!

Sometimes it isn’t strong enough
to swat a fly from the air.
Many are the caterpillars
that have outcrawled it.

All those bulbs, pods,
tentacles, fins, tracheae,
nuptial plumage, and winter fur
show that it has fallen behind
with its halfhearted work.

Ill will won’t help
and even our lending a hand with wars and coups d’etat
is so far not enough.

Hearts beat inside eggs.
Babies’ skeletons grow.
Seeds, hard at work, sprout their first tiny pair of leaves
and sometimes even tall trees fall 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.

always arrives by that very moment too late.

In vain it tugs at the knob
of the invisible door.
As far as you’ve come
can’t be undone.



Valerie Merians is the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.