Wislawa Szymborska, Poet Of Gentle Irony, Dies At 88
Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
February 2, 2012
The surest path to international fame as a poet probably doesn’t involve writing short poems about sea cucumbers. Yet for the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (pronounced vees-WAH-vah sheem-BOHR-skah), who won the Nobel Prize in 1996 and died Wednesday, the little things — onions, tarsiers and, yes, sea cucumbers — turned out to be very big indeed. Along with the work of Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Rozewicz (and from a slightly earlier generation, Czeslaw Milosz), Szymborska’s poems suggest not only the beauty of postwar Polish writing, but also the potential strength of poetry anywhere and everywhere.
Like her peers, Szymborska is an ironist. But in Szymborska’s work, irony takes on a very particular character; it becomes playful, almost whimsical, as if the poet were more interested in juggling the ball in her hand than using it to score a goal. Her poems are usually short, they often focus on the quirks of an everyday subject or situation, and her tone stays firmly in the middle ground, well away from the darker pitches of rage, despair or ecstasy. She’s a poet of dry-eyed, athletic precision: an acrobat, not a powerlifter. The beginning of “Under One Small Star” is typical (all quotations are from translations by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh):
My apologies to chance for calling it necessity.My apologies to necessity if I’m mistaken, after all.Please, don’t be angry, happiness, that I take you as my due.May my dead be patient with the way my memories fade.My apologies to time for all the world I overlook each second.My apologies to past loves for thinking that the latest is the first.Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home.Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger.
And the poem concludes:
Don’t bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty wordsthen labor heavily so that they may seem light.
This is often taken as a statement of principle by Szymborska, whose devotion to lightness extended even to elegies. “Cat in an Empty Apartment” takes the point of view of a dead friend’s cat, left alone; “Funeral (II)” consists of quotes one hears at, well, funerals (“you were smart, you brought the only umbrella”). Each poem is moving, but the sentiment emerges around the lines, rather than being spelled out within them. It’s misdirection as tribute.
Yet if Szymborska’s touch is gentle, it can still burn or freeze. Consider her sea cucumber (or “holothurian”) poem, which is called “Autonomy.” The poem begins:
In danger, the holothurian cuts itself in two.It abandons one self to a hungry worldand with the other self it flees.
It violently divides into doom and salvation,retribution and reward, what has been and what will be.
An abyss appears in the middle of its bodybetween what instantly becomes two foreign shores.
Life on one shore, death on the other.
The poem goes on to suggest that “we, too, can divide ourselves,” but only into “flesh and poetry.” She then invokes the phrase with which Horace ended his Odes: non omnis moriar, which translates to, “Not all of me will die.” Horace meant, of course, that great poets live on in their poems. Szymborska sees the danger in this way of thinking, however, and resists its implicit separation of poetry from the simply human. Her poem concludes:
Here the heavy heart, there non omnis moriar –Just three little words, like a flight’s three feathers.
The abyss doesn’t divide us.The abyss surrounds us.
By her own logic, Szymborska has now fallen into that very abyss. And yet it’s hard not to think that she, with all her delicate power, somehow still walks on air above us. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]