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Wislawa Szymborska, Nobel Poet: An Appreciation

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When I first encountered the poetry of Wislawa Szymborska -- the Nobel laureate from Poland who died recently at age 88 -- it was love at first read. It was the early '80s; I was browsing in a bookstore when my eye luckily fell on these opening lines of her poem titled "Wonderment":

Why to excess then in one single person? /
This one not that? And why am I here? /
On a day that's a Tuesday? In a house not a nest? /
In skin not in scales? With a face not a leaf? /
Why only once in my very own person? /
Precisely on earth? Under this little star? /
After so many eras of not being here?

Actually she had me at her hello -- "Why to excess then in one single person?" -- with its focus on the individual and the expectation of excess to be found therein. That this expansiveness came from a Pole, whose country suffered Nazi occupation and then Communist authoritarianism, struck me as a voice of resistance and wisdom that had to be admired. And I did; over the years I acquired a small stack of her work and drank deep, shelving her on my nightstand.

Thus I was not surprised when, in 1996, Szymborska was awarded the Nobel prize in literature. While the general reaction here to her naming was "Who?" I felt like I'd spotted her as the real immortal thing long before.

Szymborska can be witty in her view of humanity. Observing an infant in "No End of Fun," she opens with: "So he's got to have happiness, / he's got to have truth, too, / he's got to have eternity -- / did you ever!" She concludes: "A human, if ever we saw one." "In Praise of My Sister" is a wry paean to her sibling, the non-poet: "When my sister invites me to lunch, / I know she has no plans to read me her poems." Instead, "her writing's restricted to holiday postcards, / the text promising the same each year: / that when she returns / she'll tell us / all / all / all about it."

Szymborska can be inventive with form. "Funeral" consists entirely of snatches of overheard conversation, opening with: "-- so suddenly, who could have guessed / -- nerves, and cigarettes, I did warn him / -- passably, thank you / -- unwrap those flowers." It ends with: "-- give me a ring, we'll talk / -- catch a 4 or a 12 / -- I go this way / -- we go over there." Pity the poor, barely mentioned departed.

Theatre, as art form and condition of living, gets her idiosyncratic treatment. In "Theatre Impressions" she focuses on the curtain call, "when they arise from stage battlefields, / adjust their wigs and robes, / pull out the knife from the breast." It's the actors playing the small roles, though, "those who died much earlier," that she spotlights: "The thought that in the wings they patiently waited / not shedding their costumes / not taking off their make-up / moves me more than tragic tirades." Extending the theatre metaphor, in "Instant Living" she portrays life itself as impromptu drama: "Unrehearsed performance. / Untried-on body. / A thoughtless head. / I am ignorant of the role I perform. / All I know is it's mine, can't be exchanged." The poem ends: "Oh, I have no doubt this is the opening night. / And whatever I'll do / will turn for ever into what I've done."

But what I prize most about Szymborska is her readiness to confront the big classic themes -- life, death, history, war, reality, love -- and to do so with a voice that combines the fire of the Resistance with a proper humility. "Apologies to the big questions for small replies," she wrote, "Speech: Don't blame me for borrowing big words / and then struggling to make them light."

Here she is on the historical cycles of war and peace, in "The End and the Beginning," which opens famously with: "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." After itemizing the years of repair work ("Shirtsleeves will be rolled / to shreds"), and noting how "from time to time someone must / dig up a rusted argument / from underneath a bush," she traces how the cycle regenerates: "Those who knew / what this was all about / must make way for those / who know little. / And less than that."

And here she is, bracingly, on the force that makes war possible -- hatred (in a poem simply titled "Hatred"): "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." Hatred is undying: "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." Indeed, hatred's a winner: "Since when does brotherhood / draw crowds? / Has compassion / ever finished first? / Does doubt ever really rouse the rabble? / Only hatred has just what it takes." Above all, hatred is indefatigable: "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." Elsewhere Szymborska aptly formulates the problem for humanity: the "good and strong" are "two different people."

And here she is on death, managing to reduce its sting, in "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." Moreover, "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." Yet even in the presence of death, there is life: "Hearts beat inside eggs. / Babies' skeletons grow."

And here she is on a phenomenon of our times, in "The Terrorist, He's Watching": "The bomb in the bar will explode at thirteen twenty. / Now it's just thirteen sixteen. / There's still time for some to go in, / and some to come out." After describing the lucky ones who go out and the unlucky ones who go in, and the unluckiest of all, the one who returns for "his crummy gloves," the bomb does what it must: "it explodes."

With all her pronouncements, many of them dire, one might take the subject of her poem "Soliloquy for Cassandra" to be Szymborska herself. With her city "under ashes," Cassandra, triumphant, laments her "prophet's junk." Of people, whom she tried to warn, Cassandra says regretfully, "I loved them. / But I loved them haughtily. / From heights beyond life," while noting enviously that they, ordinary people, "really knew what a moment means." Yet the prophet's motivation is noble: she wants to save her people -- by urging perspective. "Look down on yourselves from the stars, I cried, / look down on yourselves from the stars." The repetition of that line says it all: Cassandra has our back.

Whether or not Szymborska saw herself as Cassandra, in her Nobel speech she characterized the poet, and thus herself, as one of "Fortune's darlings." And in the poem pointedly titled "The Joy of Writing," she closes with, "The joy of writing. / The power of preserving. / The revenge of the mortal hand."

Accordingly, the last word should be left to the poet. As my last recommendation of Szymborska as an excellent companion on the Road of Life and Death, here in its entirety is "A Word on Statistics":

Out of every hundred people

Those who always know better:
fifty-two.

Unsure of every step:
nearly all the rest.

Ready to help,
as long as it doesn't take long:
forty-nine.

Always good,
because they cannot be otherwise:
four -- well, maybe five.

Able to admire without envy:
eighteen.

Led to error
by youth (which passes):
sixty, plus or minus.

Those not to be messed with:
forty and four.

Living in constant fear
of someone or something:
seventy-seven.

Capable of happiness:
twenty-some-odd at most.

Harmless alone,
turning savage in crowds:
more than half, for sure.

Cruel
when forced by circumstances:
it's better not to know
not even approximately.

Wise in hindsight:
not many more
than wise in foresight.

Getting nothing out of life but things:
thirty
(although I would like to be wrong).

Doubled over in pain,
without a flashlight in the dark:
eighty-three,
sooner or later.

Those who are just:
quite a few at thirty-five.

But if it takes effort to understand:
three.

Worthy of empathy:
ninety-nine.

Mortal:
one hundred out of one hundred --
a figure that has never varied yet.

(From Miracle Fair: Selected Poems of Wislawa Szymborska. Compilation and English translation copyright 2001 by Joanna Trzeciak; publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. Reprinted with permission.)

For another appreciation of Wislawa Szymborska, see here. For another bio, see here. For a bibliography of Szymborska's work in English, see here. For other obituaries, see here, here, and here. For her Nobel lecture, see here.

Carla Seaquist is the author of a book of commentary, "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she is the author of "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks," included in the forthcoming volume "Two Plays of Life and Death," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."