Wisława Szymborska (Photo: Damian Klamka/ZUMA Press/Ansa)

Szymborska: Nothing is ordinary

One hundred years ago the poetess Wisława Szymborska, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, was born. Nothing was insignificant for her. What kind of knowledge and certainty emerge in her poems? From the August issue of Traces.
Andrea Fazioli

“Poets do not know, and often will never know the true recipients of their work.” Thus said Eugenio Montale in 1975 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize. Poems travel a long road: they are read, translated, shared on the internet, and scattered to the four winds. Is there really something
like a “true recipient”?

Personally, I’ve always considered myself a “true recipient” of the poetry of Wisława Szymborska (1923–2012). Naturally, we never met and she certainly was not thinking of me when she wrote. And yet the Polish author, who also received the Nobel Prize in 1996, was capable of making each word personal: she never seemed to address a generic readership or her contemporaries, but just me, exactly me, my daily life, a weaving together of apparently insignificant facts.

No fact is insignificant. This is one of the fundamental points of Szymborska’s poetics. Let’s take a family dinner. The children are uptight: one needs to study for a test, another is tired or maybe in love, who can say. The phone rings and the youngest daughter takes advantage of the moment to explore a fragment of reality: “She’s been in this world for over a year, / and in this world not everything’s been examined / and taken in hand.” The child decides to examine “things that don’t move by themselves.” Some things are unmovable. “But the tablecloth on the stubborn table /–when well seized by its hems–/ manifests a willingness to travel. // And the glasses, plates / creamer, spoons, bowl, / are fairly shaking with desire.”

The poem describes something that really happened. Szymborska was on the phone with a colleague when her youngest daughter dragged the tablecloth down,
causing plates and glasses to crash to the floor. The colleague expressed her dismay and added that without any set phrases Szymborska exclaimed, “It’s a good subject for a poem.”

Why was it a good subject? Maybe because that curious little girl wanting to move the dishes to see what would happen is a figure of the author. In fact, Szymborska takes care to keep her eye on the ordinary, miniscule things, expressing her wonder. She said so in a poem of her youth: “From wonder / arises / the need for words / and so every poem / is entitled Wonder.” In her case, this “wonder” manifests itself above all as mystery, in the conviction that no one can say: I know this, it’s a subject or fact well known to me, I’ve studied it for years, I already know everything.

In the times in my life when I’ve been tempted to think I’ve reached a stable point, one of Szymborska’s poems has always arrived to warn me. In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, she said, “Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.’” This may seem like an invitation to disengagement, but the contrary is the case. She distrusts those who “know, and whatever they know is enough for them once and for all.” In fact, “any knowledge that doesn’t lead to new questions quickly dies out: it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life.”

No knowledge can completely plumb the depths of mystery. This is another crucial point in Szymborska’s work, the ability to look at reality as a miracle, because each thing reveals unexpected profundities. “A miracle, just take a look around: / the inescapable earth.” Attention to detail reveals “a miracle that’s lost on us: / the hand actually has fewer than six fingers / but still it’s got more than four.” Or the fact that the sun “rose today at three fourteen a.m. / and will set tonight at one past eight.” Szymborska’s po- etry is a flowering of questionings, and the most unsophisticated ones, those that seem childish, are the most pressing.

Her famous poem Vietnam relates a conversation with a Vietnamese woman who answers every question with “I don’t know,” like a litany. What’s your name? How old are you? Where are you from? Why did you dig that burrow? How long have you been hiding? Don’t you know that we won’t hurt you? Whose side are you on? This is a war; you’ve got to choose. Does your village still exist? The questions follow one after the other, and the woman says, “I don’t know.” Then, the last question, “Are those your children?” “Yes.” Certainty is not based on some theoretical knowledge, but on the thing that defines that creature, that makes her human in the midst of her abject state: motherhood.

The ability to start from minute facts, the attention, the questions, the multiple points of view are all characteristics of her poetry, together with the power of her imagination. Maybe this explains her popularity: her poems have been translated into many languages, and her anthologies sell very well, not bad at all considering that it is poetry. At the sametime, she has the esteem and attention of critics. She committed grave errors in her life, such as supporting the Soviet Communist regime, with youthful poems honoring Lenin and Stalin. She herself acknowledges it: “I make no excuses. I wrote them, and I regret it.”

It is interesting to note that she felt those poems lacked “knowledge and imagination.” Certainly, she did not know how things were truly going under Stalin, but at the same time she had not yet found one of the main elements of her style: her power of imagination joined with irony and self-deprecation. These are fundamental points of her poetics as well because in addition to serving as an antidote to ideological rigidity, they make her capable of compassion. Just read the stunning final line of the lyric Any Case: “Listen, / how quickly your heart is beating in me.”

This is what enables the poetry of Szymborska to be personal, to speak to the inner depths of each person. This also happens with less literary texts, such as articles for newspapers or magazines. Take for example her reviews in the books section of a Polish magazine. They were not classics, often not even novels or poems, but for the most part manuals on ornithology or elegant dress, essays on historic figures, graphology, dolphins, roses, as well as the Guinness Book of World Records, statistical yearbooks, and dictionaries. With lightness and precision, she succeeds in transfiguring the material.

Thumbing through these “optional readings,” as the author herself called them, I have the impression of being in her private sitting room on a rainy day. We are drinking tea as we leaf through the strangest books, attentive to seeking traces of ourselves, as always. Hey, look, there’s a volume on prehistory! And she goes right to the point: “Did Neanderthal man cry? Did his tear ducts react to physical pain, and above all, to the most varied reasons of affliction and sadness? Maybe he wasn’t able to name them yet. Nothing strange there: at times it's a problem for me, too.” From anthropology we’ve come to the essence of poetic creativity: finding the names to express what we feel inside ourselves. It is difficult because things are more vast than our definitions. But this attention keeps us alert and eliminates any trace of nihilism. With her usual irony, Szymborska expresses the inescapability of hope: “I prefer to take into consideration even the possibility / that being has its own reason.” Also because, as she wrote in the last two lines of The Three Oddest Words, “When I pronounce the word Nothing, / I make something no non-being can hold.”

So here is the key point in her works: hope. Often it is hidden, and often its opposite appears as melancholy or bitterness, but there is always resistance. In her poem, Old Professor she asks a series of questions of an elderly teacher who has become tired and disillusioned: “I asked if he happened to be happy // I work /–he answered me.” The last lines open a glimmer of hope: “I asked him about his garden and his bench. // When the evening is clear I observe the sky. / I never cease to wonder, / so many points of view up there /–he answered me.”

In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, she referred to her dream “to get a chance to chat with the Ecclesiastes, the author of that moving lament on the vanity of all human endeavors.” This is the author of the book of the Bible by the same name, also known as Qoelet. After bowing before him, she would take his hand and say, “There’s nothing new under the sun: that’s what you wrote, Ecclesiastes. But you yourself were born new under the sun. And the poem you created is also new under the sun, since no one wrote it down before you.” Then she has him note that his readers are new, and also the cypress he is sitting under, because each thing is unique. And she concludes: “The world, whatever we might think when terrified by its vastness and our own impotence, or embittered by its indifference to individual suffering [...] is astonishing.” Nothing is ordinary, not a cloud, not a stone; every single person that exists on this earth merits our wonder.