Thursday, February 2, 2012

In Memoriam Wislawa Szymborska

Wislawa Szymborska died yesterday, and I am torn between the need to write what she has meant to me, means to me still, and my utter inability to do justice to her life and work. I am stunned and saddened by her passing.  It's not that she was young.  She lived to be 88--a respectable stretch of years.  It's not that she was my best friend or my favorite aunt. I didn't know her at all.  In fact, if she hadn't won the Nobel Prize in Literature sixteen years ago, I probably never would have heard of her.  

But I did hear of her.  I was a graduate student in creative writing at the time, gulping down poetry every day along with my morning coffee, my afternoon bagel, and my evening pint of Guinness.  Poetry--writing it, writing about it, reading it, studying it, discussing it--that was my life.  I remember seeing an article about Szymborska by Edward Hirsch in the New York Times shortly after she won the Prize.  He spoke of how reclusive she was, how relatively unknown she was outside of Poland.  And she discussed with him her life in Poland during World War II, then under Communism, and later after its fall.  At one time she had believed that Communism could save not only Poland, but perhaps all of humanity.  She soon realized this was not so, and she eventually joined the Solidarity Movement's struggle against Poland's Communist regime.  

Three of her sentences in particular stood out for me, and they ultimately became the central theme of my graduate thesis.  Speaking of her early enthusiasm for Communism, Szymborska stated, “At the very beginning of my creative life I loved humanity. I wanted to do something good for mankind. Soon I understood that it isn’t possible to save mankind.”  At first glance, this sentence sounded hopeless to me--but then I read her poems.  

Maybe All This 

Maybe all this 
is happening in some lab? 
Under one lamp by day 
and billions by night? 

Maybe we’re experimental generations? 
Poured from one vial to the next, 
shaken in test tubes, 
not scrutinized by eyes alone, 
each of us separately 
plucked up by tweezers in the end? 

Or maybe it’s more like this: 
No interference? 
The changes occur on their own 
according to plan? 
The graph’s needle slowly etches 
its predictable zigzags? 

Maybe thus far we aren’t of much interest? 
The control monitors aren’t usually plugged in? 
Only for wars, preferably large ones, 
for the odd ascent above our clump of Earth, 
for major migrations from point A to B?

Maybe just the opposite: 
They’ve got a taste for trivia up there? 
Look! on the big screen a little girl 
is sewing a button on her sleeve. 
The radar shrieks, 
the staff comes at a run. 
What a darling little being 
with its tiny heart beating inside it! 
How sweet, its solemn 
threading of the needle! 
Someone cries enraptured: 
Get the Boss, 
tell him he’s got to see this for himself! 

—(translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Claire Cavanagh)

As I read the poems in Szymborska's View With a Grain of Sand, everything I thought I knew about  poetry--not just its craft and form, but the life and the purpose of poetry--shifted.  This deeply brilliant, funny, sensitive, and most of all, ethical woman wrote poetry that did just what Emily Dickinson said poetry should do: make the reader "feel physically as if the top of [her] head were taken off."

Szymborska's poems examine ordinary, everyday subjects from extraordinary perspectives.  As I read them for the first time, the seventh time, and the fortieth time, I discovered what she meant in those three sentences that had puzzled me so.  I was young myself at the time, so I was just beginning to internalize what she had discovered years before under much more trying circumstances.  A deeply ethical, aesthetically beautiful, and intellectually challenging poem does not try to change the whole world.  It tries to speak to the individual reader.  To you, to me, to the man who lives around the corner and orders take-out Chinese every Thursday.  It is not dogmatic; it needs no soapbox from which to holler.  If the words are crafted from the gut, the heart, and the mind, a poem will speak to the reader and make him think, make him feel, make him see the same old world he's always seen, but from a different--an unexpected and enlightening--vantage point.

I ended up writing my graduate thesis on the subject of personal and communal responsibility in the poetry of Szymborska and her fellow countryman and Nobel winner, Czeslaw Milosz.  Her poetry helped to shape my own work as a poet, but perhaps more importantly, it helped me to shape my life as a person.  

I'm going to end with a Szymborska poem that possesses all her trademark wit, empathy, and candor.  I know it will be quoted and shared a great deal in the days and weeks to come as news of her death spreads.  Szymborska wrote this poem after a friend died.  It will not save mankind, but it will touch one person, then another . . . and then maybe even a third.

Cat in an Empty Apartment

Die—you can’t do that to a cat.
Since what can a cat do
in an empty apartment?
Climb the walls?
Rub up against the furniture?
Nothing seems different here
but nothing is the same.
Nothing’s been moved
but there’s more space.
And at nighttime no lamps are lit.

Footsteps on the staircase,
but they’re new ones.
The hand that puts fish on the saucer
has changed, too.

Something doesn’t start 
at its usual time.
Something doesn’t happen
as it should.
Someone was always, always here,
then suddenly disappeared
and stubbornly stays disappeared.

Every closet’s been examined.
Every shelf has been explored.
Excavations under the carpet turned up nothing.
A commandment was even broken:
papers scattered everywhere.
What remains to be done.
Just sleep and wait.

Just wait till he turns up,
just let him show his face.
Will he ever get a lesson
on what not to do to a cat.
Sidle toward him
as if unwilling
and ever so slow
on visibly offended paws,
and no leaps or squeals at least to start.

__(translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Claire Cavanagh)   


  1. i am just so grateful to you for insight into this captivating woman's work and her life and how it so impacted you, your work, your life ...
    may Wislawa Szymborska rest peacefully knowing that she did indeed do good for mankind.
    i absolutely love the photo of her ~ gentle, kind with a definite look of eagerness to express ... lovely.
    respectfully and with love,

  2. Oh, pg, you are so wonderful. It is such a loooooooong post, and I didn't expect a soul to read it, let alone comment on it. I think I just needed to let it all come out of me last night--well, actually, in the wee hours of the morning when I couldn't sleep for thinking of her and rereading her poems.

    But of course you read it, and of course you commented. Thank you, my friend. I love that photo of her, too, although there were many I could have chosen, and she has that same way about her in nearly all of them.

    With love and thanks,
    Gigi xo

  3. On my first visit, you had me at Scout and Dill.

    How dear of you to share this with us, Gigi. Wislawa and Emily speak forever because of you!


  4. Oh, thank you, Lynne! I always know I've found a kindred spirit when people love my cats' names. TKAM is my favorite book in the world.

    I think Wislawa and Emily will speak forever because of how brilliant they are, but I'm happy to do my part in sharing their work!

    xoxo Gigi

  5. A lovely and heartfelt post Gigi..........the best kind. Imagine her pleasure if she could only have known how she affected and inspired so many. Now that is a good life. XO

  6. I didn't know of this special lady, but now I do and must find more to read. I did enjoy the images of the final poem and do see that it will be quoted again on the learning of her death.

  7. You've given me someone to discover further. The line in the NY Times article about her death that says, "The Nobel announcement surprised Ms. Szymborska, who had lived an intensely private life", intrigues me because many of the people that I love to study are those who consider their lives so very ordinary while their contributions indicate otherwise.

    Your post is a lovely tribute to her.


  8. Thanks for the lovely comments, my friends. Szymborska's books are easy to find online and in bookstores.

    xo Gigi

  9. I am so glad I found your blog. I visit regularly of course.

    Czeslaw Milosz is one of my favourite poets but I am ashamed to say I have not read Szymborska's poems before. You have whetted my appetite big time. This was a wonderful tribute to her.

  10. Loved every word... I will definitely be reading more of her work. Thank you for the post!

  11. Thank you for sharing with me (all of us) this poet!

  12. What a beautiful post to wake up to this February morning. Thanks so much for sharing about this poet.

  13. Thank you for introducing me to her. I'm sorry that I'd not heard of her before today. Your post...wonderful! Her poems you shared gave me goosebumps!

  14. Oh Gigi, what an incredible post. I'd never heard of her, and that last poem just took hold of my heart. I've never read one like it. xxxx Thank you so much for sharing this hearfelt post. I'm looking forward to discovering more of her work. xxxx

  15. You always introduce me to wonderful treasures. Thank you, friend. I've missed you.

  16. you are so inspiring gigi... although i did not know of her this is truly special to read...may she rest in peace...

    p.s. will you pls share your recipe with me? xx

  17. Gigi, thank you so much for this piece and the enlightenment you have shared with us. Now I too know Wislawa Szymborska and will become more familiar as I actively seek out her work!
    Thank you for sharing her with us.
    Beth P


Thank you so much for visiting and for taking the time to leave a comment! I love hearing from you.