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:
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)