Saturday, April 8, 2017

Polish Nobelist Wislawa Szymborska Remembered

Wisława Szymborska displays her Nobel Prize for Literature.

I owe a big tip-o’-the-hat to my Facebook friend and avid reader JoAnne Gazarek Bloom who recommended that I include Wislawa Szymborska in this year’s National Poetry Month posts.  Despite being married into a largely Polish family, I have as hard a time remembering Polish names as pronouncing them—all of those extra consonants and letters that are pronounced differently from English.  So I had forgotten I included Szymborska in the last April entry back in 2014.  But this remarkable poet certainly deserves a fresh round of appreciation, especially in light of our theme this year—Poets in Resistance. 
Szymborska was the 1996 Nobel Prize Lauriat in Literature.  Her work reflected the tumultuous times she lived through in her native Poland.  She survived World War II working on the railways and narrowly avoided being sent to a Nazi forced labor camp. After the war she studied at Jagiellonian University, worked as an illustrator, and began composing poetry.  Later she worked as an editor and columnist.
Wisława Szymborska as a young poet.

At first she was a loyal member of the Polish United Workers’ Party—Communists—even when her first book of verse was rejected because it “did not meet socialist requirements.”  However she grew estranged and disconnected from the regime. 
By 1966 she had left the party and had established connections with underground dissidents.  In the ‘80’s here work was being published in the underground samizdat periodical Arka under the pseudonym Stańczykówna, as well as posted to the Paris-based opposition magazine Kultura.
Szymborska rose to international acclaim especially after her surprise selection for the Nobel Prize.  The selection of an Eastern European was widely expected as the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact vassal states shed Communist rule and disentangled themselves from one another.  But most expected the Prize would go to Russian poet/dissident Yevgeny Yevtushenko but he was controversial especially with Jewish dissidents and former Nobelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. 
English translations of her work included People on a Bridge in 1990, View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems in 1995, and Monologue of a Dog in 2005.
Szymborska playful in mid-career.

Her work combined the political with the deeply personal without overt stridentness. Critic Stanislaw Baranczak wrote, “The typical lyrical situation on which a Szymborska poem is founded is the confrontation between the directly stated or implied opinion on an issue and the question that raises doubt about its validity.”  She thus challenged not only state and party dogma, but common agreed upon but unexamined social norms.
In addition to her Nobel honors, Szymborska was recognized with the Polish PEN Club Prize, the Goethe Prize, and the Herder Prize.
When she died at her long-time Kraków home in 2012 at the age of 88 she was mourned as national treasure.
An English edition of Szymborska's Monologue of a Dog plugged her Nobel Prize and featured an introduction by the popular living American poet, Billy Collins.

The End and the Beginning

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won’t
straighten themselves up, after all.
Someone has to push the rubble
to the side of the road,
so the corpse-filled wagons
can pass.
Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
sofa springs,
splintered glass,
and bloody rags.
Someone has to drag in a girder
to prop up a wall,
Someone has to glaze a window,
rehang a door.
Photogenic it’s not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.
We’ll need the bridges back,
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.
Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls the way it was.
Someone else listens
and nods with unsevered head.
But already there are those nearby
starting to mill about
who will find it dull.
From out of the bushes
sometimes someone still unearths
rusted-out arguments
and carries them to the garbage pile.
Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way for
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.
In the grass that has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds.

Wislawa Szymborska
Translated by Joanna Trzeciak
Photograph from September 11
They jumped from the burning floors—
one, two, a few more,
higher, lower.

The photograph halted them in life,
and now keeps them   
above the earth toward the earth.

Each is still complete,
with a particular face
and blood well hidden.

There’s enough time
for hair to come loose,
for keys and coins
to fall from pockets.

They’re still within the air’s reach,
within the compass of places
that have just now opened.

I can do only two things for them—
describe this flight
and not add a last line.

Wislawa Szymborska
Translated by Clare Cavanagh

In Praise of My Sister

My sister doesn’t write poems.
    and it’s unlikely that she’ll suddenly start writing poems.
    She takes after her mother, who didn’t write poems,
    and also her father, who likewise didn’t write poems.
    I feel safe beneath my sister’s roof:
    my sister’s husband would rather die than write poems.
    And, even though this is starting to sound as repetitive as
    Peter Piper,
    the truth is, none of my relatives write poems.

    My sister’s desk drawers don’t hold old poems,
    and her handbag doesn’t hold new ones,
    When my sister asks me over for lunch,
    I know she doesn’t want to read me her poems.
    Her soups are delicious without ulterior motives.
    Her coffee doesn’t spill on manuscripts.

    There are many families in which nobody writes poems,
    but once it starts up it’s hard to quarantine.
    Sometimes poetry cascades down through the generations,
    creating fatal whirlpools where family love may founder.

    My sister has tackled oral prose with some success.
    but her entire written opus consists of postcards from
    whose text is only the same promise every year:
    when she gets back, she’ll have
    so much
    much to tell.

Wislawa Szymborska

1 comment:

  1. Love the poems selected. Patrick I look forward every day to read your posts