Leave it to Wislawa Szymborska, the 1996 Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet who died this month at 88, to write a poem celebrating tragedy's nonexistent sixth act. This is when, as she described it in "Theatre Impressions," the offstage dead return for their bows, actors straighten their wigs and fancy gowns and, as the curtain falls, it's possible to see a hand as it "quickly reaches for a flower" or "picks up a fallen sword." Only after the stage has gone dark does the poet feel the hand of tragedy grabbing her by the throat.
Szymborska's poems contemplate reality from unexpected angles, searching always for what has been overlooked in the usual survey of experience. Absence, emptiness and what is no longer there provoked her imagination the way lush landscapes fired up the Romantics'. In "Cat in an Empty Apartment," she conveyed the palpability of death through the depiction of a feline left behind to wait for its delinquent master. She wrote in praise of a sister who doesn't write poems, sent a thank-you note to those she didn't love and extolled the virtue of feeling bad about oneself.
To be a Polish poet in the caldron of 20th century European history was to be a witness to the worst of what human beings are capable of. That is a terrible burden for any writer but especially for one who is drawn to poetry, as the better poets are, by internal forces. Polish émigré writer Czeslaw Milosz, Szymborska's Nobel Prize-winning predecessor, once observed that she, "like Tadeusz Rozewicz and Zbigniew Herbert, writes in the place of the generation of poets who made their debut during the war and did not survive."
But Milosz also noted that she was first and foremost a "poet of consciousness." This might seem like a contradiction, but Szymborska's body of work is a testament to the way national suffering, rather than invalidating the mystery of being, throws it further into relief.
Four billion people on this earth,
but my imagination is still the same.
It's bad with large numbers.
It's still taken by particularity.
These lines from "A Large Number" are written in the recognition that the most she can do in reply to the "stentorian calling" of poetry is offer a "little poem, a sigh, at the cost of indescribable losses."
Szymborska, however, was far from a somber elegist. She labored heavily, to paraphrase from "Under One Small Star," to make her poems seem light. Her popularity in English, thanks largely to the crystalline translations of Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, has much to do with her playful wit and profound frivolity. The irony she employed pleasurably unfolds inside us. Her opening to "The Silence of Plants" ("Our one-sided acquaintance/ grows quite nicely") gives a sense of her sly levity. And note the philosophical wink that comes in "True Love" when she kindly asked the ostentatiously happy couple to "fake a little depression for their friends' sake!"
Poet Charles Simic described Szymborska as "one of the most readable" of contemporary poets. This had as much to do with the customary brevity of her free verse as her straightforward conversational style. Often characterized as "reticent" (an adjective disproportionately applied to female poets), Szymborska was actually quite direct in her subject matter, as the titles of a couple of later poems, "A Few Words on the Soul" and "Photograph from September 11" suggest. She wasn't at all afraid of tackling great metaphysical conundrums or referring to past atrocities, but she proceeded with exquisite modesty and adamantly refused to draw conclusions.
In her Nobel lecture she held up as the source of her inspiration the words "I don't know." Authentic poets, she argued, must keep repeating these words to themselves even as they grope toward makeshift answers in individual poems. This is what distinguishes them from the "torturers, dictators, fanatics, and demagogues struggling for power by way of a few loudly shouted slogans." And it is precisely this doubt that, in her view, unites artists with all the other "restless, questing spirits" whose miraculous works give rise to even more questions.
The early poem "Brueghel's Two Monkeys" invokes a dream about final exams: "The exam is the History of Mankind./I stammer and hedge." And it is indeed through Szymborska's eloquent stammering and hedging that she achieved her authority. Humility in her case wasn't mere courtesy but an epistemological stance. She accepted that the world is larger than any human paradigm and acknowledged with some relief the way clouds ignore "with impunity" those "leaky boundaries of man-made states!"
To those traumatized by history, nature's indifference can be a comfort. "Perhaps all fields are battlefields," Szymborska wrote in "Reality Demands" — taking in the beauty along with the bloodshed. This capacity for being astonished, for remembering that "[t]his terrifying world is not devoid of charms" was nearly inexhaustible, and it endowed her unassuming verse with breathtaking grandeur.