The Sounds, Feelings, and Thoughts of Poet Wisława Szymborska, 1923–2012

Wysława Szymborska in Krakow, 2009, from Wikimedia Commons.

Wisława Szymborska in Krakow, 2009, from Wikimedia Commons.

 Thirty years ago, I was working in the literature department of the Detroit Public Library, devoted to building an excellent collection of contemporary poetry. I bought a book for the library with the unfortunate (it seemed to me then) title Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts by Polish poet Wisława Szymborska. The book turned out to be a revelation that changed my life. That same year I went to Poland for the first time, unable to speak Polish and completely uneducated about the land of my ancestors. I had not yet imagined that I would, some 20 years later, live in Poland for six of the best months of my life, connect with long-lost  relatives, and write a book about the experience.  Wisława Szymborska, who looked a great deal like my mother, was the writer who started me on that journey. She died on February 1 in Krakow at the age of 88.     

One of my favorite library patrons in those days was Edward Hirsch, a brilliant poet in his own right, then teaching at Wayne State University across the street from the library. One day, soon after I had purchased Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts, Hirsch came into the library and I urged him to check it out.  When he brought it back, having read it, we talked about what a spectacular surprise Szymborska’s work was and how the translations by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Mcguire captured the essence of her skill–that spare, simple language that enables her to pierce life’s mysteries with the sound of her poetic voice.     

I called Hirsch yesterday and asked him to reminisce with me about those days of discovery. He is now president of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation in New York. He remembered well the library’s new-book shelves and how he “almost didn’t pick it up” because of the off-putting title of Szymborska’s book. He didn’t know much about her thirty years ago, he said, although he had already discovered Czesław Miłosz and many post-World War II Polish poets.     

“I was 23, and Miłosz’s Selected Poems had just been published; I took it with me on a trip to Poland,” Hirsch recalled. “I remember reading it and walking through what had once been the Warsaw ghetto. It had a tremendous impact on me. Miłosz was my portal…and then Szymborska came along. I was completely amazed at the poems. I recognized right from the beginning that she had a way of approaching a poem that really wasn’t like anyone else’s.”    

“That’s where it stood,” Hirsch remembered, until translators Stanisław Baranczyk and Clare Cavanaugh published View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems  in 1995. There was no literary criticism about her in English, he recalled, “so I tried to think through the poems on my own to see how they were working. Then she won the Nobel Prize.” After that, The New York Times sent Hirsch back to Poland. He met and interviewed Szymborska and with the help of a translator, “We became friends.”   

Edward Hirsch has become one of the foremost literary critics of poetry from what we used to refer to as Eastern Europe, Poland in particular. In his essay “Subversive Activities,” published in The New York Review of Books in 1996, Hirsch said that Szymborska “has mounted in her work a witty and tireless defense of individual subjectivity against collectivist thinking, and her poems, like [Czesław Miłosz's] are slyly subversive in a way that compels us to reconsider received opinion. In both, the rejection of dogma becomes the basis of a canny personal ethics.”     

Although enormously popular in Poland, Szymborska was shunned by some people for her early flirtation with communism. She told Hirsch, “When I was young I had a moment of believing in the Communist doctrine. I wanted to save the world through Communism. Quite soon I understood that it doesn’t work, but I’ve never pretended it didn’t happen to me.”   

By 1957, Szymborka had renounced communism and became an activist in the Solidarity movement, which led to the overthrow of the Soviet system in Poland and the rest of the countries behind the so-called Iron Curtain. Still, her poetry was never really political; it is highly personal. “Of course, life crosses politics,” she told the Times after winning the Nobel.    

Hirsch and another great Polish poet, Adam Zagajewski, ran a seminar in Krakow for several years, after Miłosz became too sick to travel to U.S., where he had lived for many years after World War II. ”The connection between Polish and American poets was important to Miłosz,” Hirsch said, and even though Szymborska was reluctant to appear in public, she agreed to read at these events and participate in interviews. “It was a big event in Krakow,” he noted. ”She is extremely dry and witty. The sorrow and the sadness that you could see in her work wasn’t much on display socially. It was a dry wit and she loved humor in language. She loved kitsch and was always telling you about kitschy gifts.” Hirsch recommended her book Non Required Reading for examples of her taste for the outlandish and far-fetched.    

When I look back on Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts, in light of what we now know about Wisława Szymborska’s life and body of poetry, the title doesn’t seem quite so trite. In Polish, “głosy, uczucia, myśli” may indeed be the words that best capture the essence of her work. Here is an example:   

“Seen from Above” by Wisława Szymborska

     from View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems   

     translated from the Polish by Stanisław Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh     

A dead beetle lies on the path through the field.
Three pairs of legs folded neatly on its belly.
Instead of death’s confusion, tidiness and order.
The horror of this sight is moderate,
its scope is strictly local, from the wheat grass to the mint.
The grief is quarantined.
The sky is blue.     

To preserve our peace of mind, animals die
more shallowly: they aren’t deceased, they’re dead.
They leave behind, we’d like to think, less feeling and less world,
departing, we suppose, from a stage less tragic.
Their meek souls never haunt us in the dark,
they know their place,
they show respect.     

And so the dead beetle on the path
lies unmourned and shining in the sun.
One glance at it will do for meditation—
clearly nothing much has happened to it.
Important matters are reserved for us,
for our life and death, a death
that always claims the right of way.

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