Wistawa Szymborska was a Polish poet who was awarded the Nobel prize back in 1996 and who died last month (February). I thought I’d write a few words (OK paragraphs) of appreciation. Maybe one of the two persons who actually read this blog might wish to dip into her work themselves. She didn’t publish much – only about 250 poems (about the same as T.S.Eliot’s actually). When she was asked why she published so little, she told the interviewer it was because she had a waste bin in her office. Her work spans a life that began in Russian occupied Poland (her first book was rejected by the censors for failing to “meet socialist requirements” – a fact that I suspect influenced her style of hiding in plain sight) and ended in a country much changed.
But her themes and preoccupations remained very firmly focused – an unwavering cynicism about politics and the duplicity of political promises; and an investigator’s eye for continually peeling back layers of accepted knowledge. (In her Nobel acceptance speech, she spoke of those – the politicians, the dictators the…fill in the blank here – who “don’t want to find out anything else, since that might diminish the force of their arguments”. In ‘On The Banks of The Styx’ she writes that “…only doubt/can make you, sorry soul, a bit less wretched.”)
As with all poets – all art for that matter – she offers us a distinctive way – her way – of seeing things, with a charming, almost story-telling style that invites you in, usually with some disarmingly simple thought or image. But watch it – you know she’s gonna get you.
in ‘Coloratura’ the romantic image of a whistling bird quickly becomes the siren song of a politician’s seductive cant that will “twitter nothing bitter” with a “voice so thin it sounds like air”
And ‘Clouds’ begins with an almost Wordsworthian romanticism:
“I’d have to be really quick
to describe clouds –
a split second’s enough
for them to start being something else.”
Pretty soon this pleasant image – with which we can all identify – twists into the poet’s perception. Said clouds are…
“Unburdened by memory of any kind,
they float easily over facts.
What on earth could they bear witness to?
They scatter whenever something happens”
And with that simple twist can we ever see cloulds the same way again or will the idea of them as “floating over facts” forever identify them with the Bushes and Blairs of the world? (Damn. I can no longer wander lonely as a cloud.)
The theme of memory as witness is one she returns to again and again. For her, memory is the thing that roots us in actuality – it is in the forgetting, the often deliberate desire to escape memory that we let the horrors happen. In ‘Notes From a Non-Extstent Himalayian Expedition’, she writes:
“We’ve inherited hope –
the gift of forgetting”
And this is a gift to which she heaps ironic praise in many of her poems. In ‘May 16, 1973’ she writes:
“One of those many dates
that no longer ring a bell.
Where I was going that day,
what I was doing – I don’t know”
This lack of memory, she observes was “Not a bad trick/to vanish before my own eyes”. The poem ends with a desire to re-engage, to escape from escape as it were:
“I shake my memory.
Maybe something in its branches
that has been asleep for years
will start with a flutter.”
Probably one of her most famous poems (that you can apply to anything that’s happening these days, especially now with a Republican drum beat to attack Iran) is ‘The End and The Beginning’.
“After every war
someone has to tidy up.
Things won’t pick
themselves up, after all.”
“Someone has to lie there
in the grass that covers up
the causes and effects
with a cornstalk in his teeth
gawking at the clouds.”