World under Revision

The Poetry of Wisława Szymborska

by Wojciech Ligęza (Author)
Monographs 194 Pages
Open Access
Series: Cross-Roads

Table Of Content


Wisława Szymborska’s poetry perceives people in the entirety of their existence; all things in their duration and change, bloom and death, the mystery of origins and unknown final destinies. Her poems embed people in a variety of nature’s forms, chains them to evolution, and through the gift and curse of consciousness, they simultaneously receive a separate position; so much so that, as an exception among creatures, people feel cosmic loneliness. Szymborska’s works link the praise of a multifarious world with reflection about nothingness. Existence is here the reverse side of nonexistence, the triumph of the game of coincidences, a momentary visit at reality, a fleeting affair with life. Under these conditions, there grows the astonishment with constantly experienced phenomena, which one cannot easily classify, tame, and appropriate. The earthly spectacle should be viewed with a fresh eye, without prejudice and aprioric axioms, but with full awareness that the task of cognition is feasible to a very limited extent, that participation in the performance is too short.

Szymborska’s poetry runs the lines of semantic tension between the determinants of individual existence and one’s belonging to the human race, between the history of our species and the entire history of evolution. We want to feel the peak of natural beings while Szymborska shows humanity as a group of aggressors in the world of nature. Therefore, Szymborska’s animals – our friars minor – may reasonably accuse us and question the human wellbeing. Szymborska’s Book of Genesis is incomplete; it gathers more questions than declarations of certainty. The distance that separates “Devonian tail fins” from the writing hand remains unimaginable. We should understand such approximation of prehistory to the modern times as a lesson of humility. The human species does not have an aristocratic pedigree because it clearly belongs to the biological community of beings. Thus, we must rethink the problem of anthropocentrism and revise human usurpations. Szymborska’s original poetic approach makes the individual into a living natural museum, for the body stores the memory of its predecessors in natural history; it exists in many places simultaneously. Hic et nunc looks at itself in semper et ubique.

For Szymborska, the experience of history does not teach us anything, studies of the past bring no elevating examples. The lesson of history is a lesson of crime. Evil remains unchanged, it revives with extraordinary strength, while hatred holds a high place among the motivations of deeds. The suffering of individuals builds historical continuity. Lie, violence, and fear engulf seem indestructible. ←7 | 8→Perhaps more often than the previous ages, the twentieth century dressed evil in the costume of good to demagogically manipulate ethical sensitivity and experiment with human conscience.

The human person does not want to be a child of the age and would rather forget about these dependencies. Our aspirations fall by the confluence of political circumstances and collective interests, always harmful for the individual. Szymborska observes all forms of social utopias with great suspicion. She deconstructs the language of ideological doctrines with no belief in the effectiveness of their supposedly revolutionary spells. Her conclusion is sad: it was supposed to be different, but it is as it is. Szymborska avoids grand words to defend the downtrodden; against the ruthless forces of evil, she juxtaposes the defenseless and priceless life of the human individual.

Group photographs make individual separateness very problematic. No man’s space is inhabited by a community of anonymous people. We are unable to compose biographies of responsibility and reflection from facts described in the language of large numbers, from crumbs of events devoid of ethical rigor and deeper meaning. Where can an individual feel at home? Love gives a chance, but this unique feeling is exceptionally rare in the scale of the entire cosmos. Agreement with another person consists mainly of misunderstandings. One must test love’s magic in all ways, so as not to succumb to premature infatuation. Besides, we lead a lonely game with existence in attempts to recognize its vague rules.

There obviously are vast regions of better realities in which the ordinary laws of life are suspended. For example, the contemplation of artworks temporarily liberates us from the passage of time. However, Szymborska cannot believe in the paradise of aesthetes. She shows the antinomy of art representation and the game of chance in everyday life. She juxtaposes two contradictory arrangements: human time – directed toward death – and the time of eternal art. What comes to the fore are the deficiencies of everyday experience, which doom us to constant improvisation, confusion of dubious explanations, deceptive senses, and imperfect mind. In turn, the language of art suffers from an excess of order; it belies human fate as it cuts the margins of life too depending on artistic convention. Art makes the complicated dramaturgy of existence emerge in suspiciously clear compositions. Artworks speak nothing about their mortal creators. Life circumstances of the creation of painting, musical, and literary works – as far away from perfection as possible – restore the relationship between the creator and artwork by the drama of truth. It is poetry that may not respect the reception patterns accepted in culture and allow itself for the indicated restitutions. If Szymborska describes the negated possibilities and ←8 | 9→potential versions of events, this does not mean that poetic art – having given up the creative illusions – is only capable of effective suicide. On the contrary, her poetry multiplies the world in the forms of existence. Negation makes it easier to journey to the land of the nonobvious.

The consolation of philosophy also appears illusory to Szymborska. Texts of wise men do not bring the most important answers about the goal and meaning, the time and form of human presence in the world. Each of us must at own risk constantly ask the first and most important questions, which are called by Szymborska “naive questions.” The lyrical “I” of her poems assumes various challenges of the outside world, wants to live among many unknowns, chooses the bravery of being, and agrees for “joy and despair.” The defense of integral humanity that conveys Pascal’s misery and grandeur happens without verbal celebration. For Szymborska, irony leads to compassion, humor to sadness, analytical distance to the need of conversation. We should not consider her linguistic virtuosity as a point of arrival, because she predominantly follows ethical commitments.

Szymborska values innovation and surprise. She collides different types of language with each other. She meanders from classicist clarity of expression to renewed Baroque wit, juxtaposes the precision of aphorism with everyday speech, combines metaphor with objectivity and anecdotes in which the simple concrete plays the key role. Szymborska does not agree to any kind of world captured in language. She breaks down speech patterns and distrusts universally approved values. She does not tolerate thinking patterns and rejects mentoring attitudes. Noteworthy, her oeuvre conveys only a small number of poems in the genre of personal lyric. The choice of dialog is to write for others or carefully attempt to recognize a common fate. Each of Szymborska’s judgments comes with many reservations.

Szymborska willingly uses a transcending gaze that stares from the distance of stars upon the life on the small planet Earth. Thus, her gaze exceeds the limitations of time and space. From the distance, it is easier to see the local earthly matters: funny, momentous, and thrilling. In short, Szymborska’s poetry teaches about the right measure of life and thinking. Imagination directed at the earthly community and its relationship with existence of the great cosmos opens itself to the mystery of being. We cannot get a clear message from the boundless regions of cosmic space. There is no metaphysical certainty available to us, which does not eliminate the careful listening to the silence of the universe. This approach does not reject the Supreme Causative Power or the Supreme Being, even if it were only a supposition.

In my book, I consider the issues signaled above. A few elements are especially important to me. Without describing her post-war beginnings and reflecting on ←9 | 10→her early entanglement in socialist realist newspeak, Szymborska’s mature anti-dogmatic attitude will remain unclear. We should not consider the distrustful judgment of accepted truths in her poems in separation from concrete artistic solutions. Thus, Szymborska’s rhetoric and stylistics, her figures of reservation, negation, contradiction, tautology, and repetition are closely connected with the construction of the poetic world and substantially affect the shape of her messages. Thus, we cannot abandon the matters of language. After all, Wisława Szymborska is a poet of sophisticated wit, a surprising freedom of expression, and an unusual game with various literary styles, even with colloquial Polish.

The confrontations of culture and life form a separate, significant theme. Szymborska’s poems about painting, theater, and music do not close in the circle of aesthetic inquiries. On the contrary, we witness there a fascinating crossing of set worldviews, the interdependence between the order of conventions and real life. Her dialog with texts of culture also includes the applied arts. Inclined to paradoxes, Szymborska shows how the preserved documents – films and photographs – do not remain faithful to facts. Her reading of testimonies is prudent and cautious. We should remember that the preserved traces give only a vague idea of the missing whole.

The dream of a better world, imagined and established in poetry, once again encounters a series of reservations. Szymborska rejects the thinking that does not reckon with reality. She does not agree for an easy, though effective, literary escapism. Any ideal vision usually appears dirtied with grotesquely contradictory episodes. It is no coincidence that Szymborska polemicizes with the assumptions of pure poetry. To create a world dependent solely on the movement of one’s imagination encounters her fundamental resistance. If one cannot give in to demiurgic illusion, what remains is the correction of many existing worlds by poetic word.

I After the War

The Nonexistent Debut

Debut is usually an appeal sent into the future, when the reader will commune with the whole work. The first collections of even the most excellent poets show more announcement than fulfillment, they testify to talent – not mastery. At the moment of the debut, a critical distance to one’s own possibilities seems too narrow, the direction of work with the word not quite crystallized, and the styles not tried enough for the poet to avoid artistic mistakes. It is so because history interfered in artistic development by disturbing its logic. The debut in peaceful times differs from the one, when participation of poetry in registering and shaping collective attitudes seems almost unavoidable. This happens when you must describe the world after a defeat, draw up losses yet provide ideas for the future, recognize the state of people’s consciousness who enter life again, develop in oneself a conviction that we rule over the unknown and unpredictable.

The debutant seeks support in the peer group. She willingly speaks on behalf of the generation. She does not think that choir performance would bring offense to the individual poet. Faith in the transformation of the world and the desire to positively influence it with word may (and does) encounter the temptation to adopt an ideology that offers a coherent set of beliefs, equips the speaker in a ready language, provides means of persuasion, and lulls doubts with mirages of power over the minds. Finally – gradually and methodically – the ideology deprives its devout believer of her unique soul.

There is a rather complicated way from searching for words to finding them:1 precision and the truths of expression, artistry, and wit. The half-legendary beginnings of Wisława Szymborska’s works are connected with short forms of prose, not poetry. Apart from a few references to these attempts, we know nothing. Written by Szymborska during the Second World War, they never saw daylight.2 However, what is important is the result of the forgotten exercises. Already there, she wants to remove the dividing line between the lyrical form and the fray of eventicity. In poems, she eagerly reaches for an anecdote, distrustful ←13 | 14→of sublime poetizations unsupported by colloquial experience. Szymborska does not value direct confessionalism, so even when creating separate worlds, she carefully observes the facts and tries to know a lot about the real world, just in case. In Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces and the Poczta literacka (Literary Post), she reveals her vast knowledge about the art of the novel and essay. The early short stories are Szymborska’s first rejected opportunity of debut.

The publication of Szymborska’s first poem came just after the disaster. The war was still in progress, when in the third issue of Walka (Struggle) appeared in March 1945 with her lyric “Szukam słowa.”3 Walka and the one-day Inaczej (Otherwise; published September 1945) gathered young writers, including Tadeusz Kubiak, Stanisław Lem, Jerzy Lovell, Wilhelm Mach, Adam Włodek, and Wisława Szymborska.4 This literary supplement was the first to offer poetic texts by the unknown debutant. Szymborska later wrote about the circle of Walka’s collaborators, “It was my first literary milieu, here I began to seriously consider writing poetry for the first time.5” As it turned out, Walka was one of the short-lived journals: it only came out for a few months in the first half of 1945 only to expire after seventeen issues.6 After the liquidation of Walka – a typical practice of the PRL cultural policy – there emerged new titles and literary supplements. In the period until the Szczecin convention of Związek Literatów Polskich (ZLP; Union of Polish Writers), in January 1949, Szymborska published among others in Świetlica Cracowska (Cracow Community Center), Dziennik Literacki (Literary Daily), Odrodzenie (Rebirth), Pokolenie (Generation).

Noteworthy, besides cultural magazines, Koło Młodych (Youth Circle) at the Cracow ZLP branch served as a forum and creative writing school important for the shaping of poetic awareness. At her beginnings, Szymborska was inspired by Julian Przyboś, Czesław Miłosz, and Jerzy Zagórski, who were actively involved ←14 | 15→in the contemporary literary life of Cracow, as sources of inspiration – the poets admired by Szymborska. The acquisition of poetics does not imply its rewriting, even though Szymborska’s early poems show the artistic rigor of construction, original metaphor, conciseness of expression, and refined word games. The avant-garde approach of Przyboś was adopted here freely, not as the only way of writing.7 On the other hand, we find elements of the second avant-garde in Szymborska’s historiosophical and moral reflections along with poetic stories about a fulfilled catastrophe.

Pierwsze utwory Wisławy Szymborskiej, przy całej ich artystycznej odrębności, wpisywały się w rozleglejszy kontekst spraw istotnych dla rówieśników przyszłej noblistki. Owa zgodność z głosem zbiorowym obejmowała pytania zadawane czasom, jak i podobne rozwiązania formalne. Jacek Łukasiewicz zasadnie wyodrębniał “syntetyczny liryczny podmiot” – własność wspólną wskazanej generacji. Oto rozpoznane przez badacza cechy istotne poetyki zbiorowej:

With all their artistic distinctiveness, Szymborska early works fit into the larger context of matters important for her peer group. This compliance with collective voice included questioning their times and similar formal solutions. Jacek Łukasiewicz aptly distinguishes the “synthetic lyrical subject”8 as the common property of Szymborska’s generation:

The subject’s in the poems from Walka … is or wants to be modern … inspired by an anti-aristocratic tradition and the desire to take advantage of the chance of social advancement (to the elite of artistic intelligence). Simultaneously, this subject is clearly defined by the generational experience of war.9

To develop the heritage of the Cracow avant-garde meant the ideological orientation to the left. The young poets were not fully aware of the extent of political manipulation at the time. The long-run plan for subordinating culture to the communist authorities was not clearly visible at first. Support for the relatively liberal slogans of by the Czytelnik publishing house (more radical than Dziennik Polski was Kuźnica) initially resembled nothing like a devil’s contract.

Szymborska’s poems published in periodicals from the 1940s never came to life as a separate book. She did not announce the finished volume of poems ←15 | 16→entitled Szycie sztandaru (Sewing the Banner).10 However, there appeared the reconstruction of the debut book Czarna piosenka (The Black Song; 2014) – after many years – edited and introduced by Joanna Szczęsna. Its editorial form was more or less handed over in Szymborska’s old tables of contents, although we will never know for sure what her final decisions would be.11 The first period of Szymborska’s work ends with a discussion about her poem “Niedziela w szkole” (Sunday at School) which mainly focused on ideological explanations (whether “a shepherd from Kazakhstan” will understand avant-garde metaphors).12 Led by a Polish language teacher, students from the Rzeszów high school accused Szymborska of incomprehensibility.

Anna Zarzycka shows that Szymborska’s Szycie sztandaru, the basis for her entry to the ZLP, was ready only in the middle of 1950 and not – as researchers previously assumed – in 1949.13 The reasons for Szymborska’s delay of printing remain unknown. However, during the intensifying offensive of Stalinism and after the implementation the imported doctrine of socialist realism, there could no longer appear a volume with ambiguous overtones, mixed emotive qualities, and named fears. Individual sensitivity combined with a talent for observation and a difficult artistic form contained suspicious undertones, which precluded the volume to become part of newspaper propaganda.

Of course, backward divination is an absurd activity. We cannot project the position of a nonexistent debut in the poetical hierarchy of that time. Szymborska’s would-be debut would probably not go unnoticed. A book less radical in the search for a new language to express war traumas than Różewicz’s Niepokój, Szymborska’s collection would significantly strengthen the position of the young poets. The other thing is that our present perspective is inept because of her great success, which undoubtedly affects the way of reading as her later great books shine their light on the humble beginnings. Initially developed at ←16 | 17→that time, Szymborska’s style could not return until after the turn of October 1956, but it returned transformed and improved.

Inscription of Experience

The problem of how to record the experience of war gained utmost clarity in the first poem published by Szymborska, “Szukam słowa” (I Am Looking for a Word). After the war and historical change, the earlier practice of artistic speech appeared insufficient. Like Tadeusz Różewicz, Szymborska faced her own anxiety. The main tasks of young Cracow poets after the Second World War included no arranging of funerals, contemplation of ruins, admiration of heroic myths, or proud rejection of reality. Their literary program gathered attitudes and norms of behavior, traumatic memory and work on a poetic word adapted to current needs. There opened up a new part of time, which required sensible management. The past destroyed by the war offered nothing apart from horror and terror. The acceptance of historical necessity even then, in 1945, did not involve intrusive ideological agitation.

To overcome war’s effects that settled in human consciousness and rebuild faith in the future were no simple tasks, devoid of contradictions and drama. Szymborska’s attempts vividly show the many antinomies of meanings and various collapses of poetic diction. The threshold moment in history releases agitated emotions and is counterproductive to calmed reflection, thus working against the development of classical poetics. As Anna Legeżyńska argues, “Szymborska divides time into the dark <yesterday> and the full of hope <today>, she initiates the imagery of wartime destruction and the imagery of building.”14 Noteworthy, Szymborska operates with semantic tensions between the word and the reality, between collective optimism and personal sadness.

Szymborska settles with wartime disaster in two ways, namely by dealing with the issue of ungrateful historical education in times of horror and taking responsibility for the emerging post-war order, with which she attempts to integrate the broken consciousness. On the other hand, there surfaces a separate creative imagination in Szymborska. Often, the reader is surprised by the originality of her perception, literary images, and verbal associations. The innovation of her solutions sometimes significantly deviates from the prevalent patterns of her generation.

←17 | 18→

The closest to the avant-garde is Szymborska’s poem “Pamięć o wrześniu” (Remembrance of September). This is indicated by factors that specify meanings, like the arrangement of metaphorical images, elliptical syntax, and the rhythm of questions. The roads of Polish autumn, full of war refugees, become arteries that not only carry the blood of fallen heroes but also the military and civilian exodus. And if there is a hemorrhage, we must hurry with the dressing: “who will block the roads,/and with what bandage?” (CP 44). Simultaneously, we must block the painful memory of the events of September 1939, which resembles a wound. There is a colloquial expression “to have a bleeding heart.” How large would the bandage have to be to heal all Polish wounds? A similar metaphor appears in one of Julian Przyboś’s wartime poems “Nad poległym powstańcem” (Over a Fallen Insurgent).

In Przyboś’s piece, the “participatory” street scenography becomes part of the bloody drama of Warsaw Uprising: “these are the burning streets of Warsaw/over the wounded and armed, fighting to death/they unfold banners of battlefields:/the neverending bloody bandage.”15 Przyboś, the poet of the avant-garde, exposes his sympathetic symbolic presence in the tragically struggling capital of Poland, whereas Szymborska’s poem shows the episode as closed, while the problem of shattered consciousness remains.

The dead time of war disrupts the natural world. Destruction is inconceivable on the microcosmic scale. The light touch of the world in the moment of hard historical experiences creates a disturbingly strange disproportion: “Why is … the face touched as if it was a leaf/by a leaf knocked off by an explosion?” (“Pamięć o wrześniu,” CP 44). Such a peripheral point of view surprisingly violates the accepted methods of familiarizing facts. Perhaps the leaf falls on the eyelids of a fallen insurgent? Szymborska’s “Pamięć o wrześniu” is thick with meanings, full of understatements, and filled with reading suggestions. The relationships between the images that remain in memory are breaking up. The speaker endows the post-September battle landscape with psychic properties, while the object of description is an equal partner of people as witnesses of history.

Szymborska 1940s poetry reserves the most important place for the history of consciousness, which surface specifically as an unpleasant, premature maturity:

←18 | 19→

Our wartime loot is knowledge of the world,

– it is so large it fits in two clasped hands,

so hard that a smile does to describe it,

so strange, like old truths echoing in prayers

(“Once we had the world backwards and forwards,” UP 3).

The expression “wartime loot” alludes to the winner, which is obviously ironic. Not much is gained, and a lot is lost in war. Instead, one learns from war a special knowledge that the world became complicated while the “old” myths and values lost their explanatory power. The school of history provided us with sad experiences. It is significant that Szymborska begins with “educational rhetoric,”16 the preparation of a register what knowledge may be useful in adult life. Her disarming of the colloquial (school time) metaphor “to know backwards and forwards” comes from the exploitation of its literal meaning. We now know fragments – wyrywki in Polish original – of the world, which before the war were enough to understand the rules of naive life. However, simple-minded scholars now face a difficult exam because they will be questioned from the whole that is taking shape right this moment.

Szymborska accentuates the word “history.” To be educated by history borders on cruelty. Nothing positive comes from such lessons. On the contrary, history offers poisonous food: fears and defeats. “It flung dirty sand into our eyes” (CP 31) and made us wander on “roads leading nowhere” (CP 31). This phrase refers us to the Polish proverb “biednemu tylko wiatr w oczy”17 (when it rains, it pours), but we may also think of Morpheus’s mind-numbing magic. Misfortune works lethargically, as the ignoble matter of history makes us close our eyes and not see.

The aphasia of poetic speech and problems with shifting vision onto new historical realities converge in another poem by Szymborska: “Pamięć o styczniu” (Remembrance of January). This piece offers more fear and dark premonitions than enthusiasm. At least this is how memory recorded January 18, 1945, when Marshal Ivan Konev entered Cracow at the head of the Red Army. We see here a mixture of withdrawal and engagement, reserve and joy that creates a true testimony because the Polish situation of the end of the war is ungraspable.

A city with a new décor and flapping flags becomes only a task for the poetic word perception:

Our lips are distand from words.

Our eyes received a new city:

←19 | 20→

banners swarming over the crowd,

rubble, convulsive ironware (CP 45).

Let us emphasize the unique construction of the image of parading banners. The agitational props appear surprisingly light: they rose above the thrones, happily fluttered over enthusiastic crowds, but never did they “swarm.” Banners usually covered battlefields (real or imagined) than allowed “iron pyres” to dramatically speak, as Tadeusz Borowski wrote. The banners swarming over ironware abandoned by the army does not form a transparent formation. How distant is this description from those of banners in socialist realist literature like Szymborska’s “Pokój.”

The Incomplete Joy of Reconstruction

In the poems under discussion, Szymborska often expresses the awareness of wartime events in a rather complicated poetic syntax, in avant-garde formulas of considerable condensation of meaning. However, the multiplicity of poetic figures does not serve generational programs well. Only explicit expressions achieve clarity and persuasive effectiveness. In Szymborska’s manifesto, the political and historical macroscale encounters everyday concrete that create the vision of a peaceful, safe life. The poetic theme of the beginning receives support from the generational “we.” After the war, the goals of collective endeavors are determined in this way:

for the smoke from red chimney

for the book used read fear

for a piece of a clear sky

we struggle (“O coś więcej;” For Something More; CP 25).

The landscape is not very tasteful, but that is not the point. Smoke that does not cover “clear sky” means not a threat, but the possibility to inhabit the world. An openly read book expresses the freedom of choice of texts that only recently were prohibited by the occupier.

The concrete and symbolic reconstruction of the world requires a gesture of farewell to national martyrology. It is worth to start again, because this is what the instinct of life dictates:

Our eyes are tired with fresh memory,

but hands know, believe.

The hands with which we are to lift the weight of the world

they know: the world will be born again without the specter’s of war (“Krucjata dzieci;” Children’s Crusade CP 27).

←20 | 21→

The eyes are tired with images of catastrophe, while the hands assume restorative action. For the latter to be constructive, one must renounce a part of the experience and reject the memory of collective sacrifice. However, one cannot disregard the loss of so many victims, like the eleven-year-old soldiers who fought in the Warsaw Uprising. Association with such sacred and simultaneously futile matter as the defeat of the Children’s Crusade in 1212, which departed from France and Germany to retrieve the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem, is all too eloquent. The activist attitude should relinquish exalted mythology. The lyric “Dzieci wojny” (The Children of War) belongs to the same semantic scope. Indeed, the remembered trauma cannot be removed with even the fieriest speeches. Therefore, the burden of war experience becomes part of the community who enters the new period of history.

In the early poems, Szymborska sometimes abandons the grammatical plural. The acceptance of collective duties is not the only and exclusive attitude. Hence, the tone of poetry is different, which foregrounds personal experience. Traumatic memory revives the recent past. Perhaps in “Janko Muzykant” (Johnny the Musician), composed of fragments series of “four poems about the parting of lovers,”18 the private rite of the grandfathers is fulfilled: magic, charms, summoning a loved one from the land of the dead. The very restrained epitaph for “the memory of the fallen,” situated beyond heroic poetic narration, says little about the hero, for a full lyrical confession is not an option. Feelings of anger and hatred do not accuse cruel history but are shifted and aimed at the ordinary course of things in nature, the fresh green of trees, and the defiant joy of sunlight, as in the much later poem “Parting with a View” from the volume The End and the Beginning. One should cease on the mismatch of the tormenting wait and the rhythm of the regenerating nature. The style of indirect suggestion disallows closer confidences.

The poem “Powrót żalu” (The Return of Sorrow) announces the later, artistically excellent “Dream” (from the volume Salt),19 as well as “Parting with a View,” so as to markedly employ the poetics of lyrical discretion. The object here is disinheritance from landscape, the inability to return to the place where the hero died:

I will not recognize the forest.

I will not find the sign in the sky.

The sky and the forest with stitches of salvos

were sewn to death (CP 67).

←21 | 22→

The connotation of the word “death” is extraordinary here. The landscape did not survive death and ceased to exist for the speaker. Everything has changed from the indicated caesura. The indifferent landscape seems incomplete and untrustworthy. Its fault lies in its similarity to other landscapes, without any signs of mourning, without any inscribed words of commemoration. The earth and the sky cannot testify and, in a way, renounce the event. This is why they were “sewn to death” irrevocably and finally. You can no longer enter the forest of the past.

The past is inhabited by fears, while the future is connected with collective goodwill and faith. Is the present in the above poems too uncertain to write about it, too amorphous to give it form? Or maybe it is not suitable for optimistic fittings? Luckily, Szymborska does not neglect direct observation. The miserable post-war life continues unaltered, the biographies and human fate are marked mostly by misfortune. This is what Szymborska notices. A simple experiment of escape from the reality – for example into the world of film fiction – creates moments of “not-seeing,” paradoxically necessary for us to properly see. Beautiful dreams are quickly interrupted, while fairy tales with good endings never happen in ordinary life. The space of return is specific and – not beautiful:

I’m coming back to you, the real world,

crowded, dark, and full of fate –

you, one-armed boy beneath the gate

you, empty eyes of a young girl (“Leaving the Movie Theater;” UP 4).

The sophisticated title of the film, “The moon’s husk glimmered for two hours” (UP 4), means scales that cover the eyes from truth (in a Polish proverb), an unreal underwater fish world, and illusionary stories from the moon – all of which contrast with the images on the street. Let us emphasize that destructive history as the modern incarnation of fate has a special gift for producing mutilated people. Moreover, the judgment of history immediately connects here with concrete emphasized by the address to the other person, called upon and noticed. This is how Szymborska gradually fulfills her project of solidarist poetry.

We cannot overlook the empathy of Szymborska’s post-war poems. As a counterbalance of the joyous version of reality, the speaker identifies herself with an old woman that collects lumps of coal on the street and foretells herself the future of “a witch/blue/from the frost” (“Linia życia;” The Line of Life; CP 54). It will soon be distasteful in Poland to care for individuals left on the side track of life.

Szymborska doubly valorizes the expectation for a new period of times, as in the passage from the cycle “Z Autobiografii Dnia” (From the Autobiography of Day): “Stretched are – fear and hope –/in a fleeting shiver of the sun” (the poem ←22 | 23→“Nie z trybuny i ambon…;” CP 41). However, this limit of times often triggers anxiety. As we read in the aphoristically shaped verse from eponymous poem of the unpublished volume Czarna piosenka, “Black Song:” “The future – who can guess it. The past – who’s got it right?” (UP 6). This transition from horror to normalcy (is it normalcy?) seems equally elusive. An ordinary day may appear at the level of particulate facts and individual anecdotes. But what do they relate to? What do they mean? Everyday stories reveal a thin line between the memory of a nightmare and the joy of oblivion. It is not even possible to distinguish the staging of dying from the actual death. The asemantic language of music better than words expresses the intermediate quality (joyless laughter, sorrowful play), which is like “cold and heat” mixed in a dancing room (“Black Song;” UP 6).

Normal, nonheroic death in a dancing room is something inappropriate for the partygoers, since we managed to survive the war and now have an ambiguous time of fun. According to the well-known Polish tradition reminiscent of Stanisław Wyspiański’s play Wesele (The Wedding; 1901), dance expresses here the paradox of freezing in movement: indifference and numbness. Jazz music20 lulls sensitivity as an answer to the ill-fated situation. In this understanding, the “black song” includes both the American roots of jazz and the catastrophic announcements of collective history. In a descriptive sentence, Szymborska captures the ghastliness in the ordinary: “the saxophone howled lika dog to a pink lantern” (“Black Song,” UP 6).

Along with raw normalcy, the element of everyday speech enters Szymborska’s poetry. Let us consider her poems about Warsaw. On the ruins of a devastated city, life grows vigorously, and unbridled vitality finds its outlet in commerce. The poem “Miejsce na pomnik” (A Place for a Monument; part of the Wędrówki cycle) delegates a slightly mysterious boy-resonator, probably a poet, to observe these spontaneous ways of filling the emptiness. This poetic reportage shows simultaneous actions in the quickly organized space of the post-war Warsaw. The vision of the monumental “stone music” of the future is not as interesting as the few scenes described with a talent for realism:

Chubby snotnose

commends vodka and cherry….

The young boy with a flash of a signet rign

dollars praises dollars (CP 59)

The cycle Wędrówki (Journeys), the boy is a watchful observer of the reviving life. What the texts foreground is that this seeker of truth and “passerby of places and ←23 | 24→days” (“Wymiary;” Dimensions; CP 62) “was allied with no one” (“Ulica Polna;” Polna Street; CP 57). It is not political rationale but observation combined with intuitive guessing of the future that counts most in this strategy of recovering the world. Exactly in the side alleys of the resurrecting city “the living grow in numbers” (CP 58) to again participate in everyday events.

In turn, the 1946 poem “List na Zachód” (A Letter West; another title “Zwycięstwo;” Victory) carefully motivates interest in what is authentic. A novella in few verses came to be for persuasive reasons. This time, Szymborska reaches for the convention of a letter to emigrants that is to persuade them to return. One should avoid an idealized bland painting, which plays on sentiments to create an emblem of homeland. Instead, we should seek something unusual, for instance:

Here, a red-elbowed rascal

with patched pants

flings his foot on a pile of building materials

and cocks a snook at you.

Instead of saying: at first, there was fire.

Instead of saying: at first, there was rubble (CP 49).

Early on, Szymborska revealed a weakness for tramps. A reckless individual who programmatically want to remember nothing bad is somewhat reminiscent of a similar figure from the volume The End and the Beginning, who after every war, lays in the grass and looks at the sky. The difference is that the tramp above has a specific mission to fulfill. The thing happens at a construction site, where joyful creation will begin. A playful and aggressive gesture sent to Western doubters successfully exorcises any attachment to the tragic past. The cheerful plebeian pantomime appears instead of a lofty recitation. Everyday language displaces the solemn rhetoric of defeat. An ordinary tramp is not a propagandist, so we may trust him. Nevertheless, history proved that the emigrants’ return after the Second World War to Poland ruled by communists did not end happily.

An Opening to the Future

Szymborska’s early writing shows several tendencies. Most often, she chooses three poetics: post-catastrophic, avant-garde, and realist. Szymborska arranges her early poemsin cycles, exposing the epic element next to the lyrical (“Janko Muzykant,” “Z Autobiografii Dnia,” “Wędrówki”). “Niedziela w szkole” approaches the size of a long poem. At the end, we read significant words: “it is time to develop what passed/into an epic. This one is not here yet” (CP 81). With time, Szymborska abandons a panoramic look at the issues of the community as the gaze of the individual clearly begins to dominate.

←24 | 25→

The diagnosis of the consciousness of twenty-year-old poets who survived the war encounters a personal reckoning that Szymborska conducts discreetly, encrypted in a language of metaphors and images. In Szymborska’s poems, tragic memory stops enthusiasm. Besides spelling the future, appealing, and persuading, the word that rebuilds the world after the defeat reveals dark overtones that express regret, confusion, and uncertainty. We cannot silence the legacy of the disaster. It would be one-sided to only create mirages of future collective happiness. Therefore, when undertaking the task of “lifting” the new reality, Szymborska remembers its various shapes and manifestations. She even corrects the optimism of her generation, as if the promises of a change of fate were exaggerated. Both the memory of war experience and first-hand post-war testimonies – which question the desired beautiful order – eliminate myths and oppose propagandist illusions.

Generational experiences create a psychological and literary background; but in the best of Szymborska’s early works, this background almost completely disappears. In “Pamięć o wrześniu,” “Pamięć o styczniu,” “Black Song,” and “Leaving the Movie Theater,” we notice the features of poetics that will be the hallmarks of Szymborska’s art. Let us only list here the colloquial freedom of speech, the breaking up and delexicalization of phraseological relationships, the paradoxes, and the clash of discourse with anecdotes. There even appears the matter of poetic expression, whose word cannot fully convey the novelty of experiences, like in the contradiction between anxiety and approval. This is how Szymborska appraises the literary language that commemorates the victims of the war: “what I write –/is too little./Too little//Powerless is our speech” (“Szukam słowa,” CP 29). The new reality that emerges from chaos still surprises. Therefore, amazement as the basic reaction to the world, so important for Szymborska’s mature work, appears in a short definition in the poem “Szycie sztandaru:” “each poem/goes by the name Amazement” (CP 61).

Adam Włodek rightly claims that Szymborska reworked and refined her early ideas in later volumes21 published after October 1956: “Szymborska will reach for motifs, threads, themes, and images as if to a treasury [of early works].” Just compare her “Transport Żydów” (Transport of Jews) with “Still” (from Calling Out to Yeti), the cycle Janko Muzykant with lyrics “Dream” (from Salt) and “Parting with a View” (from The End and the Beginning), “Ballada dzisiaj” (Ballad Today) with poems “Buffo” (Calling Out to Yeti), “Shadow” and “Ballad” (Sól).22 The ←25 | 26→described line of her striving for a more perfect form is interrupted by ideological indentured servitude under Stalinism. From the early post-war poems there remained but one piece in Szymborska’s socialist realist debut Why We Live (1952): “Pocałunek nieznanego żołnierza” (The Kiss of an Unknown Soldier).

As we considered above, Szymborska’s poetry open her path to the creative joy of reconstruction only partially, as they are subject to reservations and perceived in the shadow of sadness. What shapes the image of the post-war years free from the ideological oppression of Stalinism in Szymborska’s works are hopes and resentments, a constructive vision of the future and the sufferings of the past, a distanced separate reflection and the presence of the “voice of the era.” This variety of attitudes and poetic assessments finds correspondence in the diversity of genres that she utilizes: from threnody through reportage to a hymn for the brave new world. The stylistic key also changes. The scale stretches between avant-garde metaphor and a matter-of-fact poetic tale, devoid of ornaments. Szymborska gives priority to none of the existing patterns. What we witness is the mark of trial and error. The certainty of her poetic hand sometimes fluctuates. Nevertheless, we may claim with no exaggeration that Szymborska’s scattered poems as records of experience belong to the most penetrating testimonies in Polish poetry of the early post-war period.

←26 |

1 J. Kwiatkowski, “Przedmowa,” in: W. Szymborska, Poezje, Warszawa 1977, p. 5.

2 With one exception, which was a fleeting print in a student’s one-day school. See A. Bikont, J. Szczęsna, Pamiątkowe rupiecie. Biografia Wisławy Szymborskiej, Kraków 1997 p. 68.

3 The editors of this supplement to Dziennik Polski, Adam Włodek and Tadeusz Jęczalik, significantly shortened and edited Szymborska’s work Jacy (How They Are), even by changing the original title (A. Włodek, “Debiut z przygodami,” in: Nasz łup wojenny. Pamiętnikarski aneks do dziejów literackiego startu wojennego pokolenia pisarzy Cracowskich, Kraków 1970, pp. 147–150). Also see P. Małochleb, ““Świat po bajce jest siny”, czyli Szymborska po wojnie,” in: Widnokręgi literatury – wielogłosy krytyki. Prace ofiarowane Profesor Teresie Walas, eds. T. Kunz, A. Łebkowska, R. Nycz, M. Popiel, Kraków 2015, pp. 381–388.

4 Włodek, “Debiut z przygodami,” p. 302.

5 Dziennik Polski 20/1955 [mention about Wisława Szymborska on the tenth anniversary of this magazine].

6 Włodek, “Debiut z przygodami,” pp. 128–129.

7 For more, see A. Zarzycka, Rewolucja Szymborskiej 1945–1957. O wczesnej twórczości poetki na tle epoki, Poznań 2010, pp. 99–112, who aptly argues that Szymborska’s dialog with Przyboś’s poetics meant no imitation or influence.

8 J. Łukasiewicz, “Wiersz wewnątrz gazety,” Teksty Drugie 4/1991, p. 11.

9 Łukasiewicz, “Wiersz wewnątrz gazety,” pp. 11–12.

10 First information about this was provided by Tadeusz Drewnowski, see Bikont, Szczęsna, Pamiątkowe rupiecie, p. 78; Zarzycka, Rewolucja Szymborskiej, pp. 39–40. Małochleb, “Świat po bajce jest siny,” p. 383, called this “tom-widmo,” a phantom volume.

11 J. Szczęsna, “Pisałam wiersze, piszę wiersze i mam zamiar pisać wiersze,” in: W. Szymborska, Czarna piosenka, Kraków 2014, pp. 12–23. There remains a table of contents prepared by A. Włodek, see Szymborska, Czarna piosenka, pp. 82–84.

12 For more, see A. Włodek, “Debiut z przygodami,” pp. 159–163; J. Łukasiewicz, “Wiersz wewnątrz gazety,” pp. 25–28. S. Żak also recapitulates the debate in his “Wisława Szymborska,” in: Polscy pisarze nobliści, Kielce 1998, pp. 226–230.

13 A. Zarzycka, Rewolucja Szymborskiej, p. 52 ff.

14 A. Legeżyńska, Wisława Szymborska, Poznań 1996, pp. 12–13.

15 J. Przyboś, Utwory poetyckie. Tom pierwszy, Kraków 1984, p. 218 (poem from the volume Póki my żyjemy; So Long As We Still Live): “to płonące ulice Warszawy/nad rannymi, walczącymi o śmierć z bronią/rozwijają flagi pobojowisk:/nieskończony skrwawiony bandaż”.

16 See E. Balcerzan, “W szkole świata,” Teksty Drugie 4/1991, p. 39 ff.

17 For more, see the detailed consideration of colloquial metaphors and loan translations in this poem in T. Nyczek, pp. 14–15.

18 Małochleb, “Świat po bajce jest siny,” pp. 385–386.

19 A. Włodek, “Debiut z przygodami,” p. 154.

20 For more, see Zarzycka, Rewolucja Szymborskiej.

21 Włodek, “Debiut z przygodami,” p. 154.

22 Włodek, “Debiut z przygodami,” p. 20.

II Embroiled in Newspeak

Ideological Faith

The doctrine of socialist realism imported from the USSR – recommended at the January 1949 literary congress in Szczecin and gradually implemented – deprived artists of the freedom to create their own worlds and assess reality. According to the doctrine, writers should praise the “great epoch” and party’s wisdom, admit only the proletarian and revolutionary past, and confirm the belief that work is the supreme value. Hence, what was necessary was the admiration of large constructions.

If poetry was to act as agitation, then its typical themes and literary ways of expression became impoverished. The subtle shades of meanings disappeared, while the plastic language poetry was replaced by one persuasively effective. Art experiments were negatively defined as formalism, while writers-aestheticians were excommunicated by official literary criticism. Another devastation was caused by a retreat from the great Western literature. Old literary conventions and genres proved useful but, due to their propaganda functions, they were assimilated in a simplified manner. In a word, socialist realism brought the destruction of ambitious literature.

Socialist realism was in truth a utopian realism. The paradox was that what was given as a description of existing reality turned out to its idealization. Artists presented a world that should be and that was to appear in the uncertain future. Every day, people experienced something completely different from what they read in socialist realist fables but, after all, the officially-fueled enthusiasm disallowed observations of the dark sides of reality.

The enemy theory was prevalent: people of “alien class” and representatives of the “imperialist” West wanted to destroy the order built by the state under communism. The sustained situation of threat helped the authorities. The Orwellian “hours of hatred” became part of the socialist realist literary rites. The writer was to constantly accuse, intervene, stigmatize, and show vigilance. Such play of meanings stiffens and freezes in repetitive appeals, protests, and lectures.23 On the other hand, literature was to prepare joyful rituals and create the impression ←29 | 30→of an ongoing feast, while the literary word was subordinated to a specific magic that, through a series of spells, transformed reality.

After the wartime devastation, people needed to believe in something. Wartime knowledge about the world began to change with the introduction of Stalinism. The Communist Party of Poland proclaimed its infallibility by strengthening verbal persuasion with terror. The pluralism of ideas ended, what began was Stalinist monopoly in all areas of life, also in culture. The writer’s received few possibilities to continue their work. They could either work for the authorities or become mute. Set aside fear and conformism, especially the young authors of that time perceived the only imposed truth to be attractive: it sounded noble and promised a just social order. Besides, it was nice to know the answers to all possible questions. The doubts of an individual were replaced by deified collective wisdom.

For the service in the bad case of communist propaganda, which pretended to be good, artists had to pay a high price when applying – and in the future. With the advent of the socialist realist doctrine, the absolutist language of power excluded the understanding of literature as an aesthetic play of verbal acts as records of individual experience. Therefore, socialist realism took away the most important achievements and reflections of writers. As the specialist in the language of the time, Michał Głowiński, puts it:

To właśnie nowomowa miała się uplasować ponad wszystkimi typami języka, jakie mogły się w dziele literackim pojawić, miała nad nimi zapanować, a w pewnych przypadkach – pełnić rolę swego rodzaju metajęzyka, którym mówi się o innych językach, z natury rzeczy pozbawionych ideologicznej słuszności.24

The domination of newspeak devoured the diversity of styles, eliminated differences between individualities, and made writers serve apprenticeship under party ideologues. Literature was an imperfect exegesis of official speeches, a failed copy of a newspaper, a lecture of Marxist-Leninist teachings for the little ones. Literature illustrated ready-made theses, repeated slogans, but always remained a crippled creation. Full initiation into the ideology remained mostly inaccessible. The writer and reader underwent continuous re-education. Servant literature perpetuated the only permitted truth about the world, but also served to delimit cultural space so that other truths would not penetrate inside. Literary works echoed the voice of the infallible Party – usually written with a capital letter – were produced by neophytes and apprentices, even if they happened to ←30 | 31→be outstanding artists in the previous incarnations. Undoubtedly, “The process in the history of literature called socialist realism was a liquidation of literature in the previous understanding of the word.”25

The agitator should not have used too complicated forms of expression, because complex meaning in speeches for the “masses of people” was one of the main offenses. Hence, he simplified the poetics and repurposed old literary conventions.26 The socialist realist was mostly condemned to repeating propaganda clichés. Indeed, inventiveness was tolerated, but only when the writer invented good illustrations for the current ideological line, proposed at appropriate conventions and plena. Unnecessary talent could find its purpose in finding clever rhetorical arguments for the theses coming from the command center.

We should not forget about the other side of the situation of a writer embroiled in socialist realism. The magical spells that this sorcerer’s apprentice received could give one the illusion of immense power. It was easy for the writer to lose perspective and seriously assume the role of the “soul engineer.”27 To believe in the mass reader. To be sure that megacirculation newspapers and books guarantee long-range coverage and effectiveness. But such perfect communication was also only an idea of the propaganda.

The issue of social realist myths and rituals has been well recognized by literary scholars and critics. This ceremonial side of literary speeches was subordinated to the “communist liturgical calendar”28 or the rhythm of holidays, anniversaries, and jubilees. The writers described events from the first pages of newspapers, but paper involvement was insufficient, because the writer had to partake in unending celebrations of life, go to the field, show up, and represent. The ritual extended to all forms of artistic and nonartistic messages. The literary socialist realism treated the word magically. The perpetual adoration of communist saints continued, but ordinary people also received part of divinity on ordinary days. If any events were worth describing, they must have received the sign of struggle and heroism.

←31 | 32→

In poems from two collections, Why We Live (1952) and Questions You Ask Yourself (1954), Szymborska assumes socialist realist poetics. By restraining individual artistic sensitivity and removing the need for searching, she reduces the multidimensional truth about the world. As we know, the doctrine of socialist realism limited the scope of literary themes and techniques. After all, the “ideological empire”29 with headquarters in Moscow sought full control over the minds, the social life, attitude, behavior, and words. In both volumes Szymborska pays tribute to this ideology; with zeal, conviction, and sometimes the fanaticism of youth. Although Szymborska learned the rhetoric of socialist realism well, we may sometimes see attempts to bypass the powerful and possessive newspeak.

What mattered in literature at that time was not beauty, but the agitational effectiveness. And yet, besides the dictate of the “alien word” and reproduction of cognitive schemes that forbade own reflection, we still find original solutions in Szymborska’s poems from the Stalinist era – supported by her literary craftsmanship. Because not everything in socialist realist literature was controlled. There were holes in the system. Despite their hard work, the doctrine’s legislators and critics who raised poets could not create a complete set of meticulous literary rules. As Teresa Wilkoń metaphorically puts it: “The fierce debates of the time prove that the socialist realist corset showed cracks.”30

Perhaps the innovative approach is the result of the honesty of Szymborska’s choice. In any case, even a substitute for artistic risk does not seem to be the same as pure conformism. In the volumes Why We Live and Questions You Ask Yourself, we notice a series of deviations-surprises that appear in the subject, style, image, metaphors that we may still enjoy. Szymborska can manage the very narrow margin of creative freedom for the benefit of her artistic expression. The overcoming of clichés is more evident in the second collection, Questions You Ask Yourself, which appeared in print after Stalin’s death, when political change began to hatch and schematism seemed to weaken. That is when she avoids the front line of ideological front. In short, Wisława Szymborska was not an exemplary socialist realist.

The Legacy of Socialist Realism and the Critics

Scope, boundaries, artistic value, aesthetic and ideological consequences – opinions vary in all of these specific issues concerning Szymborska’s socialist ←32 | 33→realism. Let us quote a few selected opinions. First, about her compatibility with the paradigm. Right after October 1956, Ryszard Matuszewski confides to the readers that, from the old delight in Szymborska’s verse there only remains the impression of cold, smooth essays on a given subject.31 Tadeusz Nyczek recognizes Szymborska’s poems from the first two volumes as “clinical examples of the creative tastes of the era.”32 Stanisław Balbus distinguishes between Szymborska’s works from that time: “most of them actually were … the expression engaged socialist poetry and symptoms of the ideological seduction of very young and ardent person. With a few notable exceptions, [her poetry] smuggled a special personal tone and – visible already then – notes of self-irony.”33 Janusz Drzewucki extends the area of revindication: “We should remember about the two early collections [by Szymborska], probably too recklessly considered socialist realist.”34

Now let us observe the evaluation of Szymborska’s poetic value at that time. Artur Sandauer writes, “Indeed, her two first volumes are like all the rest of the production of the times – oh! – they are … even worse.”35 Jan Błoński declares that, “On the backdrop of the lyric of the times, one could read Szymborskas without reluctance.”36 Piotr Michałowski says that, “Szymborska’s voice sounds … like solo coloratura in the choir for the masses.”37 Joanna Trzeciak’s phrase develops upon the musical metaphors with her statement, that “ the socialist propaganda [in Szymborska’s poetry] resembles chamber music.”38

Did anything permanent remain in Szymborska’s above poems after the socialist realist writing episode? Sometimes the lesson is indirect. As Anna Legeżyńska argues, a Szymborska’s “fruitful mistake” in the 1950s left in her ←33 | 34→sensitivity to the suffering of an always hurt individual and “sensitivity to social issues.”39 Here, Stanisław Barańczak’s observation is very important: “The title of the second volume of poems is certainly symbolic for her whole mature work: Questions You Ask Yourself have been the essence of Szymborska’s work for forty years.”40

The full list of critical statements about Szymborska’s Stalinist-era work would consume a lot of space. Let us satisfy ourselves with the few approximations, projections, and generalizations. The next issue also finds no unequivocal approach among the scholars. Is Szymborska’s poetic work a whole composed from the “evolution” of some elements over the other or did her strict selection reject premature ideological choices and unfortunate artistic ideas forever?41 Certainly, the glorification of the Communist Party or the praise of socialist construction should be discarded. Nevertheless, we should study the development of the language of Szymborska’s poetry, because the originality of certain solutions exceeds the schematic norms of the Stalinist era. Soon after 1956, her abilities will cease to serve a harmful collective utopia and false illusions.

Some would prefer to link the artistic value of Szymborska’s Stalinist-era literary rehearsals with the knowledge of her later achievements which effected in the awarding of the Nobel Prize. They throw special light on the poems of that time and enter them into an embarrassing social ritual. However, the reviews of Szymborska’s first two volumes show opinions sometimes very similar to those of our contemporaries.42 Did the critics know the finale of her work almost half a ←34 | 35→century ago. Did they receive the gift of clairvoyance? It is prudent to think that the germs of Szymborska’s poetics – which existed at the beginning and fruited later – tried to break through the aggressive buzz of agitation.

The critics above were not deaf to elements liberating poetry from newspeak. How many times could one read the same thing over and over? Besides propaganda slogans and ideological generalizations, Szymborska’s poems from the 1950s did share some warmth with the ordinary people, those were timid signs of kindness, interest, and understanding. The reviewers at the time indirectly hint that even a timidly disclosed subject of individual human dilemmas can be interesting. Of course, this does not mean that they were not conscientious literary officials who would abandon their duties. As we know, the socialist realist criticism was closer to ideology than literature, hence more privileged. Critics spoke on behalf of the authorities as controllers of the implementation of the doctrine, so that they duty was to instruct writers and correct their errors. They often rejected works for further revision and even assumed a prosecutor’s toga.43

The critic not only addressed the (omnipresent) authorities but partly also to the poets. Such elements of independence were valuable. Besides, the first glory of the Stalinist faith has already passed when Questions You Ask Yourself saw daylight. The critical pieces from that time reveal an interesting duality of the official and the private. The dialectical mind was able to remedy this stratification of imagination. Antinomies somehow cancel each other out. After all, “Marxism has eliminated the contradiction between the private and social nature of people.”44 This is how it looks in literary practice. According to Leszek Herdegen, “The socialist realist poet writes a personal poem about Nowa Huta, while a political one – about love.”45 Let us appreciate the perverse charm of this sentence. There are various methods of agitation. Instead of shouting through a giant megaphone, one may whisper, which suits the female voice better.

Assessment squares the circle. Socialist realist critics holds Szymborska’s verses in high regard, because they agree with the obligatory worldview and simultaneously show original language. Paraphrasing Gombrowicz, we should say that the critics like when schematism is not to schematic.

←35 | 36→

Poetry: A Second Voice

The below poems are again situated “inside the newspaper.” Szymborska made them to order and published in occasional issues of periodicals. Such close dependence happened to her twice. The issue praising the project of the “good but rarely used” Constitution of the 1952 offers Szymborska’s poem “Gdy nad kolebką ludowej konstytucji do wspomnień sięga stara robotnica” (When the Old Worker Reaches for Her Memory Over the Cradle of Folk Constitution); while the same journal published her poem after the death of Stalin, “Ten dzień” (This Day).46 Her poetic statements correspond with the introductory articles, heavily saturated with propaganda tasks. However, Szymborska more often uses her poems at that time to rework the messages from newspapers. Such a close symbiosis proved possible in the history of Polish literature only once – during the Stalinist era. The newspaper serves the writer as a collection of themes, a handy encyclopedia, partly a guidebook to the world. There, everything is given to believe. According to Ryszard Nycz:

in the socialist realist literature, the newspaper (i.e. proper party newspaper) received the role of undisputed authority, which ends disputes, solves intrigues, explains, and enables the right ideological evaluation of the situation…. Press releases served … the function of ideological models or revolving ideals. Reality was to adapt to information, while literature – to the newspaper message about this information.47

There is no escape from the newspaper in the 1950s. Literature is condemned to speak with a second voice – obligatory and obligated. The poetry of the 1950s only seemingly makes contact with ordinary life, but what actually obscures empiricism are the printed pages of instructional texts. The poet of the time usually does not read the world but is a close reader of the press. This reduces the element of risk as the selection of facts has already happened, and their ideological interpretation has received the official imprimatur. The writer first responds to the expectations of the authorities and then directs those ideological directives to the reader. Thus, the reality remains out of the way and only literary schemes can mix with the propaganda schemes.

←36 | 37→

We already know the themes of Szymborska’s poems from the Stalinist era. Often, she outright mentions her beginning with news information.48 For example, the motto is an excerpt from the newspaper: “The aviator Enrique Bernal, who threw the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, resides as a monk in a monastery in Castro Urdiales (from the press)” (“Ucieczka;” Escape; PZS 26). In another gloss to a poem, we read, “Notes from the lecture of historical texts about the defense of Stalingrad” (“Dlatego żyjemy;” Why We Live; DŻ 5). On the other hand, “Malowidło w Pałacu Zimowym” (A Painting in the Winter Palace) has a more generic birth certificate of the news. It is enough that it was based on “the basis of an authentic event” (PZS 9). Newspaper and historical propaganda pamphlet have the same power of decision about what happened and what it means for the reader, because they constitute the guarantees of indisputable truth. The newspaper genealogy of the following poems is obvious “Pieśń o zbrodniarzu wojennym,” “Tarcza,” “Z Korei” (Song About a War Criminal; Shield; From Korea). Maybe “Amu-Daria” (Amu Darya) is an echo of a reportage, likewise “Rówieśnice” (Peers), while “Młodzieży budującej Nową Hutę” (For the Youth That Builds Nowa Huta) probably echoes an editorial.

In the Stalinist era, poetry should not only imitate newspapers but also do their work. Therefore, one must find free space for literary elaboration. Agitation will lose some of its roughness, it will be refined and elevated to a slightly higher level. A repeated commentary tells the reader the feelings and emotions, because the interpretation is ready. In “Ucieczka,” a newspaper note becomes an excuse to arrange a ballad about a penitent, which becomes a zealous praise of the brave new world. Enclosed in the monastery, the enemy cannot participate in the blossoming beauty and broadly spreading excellence:

– everything is beside him – the fertile earth

and its future fate, the beautiful people,

who want to save from doom

themselves and new generations,

their work, trust, and bravery

is worthy of life and happiness in life …

the truth of lips, the sharpness of eyes

that divides good from evil (PZS 26).

The poem rejects expiation but also the opportunity to make the perpetrator-penitent into a tragic figure. The prosecutor adopts a black-and-white worldview ←37 | 38→in which only “our community” can have beauty and good. The poem’s language of noble generalities only describes the utopia of the future.

Szymborska’s and others’ poems of the Stalinist era make a compromise that allows them to oscillate between the newspaper’s cliché and the little inventions of elocution, to circulate between the stereotype and cautious novelty. Of course, the critics quickly and drastically cut off the innovative sprouts of poetic language as only the model of simplified poetry is permissible. You cannot outbid the newspaper, but you may secretly compete with it. Alternative rhetoric can be attractive. Poetry as the “second voice” briefly summarizes the events, because everyone has read the source text anyway. So that the initial action is not as much important as the reaction.

An extract of propaganda slogans will appear in Szymborska only once in the poem “Z elementarza” (From a Primer). She limits her artistic task here only to a skilful composition and rhyming of ready-made phrases:

The highest form of matter

is a human being, the Earth dweller.

The highest form of existence –

its conscious action.

The highest form of action –

struggle for peace on earth.

The highest form of the struggle –

to fight with common forces.

O yes, brothers, o yes.

To fight with common forces (DŻ 38).

The design of this message eliminates any surprise, while the point is a repetition. From a magical rite, there emerges the voice of the choir guide only to confirm the validity of inviolable formulas. We sometimes find in Szymborska’s poems from Stalinist era reminders on which ideological world we live, for instance in “Trzeba,” “Amu-Daria,” “Wstępującemu do partii” (We Must; Amu Darya; To the One Who Becomes a Party Member). Such literature approaches mnemotechnics, whose domain is repetition and remembering.

To justify propaganda on the level of primary school, Szymborska introduces monologs of ordinary workers who are the measure and conscience of the new reality. Hence, they have excellent qualifications for mentors. The simple person – an authority for the intellectuals – has no own language in socialist realist incarnation, because an alien language should suffice. Therefore, people repeat propaganda slogans like, “They hate our coal./They hate our bricks and yarn,” in “Robotnik nasz mówi o imperialistach” (Our Worker Speaks About the ←38 | 39→Imperialists; DŻ 18). Sentences-remedies are to curb the evil powers unambiguously associated with the capitalist camp.

The situation of reading a primer is somewhat paradigmatic for the type of socialist realist poetry. All are children in the face of ideological faith. This infantilization includes the rhythm of rhetorical questions like “Who built the house in which I live?/Who laid his work as its foundation?” in “Młodzieży budującej Nową Hutę” (DŻ 17). We have the impression that, although there is no mystery here, the ritual demands consistent choral answers.

The socialist realist communication theater assumes that the auditorium is immature. It is better to still go down on the levels of simplification than, by complicating the sense, expose oneself to apostasy. The reader is driven to school. The phenomenon of socialist realist “ferdydurkism” – in reference to Gombrowicz – obviously has a wider range and is only mentioned here.

The character delegated to the task of agitation is a performer of the text, which always lies within the areas of predictability. Here, literature announces its defeat with enthusiasm. It accepts the drastic limitations of artistic language and recognizes the ideological primacy of the newspaper. Instead, literature receives the illusion of massive influence. Still, in Szymborska’s poetry of the time, we may still sometimes sense a spark of irony, even if only in the confirmation of axioms and obligatory exercises.

Women International

Besides thunderous words that gave the illusion of charismatic leadership – many young poets imitated Majakowski – we notice more modest stylistics of cooperation with official ideology. Szymborska’s usually locates her poems of the time in the latter. Noteworthy, the gigantic scale of social change is diminished in Szymborska’s work. First, Szymborska reveals a private point of view in the discourse powered by newspeak. Second, she exposes the concerns and hopes of ordinary people over whom – according to the propaganda – watch the caregiving authorities.

The speaker of socialist realist poems considers, controls, comments on, and converses with the reactions of interlocutors. If a dispute arises, then the one who speaks the last is the one who transmits the proper ideological evaluation of phenomena, like in “Rozmowa ze sceptykiem” (Conversation with a Skeptic). The critical readings of Szymborska’s poems from the 1950s omitted one important thread that I would call the solidarity of women, or the socialist realist herstory. Ideology still controls the lawfulness of views, but agreement in the female circle has other foundations. Szymborska employs the old topos ←39 | 40→of lamenters – mothers mourning the death of their children – and shares the pain of Vietnamese women who are experiencing war in the poem “Jako matka” (As a Mother). In a feigned conversation with an American woman, the speaker explains the military conflict from the perspective of maternal pain in “Do matki amerykańskiej” (To the American Mother). While in “Tarcza” (Shield) the fanatical protest emerges from the image of a delicate female body lying on rail tracks to stop a transport of weapons to Vietnam. In the latter poem, mourning turns into a triumph,49 while elegy turns into a hymn. However, let us add that this work is not faithfulness to facts because the heroin – a French communist – did not perish under the train as readers may assume from the silences, and the protest organized by the French Communist Party at Saint-Pierre-des-Corps station gathered crowds (February 23, 1950).

In “Tarcza,” we find a statement that Raymonde Dien is a “peer of our young female workers” (DŻ 23). Hence, Szymborska fosters an image of a women international: be it Vietnamese, French, or Polish – which refers to the mass songs and iconography of the time. Simultaneously, the vision of Szymborska approaching old age seems quite peculiar: “When dying, I want to be friends/with a young female medic-communist/as peer with peer” (“Rówieśnice;” Peers; DŻ 15). Perhaps she will not even have to, as communism will overcome illness and old age, because the progress of science is in this political part of the world. The upbringing of girls emphasizes the benefits of the new system, which establishes a world in the image of the Garden of Eden. This social vision assumes that women will finally cease to be victims of discrimination and degradation (“Gdy nad kołyską ludowej konstytucji do wspomnień sięga stara robotnica”).

In Szymborska’s highly persuasive poetry of the Stalinist era, female biology also becomes an irresistible argument. The Communist Garden of Eden must be built and – nota bene – populated again. It is not often that we find in socialist realist poems fragments that praise the “lush earth,” the wait for new generations to come, and the “nudity/in love, grain in the hips of women” (“Ucieczka;” PZS 27). The leap from ideology to love is not at all violent, because the generation of “beautiful people” in new homes and cities – as poets repeat after propagandists – will be able to fully participate in collective happiness.

What’s more, the romanticist model became obsolete, while the scenario of love stories – simplified. Even lovers do not have to be individualized, because a standard model is enough for everyone. In one of Szymborska’s poems, we read: “In each window a Kathy/waits for Johnny/a little ladybug sat on her hand” ←40 | 41→(“W oknie;” In a Window; DŻ 33). We see another fairy tale here. At the end of the poem, the recipient immediately recognizes folklore stylization. Noteworthy, ideologized folk fit perfectly in the socialist realist poetics. First, it reveals the class character of the statement; second, it democratizes art by approximating anonymous models; third, it easily formed a bond with recipients.50

The discussed period offered some a place for personal lyric, although mediocre. In Szymborska’s books, love is as a pretext. The role of direct confession of feelings is limited, because someone’s story about disappointed expectations is empathetically heard in “Do zakochanej nieszczęśliwie” (To the Girl Unhappy in Love) or a date conversation turns toward “professional” and literary feelings in “Osobiste” (Personal). Only “Rozgniewana muza” (The Angried Muse) breaks away from the duties of agitation. This semi-humorous monolog distances itself from love lyric by saying: the word may last longer than feeling, so let us better not stir anything recklessly. Similarly, “Key” and “Lovers” show no sign of the ideologization of emotion, and we should rather read them along with Szymborska’s later reflections on love. Thus, she was able to transgress the prescription of the socialist realism doctrine.

The Toil of Poets

Let us reflect on Szymborska’s understanding of the tasks of poetry in her works from the 1950s. First, let us concentrate on literature about love that shows a changed world of “social happiness.” Here, the verbal act is defined like an appeal at the production line: “we need poems about love/so that they keep the lovers safe” (“Trzeba;” We Need To; DŻ 34). In a socialist paradise, poems decorate the “evening hours” (DŻ 34). This view is clearly reductionistic that makes poetry into an inexpensive supplement of life managed by ideology. The adopted rules clearly define order: first come production and construction, then everything else. The simile of the poet to the worker and rhyming, for example, to the work of the bricklayer, intends not to degrade the beautiful art of writing. The young protagonist of the poem “Wzrastanie” (Growing), who under capitalism would be a farmhand, can now choose:

To be a poet or an engineer?

To make a poem or a house – what is more beautiful?

Sometimes a rhyme is lighter than a brick.

Sometimes a wall is smoother than a stanza (DŻ 31).

←41 | 42→

The word and the material world share the activity building. When we compare this approach with the avant-garde and constructivist idea of the poet-builder, it turns out that the issue is simpler: the proletarian of rural origin, who experienced the school of life, can successfully write poetry for the people. Besides, a writer who advanced in the society would over time develop literary awareness.

To emphasize the change in culture, Wiktor Woroszylski used such formulas: “beware, political poets/axemen of imagination, loaders of emotion.”51 Szymborska was alien to such “labor” appeals. She picks private situations and uses a hushed voice when dreaming about finding mass readership. An ordinary human smile is to win the reader’s favor, unfortunately – and according to the doctrine of that time – perceived en masse: “If only one poem – I want it passionately –/to carry with a smile to villages and factories” (“Osobiste;” The Personal; DŻ 36).

If everyone were convicted that the world begins anew, they also announced a new era in culture. The artist was not ready to accept the duties waiting for him. So one had to go through a series of initiations. It consisted of a remodeling of consciousness and gradual growth to understand the ideals of the new times. Therefore, one had to negate previous ideas, adopt other principles, and learn from the beginning how to “think, act, speak” (“Nie dość;” Not Enough; DŻ 11). Zdzisław Łapiński believes that such conversion that preconditioned participation in literary life meant “an act of self-degradation.”52 To “live usefully among people” (“Nie dość,” DŻ 11) is the most difficult point of transformation – we read in Szymborska’s poems – which means writing according to the changed conscience. Our anatomy is to suggest the choice of worldview; after all, the heart is on the left. This is said with grace and humor that relieves the poem from heavy agitation.

In the volume Why We Live, we will find the outline of a program. Szymborska writes that the poet should not look into the poisoned well or deal with obsolete mysticism (“Do twórcy;” To the Artist). It means that artists should reject individual sensitivity and relinquish metaphysical matters. Second, aestheticism is narcissism. There is nothing good about loneliness. There is no place for a sad face of the artist in a joyous era. This was appropriate for the decadent past.

←42 | 43→

Szymborska’s program consists in rejecting specific themes and artistic approaches. Although, the advent of “the new” cannot renounce the entire past of culture, if only because the poet must communicate with the recipient, ill adept in reading complicated literary codes. We heard about the paradox of proclaiming revolutionary ideas in the past languages of art. Therefore, many repurposed the easy stylistic and well-assimilated patters of genres for propaganda. They only received a new ideological sticker. Persuasive efficacy did not exclude side effects like an accurate metaphor, a beautiful sentence, and a developed strophe.

We may criticize how mythical and historical heroes were linked to the gathering of modern fighters and activists. They accuse imperialist crimes or indirectly praise the benefits of the Communist system (“Wyspa siren;” The Island of Sirens; “List Edwarda Dembowskiego do ojca;” Edward Dembowski’s Letter to Father). Such reinterpretations of myths are nothing peculiar at the time. Writers boldly use history, completely devoid of historicism. There is no difference between the progressive past and the current victorious time. The jump between yesterday and today requires no additional explanations, because authoritatives proved that the scenario of history did not deviate from the provided rules. The mechanism of the “self-fulfilling prophecy”53 worked perfectly.

Artistic doubts seem to be a virtual problem. The subject carries Szymborska, while her hesitations about artistic expression paradoxically reveal certainty. For instance, this is the case in “Tarcza.” After rhetorical retardation that seemingly stops the lyrical tale – “With what pen should I describe the moment” (DŻ 22) – the rhythms of sentences progress smoothly and, without much interference in the narrative, there emerges the combined pattern of ballad and elegy.54 We also witness the selection of species, when reading the following warning: “It is a bad epitaph, oh poets,/if it laments the death of a hero” (“Pocałunek nieznanego żołnierza,” DŻ 10). In a joyful time when “death is gone,” the memory of mourning along with threnodies, epicedia, and poetry of lamentation is inappropriate.

The magazine of literary forms was well stocked, so authors used it eagerly yet indiscriminately. As I mentioned, ambitious experiments ceased. Thus, the literary twentieth century was rarely visited, and only in secret. The genre patterns of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries served to praise the political and social change. The noble origin of expression consecrated by tradition mixed ←43 | 44→with quickly promoted genres – the utilitarian, the journalistic – while syncretic combinations abound.55 The recipient’s ear was to hear a familiar voice, a recognizable rhythm. However, no one sought an exact transfer. On the contrary, the distant echo of something known eased the rape of the viewer’s imagination. The classicist or romanticist form inspired trust in propaganda-literary messages. Moreover, the socialist realist genology was subordinated to the principle of decorum,56 which meant the appropriateness of style to the subject.

Often, Szymborska overcomes the compromise of verse journalism and artistry in her 1950s poetry. What often succeeds is sheer good literary work. A list of genological references includes a hymn and an ode57 (“Lenin,” “Na powitanie socjalistycznego miasta;” On the Greeting of a Socialist City), a ballad (“Czterej;” The Four; “Miłość Marii i Piotra Curie;” The Love of Maria and Piotr Curie), a realistic picture (“Gdy nad kołyską…;” “Wzrastanie”), and an outline of an epic poem (“Wyspa siren;” The Island of Sirens). There also appear mixtures and hybrids. For example, the combination of a ballad with a hymn (“Ucieczka;” Escape), in which – between the reprimand and the affirmation – there happens a switch of genre rules; or a mixture of an epitaph with an epigram written with almost rococo lightness (“Pocałunek nieznanego żołnierza”). Another example appears in the poem “Gdy nad kołyską…,” in which Szymborska reaches for the conventions of a reportage, a realist novella, and a hymn. Such adaptations usually change the functions and meanings of genres. The popular ballads of the early 1950s hide the most important romanticist properties: spiritualism, freneticism, mysteriousness. In socialist realist writing, everything must come clear according to the dialectical and materialistic key. Every sketch and picture from reality must speak not for itself, its autonomy is limited by the discursive commentary that covers ideological interpretation, which sometimes exceeds the anecdote itself.

Szymborska’s poems of the Stalinist era hold a rich repertoire of utilitarian texts and nonliterary methods of communication, especially related to social didactics. Under Stalinism, great careers happened to speeches, talks, endless appeals, Orwellian Two Minutes Hate, mass songs, propaganda films, and collective parties. Not to mention the area of obtrusive inscriptions: slogans, instructions, ←44 | 45→and reminders constantly attacked people on every corner. The individual should be alone for a moment. Such aura most clearly surfaces in Szymborska’s poems “Ten dzień nadejdzie” (This Day Will Come), “Wstępującemu do partii,” “Trzeba.”

The popular practice of speaking appears – transformed – in several Szymborska’s works of the Stalinist era. Baroque titles from the volume Why We Live reveal the situation, who speaks to whom and about what in “Żołnierz radziecki w dniach wyzwolenia do polskich dzieci mówił tak” (The Soviet Soldier Spoke This Way to Polish Children on the Day of Liberation), “Robotnik nasz mówi o imperialistach” (Our Worker Speaks of the Imperialists), and “Gdy nad kołyską Ludowej Konstytucji do wspomnień sięga stara robotnica.” The verse-conversation “Jako matka” ennobles persuasion. Once the most popular poem by Szymborska printed in school textbooks, “Gawęda o miłości ziemi ojczystej” (Yarn About the Love for Homeland), eludes journalism and propaganda with a lecture on collective values maintained in a seemingly amorphous shape with freely formulated judgments.58

What should occupy the prominent position in the people’s society is people’s poetry. This was the critics thought and what they wrote in critical texts. Thus, folklore stylization became an obsession of socialist realist poets.59 Its propagandist applications in works about collectivization, tractors, and progress abound with unintended humoristic effects. Except the poetry of Szymborska. She rarely uses folklore heritage and to a limited extent. She does not utilize folk motifs but only versification and syntax or roots statements in eternal collective wisdom: “On the edge of a rock,/their hair did they comb,/and silvery sang on the tiny wave” (“Wyspa syren,” PZS 31); “They said, they taught/good people:/never a child, no child/is alien” (“Jako matka,” PZS 29). These folklore encrustations strengthen the literary quality of these poems.

Finally, let us point to Szymborska’s references to film technique. Besides the speeches by the protagonist of “List Edwarda Dembowskiego do ojca,” we find much more interesting places in terms of art: the overlapping of images from different times and places, the movement of the camera from object to object, and transitions from the general plan to close-ups along with quick nervous cut scenes. The literary equivalents of film language are motivated in two ways: long static shots correspond to the order of memories, while the flickering of frames to the monolog of the fugitive. References to the possibilities of film surface ←45 | 46→more clearly in the poem “Malowidło w Pałacu Zimowym.”60 What are the most interesting elements of this piece are the interference of the real and the painted world (in a mirror), optical games of refracting light, dynamics of movement and immobility, the use of camera eye to reveal details. Mirages of reflections in mirrors, the dynamics of quick cuts, and the focus on the movement of anonymous characters evokes the montage of Sergey Eisenstein’s film October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1927).

The voice of poetry participated in collective life that consisted of various campaigns and mass actions. The subject of labor was made to look heroic like military actions; it eliminated unselfish beauty. The remodeling of consciousness served to make the writer a part of the social organism according to the indications of the authorities; the author presented not the existing, but the postulated reality. Just like her colleagues, Szymborska adapted literary formulas from the past to the tasks of agitation; she built from these signs the language of mutual understanding with her readers. Both of her Stalinist-era volumes, Why We Live and Questions You Ask Yourself, we find allusions to contemporary forms of communication. There is a shift from literaturiness to ideological tasks, but Szymborska simultaneously develops in the opposite direction: toward precisely planned artistic effects.

The Solemn Weather

Socialist realism knew only holidays. The poor life of ordinary people, unusable in propaganda, unworthy of an ode, was accompanied by triumphant fanfare. The celebration of victory continued endlessly. The authorities paid great attention to anniversaries and jubilees, congresses and conventions. Workers built altars for the Party and the communist saints. This surplus of feasts that transformed everything into a memorable historical moment – described so aptly by Victor Klemperer in his analysis of Nazi rituals The Language of the Third Reich –had his negative: the lack of everyday life. Excessively used holiday quickly lost its value.

Socialist realist poetry had to match the “greatness of the era” by creating a special ceremonial language, partly of ready-made elements, in which the secular became the sacred, and partly of new emblems and symbols. The old principle of decorum was in force. The subjects of the highest importance that neared the sacred circle – the mystery of October Revolution, the Communist Party, and the lives of leaders – appeared in the elevated style, while descriptions of joyous ←46 | 47→moments of the everyday were served by the middle style, halfway hieratic and ornate; even the low style was acceptable, because of its natural proximity to colloquial speech – modest and ordinary – that suited the unsophisticated festivals of the working people.

The most popular among genres were the ode and panegyric,61 while hyperbole and periphrasis among the figures of style. The return of genres in which sophisticated praise played an important role became a literary epidemic. Authors competed with each other, who will exhibit a better wit, but this was also their source of major discomfort – that original ideas were quickly depleted. Here returns the unsolvable dilemma: how to flatter and remain safe?

Most often, Stalinist-era writers used pathos and delight. However, we easily notice that emotionality of high rhetorical tones remains under the strict control of the socialist realist doctrine: it is included into the ritual. As she cannot go there, Szymborska only twice glances at the “Olympus of Stalinism” by combining the mythologies of the highest gods – Stalin and Lenin – with the image of the Party as the allegorical deity.62 The threnody on the death of the “engine driver of history” turns into a panegyric in honor of the leading force of humanity in the poem “Ten dzień.” Whereas the adoration of the grave of the leader – the most important sanctuary of communism and the place of pilgrimage – simultaneously becomes praise of the future victory in “Lenin:” “he will be crowned with flowers/from planets yet unknown today” (DŻ 44). We may be terrified by this hyperbole, but progress was literally without limits at that moment of history.

Let us consider a few comparisons. Władysław Broniewki expresses the matter concisely: “Lenin’s grave – simple as thought …/Lenin’s act – simple and grand/as the Revolution.”63 Konstanty Ildefons Gałczynski confesses: “a sinful man, after years of mistakes,/I finally arrived here.”64 Indeed, at that time, the holy grave on Moscow’s Red Square radiates the ideas of a great change; here lead all the paths of the followers of communism. Noteworthy, the panegyrics for Lenin repeat the images and promises from the holy scriptures. Here are the greatest and the chosen, like the prophets of the Old Testament, who will be the first to pass the threshold of the new kingdom of happy humanity. As ←47 | 48→Mieczysław Jastrun writes: “Our age will pass, but you first,/Oh statesmen of the proletariat,/Will enter the future.”65 This elevated style is supported by the Christian sacrum. Another variation of Lenin’s worship tends toward a “parasitism” on the Polish language of romanticist mythology. In such manner Wiktor Woroszylski defines the sacrifice of a hero communist: “he could love for the millions,/he suffered and burned like for the millions.”66 The two verses mix the Bible and Adam Mickiewicz’s Forefather’s Eve.

“Describe a thing instead of naming it” says Aristotle in the part of Rhetoric on impressiveness.67 At the heart of periphrastic speech lies ornamentation combined with a riddle, whose solution not difficult. Rather, the described object becomes even more majestic and inaccessible. Periphrasis prevents trivial terms from polluting the deity. In place of the most important name of Stalin, which should not be pronounced, there may appear a syntactically elaborated periphrasis: “the fourth profile on the banner of the Revolution” (Ten dzień, PZS 11). On the mass produced emblem, Stalin’s profile was placed closest to the viewer, but this is not the only reason why the number four was de facto number one. In the socialist realist literature, this is clearly demonstrated by the number of panegyrics for Stalin during his rule – and laments when he died.

The deeds of lesser heroes also deserve decorative splendor. Below see Szymborska’s war reportage that has lost its report features. Eye-witness testimony is filtered through the mind of an author of “historical materials,” and only then transferred into poetry. What does this next elaboration add? Style and rhetoric. Let us consider this fragment:

It burst too early – over the head –

the bottle that carries fire.

The soldier that wielded it

burned with red glow.

But fire erases no will.

With his last bottle on the enemy,

onto the tank’s green shell

did the red fire plummet (“Dlatego żyjemy,” DŻ 5).

The speaker does not relate here but extol. The bush of periphrases denotes the hero’s death, as do circumstances and objects. The presented struggle loses the violence of an accident in favor of hieratic sublimity. Suffice to consider ←48 | 49→the rhythm of verbs raised by one degree to the enhanced and simultaneously solemn expression. The soldier did not “hold” the bottle but “wielded” it, he did not “catch fire” but “burned,” not “fell” but “plummeted.” As if Szymborska planned the creation of a sculptural monument at once in words. Similarly, the high style in the cycle Dlatego żyjemy includes the speeches of warriors at the time of death. They leave memorable thoughts and weighty messages. They speak in the face of history. According to the epic tradition, they declare faithfulness beyond the grave, although not to their senior but the Party. Their death gesture is the chanting of “The Internationale;” in this case a purifying and saving song.

Socialist realist iconography corresponds to the promotion of workers in the social hierarchy. The monumental figures of laborers frequently appeared as the subject of painting and sculpture. Poetry had its own ways to translate them into sculptures or at least create equivalents of posters. In poetry, workers overwhelm their surroundings, or a ritual elevates them above others. In “Wzrastanie,” a young bricklayer “From the height of the scaffolding/today takes ownership of this world” (DŻ 31). Hence, there appeared new rulers at construction heights with scaffolding as their proletarian throne. Szymborska mixes “plebeian eulogy”68 with praise of Nowa Huta; a city constructed from scratch, for new people, and according to new rules, both urban and ideological. In “Na powitanie budowy socjalistycznego miasta” (On the Construction of a Socialist City), the mythical tale of establishing a city emphasizes the completion of the new site with the nearby historic city of Cracow.69 One may improve the spatial layout so that there is center everywhere (“a socialist city … with no alleyways and suburbs,” DŻ 16), but one must especially base the durability of this experiment on two foundations: class consciousness and its materials. Szymborska’s conceptual poetics connects the concrete with the abstract that we know from her later works appears very functional here:

From bricks and proud courage

will grow the height of buildings.

From iron and consciousness

will emerge the spans of bridges (DŻ 16).

However, Szymborska lowers style in the story about the growth and education of the communist. In the poem “Wstępującemu do partii,” the lyrical situation is: one must write a biography. The mentor’s voice suggests the most important facts, names the required virtues, but mostly delights in the beautiful epoch in ←49 | 50→which the student lives. There appear significant words: “The solemn weather/of your adolescence” (DŻ 14). Works and days inscribe themselves in an unceasing carnival. According to socialist realist standards, people live in the world-feast.

The more modest celebration of free time has an appropriate rhetorical design, one devoid of decorated figures. Girls who dream about love, spend their time looking for a prince from behind windows; in this fairy tale he is a shock worker. For the first time in history, the windows are opened wide. Socialist construction favors young committed people by creating “eager homes” (DŻ 33) – according to a propaganda scheme – homes for the happy. Szymborska uses here a funny periphrasis (definition) in the scientific spirit, as if taken from a science course: “Windows – good conductors of love” (“W oknie;” In a Window; DŻ 33). Moreover, she describes the naive innocent heroines with an updated style of sentimental idyll. This poem is a great example of candy socialist realism and Ludwik Starski’s 1954 film Przygoda na Mariensztacie (Adventure in Mariensztat).

Retouches, Departures

Szymborska seems bored with the recitation of slogans, so she sometimes throws a stylistic pearl to wake the reader out of numbness. A graceful ornament here, a tasteful interpolation there. In other words, the style betrays the poet. Even her praise of the great dam – the triumph of Soviet engineers who change the irrational nature – becomes the starting point of a language game. Attention moves toward metaphors and delexicalized idioms. In “Amu-Daria,” we read about a wandering desert: “The gale overgrew abandoned cities/flailing with a whip made from sand” (DŻ 42). During a tedious lesson about the imperialists, there suddenly appears a marvelous sentence: “They ripped the atom like a strongbox” (“Robotnik nasz mówi o imperialistach;” DŻ 18). It is difficult to present a more shocking presentation of the movements of a blinded boy who “left/looking with his hands around” (“Z Korei;” DŻ 24).70 Szymborska’s microstylistics repeatedly, tentatively, and indirectly suggests that there is a more complex world of phenomena beyond what is known.

The eloquent Red Army soldier explains to children the theory of two enemies – the Nazi occupier and the capitalist oppressor – because they should learn it in kindergarten; he does it with the following words about the Soviet offensive: “Be not afraid of this offensive/as the front will pass lika spring shower” ←50 | 51→(“Żołnierz radziecki…;” DŻ 9). The linguistic polysemy of this passage – with all its difference – contains the germs of a more perfectly developed concept: “and the blooming orchards near Verdun/cannot escape/the approaching atmospheric front” (“Reality Demands;” EB 290). Szymborska’s consolation of a soldier-aphorist – taken at face value – brings to mind the ironic remark that Sławomir Mrożek made about Jerzy Andrzejewski’s novel Popiół i diament (Ashes and Diamonds), devoted to the early post-war situation in Poland and the establishment of the new authority: “In this book, the Red army moves through the Polish lands like the elves, that is, like ghosts of the woods.”71 In fact, there few scholarly texts about how the socialist realist literature tamed the dubious charm of change and disarmed the real fears connected with the entry of the Russian army. The belittling of the offensive is probably connected with such fear. The official belief that everything is good is, just in case, completed by the diagnosis that it will not be so bad.

Szymborska’s controversial – even today – epicedium for Stalin, “Ten dzień,” departs from conventional lamentations after his death.72 The poem does not use the name of the leader, as if it was the name of a deity. Szymborska introduces the motif of writing, which objectifies emotions: “the unshakable printed sign/will not pass the tremors of my hand” (PZS 11). The speaker mediates regret by a psychological analysis of the moment of receiving the message of Stalin’s death. We may even call it a theatralization of the event. The addressee of the information prolongs the moment of uncertainty, while the choir of messengers keeps silent, because no word would be solemn enough. We must admit that the idea is original, but the ending of the poem turns out to be much worse. The epicedium turns into a hymn of praise for the deified omnipotent Party.

Of course, both Szymborska’s Stalinist-era volumes visibly mark the roles of the poetic “I” that fulfills the rules of socialist realist rituals. Similarly, social situations that created the ominous aura of Stalinism model the ways of literary expression; suffice to mention public processes, hate rallies, self-criticism, and the constant search for enemies. However, this does not preclude Szymborska’s more general reflection, for example, about the nature of compassion, which has nothing to do with socialist realism. Let us notice the distance between the prosecutor’s speech (“you will tremble, aviator, for you knew what you carried,/you will grow pale, doctor, for you bred death;” “Ten dzień nadejdzie;” DŻ 25), ←51 | 52→the dangerous frown (“who allies with a murderer –/is the traitor and enemy of humankind;” “Pieśń o zbrodniarzu wojennym;” DŻ 21), and the lyrical monolog:

Do you open each human destiny

like a book,

searching for emotion

not in font

or shape (“Pytania zadawane sobie,” PZS 16)?

In the case of the prosecutor and the frown, the language is armed with crushing rhetoric, while anger finds properly selected words. However, hesitation is the domain of private confessions, hence the last fragment ends with a question mark. The metaphors of writing and printing, which will appear in other contexts in Szymborska’s poems, belong here to defenseless empathy. After all, the agitator care not for the book of individual destiny.

Biographical notes

Wojciech Ligęza (Author)

Wojciech Ligęza is a Polish professor of literary studies, literary critic, and essayist. Since 1984, he teaches at the Faculty of Polish Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. In his work, he focuses on twentieth-century Polish literature at home and abroad, especially the poetry of Wisława Szymborska, Czesław Miłosz, and Zbigniew Herbert.


Title: World under Revision