The Poetry of Wisława Szymborska
This book provides a comprehensive overview of the entirety of Wisława Szymborska’s poetic oeuvre. The author employs in-depth historical reflection on Szymborska’s beginnings to reveal that – without describing her post-war beginnings and reflecting on her early entanglement in socialist realist newspeak – Szymborska’s mature anti-dogmatic attitude will remain unclear. The book shows how Szymborska’s rhetoric and stylistics – figures of reservation, negation, contradiction, tautology, and repetition – are closely connected with the construction of the poetic world and affect the shape of her messages. 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.
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.←10 | 11→