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World under Revision

The Poetry of Wisława Szymborska


Wojciech Ligęza

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.

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I After the War

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 | 27→

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.