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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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II Embroiled in Newspeak

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.

Other poets create better copies of articles from party newspapers than Szymborska. It is true that a lot of the above examples fits like a glove, but a number of fragments from her writing practice of that time breaks out of the rigor of the obligatory doctrine. These fragments reject the limits of the socialist realist literary language that is now dead. In this lyric of compassionate conversation, we see the usual sadness in the midst of a joyous era, the nonpolitical suffering of disappointed love, the need to discreetly express feelings (“Do zakochanej nieszczęśliwie;” “Rozgniewana Muza”).

The above works offer a richer area of poetic expression than other socialist realist poems of even outstanding poets. Piotr Michałowski rightly observes that Szymborska opposes the schematic “mostly artistically rather than politically.” Michałowski interprets the role of hesitations and negations as an escape into “virtual ambiguity.”73 Szymborska’s attempts to speak outside of the standard rigor correct little in the arrangement of ideological certainties but signal the very need for a multi-dimensional truth.

Szymborska’s poetic books Why We Live and Questions You Ask Yourself do not entirely belong to socialist realist poetry, but the above calculation of proportions revealed little. Is there one and a half socialist realist book? Can we return more of those poems to readership? Let us say the following: in contrast to the poets of the “pimple” generation (pryszczaci; the socialist realists)74 who ←52 | 53→persuade, criticize, and praise in almost every single poem, Szymborska’s way of building the architecture of her poetic book is different; a matter particularly evident in Questions You Ask Yourself. She shapes the composition of her volumes from common political recognitions of the world, while inside she puts variable themes in which privacy is permissible. We may see here some similarities with the optimistic episode in Różewicz’s poetry, less of a tribune, and more of an ordinary man who pacts with the “time that goes.”75

Why deal with antiquarian socialist realism, when we may immediately reflect on Szymborska’s later poems of the highest quality? The answer will consist of several parts. Her socialist realist mistake sheds light on Szymborska’s later artistic biography. According to Anna Legeżyńska, the socialist realist experience taught Szymborska “the art of distance and distrust toward simplistic ethics and simplified aesthetics.”76 The dispute with the patterns of thought and overly obvious truths marks the later works of Szymborska. Therefore, we should not omit the intermediate link between her unfulfilled post-war debut fully matured work. Such neglect would make us lose an important aspect of Szymborska’s writing experience. Moreover, proper literary study that observes and describing may partly replace the mythology and revise the repeated rumors about Szymborska. We should not falter in the face of falsely concerned and genuinely hateful inquisitors who only wish to exclusively link Szymborska’s name with communist propaganda.77

What requires attention and reflection in Szymborska’s above works exceeds the ossified socialist realist poetics. We should remember about the breaches and exceptions, retouchings and departures, about the later continuation of experiences that Szymborska gained in unfavorable times for poetry. Some of the poems of that period like “Circus Animals,” “Key,” and “Lovers” could successfully find their way into her 1957 collection Calling Out to Yeti. We sometimes see in them a rare wit, a linking of meanings, and versification proficiency. Even though the whole seems to “spoiled” by declarations, accusations, angry tones, ←53 | 54→or naïve optimism, we should mindfully pay attention to the poems “Z Korei,” “W oknie,” “Do zakochanej nieszczęśliwie,” “Malowidło w Pałacu Zimowym.”

Situations from socialist realist poems will cross over to the other side, while once seriously used newspeak will return as an object of parody. Probably “Writing a Résumé” (from The People on the Bridge) can be read as an ironic reverse of the adventures of a young activist with a blank page who identifies herself exactly with “what” and “how” should be written (“Wstępującemu do partii”). The apology of communist saints in “Lenin” or “Ten dzień” changes into far-reaching skepticism in “Smiles.” The belief in the beautiful and benevolent power of great scientific achievements in “Miłość Marii i Piotra Curie” will become doubt, counterpointed in the sorrowful reflections in “Discovery.” In “Snapshot of a Crowd,” Szymborska mocks strange newspaper idiolect, while parodic speeches in her mature poetry may only consider nonpolitical everyday matters, as in “A Speech at the Lost-and-Found” or “Dinosaur Skeleton.”

Szymborska may only apply a variation of agitational poetry à rebours. However, she keeps all the styles and messages of lyrics belonging to the private trend. It is hard to believe in love on a mass scale – unambiguously happy. It resembles a poster too much. When love does happen, for Szymborska it is a miracle of miracles. Therefore, she will transform the joy of a railway escapade ended with a meeting of lovers in “In Trite Rhymes” into a precisely described “nonarrival” in “The Railroad Station,” in which she negates the details of a positive scenario. We see a different situation with unrequited love. The Stalinist-era “Do zakochanej nieszczęśliwie” appears as if a draft of “Ballad” and “The Tower of Babel.”

Like the poems from before the book debut, we may treat Szymborska’s Stalinist-era poetry as a laboratory useful for her mature creativity. Not only as a chronicle of mistakes and mishaps. According to Szymborska:

chciałoby się wykryć w [rzeczywistości – W.L.] jakiś trwalszy porządek, dokonać w niej podziału na to co ważne i nieważne, przestarzałe i nowe, przeszkadzające i pomocne. Jest to pokusa groźna, co często wówczas między świat i postęp wciska się jakaś teoria, jakaś ideologia obiecująca wszystko posegregować i objaśnić. […] Ja tej pokusie niestety uległam, o czym świadczą dwa pierwsze zbiorki wierszy. Sporo już lat minęło od tego czasu, ale pamiętam dobrze wszystkie fazy tego doświadczenia: od radosnej wiary, że z pomocą doktryny widzę świat dużo wyraźniej i szerzej – aż do odkrycia, że to co widzę tak szeroko i wyraźnie, to wcale nie jest już świat prawdziwy, ale zasłaniająca go sztuczna konstrukcja78.

←54 | 55→

In this sense, in the first two of Szymborska’s volumes, the world remained without revision of the ideological faith that could not be both ardently accepted and doubted. The “groźna pokusa” of segregating and ordering phenomena according to an externally provided key in Szymborska’s mature poetry creates a photographic negative to view the world simultaneously from many sides. Certainty is the starting point for doubt, language cliches become material for virtuoso destruction. Wisława Szymborska – the poet of the drama of existence on the metaphysical stage, alternative worlds, great diversity of all things, cognitive inquisitiveness, dialog, irony, exquisite mocking subversiveness – a socialist realist? It seems a premature joke. However, her talent of wise doubt and critical distance would not have developed so well, had it not been for the intellectual-moral adventure of believing an externally instituted truth and adopting someone else’s language.

←55 | 56→←56 | 57→

23 For more, see M. Głowiński, Nowomowa po polsku, Warszawa 1991; Rytuał i demagogia. Trzynaście szkiców o sztuce zdegenerowanej, Warszawa 1992; along with his entries in Słownik realizmu socjalistycznego, ed. Z. Łapiński, W. Tomasik, Kraków 2004.

24 M. Głowiński, “Literatura wobec nowomowy,” in: Nowomowa po polsku, Warszawa 1991, p. 45.

25 Z. Łapiński, Jak współżyć z socrealizmem. Szkice nie na temat, Londyn 1988, p. 95.

26 See E. Balcerzan, “Strategia agitatora,” in: Polska poezja w latach 1939–1965. Część I: Strategie liryczne, Warszawa 1982, pp. 159–160.

27 See Z. Jarosiński, “Literatura jako władza,” in: Nadwiślanski socrealizm, Warszawa 1999.

28 M. Głowiński, “Poezja i rytuał (wiersze na sześćdziesiąte urodziny Bolesława Bieruta),” in: Rytuał i demagogia. Trzynaście szkiców o sztuce zdegradowanej, Warszawa 1992, pp. 105–109.

29 Term introduced by A. Friszke, “Państwo Polskie – autonomiczna część imperium,” in: Spór o PRL, Kraków 1996, p. 111.

30 T. Wilkoń, Polska poezja socrealistyczna w latach 1949–1955, Gliwice 1992, p. 12.

31 R. Matuszewski, “Wołanie do Yeti,” Nowa Kultura 40/1957.

32 T. Nyczek, “O poezji Wisławy Szymborskiej,” Miesięcznik Literacki 3/1974, p. 59. Also see his remarks about Szymborska’s literary rule “W prostym stylu prosta treść,” in: 22 x Szymborska, Poznań 1997, p. 20.

33 S. Balbus, “Świat ze wszystkich stron świata. O Wisławie Szymborskiej” in: W. Szymborska, Dwadzieścia jeden wierszy, Kraków 1996, pp. 16–17.

34 J. Drzewucki, “Gdzieś obok, poza wszystkim,” in: Smaki słowa. Szkice o poezji, Wrocław 1999, p. 134.

35 A. Sandauer, “Na przykład Szymborska,” in: Liryka i logika, Warszawa 1971, pp. 408–409; “Pogodzona z historią,” in: Poeci czterech pokoleń, Kraków 1977.

36 J. Błoński, “Sól doświadczenia,” Życie Literackie 42/1962.

37 P. Michałowski, “Wisławy Szymborskiej poetyka zaprzeczeń,” Pamiętnik Literacki 2/1996, p. 129.

38 J. Trzeciak, “Wislawa Szymborska: The Enchantment of Everyday Objects,” Publishers Weekly 7.04.1997, p. 69.

39 A. Legeżyńska, Wisława Szymborska, Poznań 1996, pp. 19–20.

40 S. Barańczak, “Nie ma pytań pilniejszych od pytań naiwnych,” Gazeta Wyborcza 12–13.10.1996. Also see A. Węgrzyniakowa, Nie ma rozpusty większej niż myślenie. O poezji Wisławy Szymborskiej. Katowice 1996, p. 17.

41 J. Rogoziński, “nie starczy ust…,” in: Preteksty. Szkice o współczesnej poezji polskiej, Warszawa 1985, p. 150.

42 Also see, among others, L. Flaszen, “Poezja agitacji osobistej,” Życie Literackie 13/1953; Z. Lichniak, “Dlatego czekamy,” Dziś i Jutro 12/1953; Z. Jastrzębski, “Poezja dnia dzisiejszego,” Tygodnik Powszechny 28/1953; J. Bocheński, “Cenny debiut poetycki,” Trybuna Wolności 20/1953; R. Matuszewski, “Liryka podwładna myśli,” Nowa Kultura 29/1953; J. Trznadel, [untitled review of W. Szymborska, Dlatego żyjemy], Twórczość 3/1953, pp. 165–167; [untitled review of W. Szymborska, Pytania zadawane sobie], Twórczość 12/1954, p. 145; W. Natanson, “Pytania i odpowiedzi,” Nowa Kultura 12/1955; Z. Pędziński, “Poezja szukająca współczesności,” Dziś i Jutro 20/1955; L. Herdegen, “Myśli i wiersze,” Życie Literackie 35/1954; Z. Jastrzębski, “O Szymborskiej i nowej poetyce,” Tygodnik Powszechny 36/1955. For a thorough elaboration of criticism, see A. Zarzycka, Rewolucja Szymborskiej, pp. 175 ff.

43 J. Smulski, “O polskiej socrealistycznej krytyce (i samokrytyce) literackiej,” Teksty Drugie 1–2/2000, pp. 31 ff. Among others, Smulski refers to the informative books by D. Mattson Tubielewicz, Polska socrealistyczna krytyka jako narzędzie władzy, Uppsala 1997, and M. Zawodniak, Literatura w stanie oskarżenia. Rola krytyki w życiu literackim socrealizmu, Warszawa 1998.

44 Flaszen, “Poezja agitacji osobistej.”

45 L. Herdegen, “Dwa tomiki poezji,” Świat 27/1953, p. 14.

46 See A. Bikont, J. Szczęsna, Wisławy Szymborskiej pamiątkowe rupiecie, przyjaciele i sny, Warszawa 1997, pp. 101–103.

47 R. Nycz, ““Cytaty z rzeczywistości”. Funkcja wiadomości prasowych w literaturze,” in: Tekstowy świat. Poststrukturalizm a wiedza o literaturze, Warszawa 1993, pp. 237–238.

48 Flaszen, “Poezja agitacji osobistej,” comments on this statement by saying that, “Szymborska draws conclusions from newspaper facts.”

49 Cf. T. Nyczek, Tyle na raz świata. 27 x Szymborska, Kraków 2005, pp. 31–32.

50 W. Tomasik, “Ludowość,” in: Słownik realizmu socjalistycznego, pp. 132–133.

51 W. Woroszylski, “Na odwrocie nekrologu Wincentego Pstrowskiego,” in: Śmierci nie ma, Warszawa 1949, p. 7. Also see Woroszylski’s “Sprawozdanie lipcowe,” in: Pierwsza linia pokoju. Poezje 1949–1950, Warszawa 1951, p. 22.

52 Łapiński, Jak współżyć z socrealizmem, p. 95.

53 R. Nycz, “Cytaty z rzeczywistości,” p. 238.

54 Nyczek, 22 x Szymborska, Poznań 1997, p. 25, finds in this poem traces of “a classical ancient elegy with its couplet structure.”

55 For more, see T. Wilkoń, “Konwencje genologiczne poezji socrealistycznej,” in: Polska poezja socrealistyczna, pp. 76–88.

56 P. Michałowski, “Wisława Szymborska: dialog i soliloquium,” in: Głosy, formy, światy. Warianty poezji nowoczesnej, Kraków 2008, p. 98.

57 On the socialist realist types of odes, see T. Kostkiewiczowa. Oda w poezji polskiej. Dzieje gatunku, Wrocław 1996, pp. 342–347.

58 See J. Drzewucki, in: Zachwyt i rozpacz.

59 T. Kostkiewiczowa, Oda w poezji polskiej, pp. 124 ff.

60 It was mentioned by Herdegen, Myśli i wiersze, p. 129.

61 Wilkoń, Polska poezja socrealistyczna, Gliwice 1992, pp. 78–79.

62 J. Łukasiewicz: Mitologie socrealizmu, pp. 37 ff, writes more specifically about the hierarchical structure of the sacralisation of the Stalinist world.

63 W. Broniewski, “Pokłon Rewolucji Październikowej,” in: Młodym do lotu. Wybór wierszy, Warszawa 1952, p. 113.

64 K. I. Gałczyński, “Przed mauzoleum Lenina,” in: Ślubne obrączki, Warszawa 1949, p. 19.

65 M. Jastrun, “Żyjący w dziejach,” in: Barwy ziemi, Warszawa 1951, p. 22.

66 W. Woroszylski, “Nowotko,” in: Ojczyzna, Warszawa 1953, p. 8.

67 Arystoteles, Retoryka, in: Trzy stylistyki greckie, transl. W. Madyda, Wrocław 1953, p. 21.

68 “Panegiryk plebejski,”a term introduced by E. Balcerzan in “Strategia agitatora,” p. 153.

69 See W. Tomasik, “Anty-Kraków. Drugi esej o Nowej Hucie,” Teksty Drugie 1–2/2000.

70 Cf. J. Trznadel, [review of Dlatego żyjemy], p. 164.

71 S. Mrożek, “Popiół? Diament?”, in: Małe prozy, Kraków 1990, p. 15.

72 See T. Wilkoń, Polska poezja socrealistyczna, pp. 65–68.

73 P. Michałowski, Wisławy Szymborskiej poetyka zaprzeczeń, p. 130.

74 This formation was not a cohesive group that operated in 1949–1956. Its most important representatives are Wiktor Woroszylski, Andrzej Mandalian, and Andrzej Braun. See Z. Jarosiński, “Literatura jako władza,” pp. 111 ff.

75 Cf. T. Drewnowski, Walka o oddech. O pisarstwie Tadeusza Różewicza, Wrocław 1990, pp. 103–105.

76 A. Legeżyńska, Wisława Szymborska, p. 20.

77 The best example is the book by E. Krajski and S. Krajski, Dwie twarze Wisławy Szymborskiej, Warszawa 1996. See M. Kisiel, “Akwinata przewrócił się w niebie,” in: Od Różewicza. Małe szkice o poezji, Katowice 1999, pp. 62–69. About the “opponents, enemies, and authors of lampoons” writes M. Głowiński in “Szymborska i krytycy,” Teksty Drugie 4/1998, pp. 194–198.

78 W. Szymborska, “Cenię wątpliwości. Przemówienie poetki wygłoszone podczas wręczenia jej Nagrody im. Goethego,” Dekada Literacka 30/1991.