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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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III Szymborska’s Rhetorics

III Szymborska’s Rhetorics

Types of Dialog

We should not describe the change of Szymborska’s thought in poetry as a sudden turn or a quick adjustment to the new orientation of Polish poetry after the historic turn of October 1956; when the Stalinist-era ended with a political and social change that liberalized Polish life and culture. Censorship weakened, it was even abolished at first, so the writers could speak with their own voice. As we have already considered, Szymborska’s poems did not fit completely into the narrow frames of the socialist realist doctrine. On the other hand, her reorientation of the style of expression and revaluation of messages occurred gradually. Between the significant episode from the 1950s and the later mature poems, we should insert two connected intermediate thematic spheres. I mean the rejection of religious belief and the problem of great disappointment after the Polish October 1956, when a reckoning with Stalinism was necessary.

The style of the grotesque in the poems “Night” and “Encounter” (from Calling Out to Yeti, 1957) is a possibility of artistic diction that is immediately exhausted. Szymborska did not place these texts in later selections. The confession of unbelief, in which the balance of the spirit is to be saved by poetic humor, includes not only the truths of religion but also all dogmas (ideological, social) and sets of principles that use collective instinct. What refers to her childhood autobiography and Catholic upbringing is the cycle of poems previously published under the joint title “Ze wspomnień” (From Memories; in journal Życie Literackie 1/1956). The cycle consists of “Night,” “Spotkanie,” “Hania,” “Srebrna kula” (Encounter; Silver Ball). The conversation with the catechist in “Night” shows a difficult problem of the intentional suspension of ethics – once so thoroughly analyzed by Søren Kierkegaard – in a somewhat simplified perspective of school discussion. However, the confession “I won’t believe in goodness/or love” (COY 20) has a serious dimension. If ideological or other faith requires sacrifices, it is a false and wrong.

The annulment of illusions also applies to the Szymborska’s earlier declarations tuned with the collective vote.79 In her groundbreaking volume Calling Out to ←59 | 60→Yeti, the reckoning with recent past has nothing to do with the spectacular performance. It plays out in a small space that foregrounds ethical reflection. The lie collapsed like the walls of Jericho while – after this painful disclosure – there only remains defenseless nakedness in the face of truth in “Historia nierychliwa” (Slow-Moving History).80 There only remains the acceptance of responsibility and the experience of this “moment zero” in creative biography, from which one should start anew. After the revealing of the Stalinist crimes, when the poets hurriedly renounced their trusting attachment to the struggling ideology of communism, Alexander Wat formulated fundamental doubts: “So your world is clean again as the breast of a young mother?/signs of betrayal, blood, and fear have been removed?”81 Szymborska’s answer is definitely negative. Her merciless reflection on own blindness uses Hamlet’s monolog with Yorick’s skull (“Rehabilitacja;” Rehabilitation) to say that compassion for the murdered is futile now, helpless words will change nothing, and solemn funerals of the rehabilitated victims of Stalinism indeed are ceremonies of clowns. Szymborska’s accurate grotesque does not spare anyone even the speaker herself. Let us pay close attention to the reversal of roles. The dead act as the whistle-blowers: “They come to us. Sharp as diamonds, …/along rose-colored glasses, along the glass/of hearts and brains – quietly cutting” (“Rehabilitation,” COY 36). Tadeusz Różewicz used at that time a similar formula: “The dead count the living/the dead will not rehabilitate us” (“Pośmiertna rehabilitacja;” Afterlife Rehabilitation).82

Moreover, modern martyrdom gains for Szymborska the semantic background of Christ’s process as a universal model for unjust judgment. After all, the speaker of the poem talks about “false witnesses” and “judgment at night,” which has the characteristics of collusion. The return of the dead resembles here the summonins for the Last Judgment – with the exit from the earth’s element, the domain of death. However, this “last revision” again turns out to be a mockery, as it is overwhelmed by the media clamor, turns into a rite, and has little to do with moral redress. The poetic word will not resurrect the dead, it can undo or erase nothing. The record itself will be dead. The poet as “Sisyphus ascribed to the hell of poetry” (“Rehabilitacja,” WdY 30) will carry only her weakness.

Szymborska courageously writes that the repeated funerals of Stalinist victims were celebrated by the same authorities that had earlier issued sentences. In “Funeral (I)” devoted to László Raj – the leader of the Communist Party of ←60 | 61→Hungary and victim of Stalinism – we recognize the aura of Shakespeare’s jeer. Here, the murderers become mourners. Their expression of appropriate clichés does not restore moral order to the world, neither does it erase the horror. The authority alien to the people simultaneously shows remorse and arrogance. There will be no lack of “police for crowd control” (COY 39) in any such celebration. The still menacing authorities perform clown-like gestures and performs murderous acting, while buffoonery – as Jan Kott argues when discussing Shakespeare’s play Richard III – “is a philosophy, and the highest form of contempt: absolute contempt.”83 Perfectly accurate images and concepts in Szymborska’s poem create a transparent parabola. Let us take as an example the macabre infantile nature of the rite:

His skull, dug up from clay,

rests in a marble tomb,

sleep tight, medals, on pillows,

now it’s got lots of room

that skull dug up from clay (“Funeral (I),” COY 39).

As if ethical sensitivity fell asleep along with the medals. The bridging of meaning between the invention of the supersonic plane and collective memory appears similarly suggestive. Sorrow and experience are late, mature after years, as if expecting a breakthrough in history. The transparency of memory rekindles discreetly but in a very captivating way in “To My Friends:” “We watch the falling stars/just as after a salvo/plaster drops from the wall” (COY 38).

In the volume Calling Out to Yeti (1957), Szymborska responds to recent infatuations with poetic anti-utopia. By narrowing and sharpening the sense of the eponymous metaphor, we may say that faith in the perfect order of communism seems like faith in the existence of Yeti, a snow manlike creature.84 Allusions to Szymborska’s reckoning with her past surface in her poem about an exam in the history of people as capable only of enslaving others (“Brueghel’s Two Monkeys”).85 We should position in the same context the gestures of starting anew, confessing for collective faults, and establishing a better world with words, though with noticeable irony (“Notes from a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition,” “I’m Working on the World”).

←61 | 62→

Beginning with Calling Out to Yeti, Szymborska’s independent poetic worlds will remain impervious to any doctrinal interference. “I’m Working on the World” importantly recounts the possibilities of escaping oppression. We should read this poetic game in the context of the more general situation of Polish culture after the Polish October 1956. This is when there occurred a loss of trust in the rules of existence imposed by someone else. More specifically, this poem voices a refusal to participate in social and political rituals, although indirectly. What this text rejects above all is the standardization.

“I’m Working on the World” and other poems from Calling Out to Yeti like “Funeral (I),” “To My Friends,” and “Rehabilitation” – in which the reckoning comes to the fore – belong to the “vein of anti-Stalinist moral revolution in poetry, a vein of citizen reflection and social critique.”86

As I have mentioned above, the rejection of Marxist omniscience leads to “critical and self-critical”87 poetry. Artur Sandauer argues that “the moral shock caused a fundamental change in Szymborska’s views. They evolve towards something that we may describe after Descartes as “methodic doubt.””88

What becomes the significant element of Szymborska’s poems in the new period are confrontations of many viewpoints, irony, brilliant humor, rhetorical questions, and the need for doubt. From now on, she will only speak on her own behalf. Moreover, if we consider Szymborska’s complete oeuvre, autobiographical references are the most numerous and significant in Calling Out to Yeti. Szymborska now seeks harmony with the reality through private experiences of intimate events. Along with the redesign of her writing workshop, Szymborska combines the search for other reasons for cultivating the poetic art. Only the individual “I” is responsible for the construction of the world, poetics, ethical choices, and axiological measures. From now on, the essential properties of Szymborska’s poetry will include poetic reservations, corrections, revisions of the great text of the world.

←62 | 63→

World Under Revision

We approach the key category of this book. World under revision is a metaphor that names the principles of poetic ontology, seeks Szymborska’s literary worldview, approximates her lyrical forms, and brings to mind the matters of stylistics and rhetoric. Such defined iunctim gathers many dimensions of artistic expression and embraces a wealth of solutions. Suffice to indicate Szymborska’s diction, syntax, lyrical situations, her dispute with the existing uses of language, and judgments about reality. By creating her separate literary cosmos, Szymborska always keeps “in mind even the possibility/that existence has its own reason for being” (“Possibilities,” PB 272). Therefore, she controls the creational flourish with her experience of reality. The poetic renditions of details almost resemble realist technique. Moreover, the experienced world is primitive and ready-made while the creation of poetic fiction is secondary. That is why Szymborska eagerly glosses on the margins of the existing versions of reality.

We should not disregard direct experience filtered through social assumptions or exclude it as pure imagination. Wisława Szymborska chooses intermediate solutions. The visible world is on a par with the lyrical “I,” imposes its own rules, dictates limitations, and finally surprises with uncountable individual beings only to transform in the poetic word. The problem of Szymborska’s duels with existence comes to the fore in her poems about writing, painting, and composing. Her attitude of humble consent results in rebellion, because the games of artists who abandon their work to negotiate with immortality cannot be innocent (The People on the Bridge). On the other hand, the wonderful freedom of the imagination and the unrestrained inventiveness of the mind seek verification in the sphere of everyday empiricism. According to Szymborska, the invented miracle has inferior quality than the miracle of multiplicitous reality.

Szymborska’s poetic world remains in motion. It rejects any final shape. It reveals empty or overpopulated places. The accumulation of different things constantly requires ordering. This process never ceases, as there always remains an untapped viewpoint, some suspended possibility. Thus, poetry should confront various perspectives and distrust commonplace opinions. In one of the commentaries to her work, Szymborska refers to the Cyprian Kamil Norwid’s poem “Ogólniki” (Clichés) from his volume Vade-mecum, which offers a whole accurately expressed program: “Earth – is round – is spherical,” but “At the poles – a little flattened.”89 Every outstanding poetry strives for accuracy but this reference ←63 | 64→to Norwid characterizes Szymborska’s style of thinking. She adds detailed claims that undermine the acquired certainty of generalizations and seeks exceptions from the binding rules. We may call such Norwid-like difficult treatment of truths as dialogical attitude, convertive vision, or “ex-centric” perception.90

Szymborska’s poetic language opens to a surprise, a change that we cannot foresee. Each new verbal invention gives a different shade of meaning to the signified and questions the knowledge about a given subject. I do not mean that Szymborska uses makeshift words or programmatic distrust of language as a communication tool. Her descriptions of strange cases of life appear with unusual precision. I would also like to indicate the space between thinking and speech – along with their inconsistencies, distortions, and mutual incoherence, not to mention the different kinds of distance to the language of permanent axiology: the official slogans, colloquial wisdoms, and philosophical axioms.

Szymborska’s correction of language does not consist in such radical moves, but in adding new verbal combinations by, say, idiom transformations or exclusions of worn juxtapositions. The distribution of patterns is noticeable: from scientific imaginations through artistic messages to stereotypes, or the images we silently accept in our minds. Own judgments do not have to be direct. What reflects them is the mirror of irony. They surface from collided voices. The accusation of evil, the unmasking of lies, the mockery of manipulation sometimes await their turn to come to light. Szymborska’s now more often writes lyrical monologues, stories, and treatises, but their monophony is usually only virtual, as the main element of her poetry is now dialog. For instance, she may begin by challenging the recipient’s expectations:

I’ll bet you think the room was empty.

Wrong. There were three chairs with sturdy backs.…

No books, no pictures, no records, you guess?

Wrong. A comforting trumpet poised in black hands.

Saskia and her cordial little flower.

Joy in the spark of gods.

Odysseus stretched on the shelf in life-giving sleep („The Suicide’s Room,” LN 225).

It can’t even get the things done

that are part of its trade:

dig a grave,

make a coffin,

clean up after itself.…

←64 | 65→

Whoever claims that it’s omnipotent

is himself living proof

that it’s not. (“On Death, Without Exagerration,” PB 246–247)

To explain suicide is a clinical example of impossibility yet – to overcome anxiety, suppress fear – we still try to match causes with this desperate act. It would be easier to live in the belief that the suicide’s room was filled with a sombre emptiness. In turn, complaint about one’s own condition is disarmed with evidence that limits the triumphs of death. There is even talk of a thanatological mess-up. Death is clumsy because it offers only decay and knows nothing of the ordering qualities of culture. In a word, Szymborska’s poem presents death that “can do nothing that requires one to give shape.”91

Another kind of game with recipient’s expectations occurs in the famous poem “Cat in an Empty Apartment.” The genre of threnody would bring consolation. However, the uncompromisingly abandons the area of known answers. A seemingly detached description of the room, perceived through the eyes of a cat, exposes the scandal of death:

Nothing seems different here,

But nothing is the same.

Nothing has been moved,

But there’s more space.

And at nighttime no lamps are lit (EB 296).

Objects remain in their place, but there is no presence there to connect them, only emptiness. The imperceptible difference is the essential difference. Until recently within the friendly circle of lamp light, thus tame and safe, the landscape of things after the death of a person undergoes a “destructive metamorphosis,”92 an absence extended in time, and an experience of definitive departure, which the cat – doomed for anticipation – cannot imagine.

Dialog with the reader revises the ideas of the ordinary and the extraordinary. Here, those who go through a photograph album would like to discover a family secret, meanwhile “No one in this family has ever died of love./No food for myth and nothing magisterial” (“Family Album,” NEF 115). People love myths, we like to listen and read about romantic love, but we reject the real course of events ←65 | 66→that lacks the great ups and downs. Szymborska suspiciously refers to retouched testimonies of fate. She seems to repeat that only the real life hides real secrets. Greatness cannot do without smallness, tragedy faces comical everyday events, while compassionate sadness meets humor (see “Slapstick”).

Freedom and grace of Szymborska’s poetry serve serious anti-mythological persuasion. Time and again, it offers epistemological and metaphysical corrigenda. Considerations about the nature of being in the world, questions about the first principles, and enquiries about the sense of the seasons of our life cannot avoid the elementary experiences of everyday life. Thus, the correction of worldview works both ways. Moreover, there are two legislative instances: consciousness and the world. In order to receive acceptation, every truth in Szymborska’s poetry must first pass through the trial of laughter, irony, and doubt.

Figures of Reservation

World under revision is a metaphor, but not exclusively. For a narrower understanding, we must resort to the principles of traditional rhetoric. The semantic figure of speech, correctio, means to correct a previous judgment that proved insufficiently precise and suggestive. Moreover, it means “finding fault with a statement.”93 A correction of the “tone of the song,” its emotional overtone, and its meaning. Let us consider the appeal form of Szymborska’s early poem: “Hearts, do not sound the alarm/Sound the just anger!” (“Pieśń o zbrodniarzu wojennym,” DŻ 20). Let us also quote a passage from the poem “Returning Birds,” which presents the incomprehensible wastefulness of nature, which condemns generations of birds for annihilation:

This is not a dirge – no, it’s only indignation.

An angel made of earthbound protein,

falls down and lies beside a stone (NEF 139).

Szymborska sets corrections in this way: a dirge meets an ode, a silent protest becomes rapture over nature’s masterpieces, which may even surpass the masterpieces of art. Her poetic statements come with the corrective “but.” This figure has many shapes. It becomes the general principle of Szymborska’s poetic language. What distinguishes her poetics is the supplementation and negation of judgments, the game of exemplifying, approximating, and elaborating. ←66 | 67→Sometimes, the rhythm of contradictory explanations sets the composition of a poem:

They say I looked back out of curiosity.

But I could have had other reasons.

I looked back mourning my silver bowl.

Carelessly, while tying my sandal strap.

I looked back in anger.

To savor their terrible fate.

I looked back for all the reasons given above (“Lot’s Wife,” LN 203).

Genesis (19: 26) devotes only one verse to Lot’s wife. Szymborska’s unique psychological apocrypha is constructed in such a way that there is no end to the biblical history. None of the explanations for the violation of the ban can be considered as final. And even the sum of the causes – rational, irrational, potential, imaginary – will not give us the desired clarity. What emerges from the multitude of hypotheses is a picture of an internally complicated human person. As Stanisław Barańczak reflects, this is a “poetic humanization of ordinary mythology.”94 Instead of a pattern of prohibition and punishment, there are dilemmas of an internally split person, who simultaneously is lonely, suffering, sensitive, and condemned to rejection and misunderstanding, deprived of the gift of consequences. As in “Lot’s Wife,” the poems “Streszczenie” (Summary) and “Soliloguy for Cassandra” describe that the awareness of humanity surfaces most strongly in time of catastrophe.

Szymborska’s poetic language records cognitive hesitation. We may have the impression that the truths are only now being formed. The state of cognitive possession should be checked from the beginning. Szymborska exorcises habits and renounces routine. Human existence in her poetry is understood as a series of coincidences, breaks in nonexistence. In “Could Have,” the attempt at anthropogenesis ends with the enumeration of events that explain nothing and, instead, testify to the rationalistic superstitions of the mind insensitive to the presence of mystery (of course, Szymborska’s own position is the opposite). All that remains are word gestures that support the miracle of existence:

You were saved because you were the first.

You were saved because you were the last.

←67 | 68→

As a result, because, although, despite.

What would have happened if a hand, a foot,

within an inch, a hairsbreadth from

an unfortunate coincidence (CH 155).

The individual case of saving from a catastrophe simultaneously becomes a generalized category of uncertain contradictory fate of each of us, and this fate stretches between a vague beginning and an unfinished finale.95 We may think of Szymborska’s poetic language like this: if words have a limited ability to express then, to describe an object, one should combine judgments into alternate arrangements to multiply explanations. However, if our language too quickly orders phenomena by eliminating ambiguities and multiple views, it is in such perception of linguistic tools that the area of doubt opens. In short, Szymborska rejects the “unconditional” mode of expression (“The Poet’s Nightmare”).

Relations between sentences composed of additions, supplements, or contradictions determine here the rules of poetic correction. Let us notice the important role of conjunctive expressions: “I know I’ll be greeted by silence, but still./No uproar, no fanfare, no applause, but still./No alarm bells, and nothing alarming” (“Pursuit,” CH 174). The rhetorical solution called aposiopesis opens the area of meaningful silence. The mind races here with an eternally fleeting mystery. With self-ironic charm, Szymborska fits the imagination with possible but absent explanations. Conjunctions contain the whole hypothetical argument about the need to fill the lunar emptiness with thoughts. Conjunctions are independent units of meaning and “operative words” that reveal the logical activity of the speaker, which indicate the “relativization of objects to each other.”96

Szymborska’s poems particularly highlight the operative words like “but,” “yet,” “despite,” or “if;” they partake in the creation of the net of links between objects. Bold and innovative is her revaluation of the economics of words. Szymborska applies new value to what the masters of brevity from Cracow avant-garde was “worthless.”97 Of course, Szymborska’s condensation of sense remains intact. I call this semantic game the figure of reservation.

Disputatious dialog and convertive vision essentially gather in the inconspicuous statement of the words “yes, but.” According to Szymborska, there always ←68 | 69→is another perspective on the issues under consideration. Let us again quote Barańczak: “All right, but…. This (usually unspoken, yet detectable) signal of mental objection is the crucial part of every poem of Szymborska.”98 Of course, we remember the abovementioned Norwid’s poem “Clichés.” Reservations as the starting point of poems reveal their affinity with conceptual wit, which unfolds in the discussed works into a series of dazzling logic games.

The conjunction “but” in Szymborska’s poetry participates in the construction of paradoxes: “Good and evil –/they knew little of them, but knew all” (“Our Ancestors Short Lives,” PB 252). Opposites are not mutually exclusive; the original norms of behavior left no doubt in the assessment of noble and vile acts, because they strictly delineated the taboo territory. We may say that the multiplication of moralist writings and ethical concepts in our civilized times excellently propagates the practice of evil; that is, moral relativism triumphs. Should we reverse Szymborska’s opinion, the diagnosis of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century would say: good and evil – we know all about it, but know little.

Another poem, “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” suggests that the indicated route of rescue reveals the impossibility of escape:

Leave me, leave, but not by land.

Swim off, swim, but not by sea.

Fly off, fly away, my dear,

but don’t go near the air (“Midsummer Night’s Dream,” COY 52).

The elements are tainted with death like in the “Military Parade.” Here we also see association with the shocking monolog of hope and despair in the poem “Some People.” If there is an escape from deadly threats, it is only through fairy-tale metamorphoses. On the other hand, in a moving study of a panicked escape entitled “Labirynth,” Szymborska reverses the meaning of this cultural image and shows how the precision of definition neither calms nor erases fear. The trap of the labyrinth suspends ultimate destiny, while the exit only means the end of life: “There must be an exit somewhere,/…/But you don’t look for it,/it looks for you” (C 378). Appositions only increase the fear. Anyway, let us point to the accelerated rhythm of enumerations with the modificatory “but,” which means here another limitation of the possibilities of escape from the labyrinth and adoption of unfavorable rules:

and yes to all of this,

then abruptly an abyss,

←69 | 70→

an abyss, but a little bridge,

a little bridge, but shaky,

shaky, but the only,

there’s no other (“Labirynth,” C 377)

In a symmetrical sequence, subordinate clauses exclude the previous possibility by signalizing the lack of the necessary complementation of the anthropological whole:

Here are plates but no appetite.

And wedding rings, but the requited love

has been gone now for some three hundred years (“Museum,” S 62).

Objects exhibited in a museum live a life that is empty, unimportant, and somehow scandalous. The figure of reservation questions heartwarming illusions, also to reveal the imagination’s game with nonexistence:

There’s nothing on the walls…

Nothing, but nothing remaining

from a bison drawn in ocher.…

Silence, but after voices.

Not a sluggish sort of silence (“Cave,” NEF 147–148).

The image that emerges from nonexistence is created through cultural memory. Empty cave walls become a negative of, say, Lascaux paintings. The next link of reflection creates a return to the beginnings of our species. After all, philosophizing time and being here has biological and evolutionist foundations.99 Szymborska’s poem distinguishes “Nothing” from “humdrum nothingness.” Her gaze fills the void again. The thought of the origins of our existence on earth inhabits no one’s space. The circle of time closes. The words “silence,” “dark,” and “cold” enter the paradigm of opposite meanings. Thus, the figure of reservation serves to reconstruct what could but did not have to occur in this described space. The poem “Cave” has nonexistence paradoxically prove existence. The imagination is to overcome nothingness.

Szymborska’s poems often utilize the figure of reservation in several elements, a series of refinements: “Everything the dead predicted has turned out completely different./Or a little bit different – which is to say, completely different” (“The Letters of the Dead,” CH 162). Alternative here becomes equivalence – “or” changes into “which is to say” – which connects with the antithetic ←70 | 71→pair “completely” and “a little bit.” The difference in degree ceases to exist. Asymmetry of semantics is becoming synonymous. We are wrong about the future, and the details cannot change much in the wrong forecasts. Our dead are poor and naive, but our divine usurpations are likewise pathetic, which results from the fact that we know what will come next, how the events will turn, and how the fates will change.

The figure of reservation refers to the experience of time. It opens up temporary and illusory paths that allow one to escape from the oppression of current experiences. Let us consider the poem “Going Home:” “He’s nearly forty, but not at the moment./He exists just as he did inside his mother’s womb” (CH 169). There is a shift in ontological status by an escape to sleep. Freudian regressive dream defends us from the troubles of life. The dream relieves fears and offers the luxury of freedom. In a separate area of oneiric reality, we may choose to agree or disagree with the historical and political subordination: “I’m the child of my age,/but I don’t have to be” (“In Praise of Dreams,” CH 187).

Reservations reveal similarity in difference. To approximate the omnipresent element of air that fills and surrounds us, heavenly, everyday, obvious, imperceptible, inconceivable, unencompassed, we may recall the image of a window, which is but a temporary label that we should immediately repeal: “A window minus sill, frame, and panes./An aperture, nothing more,/but wide open” (“Sky,” EB 5).

The semantic operations that place signs of modification at the center of poetic attention are strictly connected with ontological principles, since between different worlds of Szymborska’s poetry there occur relations of contrasting, penetrating, and excluding. This poetry reverses the hierarchy of grammar units. With mastery that astounds every user of the Polish language, Szymborska gives full right to transfer important meanings to conjunctions, adverbs of degree and measure, indefinite and numerical pronouns, and even the so-called additional emotional and intellectual determinants. Therefore, let us digress here to supplement the main argument. An important part in the formation of Szymborska’s poetic expression happens due to indefinite pronouns; or, in Polish specific subcategory of “disseminating” (upowszechniające) pronouns. Here are three examples: “Everything’s mine but just on loan” (“Travel Elegy,” S 70); “He wanders through darkness extinguished since never,/through emptiness opened to themselves forever” (“Dream,” S 95); “Talking with you is essential and impossible./Urgent in this hurried life/and postponed to never” (“The Silence of Plants,” M 330).

The oppositions “everything – nothing” and “never – always” poetically reflect on the extremes of existence. The alternative is: everything or nothing. Since we only perceive a small fragment of reality, we may but guess about the ←71 | 72→missing rest. Since cognition is possible only from the standpoint of the individual “I,” skeptical recognitions come to the fore: I know nothing, I understand anything, I will forget, I will not create with poetic word. We shall critically scrutinize Szymborska’s negative categories in further chapters. For now, let us state that, for Szymborska, attempts to grasp everything always comes with the criticism of how conquerors think. The imperial success is the anxiety of seclusion: “Tarquinians where you’d least expect them, Etruscans on all sides./If that weren’t enough, Volsinians and Veientians./…/Every new horizon threatens me” (“Voices,” CH 160–161).

Time and again, we encounter in Szymborska’s poems a display of grammatical categories. This happens at the expense of imagery, and this method of using linguistic figures evokes geometric precision. Thus, we may speak here about an excellent implementation of “poetry of grammar”100 based on contemporary Polish language. Contingency clashes here with universal laws, exception argues with rules. The enigmatic miracle of particular existence finds counterpoint in the form of enclosure in the individual body and fate. However, the coldness of undefined pronouns turns in Szymborska’s works into its opposite, because it expresses compassion – cordial and often helpless (e.g. “Some People”). This overcomes her distance toward specifics and makes possible such a semantic transposition: “Listen,/how your heart pounds inside me” (“Could Have,” CH 155). The metaphor arises from the collision of pronouns. A separate existence recognizes its essence in empathy. With the help of such shifts in the system of speech, Szymborska achieves both brevity and discretion of expression.

It is the dynamics of grammatical categories which encompass new areas of meaning that is significant to Szymborska’s poetry. Not only dissemination pronouns begin expressing particularities, but all indefinite pronouns surprise us with a strangely concrete meaning. Thus Szymborska expresses elementary astonishment, thus she confesses her sense of metaphysical eventuality:

I could have been someone

much less separate.…

Someone much less fortunate

bred for my fur

or Christmas dinner,

something swimming under a square glass. (“Among the Multitudes,” M 322).

←72 | 73→

The identity of the “I” appears here surrounded by other beings, no longer so distant or indifferent as to push them into the areas of the undefined. What is commonplace exchanges places with what is specific. A factual description would be useless for a gathering of all forms of events in all time-spaces. Hence, underspecification as a poetic figure seems to be the most adequate: “Whenever wherever whatever has happened/is written on waters of Babel” (“Water,” S 97).

Indefinite pronouns harshly and uncompromisingly name irrevocable catastrophes in the private and collective dimension. Some speak of the helplessness of the subject and the paralysis of actions in Szymborska’s poetry, or about belated compassion as the worst has already happened. The poetic language multiplies the vague possibilities of rescue as if it were falling into a helpless lethargic repetition-enchantment. This is what happens in “Without a Title.” We may find a similar construction “Some people:” “Something else will happen, only when and what./Someone will come at them, only when and who” (M 343).

The suspension of authoritative belief is not a game of an agnostic or an attempt to escape the first questions. There are too many uncertainties to say something for sure, too many conceivable cognitive perspectives to capture the description of the world in final formulas. We do not understand the language of the universe, nature, or history. We are condemned to search for the transitions between the personal self and the coordinates of life. Our attempts to break this duality only lead to virtual victories. We may only add further explanations to previous explanations; each one similarly uncertain.

We may find the rhythms of sentences composed of reservations – which expose the rhetorical figure of correctio – among other Polish poets like Zbigniew Herbert: “I will first describe myself/beginning with the head/or better with the left leg/or with the hand/or with the little finger of the left hand;”101 or Urszula Kozioł: “No wine’s open yet but there are only empty pitchers/There are only empty pitchers but there is no table.”102 However, their figures of reservation are more incidental than in Szymborska’s poetry. Her poetic language highlights the figure of reservation because by using it not only frequently and in many combinations but also with a sensitive scale of differentiated meanings. We should not separate grammatical categories from poetic imaginations about the world. The correction of language in Szymborska’s poetry is twofold: it determines both the revaluation of grammatic norms and the diversity of relations between the components of the poetic world. Szymborska’s poems limit the ←73 | 74→numerous alternatives of shapes and meanings by the ever-present element of doubt. Her program of poetic cognition conceals paradoxes, because it oscillates between the dream of universal competence and impossibility. I will discuss scope of negation and its meaning in the following section.

Nonexistence, Nothingness, Nothing

What mean the words preceded by the sign of negation and the negative judgments that subvert what is certain? What mean the negations that reveal the difference of opinions with her textual interlocutors? What mean those negations that constitute negated worlds, those possible and complementary worlds that Szymborska directly juxtaposes with the available dimensions of existence? Critics already offered many answers to these complex questions.103 Whatever Szymborska negates in the below poems, she calls it to live an “imaginary existence.”104 Whereas negation reveals her “ fascination with the possible, conceivable manners of existence.”105

Let us begin from words, from neologisms with the negative prefixes “no” or “without.” Negation does not exclude the positive meaning, but it brings forth its particular aspect. What could be our role appears to Szymborska as an unfulfilled opportunity. For example, the protagonists of the poem “Without a Title” part in “un-love” (S 72), even if they wanted the opposite. The existential flaw of life is our short stay in this world, which so dramatically contrasts with the notion of eternity. The one who is “born” is immediately condemned to death. We may express this irrefutable metaphysical scandal in a conceptual, concise, and seemingly simplifying way – in the form of negation: “So this is his mother./…/The boat from which he stepped/into the world,/into un-eternity” (“Born,” NEF 122).

The game between the negator and the negated differently unfolds in the word “nieumieranie” (literally “not-dying”). Here is the monkey’s response to the Old Egyptian supplicant:

he’d sit and listen in archsilent peace:

What do you want? A life that never ends [nieumieranie]?

←74 | 75→

He’d turn his ruddy rump as if to say

Such life he neither bans nor recommends (“The Monkey,” S 59).

Death is everywhere in abundance, so the humble request is to stop this process. However, the word “immortality” would suggest divine qualities, and the speakers would not want to usurp this area. Therefore, it suffices to stop at the euphemistic “life that never ends.” The deity responds enigmatically or not at all. Instead of his holy face, his followers witness the monkey’s less dignified reverse. Szymborska’s wit thrives in situations of helplessness and oppression. There leads a straight path from a joke to philosophical meditation.106

The neologism of “nonspace” appears in the environment of neutrally-sounding negated forms. Existence is a negative of nonexistence, the positive counterpart of nonbeing:

Time out from infinity for endless sky!

Relief from nonspace in a shivering birch tree’s shape!

(“Nothingness unseamed itself for me too…,” CH 191)

Szymborska moves from what is unimaginable and distant to individual entities and then to descriptions of the world at hand. “Nonspace” would be – just like for Bolesław Leśmian – the equivalent of nothingness with an addition of a spatial shape.107 That is, the starting point is nothingness while the ending point – existence. Let us notice how the negative side of the empiric engages in the area of common activities. For example, a figure on the canvas is “caught in mid-nonaction” (“Wrong Number,” CH 157). This not a lack of activity but a specifically understood activity, a studied pose and in accordance with the rules of art. Thus, negation reveals the difference between the unchangeable duration in a painting and the movement and change in imperfect life.

The negative form does not annihilate things placed beyond the act of perception but bestows them with a separate consciousness. Our available perception works only within the limits of the human world. However, we cannot reconcile the subjective view – equipped with intellectual categories – with things’ disorderly vision. It happens as if a described landscape returned to the first day of creation, when elements emerged from chaos and nothing had a name:

←75 | 76→

The window has a wonderful view of a lake,

but the view doesn’t view itself.

It exists in this world

colorless, shapeless,

soundless, odorless, and painless.…

And all this beneath a sky by nature skyless (“View with a Grain of Sand,” PB 243).

We witness here an impressive variation of the language of paradox. Such expression is possible only in poetry, which peculiarly confronts cognitive attitudes by simultaneously giving voice to “I” and “not-I.” The reverse of what is cognizable emerges from areas inaccessible to human cognition. The mind seeks order, it wants multiplicity to be transparent and defined, whereas the sphere of what is named rebels against such classifications. Existence beyond consciousness escapes not only names but also such “aprioric concepts” as time and space. The below passage is a subversive poetic exercise in Kantian philosophy:

Time has passed like a courier with urgent news.

But that’s just our simile.

The character is invented, his haste is make-believe,

his news inhuman (“View with a Grain of Sand,” PB 244).

Applied in practice, the conceptual apparatus suddenly curls and withers. The liberated powers of negation support humility and skepticism and help the imagination to reach other viewpoints. The lyrical “I” hosts in language an inhuman existence that cannot express itself. Thus, language should be accompanied by a symmetrical nonlanguage: the incomprehensible language of nature.

The situation from “View with a Grain of Sand” reminds of a dialog from another piece, “Conversation with a Stone.” There surface differences in the degrees of perception: the initiation into the essence of the stone will never happen, because perception is not yet participation. The stone says: “You may get to know me, but you’ll never know me through./My whole surface is turned toward you,/all my insides turned away” (S 104). A view that “does not see itself” cannot take sensual impressions, which is why their qualities only appear in the poem by negation. In the presented reversed optics, it is human abilities of perception that become exotic. In a later poem “The Silence of Plants” there unexpectedly appears the matter of “what seeing with two eyes is like” (M 329). The epistemological disagreement considered by Szymborska is reduced to the antinomy: nature does not see and does not judge itself, while people exceeded their natural surroundings, so they lack the “sense of participation.”

So far, we have concentrated on neologisms. Let us now look at homonymy combined with negation. Szymborska’s modification activates the hidden ←76 | 77→dimensions of meaning. For example, “inimitable eyes” (“niebywałe oczy” in Polish original) from the poem “Census” (NEF 124) may mean “most unusual;” not so much rare or delightful but such that never existed or appeared in cultural texts. These are eyes of which we know nothing about. Similarly, “the chaos” (“nieład” in Polish original) in “Psalm” would literally mean “nonorder,” ergo is not about negating order in general but rejecting the artificial boundaries set by people against natural harmony.108 Szymborska writes about such chaos of freedom – one that unfortunately only exists in the natural world – with satisfaction and approval: “Oh, to register in detail, at a glance, the chaos/prevailing on every continent!” (LN 201).

Among the negations, the word “absence” (in Polish original “nieobecność”) is especially popular in Szymborska’s poems:

Why, after all, this one and not the rest?…

and why on earth, pinned down by this star’s pin?

In spite of years of my not being here [nieobecności]? (“Astonishment,” CH 177).

Subject to

his own absence,

on every front,

at any moment (“Born,” NEF 122).

Silence grew over him, without a voice’s scar.

Absence mimicked the horizon (“Poem in Honor,” S 100).

They’ve given themselves up to endless

(if not otherwise) silence.

They’re only concerned with that

(if only that)

which their absence demands (“Elegiac Calculation,” KiP 19).

We perceive individual identity on the backdrop of nothingness. Presence in the world – which only temporarily suspends absence – becomes the subject of Szymborska’s constant concern. The ingenious inventor of zero disappeared beyond the horizon of oblivion – and we cannot recover even a particle of his mysterious life. However, we may fill the void with an ostentatious, invented story. In place of the nonexistent legend, there will appear a replacement text; an outline of an oriental mythic-mathematical story. Our unknown protagonist, “before he died he took to the desert/on a hundred-humped camel” (“Poem in ←77 | 78→Honor,” S 100). He discovered zero so that we can add these digits to the hump of the camel. In turn, the absence of the dead is filled with unknown activity. It is not the dead who inhabit the other side of the world of the living, but this is how our memory works. Absence in Szymborska’s works is a relative and special state of suspended existence that often means “existence in memory.”109 Let us also recall the poetic impression of the absence of a city’s inhabitants that refers to the memory of the ruins. The image of the deserted city is strong. The mirror “didn’t reflect anybody’s face,/no hands arranging hair,/no door across the room” (“Mirror,” E 427).

Poetic metaphysics and epistemology in Szymborska’s work feeds on the notions of nonbeing and nothingness. According to the philosopher Władysław Stróżewski, “nonbeing as a relative concept effects from the statement about the difference between a defined being and what is not being; in turn, nothingness is this nothing that results from the erasing function of negation applied to all existence.”110

Let us first consider the opposite of being that is currently available. In the poem “Experiment,” we observe on a cinematic screen the result of macabre experiment with a dog’s head, which is detached from the body and attached to a life support apparatus that keeps it alive: “Its moist nose could tell/the smell of bacon from odorless oblivion” (LN 207). The head seeks life and its simple functions. That is, the head instinctively overcomes nonbeing. Even a dog immersed in nonexistence will only accept concrete impressions, because he cannot sniff their abstract reversals.

In the poem “Cave,” “nothing” is a paradoxical proof of existence. This “nothing” transforms into “[a]; heresy against humdrum nothingness” (NEF 147). What inhabits the cave is the imagination of the speaker-witness, who feels a strong relationship with the past of the human species and takes an imaginary journey to the beginnings of human history. Moreover, nothingness has a separate aesthetics, as “a Beautiful Nothing” appears here instead of paintings that could have been preserved in this place. The nature of being can only be viewed through the prism of nothingness:

Nothingness unseamed itself for me too.

It turned itself wrong side out.

←78 | 79→

How on earth did I end up here –

head to toe among the planets,

without a clue how I used not to be (“Nothingness unseamed itself for me too…,” CH 197).

Martin Heidegger taught that nothingness is a condition that allows for the revelation of the essence of being: “It is in the Being (Sein) of what-is that the nihilation of Nothing (das Nichten des Nichts) occurs;” “The question as to the what and wherefore of Nothing turns the thing questioned into its opposite.”111 “Cave” actually repeats the question but not in the same conceptual language. “[N];ihilation of Nothing” and “[n]othingness unseamed” – the latter approximates metaphysical surprise to practical ordinariness. It nihilates nothingness like a fabric, and the result of this peculiar tailoring is existence planned to the smallest detail.112 The world is the “[l]ocal in reverse” (CH 191) of nothingness that gains a spatial form and can be described in terms of physics. By analogy, can we imagine that the other side – in some sense an already known “anti-world” – is a symmetrical reflection of existing shapes? Nothingness is limited by the cognizable world and considerably reduced by Szymborska’s poem.

Szymborska’s poems make nothingness lose its power to annul by foregrounding the reflection about nothingness with deictic pronouns: “since wind is exactly what won’t blow there” (CH 191). Deixis evokes ready images. And although we cannot agree what nothingness looks like, the method of linguistic indication paradoxically refers to common knowledge: the “I” of the speaker and each reader. We do not remember own nonexistence. By means of double negation we discreetly proclaim the adoration of existence. To ask about nothingness is to question ourselves, but the answer is positive. On the side of existence, we rest from nothingness. There will be a place for a cricket, a sorrel leaf, and a drop of dew.

Words with a negative sign perform a joyful dance. Our world is the epiphanically experienced “[t];ime out from infinity for endless sky!/Relief from nonspace in a shivering birch tree’s shape!” (CH 191). Such poetic concepts that create spectacular variations should appear on the side of the gaping black emptiness. The metaphysical treaty of Szymborska’s poem transforms into a love poem, though love is inseparable from praise of existence. “Nothingness ←79 | 80→unseamed itself for me too…” playfully suspends serious philosophizing, even though the lightness of expression does not diminish the gravity of its words and sentences. The philosophical subtext of this poem never disappears: “And it so happened that I’m here with you./And I really see nothing/usual in that” (CH 191). In this and other of Szymborska’s works, love establishes the miracle of existence. Love is an argument against nothingness.113

Szymborska concept to turn nothingness inside out approximates the truth about existence, which she treats as a gift. We should not neglect something as unusual as life. Thus, we may say that existence illuminates nothingness tested by imagination. The world perceived anew gains a special quality. It is a constant dream of poets to penetrate the world and encounter its mystery. There is a similar poem by Czesław Miłosz that uses the metaphor of the world as a fabric:

There, where the world is turned inside out,

a heavy fabric embroidered with stars and beasts,

you stroll, inspecting the trustworthy seams.114

On the inside, the ornamented zodiacal material hides traces of the Creator’s hand, that is, the unknown rules of existence. Miłosz combines the thought of an inaccessible dimension of cognition with an ethical command, because when listening to the voice of angels and creating a picture of their imaginary walk, we should list our earthly duties. Let us add that Szymborska’s angels perversely teach us distance and courage, since they distinguish early cinema burlesque from among the earthly arts. Perhaps the most important thing about the human condition is “this merriment dangling from terror” in (“Slapstick,” EB 309).

Uttered nothingness is tamed nothingness. This is how Szymborska describes the role of poetry as a struggle against emptiness, as an ambition to limit the territory of nothingness: “When I pronounce the word Nothing,/I make something no nonbeing can hold” (“The Three Oddest Words,” M 14). In Szymborska’s poetry, nothingness is the beginning of every life, so we cannot ignore or disregard it. With “the reality of Nothing,” as Heidegger would write, Szymborska blends metaphysical amazement. In this space, one meets unencompassable being.

Szymborska’s thought and imagination turn toward our unknown beginnings. For her, the process of our emergence from nonbeing and “heading out of emptiness” (“Cave,” NEF 147) run parallel. One must think of nothingness and someone’s consciousness must play the complicated game of negation of ←80 | 81→existence. Szymborska’s human is a cosmic exile and rebel against nothingness. In “Cave,” the virtuosity of negation has nothing to do with semantic games115 or poetic rebuses. We may present the matter from the viewpoint of responsibility. As usual for Szymborska, her reasoning is paradoxical. In “One Version of Events,” we choose what we could not choose, but still carefully consider the offer of life, like a promising and somewhat suspicious prospectus of a travel agency. We must long wait for the journey beyond the boundaries of nonexistence and probably should prepare well. Something that is created – a frail plant, a small animal, a human being – prevents the supreme reign of nothingness. In this space formed in the likeness of our world, there constantly “appears an embryo of shape, sense, something that is not but is – and it is important.”116

Let us return to the vocabulary of negative categories in Szymborska’s poetry. In addition to “nonbeing” and “nothingness” we encounter their synonyms like “emptiness,” “vacuum,” or “chasm” in such poems as “Cave,” “No End of Fun,” “Birthday,” and “Autotomy.” However, we also notice the prevalence of the word “nothing” (Pol. nic). This negative equivalent of “something” does not indicate any specific content, but does not exclude positive meanings in Szymborska’s poetry. “Nothing” clarifies the scope of images, establishes relations between things, and eliminates guesses and errors. Let us give some examples:

[my] nonconvertible, unmetamorphic body [nieprzemienne w nic]:

I’m one-time-only to the marrow of my bones (“An Effort,” COY 50).

cracker-box housing projects


a helpless little tree (“Written in a Hotel,” NEF 134).

Show me your nothing

that you’ve left behind

and I’ll build from it a forest and a highway (“Archeology,” PB 242)

“Nothing” appears here in strong positions: in the line break and in a separate line. We immediately notice that it stands out. In “An Effort,” the crystallization of a person’s identity excludes imagined metamorphoses and crosses the attempt of a Leśmian-like penetration into the cosmos of plants. The poem “Written in a Hotel” is not a poetic dissertation about bleak architecture but a ←81 | 82→parable about destruction and survival. The lack of beautiful historic buildings as in Kyoto becomes a bad omen for cities like Hiroshima. The word “nothing” means “nothing special,” no distinguishing features, but also establishes the difference (“that’s not it”). However, the “nothing” in “Archeology” means “almost nothing” – for the uninitiated – but still visible and characteristic enough for specialized science to reconstruct the image of a civilization based on minute relics.

The use of negation in a poetic expression partially stylized as colloquial appears next to paradox:

Placed on the same pedestal for no good reason,

drawn randomly from millions, but convinced

it had to happen this way – in reward for what? For nothing.

The light descends from nowhere (“True Love,” CH 189).

True love becomes in Szymborska’s poem a fulfilled impossibility, but this unjust distinction – criticized ironically – serves to appeal for the conscious experience of this enriching feeling. The speaker excludes an envious perspective. In this context, we may consider negation as an attempt to “escape unfulfilled expectations” and strengthen “human self-knowledge.”117

Szymborska’s complicated way of expressing thoughts through a double negation appears free and natural. She inscribes her manner in the course of everyday speech. However, such presentation of the state of affairs differs from direct indication: “Those frills or furbelows, however flounced and whirly,/barred no one from the family photographs” (“Family Album,” NEF 115); “I know I won’t be justified as long as I live” (“Under One Small Star,” CH 193); “nothing casts the slightest shadow of a doubt” (“A Medieval Miniature,” LN 214); “Small wonder, then, if we were struck with wonder” (“Surplus,” PB 239). As we know, double negation leads to positive assertion, but the translation of the above fragments into the language of simple notifications would erase part of their semantic spectrum. As Piotr Michałowski argues: “by negating the exception, the speaker avoids generalizations and concentrates on what is “individual.””118

To what is, a negative expression attaches the idea of what should be, suspects your knowledge, and exposes stereotypes. Wisława Szymborska avoids full negations. She definitely prefers partial negations. And so, her constructions of “nothing – but (for)” present an unfullfiled substitution for good and satisfactory solutions or – a lack of certainty and full knowledge. What would make ←82 | 83→a great solution is the intervention of other worlds, the entry of fairy tales and fantasy so as to overcome irrevocable facts. Meanwhile, the merciless real world disallows any improbability, even a bit of creative extravagance, or a pinch of convention: “Against the backdrop of the steadfast wall,/pitying one another, they both stare/into the mirror, but there’s nothing there/except their sensible reflections” (“Without a Title,” S 72). After a visit to the interior of a stone, only a poetic description would remain, not a properly documented scientific discovery. The potential revelation nihilates itself at the very beginning: “And my proof I was there/will be only words,/which no one will believe” (“Conversation with a Stone,” S 104). The modern sky is full of confusion, so August nights are not very good for fortune telling. The traditional and – as it turns out – naive idea about falling stars is supplemented with a guess, whether the illumination of the firmament does not mean sometimes a shipwreck disaster. We lost unequivocal explanations: “but can’t some twinkle in it explain: “I’m a spark, I swear, a flash that a comet shook loose/from its tail, just a bit of cosmic rubble”” (“Falling from the Sky,” CH 156). Perhaps this alludes to “only the spark” from Adam Mickiewicz’s famous monolog Forefather’s Eve III. In Szymborska’s poem, the meaning is different: it is a spark, but it also may be something else. That is how certainty about the starry August sky flashes and vanishes in an instant.

Negation promises richer expectations than fulfillment. Of course, even this rule is not safe from the laws of irony. Sometimes, it would be better for the range of events not to spread so widely. The act of distinguishing requires precise arguments. To convey a conviction that a well-experienced fleeting moment, a priceless gift for an individual, may be more important than great – good and bad – historical events, we must patiently explain the principles and conditions of such perception of the world. Although it violates accepted hierarchies, it does want to be exclusive: “Conspiracies aren’t the only things shrouded in silence./Retinues of reasons don’t trail coronations alone” (“No Title Required,” EB 284). Here, the exclusion of great narratives indirectly serves the domination of the individual viewpoint.

Szymborska’s negation differentiates between the existing phenomena, connects thing, and distinguishes exceptions form rules. The latter quality may be viewed as her defense of the individual person from the tyranny of history and the giving of voice to the downtrodden, oppressed, and mute. Below, see a peculiar form of Szymborska’s double negation:

Nothing has changed.

The body still trembles as it trembled

before Rome was founded and after,

in the twentieth century before and after Christ.…

←83 | 84→

Nothing has changed.

Except perhaps the manners, ceremonies, dances.

The gesture of the hands shielding the head

has nonetheless remained the same (“Torture,” PB 260).

Here, stability is painfully adamant, while we should consider changes and deviations should to be insignificant facts, because what only changes are the ways of torture. Torture was, is, and will be, while the body always reacts the same way. The discovery of identity in a series of negations more clearly exposes evil. Szymborska’s constatations in “Military Parade,” “The Terrorist, He’s Watching,” and “Children of Our Age” along with “The Century’s Decline,” “Hatred,” “Some People,” and “Assasins” are only seemingly detached. In fact, they contain a fundamental disagreement, protest, and refusal of participation. Such negation receives an axiological and ethical dimension, whereas opposition to evil becomes a difficult affirmation of reality.119

Despite all this, we cannot overlook the nightmares of the twentieth century along with all the other black pages of history. Even quiet compassion, even a helpless complaint are important as continual dropping wears away the stone. However, maybe we can save some regions of the human world. Negation indicates exceptions and isolates the territories free from crime. Hope emerges cautiously, without premature enthusiasm, therefore credibly. Irony balances naïve optimism. We should explain our actions to inhuman beings, as they probably severely judge human actions:

Yeti, crime is not all

we’re up to down there.

Yeti, not every sentence there

means death (“Notes from a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition,” COY 48).

Szymborska’s need for such troublesome explanations appeared in a clearly defined historical situation of the Polish October 1956, but nothing indicates that it ever lost for her its legitimacy. In one of her last poems, the reading of the human world by an intelligent machine exposes the play of uncertainty and untranslatability. This is what the researcher of extinct civilizations, maybe our cyborg-successor, says: “I still cannot explain precisely/the states called “feelings”” (“Confessions of a Reading Machine,” E 419).

Szymborska’s poetry also delineates the area of negative epistemology. Socratic attitude encompasses other worlds and dimensions of existence. For example, the evolutionary cycle remains unclear because we have lost some of ←84 | 85→its links. It is particularly complicated when we consider anthropogenesis. And what is this biological memory and connections of our tissues with the matter of the whole world? Szymborska finds a way to bring this issue closer: “I’m not even sure exactly where I left my claws,/who’s got my fur coat, who’s living in my shell” (“A Speech in the Lost-and-Found,” CH 176). A separate oneiric reality has its features and flaws. Although the space was precisely created, nonbeing defeated, and the apparent details seemingly completed, the speaker is unsure about her emotional sensations: “We draw closer. In tears,/in smiles, I don’t know” (“Dream,” S 95). Szymborska’s consideration of poetry continues in similar vein. The poet does not have to define anything because she stops at the demonstration of ignorance: “but what is poetry anyway? …/But I keep on not knowing, and I cling to that/like a redemptive handrail” (“Some People Like Poetry,” EB 285).

In Szymborska’s “Nobel Lecture,” it is worth paying attention to the confession-comment: “This is why I value that little phrase “I don’t know” so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended.”120 The last couplet from “A Note” sounds like a manifestation of internalized and enlightened ignorance: “and to keep on not knowing/something important” (M 349).

Szymborska’s poetry establishes a peculiar symmetry: knowledge progresses alongside doubt. The less cognitive presumptuousness, the better. Such poetic reflection, based on methodical doubt, rejects unquestionable evidence and reveals exceptions in rules. It leads toward mystery and develops a special analytical sensitivity focused on the mysteries of existence. The questions it poses to the world(s) combine the ignorance of the individual and the general ignorance that we all inherited. Universal problems (metaphysical, existential) mix here with smaller dilemmas of everyday minutiae. Szymborska seems to argue that we should not respect such hierarchies and rankings. What is exceptional is any truly own subjective doubt.

Somebody else’s ignorance – preferably from in a Franciscan manner – allows us to find appropriate distance to vain excitement and sensationalism, even if it had a historic or historical shape. As we read in “The Old Turtle’s Dream:”

The old turtle dreams about a lettuce leaf,

when by that leaf, the Emperor appears.

←85 | 86→

A century hasn’t changed him in the least.

To the turtle it’s an ordinary affair.…

The doesn’t know what he has witnessed.

His childhood memories are slight (LN 206).

Mieczysław Jastrun’s tortoise who cultivates perfect immobility is lulled by an immortal thought, when it dreams about the paradox of Zeno of Elea (“Żółw,” Tortois, from the volume Intonacje, Intonations, 1962). Alexander Wat’s tortoise sage discusses the wisdom of King Solomon, the highest degrees of Platonic love, and the bloody history of the twentieth century (“Żółw z Oxfordu,” Oxford Tortoise). However, Szymborska’s poem presents matters differently, because her turtle’s longevity questions our obsession with history. The perspective here is ostentatiously peripheral – rather weird for us – but that is why the described ignorance may help with a distanced reflection about time. The transgression of anthropocentrism (“The Old Turtle’s Dream,” “Tarsier,” “Alive”) introduces an ironic view from the outside to expose the (relative) ridiculousness of human affairs and teach humility in the face of duration and its diversity forms.

The words “nonbeing,” “nothingness,” and “nothing” differentiate the layers of reality in Szymborska’s poetry. Negative categories serve to determine the relationship between the components of different worlds. She constantly strives to implement order. We may incessantly supplement inventories of existence and nonexistence or catalogs of borderland entities, because we will never gather all the possible cases. Thus, such temporary suspension of the kaleidoscope of changes has an ironic undertone. In Szymborska’s poetic world, like the poetry of Bolesław Leśmian, something may exist “less” or “more.” In these relations, the vertical arrangement that determines the degrees of existence is complemented by the horizontal interpenetration of worlds. In any case, the substitutes of existence, traces of being, and uncertain testimonies exceed absolute nothingness:

One short step from eternal art into artificial eternity –

I reluctantly admit that it’s better than nothing

and more fitting than otherwise (“Frozen Motion,” CH 184).

If we say that something does not exist, Szymborska’s poetry would explain that it does exist in a different way; or, as Bruno Schulz would say, in other “dimensions of being.” It means not only negatives of the real world or presence in memory but also all the possible forms of human reality. The world with a minus sign is an annex to the existing order of things. Nonexistence reveals deficiencies in existence.

←86 | 87→

Szymborska’s dictionary of negative categories includes many entries and – what we notice without statistical research – negated forms occur much more often than in standard Polish.121 Negations constitute a very important element of Szymborska’s poetics and rhetoric. Such forms appear in various text configurations: negative plots (e.g. “The Railroad Station,” “A Medieval Miniature”), confrontations of artifacts and texts with things and images (e.g. “Mirror,” “Map”), monologs about alienation and individual presence (e.g. “An Unexpected Meeting,” “I am too close for him to dream of me…,” “Thank-You Note”), and portraits (e.g. “In Praise of My Sister,” “The Great Man’s House,” “Someone I’ve Been Watching for a While”).

Wisława Szymborska treats nonexistence as the “other side” of existence – its alternative – while and negative cognition as invaluable knowledge of ignorance, without which we could not carefully learn about the world. Poetic reflections about the atrophy of values usually suggest that the values should exist. Szymborska eagerly studies the world’s lining with imagination, considers the reality of possible beings, and desires to visit the “great empty halls” in which “there isn’t any room” by penetrating the interior of a stone (“Conversation with a Stone,” S 103–104). Szymborska avoids the appropriation of territories ontologically doubtful. Her cognitive stubbornness and humility overlap. In any case, we cannot speak about metaphysical indiscretion here. The negated world in her poems does not disappear. On the contrary, it gains in strength through various unclassifiable forms of being. “The existence and nonexistence of atomic facts is a reality.”122 In fact, as Szymborska writes, “I should have begun with this” (EB 281). Conceived and expressed nonbeing becomes a part of human reality, as poetry transfers nonbeing to the side of being: “When I pronounce the word Nothing,/I make something no nonbeing can hold” (“The Three Oddest Words,” M 14).

Contradiction and Tautology

So far, we considered the role of the semantics and categories of negations in Szymborska’s poetry. Now, let us supplement the above by reflecting on her syntax, in which negation plays an important role. Szymborska variationally changes the ways of negation by constantly inventing new and unusual cases to successfully implement her poetics of negation. She sometimes modifies ←87 | 88→readerly expectations and resists our inclination for classifications. Szymborska persistently discovers empty places in her own system, which she intends to fill.

Often, extended sentences serve Szymborska to dismiss broadly accepted beliefs; that is, she spitefully prepares evidence for their nonobviousness. For example, her speaker argues that Tanathos’ grim power is limited (“On Death, Without Exaggeration”). Or, when considering intellectual censorship – during the Polish martial law period after the events of December 1981 – she applies irony to juxtapose depravation of minds with sexual indecency, by presenting the latter as less threatening to the authorities (“An Opinion on the Question of Pornography”). Moreover, an expedition in search of lost day, from which we cannot recover even a second, brings only negative answers (“May 16, 1973”). Next, the rhythm of successive negations expresses the skepticism about fundamental difficulties in playing the game called life (“One Version of Events”). Finally, the lecture on the conditions of earthly existence becomes the reverse of undefined or even nonexistent possibilities of living “elsewhere,” in space (“Here”).

Szymborska’s mature poetry cannot do without dialog. Thinking about her interlocutor-reader, she successively develops a register of doubts. Her antitheses and paradoxes revise the certainties of thinking. More importantly, she foregrounds the mysterious aspects of everyday quasi-banal phenomena, often neglected due to their gray repetitiveness. From dissent, Szymborska moves to iunctim:

The Great Mother has no face.

Why would the Great Mother need a face.

The face cannot stay faithful to the body,

the face disturbs the body, it is undivine (“A Paleolithic Fertility Fetish,” NEF 145).

She considers here the dimensions of things that usually remain the matter of nebulous conjectures. The speaker persuades us that the lack of the Great Mother’s face imagined in the Paleolithic statuette becomes her peculiar advantage and a proof of the ancient artist’s genius intuition; as we should not focus on irrelevant details as reproduction is what is of utmost importance. Szymborska’s poetry separates the human world from inhuman worlds. Judgments that distinguish people and condemn us to our own condition may not necessarily apply in other forms of existence:

The abyss doesn’t divide us.

The abyss surrounds us (“Autotomy,” CH 183).

They aren’t obliged to vanish when we’re gone.

They don’t have to be seen while sailing on (“Clouds,” M 325).

←88 | 89→

It is only a custom of rhetoric that nature participates in human death. Szymborska wants to tame or valiantly accept the misery of a lonely departure – from the human perspective of death – by recalling the abysses of philosophers. She reminisces on Pascal’s horror, existentialists’ reflections on Being-toward-death (Sein-zum-Tode), Mickiewicz’s meditations from Lausanne Lyrics.

Szymborska’s sentences often mark the transition from “no” to “yes.” Then, the rhythm of contradictory sentences develops in parallel, without hierarchy. Their meanings should cancel each other, but Szymborska’s poetry offers nothing of that sort. This poetry simultaneously considers things through the lens of existence and nonexistence, as if true empiric cognition comprised only vague guesses. As if hypotheses had the power to extract from nonbeing contentious facts and versions of events that are only fulfilled in assumptions. Szymborska’s poetry rejects no scenario but also asserts no certainty. Arguments stem from detected contradictions:

They were or they weren’t.

On an island or not.

An ocean or not an ocean

swallowed them up or it didn’t…

A meteor fell.

Not a meteor.

A volcano exploded.

Not a volcano.

Someone summoned something.

Nothing was called.

On this more-or-less Atlantis (“Atlantis,” COY 53).

Knowledge and ignorance meet in the short sentences with opposite meanings. The poetic definition of the mythical continent – “more-or-less Atlantis” – receives support from the idea of the model of infinity in the Möbius strip. Duration turns out to be limited, while the symbol of infinity emphasizes the sense of being lost in longue durée. Szymborska’s above poem laconically summarizes the Platonic myth of Atlantis, its alleged grandeur, and its mysterious destruction. After all, there is no evidence for the existence of Atlantis. Its mythical inhabitants will remain, as Szymborska writes with conceptual charm, “Hypothetical. Dubious./Uncommemorated./Never extracted from air,/fire, water, or earth” (“Atlantis,” COY 53). They did not emerge from the elements of Presocratic philosophers.

This lack of ontological assignment is particularly fascinating. On the island of Atlantis – immersed in oblivion, stories, and speculations – neither love nor struggle have a distinctive shape. Likewise, the advice of wise men that stems ←89 | 90→from the destruction of Atlantis will never become moral laws. Indication hesitates between “yes” and “no.” Szymborska reflects on the suspended ontic status of the mythical island when discussing a Polish science-fiction classic by Ludwik Zajdler, Atlantyda: “it does not matter if Atlantis existed or not, it still benefits us greatly. And not only scientifically. Also psychologically. We need Atlantis as an exercise for imagination. It would a shame to waste all imagination exclusively on practical matters” (WLN 74).

The impractical theme of Atlantis has important consequences. Considering that we cannot any part of the alternative in Szymborska’s poem “Atlantis,” there appears a world on the borderland of nonexistence, hypothetical and fulfilled.123 Perhaps we are particularly proficient in solving disasters, for the destruction of Atlantis offers a whole range of possible causes. The question about the lost island turns into a reflection about the curious mind in search of a mystery.

However, we need no Atlantis to exercise imagination in contradictions. Suffice to consider something as ordinary and incomprehensible as death. “Elegiac Calculation” is a real concert of doubts, in which Szymborska explores contradictory meanings. From our perspective, we only witness the “death of another:”

It’s all

(if that word’s not too confining)

behind them now

(if not before them) – …

They’ve given themselves up to endless

(if not otherwise) silence (“Elegiac Calculation,” EB 294).

What is more illusory than attempts to delineate the boundaries of life, ultimate destinies, and infinite absences? Numerous periphrases of death can change into their opposites. In this field, we acutely learn the provisional character of language. Sentences in parentheses reveal equally true (or untrue) possibilities. In fact, we already near silence, because the poem returns to the starting point. We may compare this rule of poetics to the movement of a pendulum ←90 | 91→that passes the way from a theorem to negation and back. However, contradiction encourages in this poem to reflection and – importantly – there occurs no semantic suicide.

The logical boundary of sentences shifts. Contradictions open new possibilities of expression that consider the state of suspended knowledge. Each claim has a negative equivalent. Judgments that something “is” and “is not” belong to a common paradigm. In the above examples, there emerges a separate ontological dimension: an alternative existence.

In the “Portrait of a Woman,” the cycle of contradictory opinions approximates colloquial communication practice:

She must be a variety.

Change so that nothing will change.…

A screw loose and tough as nails.

Curls up with Jaspers or Ladies’ Home Journal.

Can’t figure out this bolt and builds a bridge.…

She must love him, or she’s just plain stubborn.

For better, for worse, for heaven’s sake (LN 218).

The word is subject to the laws of the paradox. It is in these categories that one may best capture the antinomic arrangement of the images of feminine features. After all, this is a generalized portrait. Szymborska creates her psychological and sociological study from an explosive mixture of determination and inconsistency. Without such clash of strength and weakness, feelings and calculation, experience and ignorance, there would never surface the effect of such a playful, ironic game with the stereotype of a woman.124 To paraphrase Boris Eikhenbaum, we will say that Akhmatova’s “embodied oxymoron”125 becomes an “exemplifying oxymoron” in Szymborska’s “Portrait of a Woman,” composed of many cases, constructed to learn and play.

Everyday language abbreviates and tolerates contradiction. Szymborska exquisitely adapts these features for her own artistic purposes. This is how she speaks about the expansive, annihilating power of those who truly hate: “One religion or another –/whatever gets it ready, in position./One father land or another – whatever helps it get a running start” (“Hatred,” EB 288). A fast run ←91 | 92→toward destruction can be justified by anything, because it does not matter which words sanction evil. Ideas are just an excuse. Contradiction does not excludes high ideals here, but only compromises the language abuse.

Such contradictions lead not to nonsense. On the contrary, Szymborska makes them regain the ability to communicate information. Statements that play with logic are clearly explained in situations where the certainty of description is suspended. If we try to unravel the mystery and meaning of events, there will appear contradictions. The principle of incoherent explanations is used in building lyrical monologs, like in the poems “Could Have,” “Snapshot of a Crowd,” “Lot’s Wife.” Let us add that Szymborska’s poetic aporiae strike with ingenuity and accuracy. Her rhetoric seeks to invalidate the borderland situation of the word. Thus, the abovementioned contradictions fulfill the usual obligations of meaning. The speaker simultaneously perceives the diverse reality “from all six sides” (“Into the Ark,” PB 270), so that it seems to call for the language of the paradox.

For Szymborska, testing the limits of meaningful communication includes not only contradiction but also tautology. The latter can conduct judgments about reality even less than the former. However, this is not the case in Szymborska’s poetry. According to logical semantics, both figures occupy a special place in the language structure. Ludwig Wittgenstein writes:

Tautology and contradiction are not pictures of the reality…. For the one allows every possible state of affairs, the other none …. Tautology and contradiction are the limiting cases of the combinations of symbols …. Contradiction is the external limit of the propositions, tautology their substanceless centre.126

Szymborska questions the “substanceless” center of sentences. Let us consider two examples:

He has only just learned to tell dreams from waking;

only just realized that he is he;

only just whittled with his hand né fin (NEF 150).

The chair’s a chair, the wine is wine,

in a wineglass that’s the wineglass

standing there by standing there.

Only I’m imaginary,

make-believe beyond belief,

so fictitious that it hurts (“Over Wine,” S 80).

←92 | 93→

The discovery of one’s identity and the recognition of a separate “I” in the process of hominization is a fundamental revelation. “Poor little beggar./A human, if ever we saw one” (NEF 151) is what we first speak about ourselves, since the beginning of the world, in a flash of consciousness. Thus, instead of semantic emptiness, the statement “he is he” determines the fullness of self-knowledge.

In “Over Wine,” the combination of several tautologies indicates the contrast between the permanent identity of things – confirmed by the repetition of the same words – and the uncertain image of the speaker. Changed in the eyes of her partner, she wants to check the durability of her new form, critically analyze her own portrait created by someone else. Here, Szymborska opposes the skeptical attitude with emotions. Of course, one would like to capture the fleeting moment of beautiful delusions, but it passes quickly. Only the existence of things is certain, but they do not take part in the metamorphosis and spoil the effect of love magic. When the miracle of the gaze passes, one should say goodbye to festive self-fashioning, abandon charm, tease, and wit. The return of common sense only confirms the knowledge of one’s lonely existence in the world. “Over Wine” makes tautology distinguish the sphere of facts from infatuation and the theater of feelings. When considering Szymborska’s use of tautology, we should pay attention to the paradox of perfection:

The cosmos is what it is –

namely, perfect (“Warning,” LN 221).

[Our skin is] an internal inferno,

the anathema of anatomy.…

Not for us such idiotic

onionoid perfections (“The Onion,” LN 223–224).

Compliance of the subject with its own essence does not set explicit requirements for cognitive attempts. Nothing can be added to perfection, but to uncertain and changing forms –very much so. When reading the paradox and irony in Szymborska’s poem “The Onion,” Adam Zagajewski notices that idiotism should mean “singularity” and “simplicity,” while in Szymborska’s poetry, perfection “can be realized only slowly, through struggle, and only by way of multiplicity and complexity, not simplicity.”127

The subversive minds view Parmenides’s perfect cosmos as boring. Attached to this world, the cosmic ironists of Szymborska will “take Thursday over infinity ←93 | 94→any day” (“Warning,” LN 222). There are shortcomings on both sides of the equation: we cannot eat cold abstraction but a specific Thursday cannot pretend to last eternally.

Of course, the onion is Szymborska’s humorous model of regular perfection that, after all, stems from self-limitation. The human world is given development, the pursuit of something better, truth, and wisdom. Hence, true perfection can only be imperfect, as we always grasp it only in fragments.128 The onion as a tautology precisely defines being that is “lazy,” transparent, and identical with itself.

Onions boil down to “onionhood” (LN 223), “[n];othingness unseamed itself” (CH 191), while the real world “realizes itself.” Szymborska writes that “Reality means reality:/that’s a tougher nut to crack” (“The Real World,” EB 292). It is tougher than what? Than the mystery of dreams. We are more-or-less talented authors of oneiric visions, whereas the real world exists in a completely objective and, therefore, cruel manner. The real world is a product of vigilance of an unknown absolute being. We do not have control over the whole of existence,129 none of the real events can be erased, and, beforehand, nothing frightening can be tested, experienced, revoked, or annuled at the moment of awakening.

Despite its essence, tautology defines differences in Szymborska’s poetry. After reading the sentence “Where Hiroshima had been/Hiroshima is again” (“Reality Demands,” EB 290), we immediately recognize its meaning as it speaks of two cities: the one annihilated and the one rebuilt. The extraordinary character of the expression conceals a clear message that life always fills the void and, forgetting about the horror, develops on the battlefields just as it does elsewhere. In the poetry “Written in a Hotel,” the tautology serves to oppose the beautiful Kyoto “whose beauty moves you to tears” (NEF 134) with an anonymous contemporary city, which unfortunately is ugly:

Fear strikes me

only at times.

On the road.

In a strange city.

With garden-variety brick walls,

a tower, old and ordinary (“Written in a Hotel,” NEF 135).

←94 | 95→

The ordinary wall differs from the beautiful wall, the ordinary tower stores in the background a comparison with an inspiring tower. A similar design will appear in “A Note” (from the volume Salt). However, in “Ballad,” ordinary human activities after a murder turn out to be something extraordinary. This caesura separates spontaneous joy of everyday behavior from automatic gestures, which has the overtone of hopelessness: “She got up like you and me.//She walks just as people do” (S 79). Thus, the contexts reconstructed by the reader disallow the impression that artistic statement may meet an unorganized and excessive chatter or, on the other hand, nonsense.130 Wittgenstein’s “substanceless center” of tautology in Szymborska’s poetry acquires content and becomes an important means of poetic expression. Such a subversive economy of meanings stems from Bolesław Leśmian. What Janusz Sławiński wrote about Leśmian highlights equally well the poetic practice of Szymborska:

If a paradoxical sentence identifies drastically different units of meaning … then a tautological sentence multiplies versions of the same unit of meaning by granting each full rights of an individual. The paradoxical sentence talks identity into maximal diversification, while the tautological sentence derives diversity from identity.131

Let us consider an example of Szymborska’s poetry, in which the protagonist is a child:

The Master rejects outright the ridiculous thought

that a table out of sight goes on being a table nonstop,

that a chair behind our backs stays stuck in chairlike bounds …

A fly caught in a fly? A mouse trapped in a mouse?

A dog never let off its latent chain (“Interview with a Child,” CH 179)?

A very young great experimenter, a Master written with a capital initial letter, who fortunately still lacks cognitive routine, applies fantastic possibilities to the unchanging shapes of things. He does not agree for the all-segregating frames of existence and capture in just one form once and for all. Let us note in Szymborska’s paronomasia the proximity of the formal prison to the suffering inflicted on animals (dog chain, mouse trap). In “Sky,” the similarity of elocution conceals a different meaning: “I’m a trap within a trap,/an inhabited inhabitant,/an embrace embraced,/a question answering a question” (EB 282). We may read these mysterious confessions as a daily participation in the matters of the sky, as people’s ←95 | 96→connection with the boundless sky,132 the air, the life-giving pneuma, but also the darker parts of existence; as the Polish word “niebo” simultaneously means “sky” and “heaven.” This poetic fragment gives the feeling of entrapment by a very lofty understood heaven, which does not become the “symbolic sunny goal of our lives.”133 Indeed, we should constantly repeat the sentence that Szymborska’s poetry’s philosophical quality derives from colloquial observations.

We may compare the above fragment from the “Interview with a Child” to Zbigniew Herbert’s short piece “Objects.” Szymborska’s childish variability of reality connects with the genius period of our lives, when nothing has been fixed yet in motionless rules and ontological boundaries remain fluid for the cognizer. Herbert complements this approach with insights about inanimate matter: “I have never observed a chair shift from one foot to another, or a bed rear on its hind legs.… I suspect that objects do this from pedagogical considerations, to reprove us constantly for our instability.”134

A particularly interesting example of the above deliberations appears in Szymborska’s “Aging Opera Singer:”

“Today he sings this way: tralala tra la.

But I sung it like this: tralala tra la.

Do you hear the difference?

And instead of standing here, he stands here

and looks this way, not this way,

although she comes flying in from over there,

not over there, and not like today rampa pampa pam,

but quite simply rampa pampa pam,

the unforgettable Tschubeck-Bombonieri,


who remembers her now –” (LN 215).

In this dialogical monolog, the word in the process of communication is only seemingly helpless. Admittedly, the record does not reveal the difference between the components of the aging singer’s story – between his great past and the artistic misery of the present – but gestures that refer to the stage allude to such difference. Similarly, the quotations of musical phrases compel (textual and extra-textual) recipients to “hear the difference.” The area of incomprehension is ←96 | 97→somewhat filled with deictic pronouns and associated, almost visible, movements of the hand.

Szymborska masterfully plays here with the clumsiness of speech and the inadequacy of words. Excessive emotions probably make “the articulation of experiences … grotesquely inept,”135 while the insufficiency of communication comes not only from the nature of language. Noteworthy, memories appear here as mutually incompatible. The aging singer does remember the splendor of old glory, but the listener cannot (“Do you hear the difference?”, LN 215). The aging singer is stuck in a trap of unconveyable experience. The quotation marks aptly signalize that this poem is an elegy for the snows of yesteryear. And what can you do about a lament? Kindly accept the memory of the aging singer but not without erosive skepticism.

Szymborska undertakes an extraordinary experiment. She asks whether there one can extract meaning from a statement composed only of tautologies ended with a contradiction-paradox of an unforgettable-forgotten primadonna. Let us answer that there is plenty of meaning in such poem. Next to semantic meanders of live expression and alongside the speaker’s gestures that are to help his expression, we may carefully scrutinize the psychological situation of the aging singer. The distance between Szymborska’s “Aging Opera Singer” and the Polish drama’s classics nevertheless allows for a comparison with the monolog of the Old Actor from Stanisław Wyspiański’s third act of Wyzwolenie (Liberation): “I await nothing anymore…. I sought fame once, played Hamlet./There are new Hamlets today.”136 Szymborska’s play with tautologies is lined with sadness, because there is something extremely wistful in the dusty souvenirs of fame, even if they only appear as memories.

Dorota Wojda is right when she lists Szymborska’s tautology among the “figures of silence” by concluding that the crippled ways of linguistic expression become “in Szymborska’s work undergo a nobilitation, because their textual position allows for a more complete expression, thus a secondary, partial removal of the deficiencies of speech.”137

In Szymborska’s poetic language, the precise tools of representation and expression – contradiction and tautology – overcome their contentlessness and eccentricity. That is, their positioning at the limits of meaningful articulation, ←97 | 98→as if she completely disregarded such limitation of the two figures. In this particular case of artistic speech, we also cannot point to any peripheral areas of meaning. On the contrary, the subtly differentiation of the semantic scale in precisely individualized applications seems almost unbelievable. For Szymborska, contradiction and tautology could equally well switch places, because she discovers similarities in contradicting expressions and differences in tautological sentences.

Phraseological Games

There is nothing more trivial than idiomatic phrases, like common truths in sentences that do not raise any doubts. There is nothing less sensational than adages remembered and repeated by generations. Proverbs assure us that the world is devoid of mystery, they record the general voice understood as the community of wise and experienced people. The user of proverbs does not have to admit any private illuminations or critical reflections.138 Little new knowledge results from the tame quotes from culture. Once they enter the orbit of everyday speech, they very quickly wear out. We should also place maxims on the side of common sense, because concise and clear moral principles should apply to everyone. Common philosophy comes in a petrified linguistic form.

Proverbs and adages arranged themselves in finite series that confirm the well-established system of meanings and support the unchangeable by the seriousness of collective authority: their shape is exempted from time.139 Common cognition faces scientific cognition, paremiology with its primitive and spontaneous philosophy of life opposes rationality. However, we may hardly argue that common sense always contradicts the critical operations of the mind. It does happen, but not exclusively. The universal dimension of proverbs, adages, and maxims separates itself from the language of a certain time or ideology. Everyone is interested in health and the weather, but the current (political) things move, integrate, or enslave only a given community or group. Language equally petrifies inventive and common thoughts, eternal truths and ad-hoc persuasive expressions. Therefore, the broadly understood modern times assumes a variety of phraseological material, of various provenance and trials, with a noble pedigree and of plebeian origin.

←98 | 99→

Szymborska’s interest in the phraseological resources of language appears even in her earliest poems. The early post-war poems narrate the common issue of leaving wartime and building a new order in an avant-garde manner, but there still appear colloquial idioms in the context of individual expressions. Such solutions distance these poems from Polish post-war slogans.

A few years later, during the Stalinist era, the ritualized and nondialogic language multiplied in numerous poetic replicas. Collective authority identified with the party’s wisdom spoke to the people with the help of ritual sentences-spells. However, Szymborska’s poems from the early 1950s freshened the agitational prefabricates with colloquial language and a few phraseological games. We may even call her works of that time as socialist realist conceptismo.

The neophyte enthusiasm that precedes Szymborska’s tedious path of party self-improvement surfaces in her variation on the subject of “flash in the pan:” “The straw of burns in a flash” (DŻ 11). The persuasive possibilities of colloquial language gather in “Rozmowa ze sceptykiem” (Conversation with a Skeptic) who is not enthusiastic about the new times: “Neither defeat worries you/nor victory pleases” (PZS 24) In the exemplary biography of a young activist, Marxist revelation was immediately given, so he needed not wade through the Marx’s writings: “Over the seven rivers of despair/over the seven peaks of lie” (PZS 13). Let us also point out Szymborska’s poetic lecture for the young people who build Nowa Huta: “The class dies if it forgets” (DŻ 17). Proverb and aphorisms emerged in the above examples reinforce ideological correctness of expression just like colloquial idioms. This circle of language is closed. The attempts to renew the meanings of fixed word relationships are actually wasted. The dogma cannot be reformulated.

Szymborska abandoned collective faith in the Calling Out to Yeti (1957). However, what she retained was the negative context of all judgments pronounce exclusivity of worldview as permanent word groupings. To her last days, Szymborska always kept smashing stereotypes fixed in language and juggling idioms with not respect for the constraints of syntax and meaning. We should pay attention to how her revival of idioms creates language jokes.140 Fragments of idioms stuck together create equally funny collages to those that Szymborska actually composes with scissors and glue. Language jokes surface from domesticated phrases, plastic jokes – from old engravings and postcards compiled in ←99 | 100→unexpected accuracy with sentences from newspapers.141 Szymborska extracts an idiomatic expression, which metonymically adjoins and represents a worldview, in light of doubt and laughter to show its cognitive helplessness.

She puts side-spread words and truths in motion. Invariability provokes change, obviousness encourages doubt, certainty induces questions, a closed form incites a desire for a linguistic experiment. For example:

I’ve shed my skin, squandered vertebrae and legs,

taken leave of my senses time and again.

I’ve long since closed my third eye to all that,

washed my fins of it and shrugged my branches (“A Speech at the Lost-and-Found,” CH 176).

In the poem above, the impressive march of idioms tells a story about the evolution of the human species. The speaker of this spectacle of humanization presents an undressing of costumes from the “wardrobe of nature” in a gadabout manner. However, the most important action occurs in language. How many different language combinations appear in this poem at once! Suffice to mention delexicalization which treats metaphors literally (“I’ve shed my skin”), the exchange of elements in fixed wordings (“washed my fins” instead of “washed my hands;” “branches” replace “shoulders”), the mixing of new components, and finally the composition-syntactic operation of the rhythm of the enumeration. Transformed idioms form a sequence of two rhetorical triads. Moreover, the renewed meanings subordinate to one poetic idea: a humorous lecture on anthropology.

The “Everyman” of evolution experiences something extremely strange among ordinary things. We may call it anamnesis of personal experience of the past of species. In the poem “A Speech at the Lost-and-Found,” the distance of the series of idioms from the theme is quite significant. Szymborska’s material in everyday language appears on various occasions. What gives this poem its uniform meaning is the unusual poetic method of collage.142 As in a linguistic joke, the impression of apt association overcomes the effect of alienation. Moreover, the difficult play with idioms is to sound casual and simple.

The above method hides the trick: condensed and shuffled idioms pretend to be natural expressions. Thus, they do not act ostentatiously. The quotes from ←100 | 101→different levels of culture has nothing to do with constructed concepts. Only a bit more careful reading reveals how important for Szymborska is the transformation of Polish phraseology. “Applied phraseology” is insufficient for her, not to mention that it is a grateful object of discrediting common truths.

In “A Speech at the Lost-and-Found” and other poems like “No End of Fun,” “The Suicide’s Room,” “Plotting with the Dead,” or “The Real World,” Szymborska refers to the ready-made components of speech to deny syntactical and semantical schemata, repurpose idioms to serve her own means, and transform them in her own order of expressions. In place of what is predictable, she introduces ambiguity. Let us consider the following examples of her reversal of the meaning of a permanent linguistic construction: “were different (we concur)/just as two drops of water are” (“Nothing Twice,” COY 25); “the stars …/winking at us/unintentionally” (“The Ball,” M 248); the delexication of the Polish idiom “świecić oczami” (to feel embarrassed on someone’s behalf) in “we light dark tunnels with our eyes” (“Dreams,” H 409); or “Need I mention every single bird that flies in the face of frontiers” (“Psalm,” LN 201). The violated connectivity of words may look like a poetic extravaganza, but only if we treat them isolation from the elaborate semantics of whole statements. We will not find such connections in dictionaries, nor in the notations of literary and colloquial statements, but they still make sense in Szymborska’s poetry. We find examples even in her last volumes: “a masterpiece,/pretty supernatural and infranatural” (“A Forest Morality Play” from the volume Colon); “a specific watch, an entire fly” (“Dreams,” H 408); “A corpse of pork with departed cabbage” (“Compulsion,” E 424); “busy clouds in the wild air” (“Mirror,” E 427).

Szymborska’s play with idioms feed on colloquial and newspaper language, texts of culture, literary quotes, and maxims. We find in her poetry examples of paraphrases of well-known biblical verses: “With so much of nothing, razor-thin,/Hania would vanish in the Needle’s Eye” (“Hania,” COY 22); “Where not a stone still stands,/you can see the Ice Cream Man” (“Reality Demands,” EB 290); “heaven and earth shall pass away,/but not the number pi” (“Pi,” LN 233). Let us consider three references to the Saint Matthew’s Gospel (19: 24, 24: 2, 24: 35) respectively. The rephrasing of the forewarning to the rich leads to the conclusion that the eye of a needle should appear boundless for the poor (“Hania”). Next, the grim Bible prophecy turns into a positive program in the restoration of the world after war disaster (“Reality Demands”). Finally, things perish, but mathematical abstraction is indefinite, which the speaker indirectly compares with the eternal Word of God (“Pi”). Thus, Szymborska shows exceptions to rules, tests common sayings in new contexts, and simultaneously reveals that the traditional approach is not a universal key to explain phenomena.

←101 | 102→

She similarly activates literary quotes, as in “Beheading,” in which Ophelia’s line from the fourth act of Hamlet – “Under certain circumstances the owl is the baker’s daughter” (NEF 130) – appears in a monolog divided between two voices of Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I that discuss torment and insecurity. But this phrase does not interpret the motives behind the actions of the two ambitious queens? Which one will win, and which lose? Which one is insane? Which is right? Maybe we should not ask such questions at all, because the poem divides evenly in half the experience of strangeness toward the role played in the theater of life.

In “Nothing Twice,” Szymborska transforms Goethe’s famous line from Faust about the moment of joy – “Verweile doch, du bist so schön” (Stay a while, you are so beautiful) – into its anti-thesis: “It’s in its nature not to stay:/today is always gone tomorrow” (COY 25). The semantic reverse shows the benefits of the passing time, of life without trials and repetitions. In “Moment,” Szymborska paraphrases Goethe again: “This moment reigns as far as the eye can reach./One of those earthly moments/invited to linger” (“Moment,” M 321). Humanity may calmly contemplate its moment, because the furious elements of tectonics and meteorological disasters ceased, thus putting to rest anxiety of existence, for brief instant.

Szymborska quotes seemingly involuntarily, without forewarning or announcement. Her literary allusions pretend that they are no quotes. In “A Contribution to Statistics,” Szymborska mentions a category of people “with whom you cannot joke around” and who number “forty and four” for each hundred.143 Is this an effect of automatism or an excess? This famous quote from the Polish legislator of Romanticism, Adam Mickiewicz, quickly disperses, as we guess that the category includes dangerous people: self-proclaimed messiahs, deliverers, and saviors of the fatherland.

Szymborska’s poetic collages allow for a bizarre coexistence of various fragments of heterogeneous reality. Here, we see different stylistic levels complement each other. The sentences of sages and philosophers coexist with everyday speech and in different shape than the original one, usually attributed to the phenomena of individual adventures of the mind. Montaigne’s formula “A stick branched/into a thicket of endings” (“A Note,” S 102)144 explains hominization ←102 | 103→with the basic category of Szymborska’s poetic philosophy, which is elementary astonishment with the world.

Human self-righteousness cherishes its brain so much and so strongly proclaims victory over the bones of extinct species as if each of us was a combination of Kant and Pascal: “Venerated Delegation,/the starry sky above the thinking reed/and moral law within it –” (“Dinosaur Skeleton,” CH 173). What does this philosophical collage present? Does it present the mass occurrence of the “power of judgment,” ethics, the value of culture, the power of reason, the greatness and freedom of people? If this is the case, the ironic effect is guaranteed.

What is also important in Szymborska’s poetry is the subjectivization of philosophical reflection. The poem “Nothingness unseamed itself for me too…” is a metaphysical treatise, but quite special. Szymborska’s “nothingness unseamed” evokes Heidegger but figuratively depicts the reverse fabric of the world available to human experience. The philosophical reflection from Sartre’s Being and nothingness that we are alone and nothing justifies our actions assumes in Szymborska’s version the shape of grammatical singular: “I know I won’t be justified as long as I live” (“Under One Small Star,” CH 193). The change is only seemingly slight. In place of a lecture on philosophical anthropology – a process that links the becoming of unidentified human existence with nothingness and absurdity145 – we receive a much less general paradoxical meditation. In Szymborska’s poem, the individual not only reveals own guilt and despair but also discovers the priceless fragments of hope and compassion, the seeds of joy and the meaning of life.

The stereotypes of newspaper language are very typical. Producing mass information, they discover nothing, they mean what they mean, and their persuasive effectiveness consists in limiting the elements that complicate the statement: the small number of syntagmatic combinations and paradigmatic choices. I omit the rituals of political newspeak here. Press releases along with radio and television messages offer set phraseological resources to automate perception. Ideological slogans are worthy of Szymborska’s parody and paraphrase because they become obsolete too quickly. She is more interested in the more solid dimensions of reality described, for example, in the petrified language of statistics or meteorology. The large number gradually overtakes all areas of life, hence Szymborska’s ironic conclusion: “To acquire political meaning/you don’t even have to be human./Raw material will do,/or protein feed, or crude oil” (“Children of Our Age,” PB 258).

←103 | 104→

Threadbare newspaper phraseology suddenly gains ambiguity in the above fragment. If politics devour individuals, the masses become “protein feed;” if statistics deals with typical and practical matters, the individual may be useful for secondary elaboration, therefore become a “raw material.” Language joke and unpleasant truth merge here into a poetic whole. We may call Szymborska’s rhetorical figure the metaphorization of set phrases.

Radio forecasts describe variable weather with invariable idioms. Such language is so very schematic that a large number of possible narratives, however limited, does not go exceed the convention. Szymborska replaces certainty that nature will do its work eternally with an epifanic amazement: “A run-of-the-mill miracle:/winds mild to moderate/turning gusty in storms” (“Miracle Fair,” PB 274). How many times have we heard this? But this is why we should hear the difference between banality and illumination. The typical phrase in the new context does not refer to any series of phenomena but directs our attention to a unique moment.

The poem “Reality Demands” illuminates the weather forecast with idyllic content in comparison with another, ominous message, at least for no invalid: “and the blooming orchards near Verdun/cannot escape/the approaching atmospheric front” (EB 290). However, memory about the past in phrases like “frontline battle” or “frontal attack” colors the word “atmospheric front” with unexpected meaning. This is how Szymborska’s poetic “premeditation” looks. In her “The Day After – Without Us,” we immediately recognize the weather forecast language with threadbare phrases like “Gradually as the day progresses/high pressure fronts from the north/make local sunshine likely” (C 359). We must imagine that one sunny day in the future, which know not of our presence; suddenly an advice appears that breaks the cliché of forecasts: “those still living/should bring umbrellas” (C 359). Irony is a great tool here, as the meteorological statement unexpectedly reveals the metaphysical dimension of sense, with the use of everyday language. Szymborska utilizes the seemingly unproductive form of weather forecast in a surprising and inventive. We may say that these meteorological variations defamiliarize speech standards typically used for practical purposes. Threadbare phraseology returns here to the state of innocence, as if the combination of quoted words happened for the first time.

Colloquial idiomatic language in Szymborska’s poetry is a whole other issue. Her tendency to immerse utterances in everyday speech becomes her way of literary presence that usually discredits the lofty utterances. Such style transforms divagation into conversation and recipients into speakers. Szymborska appreciates and employs the spontaneous creativity of colloquial words, but this only begins her the poetic games. Her use of everyday language breaks down the ←104 | 105→rules of stage literary speech (“Soliloquy for Cassandra”), questions the style of lyrical travelogue (“Clochard”), and deprives a poetic treatise of its the seriousness (“Psalm”). The specific context modifies each idiom. The meaning of the whole does not disappear, but over it expands a whole other specific meaning of individual words.146

Let us consider ornithological examples. The enumeration of “every single bird that flies in the face of frontiers” (“Psalm,” LN 201) refers to the activity of a not very pedantic perception and classification, but also defines the freedom of nature, which does not submit itself to the boundaries of “man-made states.” Another piece investigates a dangerous scientific revelation. No one should learn about the result of the research, “not even the bird that might squeal in its song” (“Discovery,” CH 170).

Szymborska’s diversified view on phenomena combines with her choice of form. The measure of common sense recorded in colloquial phrases holds in check the lyrical fantasies and learned ideas for interpreting the world, but we must not forget that the agreement with the simple recipient usually appears in the company of irony. Szymborska believes that everyday speech and universal truths are only worth something when they serve as the basis for original poetic transformations. Disregarding the rigid syntax, Szymborska freely composes new wholes from colloquial expressions. Urszula Kozioł elaborates of Szymborska’s technique by saying that idiomatic phrases “clash with each other in unexpected patterns to acquire clarity, freshness, and simultaneously imitate speech that is unforced, almost colloquial, and yet full of … internal sparks.”147

The careless everyday expressions in Szymborska’s poems support her precision of expression. The impure matter of colloquial language transforms into a pure crystal. The poem “Funeral (II)” is the boldest realization of such tendency, because we deal here not with an incrustation of the text with everyday phrases, but with such a large accumulation of them so that other ways of expression disappear completely. This “poetry of voices” realizes here in a very bold manner. The unrelated issues during the funeral ritual are excerpts from dispersed colloquial talks, devoid of any celebration:

“these flowers need to be unwrapped”

“his brother’s heart gave out, too, it runs in the family”

“I’d never know you in that beard”

“he was asking for it, always mixed up in something”

←105 | 106→

“that new guy was going to make a speech, I don’t see him”

“Kazek’s in Warsaw, Tadek has gone abroad”

“you were smart, you brought the only umbrella” (PB 264).

Only quotes, a forest of quotation marks, but what mastery of assemblage. A polyphonic reportage extracted from colloquial Polish language; seemingly disorderly and quickly glued together as if someone drew the sentences from a hat. However, this chaos holds a transparent underlying order, because Szymborska arranges this socio-psychological study to use the language of a stressful funeral situation and indirectly transmit an important observation: the mourners especially avoid touching the essence of death. The further from the gist of the matter, the better; the closer to banalities, the safer. However, Szymborska plays on ambiguities. The mourners say “I’m going this way”/“we’re not” (PB 265). But what is their goal: life to the end? We witness here an interesting withdraw of language from the circle of death. We read not maxims or lofty consolations, but colloquial phrases that have a therapeutic meaning for the speakers. The colloquial language reinforces the speakers in their existence and temporary hope.

Wśród rozpatrywanych rodzajów dialogu Szymborskiej z przysłowiami, porzekadłami, maksymami, cytatami wyróżniają się aforyzmy jako starannie skonstruowane zdania, otwarte, dialogowe, krytyczne wobec prawd ogólnych. Aforyzm służy bowiem podkreśleniu konwertycznego widzenia świata. Przezwycięża ugruntowany ogląd rzeczy. Widoczną w poezji Szymborskiej skłonność do układania aforyzmów uznać należy za kontrapunkt omawianych dotąd rozwiązań. Od strony sztuki formułowania myśli niczego nie brakuje aforyzmom Szymborskiej, gdyż są one dobrze skonstruowane, oparte na paradoksie, błyszczące mądrością i dowcipem. Wyjęte z poszczególnych utworów, pozbawione kontekstowych dookreśleń mogłyby złożyć się na niewielką antologię:

Szymborska dialogs with proverbs, maxims, and quotes, but aphorisms the rest as carefully constructed sentences, which are open, dialogic, and critical of general truths. Aphorism serves to emphasize the convertive view on the world. Aphorism overcomes well-established perspectives. We should consider Szymborska’s tendency to arrange aphorisms as a counterpoint to her above solutions to everyday language. Szymborska’s aphorisms lack nothing from the art of formulating thoughts, as they have proper construction, base on paradoxes, and emanate wisdom and wit. Extracted from individual poems, devoid of contextual refinements, they could form a small anthology:

We left the animals behind.

Who will leave us (“A Note,” S 102).

←106 | 107→

Rejoice, O reason: instinct can err, too (“Returning Birds,” NEF 139).

among the signs of bestiality

a clear conscience is number one (“In Praise of Feeling Bad about Yourself,” LN 227).

where hunger begins,

innocence ends (“Compulsion,” E 424).

Perhaps all fields are battlefields (“Reality Demands,” EB 291).

Compared to clouds,

life rests on solid ground (“Clouds,” M 324).

the book of events

is always open halfway through (“Love at First Sight,” EB 303).

There’s no life

that couldn’t be immortal

if only for a moment (“On Death, Without Exaggeration,” PB 247).

The price, after all, for not having died already

goes up not in leaps but step by step (“In Broad Daylight,” PB 250).

but observers from above

are easily mistaken (“Perspective,” C 366).

There’s nothing more debauched than thinking (“An Opinion on the Question of Pornography,” PB 266).

We may supplement this collection with extracts from Nonrequired Reading and Poczta Literacka (Literary Post). I will limit myself to but a few examples: “He achieved in life nothing besides eternity” (LN I 9); “if we want people to believe us, we should be restrained” (PL 42); “Goodness is helpless without wits” (NR 79); “Even suffering has its favorite poses” (LN II 192); “Some snobbism is dramatic” (LN I 122); “you have to do more than love feet to make a good shoemaker” (PL 81); “There strong relationship between masterworks and kitsch is life-giving” (LN II 85); “We must write interestingly even about boredom” (PL 79).

We can even distinguish whole sections in the above incomplete collection of Szymborska’s aphorisms, which range from reflections on nature, history, life, and death through human characters, ways of cognizing the world, and deeds to virtues and vices, writing and literature, art and culture. Her wise skepticism, intellectual subversiveness, forgiving black humor, perceptive diagnoses, and accurate irony can successfully compete with Jerzy Stanisław Lec’s Myśli nieuczesane (Unkempt Thoughts). Szymborska’s aphorisms form understanding between her and the reader.

←107 | 108→

Aforyzmy, “apoftegmata i moralia”, jak również “subtelne eseje wierszem”, które lirykę przeciągają na stronę poezji myśli, jak notował Julian Przyboś w recenzji z tomu Sto pociech, to składniki odnowionej przez Szymborską formy “filozoficznej, refleksyjnej, gnomicznej”. Aforyzm wyczerpuje swą prawdę w sformułowaniu. Na aforyzm można odpowiedzieć przeciw-aforyzmem. Dobre zdanie aforystyczne, które “ma urodę błyskawicy” nieznacznie tylko przeważa tę szalę. Jak pisze Wisława Szymborska w związku z lekturą Maksym i rozważań moralnych La Rochefoucauld:

Aphorisms and “subtle essays in verse,” which draw poetry to the side of intellectual reflection – as Julian Przyboś notes in his review of the volume No End of Fun –compose Szymborska’s “philosophical, reflective, and gnomic” form.148 An aphorism exhausts its truth in its expression. One can answer an aphorism only with an anti-aphorism. A good aphoristic sentence has “the beauty of a lightning.” Szymborska writes about her reading of La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims: “The most accurate have not more than fifty-one percent legitimation. And we should not expect anything more from them. Any attempt at conveying a human matter in a short formula is utopian” (LN III 223).

Szymborska considered the erosion of old wisdom and the lasting power of aphorisms on many occasions. In Nonrequired Reading, she writes about Chinese thinkers, comments on the gnomic sentences of La Rochefoucauld, Lichtenberg, Nietzsche, and quotes La Bruyère. In aphorisms, Szymborska particularly values lyricism, absurdity, and black humor. Here is what she notes about Lichtenberg: “His was not a simple-hearted rationalism, as he was drawn toward absurd and pure-nonsensical constructions. Some of his fragments should be today considered short prose poems, tiny lightnings of lyrical humor” (WLN 686). We recognize the elements of Szymborska’s own literary program in these sentences. For Szymborska, intellectual prowess and graceful shape of expressions are just a means to an end, never the end itself. Her rhetorical gnomes operate on equal terms with other sentences to convey meanings formed from the convolution of certainty and mistakes.

Szymborska’s poetry mostly plays with “ironic aphorisms that must be treated cum grano salis,”149 which often appear as delicate pastiches of maxims, as her utterances are driven more by paradox as a general rule of expression. Adages ←108 | 109→will never appear in her works as decisive arguments, because common sense loses its convincing power the moment we scrutinize it thoroughly. However, Szymborska’s paradox-driven poetry exceeds such delineated borders by drawing inventiveness from the petrified elements of language.

Against their essence, idioms under Szymborska’s pen show a constant readiness to change. Cut, glued together, and offered in diverse collages, Szymborska’s idioms reveal unexpected senses. We my read them not only as an indirect confession of an independent creative disposition but also as disagreement with collective habits, routine prescriptions for life, and belief in the magic of words. Her approach seems to embrace the rule that one should share one’s style of reflection with others. Szymborska pacts with the recipient above the obvious things, while her lesson of ironic distance lacks pedagogic stiffness.

Repetitions and Enumerations: The Poetics of Inventory

What plays an important role in Szymborska’s poetic language are lexical and syntactic repetitions. The rigor of arranging words in transparent verses, in parallel and symmetrical sentences overcomes the disorder of colloquial speech. On the other hand, enumerations of diverse things, sometimes in strange combinations, highlight the futility of these ordering efforts. The lyrical “I” seeks to give meaning to crippled collections by pointing to hidden rules or ordering them arbitrarily. Then the sequences of things are subordinated to the euphonic qualities of words, the alphabet, some unique narrations about individual life, fictional narratives, and painterly representations. This list does not exhaust all the possibilities, for Szymborska’s inventiveness in this respect is impressive.

The moving particles of reality constantly uncouple, and this loss of detail becomes a very important cognitive and artistic problem in Szymborska’s poetry. The dramatic disproportion between an individual consciousness and diverse world does not disappear even under her layers of irony. Szymborska’s resorts to a labyrinthine repertoire of repetitions. Thus, we should consider almost every poem separately. I forgo pedantic classification only to remark on opposing tendencies in her lyrical pieces. On the one hand, she displays ordering efforts while, on the other hand, unencompassable diversity. In well-developed phrases, Szymborska’s poems repeat a syntactic pattern, a versification, or a sound effect. The sequence of enumerations persistently returns and accumulates, as if the number of epithets remained insufficient for the described phenomena and their potential incarnations. Perhaps such accumulation expresses an anxiety that the emptiness cannot be filled, that the hidden “nothing” will remain so visible despite our efforts (“Reality Demands”).

←109 | 110→

Let us notice, Szymborska’s signals of interrupting sequences that go on without end, as in the case of accusations of the previous century – the cruel totalitarian twentieth century – the catalog of faults and crimes is accompanied by the phrases “among other things,” “and so forth,” “for example,” “et cetera” (“The Century’s Decline,” PB 256–257). It will remain the mystery of Szymborska’s workshop, how she combines a decorative, nearly Baroque, style with an economy of words and asceticism in the means of expression.

Szymborska often reaches for rhetorical triads. In a conversation of lovers – a post-apocalyptic version of Shakespeare’s comedy – transparent syntax collects nightmares and fears, as if each successive verse fulfilled a horror, only temporarily suspended yet very close:

Let’s see each other through closed eyes.

Let’s talk together through closed mouths.

Let’s hold each other through a thick wall (“Midsummer Night’s Dream,” COY 52).

The poem “Alive” argeus that the caring lovers, who lost the murderous instincts of mantis and spiders in the process of evolution, are “Hissed from our mysteries./Broken of our bloody wars./Stripped of female menace” (NEF 120). War refugees who fight for their lives would be better served by fairy-tale-like metamorphoses: “Some invisibility would come in handy,/some grayish stoniness,/or, better yet, some nonexistence” (“Some People,” M 343). In turn, Szymborska’s reflection on words, ordering procedures, metatexts, or theater metaphictions often repeats the same syntactic structure three times: “There are catalogs of catalogs./There are poems about poems./There are plays about actors played by actors” (“Reciprocity,” E 430). Hence, triplets reoccur and abound in her poetry. They can create a compositional frame (e.g. “The Three Oddest Words”) or develop into a gradation system, so that each subsequent verse adds new information (“Theater Impressions”). One could go into details over such formal variations of statements with three elements as those in “Notes from a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition,” “Still,” “Report from the Hospital,” “Clochard,” “Landscape,” “Psalm,” “Nothingness unseamed itself for me too…;” not to mention the extensively intricate system of enumerations in “Sky,” “Reality Demands,” “Moment,” “An Occurence,” “In a Mail Coach,” and “Compulsion.” Noteworthy, Szymborska’s late poems abandon rhetorical symmetries and triads toward a regularity of freer structures.

Let us highlight the variety of rhetorical triads. Suffice to mention characteristics of protagonists mediated by things. Frying pans are halos, the knight is Saint George, and the dragon means the vanity of life. Indeed, the attributes of ←110 | 111→gray and humble holiness are naïve (“Hania”). Another triad refers to past love, with a farewell scene that deteriorates into farce: “You’ll amuse them endlessly/on the stage with your cravat/and your petty jealousy” (“Buffo,” COY 28). Let us consider the triads connected with gradation. In successive lines, the number of ingredients increases or diminishes:

I believe in the great discovery.

I believe in the man who will make the discovery.

I believe in the fear of the man who will make the discovery (“Discovery,” CH 170).

Yes, she loved him ver much. Yes, he was born that way.

Yes, she was standing by the prison wall that morning.

Yes, she heard the shots (“Pietà,” NEF 131).

Scientific discovery should annihilate itself, should it threaten the world (see Karel Čapek’s novel Krakatit). The addition of words in following lines imitates not only the process of inductive reasoning about the consequences of the discovery but also the increase of anxiety whether one’s secret of remorse will remain intact. More specifically, the poem raises the issue of the highest moral measure: of such grandeur that can give up success and fame in the name of shared values. Jan Prokop notes that “the repetition of a small number of elements contradicts here the plethora of possibilities. The text … imposes its own organization and order. It stands on the other side of chaos, abundance, and excess.”150 The same rules of poetic language apply to a series of helpless answers of the protagonist’s mother, which speak only to silence (“Pietà”). Her words only support the convention of conversation by creating a theater of understanding. Words cannot express her true regret.

Szymborska’s poetry utilizes chorus repetitions that activate the sound side of the expression and fuel its rhythm. Choruses refer to song genres. In “Commemoration,” the repetition emphasizes the litany-like form of love spells: “Swallow’s heart, have/mercy on them” (COY 30). In “Travel Elegy,” the chorus “Everything’s mine but just on loan” (S 70) is a prediction about the rules of the game of traveling and evokes cognitive reflection. We can keep but few memories, because irrevocable images escape into nonexistence. However, we can easily notice the mismatch of rhetorical structures to the type of messages: the language system and the strange cases. The former secure the order of the world, the latter seem to doubt this order.

←111 | 112→

The rich range of expressions means taking up the challenge to face the diversity of the world. However, this task presumes an awareness of loss. But can we express defeat in a more beautiful manner? When we read such poems as “Birthday,” “Allegro ma Non Troppo,” or “Miracle Fair,” we suspend our beliefs in the linguistic limitations of poetry. If the excess of small miracles of existence – that each of us received at birth –is impossible to comprehend, then we should at least establish a euphonic order. We should then arrange the gifts not according to species or rank, but according to the sound of words:

So much world all at once — how it rustles and bustles!

Moraines and morays and morasses and mussels,

the flame, the flamingo, the flounder, the feather —

how to line them all up, how to put them together?

All the thickets and crickets and creepers and creeks!

The beeches and leeches alone could take weeks (“Birthday,” CH 178).

A poetic joke serves here a serious message. The excess of earthly (and mundane) illuminations and the overflow of cosmic phenomena is given to someone ill-prepared for the role of the chronicler of diversity. As Szymborska writes, “I am just passing through, it’s a five-minute stop./I won’t catch what is distant; what’s too close, I’ll mix up” (“Birthday,” CH 178). Arent van Nieukerken argues that

however, the imperfect mortal cannot commune with the fullness of existence that exceeds inconceivably…. The fullness of the world escapes ordering…. The impossibility of representing the full richness of the world may be explained by the unquestionable argument of common-sense logic that such representation would require an endless accumulation of particular impressions, while people live only for a brief moment.151

The poem “Birthday” arranges words in pairs and quadrants with admirable virtuosity, which simultaneously makes us laugh. In Szymborska’s zoological-botanical variations, everything seems perfectly tuned, but words amaze us, as we never saw them in such combinations before. Her poetic lexicon fundamentally differs from the classifications of Carolus Linnaeus. Each particle of existence retains its separateness. A minute leaf or petal remains individual: “so aloofly precise and so fragilely proud” (“Brithday,” CH 178).

The series of enumerations refer not only to real facts but also, as usual in Szymborska’s poetry, to doubtful speculations. The organization (and naming) keeps to the natural course of things but treats fantasies with equal attention. Szymborska often employs parallelisms, lexical repetitions, and anaphoric rhythms. The dominant of multiplicity presents the “scattered wealth” of this ←112 | 113→world and all the possible worlds. Szymborska seeks to encompass with words as many individual existences as possible, to highlight the neglected cases of life, to sensitively respond to every manifestation of the fullness of being: to not despise the smallest creature of nature, which is to display the heights of bravery. Szymborska’s poems show nature as countless, always interesting, and surprising the viewer with extravagant inventions (e.g. “Thomas Mann”). However, poetic indices of natural creations have a fundamental flaw: they are incomplete and limited by the individual viewpoint. The subjective horizon seems too narrow. As in the case of “A Large Number,” in which the specific encounter with another human being immediately eliminates a huge number of other possible meetings, whereas every poem is created at the expense of unlimited unnamed things. Therefore, we seek to organize what is impossible to organize.

Szymborska’s modern conceptismo best realizes in poetic definitions. Her metaphorical names are to indicate subtly captured similarities. Wit and distance defend Szymborska from the hermeticism of consciousness that only revels in its own inventions. Of course, the necessary prerequisite is to look with a fresh eye. For example, how many new observations can one gather about swallows? Witty periphrases harmonize here with the prayer apostrophes:

O swallow, cloud-borne thorn,

anchor of the air,

Icarus improved,

coattails in Assumption

O swallow, calligraphy,

clockhand minus minutes,

early ornithogothic,

heaven’s cross-eyed glance (“Commemoration,” COY 30–31).

The author of a similar poem “Jaskółki” (Swallows) from that time, Tadeusz Sułkowski, kept to homogeneous associations and used the terms “tanned misses,” “little sisters of fish and cherries,” “dancing little cloudy Ursula’s.”152 Instead, Szymborska draws comparisons with a plethora of disciplines: from shipping, myth, and salon elegance to writing, art history, and optics. In “The Onion,” she similarly multiplies concepts with virtuosity and play. Onions are to be “A centripetal fugue./Polyphony compressed./Nature’s rotundest tummy” (LN 223–224).

Szymborska’s enumerations and juxtaposition only seemingly give the impression of poetic excess but, in fact, they describe the diversity of cases, ←113 | 114→gather viewpoints, universalize fates and history. Peripheral observations add up to sudden syntheses: “With that ring in his nose, with that toga, that sweater…./Poor little beggar./A human, if ever we saw one” (“No End of Fun,” NEF 151). From possible situations and psychological properties, there emerges a diversified portrayal of a woman composed of paradoxes: “Her eyes are, as required, deep blue, gray,/dark, merry, full of pointless tears…./She’ll bear him four children, no children, one.” (“Portrait of a Woman,” LN 218). Szymborska’s antitheses here are amazingly consistent, and the range of possibilities offers something for everyone’s experience.153

Wisława Szymborska conducts an informative game of classifications à rebours. For example, negation breaks down into partial negations. If observed from a nonhuman object-oriented perspective, a grain of sand appears to think something about itself: “It does just fine without a name,/whether general, particular,/permanent, passing,/incorrect, or apt” (“View with a Grain of Sand,” PB 243).

The above issues refer Szymborska’s operation on concrete things.154 In “Still Life with a Balloon,” things become prostheses of memory, but the dead objects extracted from oblivion only tell us that we cannot recover time. In “The Great Man’s House,” unique objects create an intimate aura around a great person (Goethe). Their species is of better quality than the serial products of our civilization. Things also confirm the solemnity of lives in the old style, which everything perceived as intentional and important. Death also leaves its mark on objects: as they unexpectedly change into unsettling junk (“The Classic,” “Cat in an Empty Apartment”). However, in “Pursuit,” we read a description of the contents of a garbage can, although an astronaut will not encounter such debris on the moon. We may precisely learn the contents of Isadora Duncan’s purse (“Frozen Motion”). Finally, Szymborska arranges a catalog of museum collections (“Museum”) and instruments in a cosmic laboratory (“Maybe All This”).

Like Zbigniew Herbert, Szymborska emphasizes that literature should be faithful to objects. This point is important in her poetic theory and practice. For example, the Polish national epic Pan Tadeusz is to be “the work of an inspired pedant! Marvellous and exact description of things, fashions, and ceremonies!” ←114 | 115→(WLN 525). And she praises Rilke in the following manner: “he proposed to introduce into poems the things that surround us, images form dreams, recollected objects.… We consider … one of the most esoteric poets in the world and – what a surprise! – he greatly appreciated the things that we call ordinary!” (PL 54).

Szymborska’s cataloging of objects achieved its playful extremum in “Męskie gospodarstwo” (A Man’s Estate). The psychological characteristics of an independent man, – simultaneously benevolent, affectionate, and merciless – almost does not go beyond the space of a DIY studio. The artistic method of a catalog achieves its highest quality:

Drills, hammers, chisels, melting-pots, phials, pliers,

bundles of strings and springs and umbrella wires,

tubes that wrought up and glues that dried up

jars large and small, in which something clouds up,

a range of little stones, an anvil, a vice,

an alarm clock and whatever fell out.155

The above fragment foregrounds Szymborska’ inventory poetics. Repetitions and enumerations include words, sentences, and entire compositions. They connect fragments of texts or cover all of them. Sequences of the same words gain different meaning (“In Heraclitus River,” “Military Parade”). Even a grammatical rule may create a set of repetitions, such as the conjugation of a verb: “You take off, we take off, they take off” (“Clothes,” PB 245). Other examples include the impersonal use of reflexive pronouns (“Ballad,” “Cat in an Empty Apartment”) or an unusual application of conditionals156 (“In Broad Daylight”). We should also indicate the question and answer scheme, each time different (“Lesson,” “Vocabulary,” “Vietnam,” “The Old Professor,” “An Interview with Atropos”), or the questions themselves (“Plotting with the Dead,” “Maybe All This”). Listing and cataloging also includes human types represented by known historical figures (“Thoughts That Visit Me on Busy Streets”), the accumulation of detached expressions in a peculiar and very original poetry of voices (“The Tower of Babel,” “Funeral (II)”), as well as repetitions of apostrophes (“Thomas Mann,” “Dinosaur Skeleton”). The most radical forms of Szymborska’s inventory poetics include seemingly dry and ostentatiously anti-poetic enumerations of private data (“A Contribution to Statistics”) and compositions based on the repetition ←115 | 116→of a single word: “I believe” (“Discovery”), “I prefer” (“Possibilities”), “as long as” (The Ball), “When” (“The Three Oddest Words”).

Sometimes Szymborska replaces particulars with concepts and names. In unfavorable historical conditions (such as martial law in Poland), one has to subtly consider each word to convey the richness of sophisticated values and delicate distinctions. A poem, like Noah’s ark, should save all of them:

Into the ark, all your chiaroscuros and half-tones,

you details, ornaments, and whims,

silly exceptions,

forgotten signs,

countless shades of the color gray (“Into the Ark,” PB 270).

What is the role of repetition and enumeration in Wisława Szymborska’s poems? First, they build exemplary and didactic elaboration157 illustrated with well-chosen examples. Second, such poetic documentation provides facts, inspires the imagination, appeals to the intellect, and offers readers space for further deduction. Third, this anti-lyrical method resembles the composition of treatises, with their logically arrangement of theses, arguments, and conclusions.

Szymborska’s enumerations side with negation, for instance, in the assumptions about the childhood of an anonymous person in “Poem in Honor.” The speaker considers the shapes of emptiness and orphaned situations. However, this operation actually attempts to regain the lost or overlooked components of being. This is how Edward Balcerzan perceives the phenomenon of Szymborska’s “poetic revindications:” “these verses – fertile with synonyms – diligently develop the lexical field of nonexistence, rejection, prohibition of existence, or forced annihilation.”158 The repealing and negation of such personal characteristics serves to characterize a noble outsider:

He doesn’t arrive en masse.

Doesn’t gather gregariously.

Doesn’t convene communally.

Doesn’t celebrate congenially.

Doesn’t wrest from himself

a choral voice (“Someone I’ve Been Watching for a While,” E 417).

←116 | 117→

From a range of possible situations, we may choose the right one: “Little girls – …/in the middle of dinner/in the middle of a book,/while studying the mirror/may suddenly be taken off to Troy” (“A Moment in Troy,” S 63). The repertory of appearances and behaviors here is similar yet much richer, which constructs the diverse paradoxical description of the contemporary woman: “Her eyes are, as required, deep blue, gray,/dark, merry, full of pointless tears./She sleeps with him as if she’s first in line or the only one on earth./Shall bear him four children, no children, one” (“Portrait of a Woman,” LN 218). The antitheses make up a surprisingly cohesive image through inconsistency, but also through a set of possibilities that we may observe and take something for ourselves.159 Similarly, Szymborska step-by-step eliminates stereotypes about a famous dancer are, which she expresses in a gracefully affectionate and old-fashioned style, tailored to the theme: “Not the drifting cloud, the wafting zephyr, the bacchante,/moonlit waters, waves swaying, breezes sighing?” (“Frozen Motion,” CH 184). However, the shared semantic field emerges from nonsynonymical links, because Szymborska seeks subtle differentiation in this museum of impressions.

Systems of assertions and catalogs of preferences mix major and minor matters like in the poem “Possibilities,” which shows their close link to how Szymborska thinks about the world. In an innumerable wealth of choices, one would like to discover an order, although few facts from life experience offer such possibility160 and, on the other hand, not relinquish the creative confusion, far better than imposed artificial (literary and social) forms. Szymborska appreciates the unpredictability of events. In her last, elegiac period, her inventory poetics grows stronger. Suffice to consider the works “Sky,” “Reality Demands,” “The Real World,” “Maybe All This,” “One Version of Events,” “The Ball,” and “Moment.”

Szymborska’s accomplishes her revision of language – the habits of social communication and the rules of literary work – by intensifying the influence of one property of speech over a repertoire of possible forms. Repetitions and enumerations gather in a relatively narrow area of figures and tropes. They could even appear monotonous, but not in Szymborska’s poetry. Rhythms, schemes, and combinations of repetitions are so differentiated in this poetry that they create a series of variations, which reveals a surprising number of solutions. The rhetoric of repetitions expresses the inimitable.

←117 | 118→←118 | 119→

79 Cf. J. Poradecki, “Spójrzcie na siebie. Humanistyczny relatywizm Wisławy Szymborskiej,” in: Prorocy i sztukmistrze. Eseje o polskiej poezji XX wieku, Warszawa-Łódź 1999, pp. 242–243.

80 Cf. T. Nyczek, 22 x Szymborska, Poznań 1997, pp. 32–33.

81 A. Wat, “*** Więc świat wasz znów jest czysty,” in: Poezje zebrane, Kraków 1992, p. 224.

82 T. Różewicz, Poezje zebrane, Wrocław 1976.

83 J. Kott, Szekspir współczesny, Warszawa 1965, p. 73.

84 E. Hirsch, “A Poetry That Matters,” New York Times Magazine, December 1, 1996, p. 50.

85 J. Brzozowski, “Poetycki sen o dojrzałości. O “Dwóch małpach Bruegla,”” in: O wierszach Wisławy Szymborskiej. Szkice i interpretacje, ed. J. Brzozowski, Łódź 1996, pp. 9–11.

86 T. Burek, “Zapomniana literatura polskiego Października,” in: Żadnych marzeń, Londyn 1987, p. 60.

87 G. Bauer, Radość pytania. Wiersze Wisławy Szymborskiej, transl. Ł. Musiał, Kraków 2004, p. 59.

88 A. Sandauer, “Na przykład Szymborska,” in: Liryka i logika. Wybór pism krytycznych, Warszawa 1971, p. 410.

89 W. Szymborska, “Jak to pisał Norwid?,” in: Debiuty poetyckie 1944–1960. Wiersze autointerpretacje opinie krytyczne, ed. J. Kajtoch, J. Skórnicki, Warszawa 1972, p. 237.

90 See G. Borkowska, “Szymborska eks-centryczna,” Teksty Drugie 4/1991, pp. 53–54.

91 M. Janion, “Forma i śmierć. Mówienie o tym,” in: “Czy będziesz wiedział, co przeżyłeś”, Warszawa 1996, p. 65.

92 M. Stala, “Kot i puste mieszkanie. O jednym wierszu Wisławy Szymborskiej,” in: Druga strona. Notatki o poezji współczesnej, Kraków 1997, p. 57.

93 K. Burke, “Traditional Principles of Rhetoric,” in: A Rhetoric of Motives, Los Angeles 1969, p. 67.

94 S. Barańczak, “Posążek z soli,” in: Etyka i poetyka. Szkice 1970–1978, Paryż 1979, p. 133.

95 Cf. S. Balbus, “Wszelki wypadek,” in: Radość czytania Szymborskiej, eds. S. Balbus, D. Wojda, Kraków 1996, pp. 345–346.

96 I. Dąmbska, “Niektóre pojęcia gramatyki w świecie logiki,” in: Szkice filozoficzne. Romanowi Ingardenowi w darze, Warszawa-Kraków 1964, p. 236.

97 See T. Kłak, “Pośród świata,” Kamena 20/1972. Also see J. Pieszczachowicz, “Póki żyję, nic mnie nie usprawiedliwia…,” Twórczość 12/1972, pp. 90–91.

98 S. Barańczak, “The Szymborska Phenomenon,” Salmagundi 103/1994, p. 261.

99 See C. Miłosz, “Poezja jako świadomość,” Teksty Drugie 4/1991, p. 6.

100 See R. Jakobson, Selected Writings, Vol. 3 “Poetry of Grammar and Grammar of Poetry,” New York 1981, pp. 87–97.

101 Z. Herbert, “Próba opisu,” in: Studium przedmiotu, Wrocław 1997, p. 53.

102 U. Kozioł, “W samo lato,” in: Wybór wierszy, Warszawa 1976, p. 64.

103 Among others, Balbus, “Światy możliwe,” in: Radość czytania Szymborskiej; D. Wojda, “Przemilczenie a strategie negatywne,” in: Milczenie słowa. O poezji Wisławy Szymborskiej, Kraków 1996; P. Michałowski, “Wisławy Szymborskiej poetyka zaprzeczeń,” Pamiętnik Literacki 2/1996.

104 Sandauer, “Na przykład Szymborska,” p. 416.

105 J. Kwiatkowski, “Świat wśród nie-światów,” in: Remont pegazów, Warszawa 1969, p. 100.

106 R. Matuszewski, “O wierszach Wisławy Szymborskiej,” in: Z bliska. Szkice literackie, Kraków 1981, pp. 236 ff.

107 M. Głowiński, “Leśmian: poezja przeczenia,” in: Zaświat przedstawiony. Szkice o poezji Bolesława Leśmiana, Warszawa 1981, p. 153.

108 For more, see the interpretation of “Psalm” in M. Głowiński, “Przestrzenne tematy i wariacje,” in: Przestrzeń i literatura, eds. M. Głowiński, A. Okopień-Sławińska, Wrocław 1978, pp. 92–95.

109 Cf. P. Kuncewicz, “Chytrość rozumu (O poezji Wisławy Szymborskiej),” in: Cień ręki. Szkice o poezji, Łódź 1977, pp. 188–189.

110 W. Stróżewski, “Z problematyki negacji,” in: Szkice filozoficzne. Romanowi Ingardenowi w darze, Warszawa 1964, p. 97.

111 M. Heidegger, Czym jest metafizyka?, przeł. K. Pomian, w: M. Heidegger, Budować Mieszkać Myśleć. Eseje wybrane, wstęp i oprac. K. Michalski, Warszawa 1977, s. 39; 46.

112 J. Kwiatkowski, “Jeden wiersz Szymborskiej,” in: Notatki o poezji i krytyce, Kraków 1975, pp. 87–88.

113 Cf. T. Nyczek, 22 x Szymborska, Poznań 1997, pp. 84–85.

114 C. Miłosz, Wiersze, Kraków 1984, Vol. II, p. 214 (poem from 1969, published in the book Gdzie wschodzi słońce i kędy zapada, Paryż 1974; From the Rising of the Sun).

115 Cf. A. van Nieukerken, “Wisława Szymborska i cudowność odczarowanego świata,” in: Ironiczny konceptyzm. Nowoczesna polska poezja metafizyczna w kontekście anglosaskiego modernizmu, Kraków 1998, pp. 363–364.

116 J. Jarzębski, “Kilka zdań o wstydzie istnienia,” Teksty Drugie 10/1991, p. 2 (emphasis by the author).

117 K. Mętrak, “Wybieram odrzucając…”, Kultura 19/1977.

118 P. Michałowski, “Wisławy Szymborskiej poetyka zaprzeczeń,” p. 126.

119 See W. Stróżewski, Istnienie i wartość, Kraków 1981, p. 286.

120 W. Szymborska, “Nobel Lecture,” (15.02.2019).

121 See the percentage calculation by P. Michałowski in his “Wisławy Szymborskiej poetyka zaprzeczeń,” p. 125, where he applies the notion of “the escalation of negations.”

122 L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus logico-philosophicus, transl. C. K. Ogden, 2.06.

123 J. Kwiatkowski uses the notion of “the possible reality of uncertainty,” in his “Przedmowa” in: W. Szymborska, Poezje, Warszawa 1977, p. 13. Critics apply Heisenberg’s terminology when considering later poems from the volume Could Have. See P. Łaguna, “Pytania zadawane światu,” Magazyn Kulturalny 3/1972, p. 33; M. Hendrykowski, “Nowy tomik Szymborskiej,” Nurt 3/1973, p. 61.

124 See J. Bożyk, “Stereotyp czy ideał? Wokół interpretacji “Portretu kobiecego,”” in: O wierszach Wisławy Szymborskiej. Szkice i interpretacje, ed. J. Brzozowski, Łódź 1996, p. 85.

125 B. Eichenbaum, “Anna Achmatowa (próba analizy),” in: Szkice o prozie i poezji, transl. L. Pszczołowska, R. Zimand, Warszawa 1973, pp. 202–203.

126 Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 4.462, 4.66, 5.143.

127 A. Zagajewski, “The Poetry of Freedom” [review of A Large Number by Wisława Szymborska], Agni 52/2000, p. 294.

128 See W. Tatarkiewicz, “Paradoksy doskonałości,” in: O doskonałości, Warszawa 1976, pp. 16–21.

129 See S. Balbus, Świat ze wszystkich stron świata. O Wisławie Szymborskiej, Kraków 1996, p. 163 ff.

130 Cf. D. Wojda, Milczenie słowa w poezji Szymborskiej, Kraków 1996, pp. 96–97.

131 J. Sławiński, “Semantyka poetycka Leśmiana,” in: Studia o Leśmianie, eds. M. Głowiński, J. Sławiński, Warszawa 1971, p. 107.

132 See I. Smolka, “Byt ma swoją rację,” in: Dziewięć światów. Współczesne poetki polskie, Warszawa 1997, pp. 107–108.

133 M. Baranowska, “Jawa nie pierzcha,” in: Tak lekko było nic o tym nie wiedziećSzymborska i świat, Wrocław 1996, p. 108.

134 Z. Herbert, The Collected Poems: 1956–1998, New York 2014, p. 72.

135 L. Neuger, “Biedna Uppsala z odrobiną katedry,” in: Radość czytania Szymborskiej. Wybór tekstów krytycznych, eds. S. Balbus, D. Wojda, Kraków 1996, p. 131.

136 S. Wyspiański, Wyzwolenie, ed. A. Łempicka, Wrocław 1970, p. 196.

137 Wojda, Milczenie słowa, p. 103.

138 T. Hołówka, “Co kryje się w przysłowiach,” in: Myślenie potoczne. Heterogeniczność zdrowego rozsądku, Warszawa 1986, pp. 125–135.

139 See A. J. Gremais, “Przysłowia i porzekadła,” transl. J. Arnold. Pamiętnik Literacki 4/1978, pp. 309, 313.

140 See T. Skubalanka, “Styl poetycki Wisławy Szymborskiej,” in: Herbert, Szymborska, Różewicz. Studia stylistyczne, Lublin, pp. 85–86.

141 Cf. M. Baranowska, “Fragment Cesarza od pięt po kolana,” Na Głos 12/1993, pp. 75–76; and her “Pocztówka siostra liryki,” in: Tak lekko było nic o tym nie wiedzieć…, pp. 71–74.

142 See D. Wojda, Milczenie słowa, p. 77 ff.

143 W. Szymborska, “Przyczynek do statystyki,” Twórczość 10/1996, p. 4. Szymborska removed this fragment in the volume Moment (2002).

144 The quote also appears in Szymborska’s authorial introduction to her collection of poetry, see “Od autorki,” in: Poezje wybrane, Warszawa 1967, pp. 5–6.

145 See W. Mackiewicz, Człowiek miarą wszechrzeczy. Słynne sentencje filozofów, Warszawa 1987, pp. 237–241.

146 See Barańczak, “Posążek z soli,” p. 115.

147 U. Kozioł, “Wisełka,” Odra 11/1996, p. 3.

148 J. Przyboś, “Poezja Szymborskiej,” Nowe Książki 5/1968, p. . 319.

149 M. Głowiński, “Jest wielkim poetą,” Arkusz 5/1995; and his “Opinia o twórczości Pani Wisławy Szymborskiej,” in: Poznańskie Studia Polonistyczne. Wokół Szymborskiej, Poznań 1996, p. 14.

150 J. Prokop, “Wisława Szymborska: “Odkrycie,”” in: Liryka polska. Interpretacje, eds. J. Prokop, J. Sławiński, Kraków 1971, p. 462.

151 van Nieukerken, “Wisława Szymborska,” p. 391.

152 T. Sułkowski, Tarcza. Wiersze i poematy, ed. M. Sprusiński, Warszawa 1980, p. 79.

153 J. Kwiatkowski calls this rule “the device of <delete as appropriate>,” in his article: “Arcydziełka Szymborskiej,” p. 120–121.

154 A. Wiatr writes more about objects in Szymborska’s poetry in the book Syzyf poezji w piekle współczesności. Rzecz o Wisławie Szymborskiej, Warszawa 1996, pp. 123–124; 142–143.

155 W. Szymborska, Rymowanki dla dużych dzieci z wyklejankami autorki, Kraków 2003, p. 37.

156 For more, see I. Smolka, “Byt ma swoją rację,” pp. 102–103.

157 E. Balcerzan calls this “educational rhetorics” and “explicatory rhetorics” in his article “W szkole życia,” in his book Śmiech pokoleń – płacz pokoleń, Kraków 1997, pp. 113, 118.

158 E. Balcerzan, W szkole świata. O poezji Wisławy Szymborskiej…, p. 106.

159 J. Kwiatkowski calls this rule of enumeration “the devices of “delete where inapplicable”” in his article “Arcydziełka Szymborskiej,” in: Radość czytania Szymborskiej, pp. 120–121.

160 Cf. M. Stala, “Wolę możliwości. Trzeci raz o jednym wierszu Wisławy Szymborskiej,” in: Druga strona, pp. 66–69.