Wislawa Szymborska (2 July 1923 – 1 February 2012)

The poetry of  Czelaw Milosz led me to Wislawa Szymborska.   What is it about Polish poets?  I read somewhere that given all that Poland has been through – partition, war, occupations, the Holocaust, repression – a strong desire to redefine their world permeates their poetry.

Szymborska’s poetry is accessible, deceptively simple and profound.  Her subjects are varied: cats, teacups, sleeping pills, wars, miracles.  I’ve grown to depend on her definition of things,  of life.  Milosz once described her work as a “ very grim poetry…that offers a world where one can breathe”.   Her poetry is incredibly warm for someone who has witnessed her world besieged time and again.

In 1996, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.  She ended her acceptance speech with:

The world… is astonishing.

But “astonishing” is an epithet concealing a logical trap. We’re astonished, after all, by things that deviate from some well-known and universally acknowledged norm, from an obviousness we’ve grown accustomed to. Now the point is, there is no such obvious world. Our astonishment exists per se and isn’t based on comparison with something else.

Granted, in daily speech, where we don’t stop to consider every word, we all use phrases like “the ordinary world,” “ordinary life,” “the ordinary course of events” … But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in this world.

It looks like poets will always have their work cut out for them.

This poet has done her work.  The poet is  dead.

I was a bewildered by the sense of profound loss I felt when I read that she had passed. As though I knew her, that we’d met and enjoyed a good relationship.  But that’s just how she made her readers feel.  She was most intimate and open with her vision of the world.

All that aside, Wislawa Szymborska was a fine poet. In the end, it matters only that her poetry is enjoyable and that it moves us.

May she rest in peace.

A Note

Life is the only way
to get covered in leaves,
catch your breath on sand,
rise on wings;

to be a dog,
or stroke its warm fur;

to tell pain
from everything it’s not;

to squeeze inside events,
dawdle in views,
to seek the least of all possible mistakes;

An extraordinary chance
to remember for a moment
a conversation held with the lamp switched off;

and if only once
to stumble on a stone,
end up soaked in one downpour or another,

mislay your keys in the grass;
and to follow a spark on the wind with your eyes;

and to keep on not knowing
something important

(translated by S. Baranczak and C. Cavanagh)



  1. In Praise of Self-Deprecation.

    The Buzzard has nothing to fault himself with.
    Scruples are alien to the black panther.
    Piranhas do not doubt the rightness of their actions.
    the rattlesnake approves of himself without reservation.

    The self-critical jackal does not exist.
    The locust, alligator, trichina, horsefly
    live as they live and are glad of it.

    The killer-whale’s heart weighs one hundred kilos
    but in other respects it is light.

    There is nothing more animal-like
    than a clear conscience
    on the third planet of the sun.

    Wislawa Szymborska (Trans: Magnus J. Krynski & Robert A. Maguire)

    A wonderful poet, who’ll be sorely missed.


  2. She was one of my favourite poets too. I feel in love with her poetry back in 2010 and haven’t been able to forget her. I’m very sad for her death.


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