Sometimes the world goes a little more silent, and so it was yesterday when I heard of the death of Wislawa Szymborska. In her 88 years she had only published 400 poems, saying that she wrote many more, but always re-read the previous day's work the next morning: "Many," she added dryly, "don't survive." So this was a poet who was not prolific, nor had she had fallen in love with the sound of her own voice. Instead, each poem said something that mattered, and therefore the silence today is multiplied.
My own attraction to Polish poetry began perhaps fifteen years ago, or even more, after I had gone on a two-year binge of reading Russian literature, ending up with Akhmatova and Mandelstam. From there, in my search for voices of survival, hope, and sustenance among intellectuals and artists during times of war, and what I perceived as both social decay and indifference to what was really happening, I moved to the post-WWII poets of Poland. I was mainly drawn to Zbigniew Herbert, Tadeusz Rozewicz, Czeslaw Milosz, and their younger colleague Adam Zagajewski: all poets who wrote beautiful poems about the darkness and the light.
In 1996, Szymborska won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I bought her book View with a Grain of Sand, but didn't particularly like it at first. Somewhere around that time, I had a conversation about these Polish poets with my friend Kingsley, who had been a headmaster in a NYC Episcopal school and was a great reader as well as a man of strong and considered opinions ."She seems so...ironic, and almost flip," I said. "There's a sort of black humor in her work, and I guess I'm more attracted to the lyricism of the others...you know, the apricots hanging from the tree, the memories of past loves, the beauty in spite of everything that's happened." K. , who was about thirty years olderthan I was, laughed and said, "Yes, but that's exactly what I like about Szymborska. She's unflinching, she doesn't paper over anything, yet there's a humor and irony in her writing. Just wait -- I think you'll come to appreciate her more."
He was right, and it didn't take long. So much happened in the next ten years, and it changed me. After seeing death several times over, after loss and grief, after watching my country change irreparably, after leaving my home and reconsidering most of my beliefs, I found that the way I had looked at the world before no longer served: it had been well-considered theory, but not a lived reality. I had become more skeptical and less idealistic; stronger but also more cognizant of human frailty; more aware of the beauty in everyday life and the poignancy of each moment. I had found that humor was a great ally in dealing with the worst of things, and also with helping others to cope, and that the absurd is never far from the most serious human endeavor, especially in the way we seem to refuse to learn anything from our own history.
When I returned to Szymborska, it was immediately clear to me that K. had been right. I often had her poetry on my bedside table, and always found something truthful that made me nod my head with both admiration for her, and determination for the next day. But her poetry was never harsh or unfeeling; quite the contrary. She simply refused to be sentimental, and faced things as they really were. Now I think I saw in her a particular kind of strength that was female, and with which I increasingly indentified. The only words I can find to encapsulate Szymborska are "a soft toughness." You can see it in her face.
She hasn't talked a great deal about herself, but I liked this quote, from Szymborska's obituary in The Guardian:
"Everyone needs solitude, especially a person who is used to thinking about what she experiences. Solitude is very important in my work as a mode of inspiration, but isolation is not good in this respect. I am not writing poetry about isolation," she said, going on to wonder why anyone would want to interview her. "For the last few years my favourite phrase has been 'I don't know'. I've reached the age of self-knowledge, so I don't know anything. People who claim that they know something are responsible for most of the fuss in the world."
Yesterday, when I heard the news, it seemed ironic and coincidental that I had just taken down her book and quoted from it here two days before. But then again, perhaps it wasn't so odd, because, as I said, I re-read her poems often. It was Szymborska who I had planned to pick for Marly Youmans' "Lydian Stones" project - a choice that would probably seem too obvious now. But at the time, looking at the jacket photograph with her ever-present cigarette, I had wondered how she was doing, with no idea she was in the process of leaving the world.
Last night I read Szymborska again, trying to identify a favorite poem to copy here. There are too many, so it was impossible, but I'll settle on this one which is about a journey, and embodies the qualities I've tried to describe.
INTO THE ARK
An endless rain is just beginning.
Into the ark, for where else can you go:
you poems for a single voice,
short-range sorrows and fears,
eagerness to see things from all sides.
Rivers are swelling and bursting their banks.
Into the ark: all you chiaroscuros and halftones,
you details, ornaments, and whims,
countless shades of the color gray,
play for play's sake,
and tears of mirth.
As far as the eye can see, there's water
and a hazy horizon.
Into the ark: plans for the distant future,
joy in difference,
admiration for the better man,
choice not narrowed down to one of two,
time to think it over,
and the belief that all of this
will still come in handy some day.
For the sake of the children
that we still are,
fairy tales have happy endings.
That's the only finale that will do here, too.
The rain will stop,
the waves will subside,
the clouds will part
in the cleared-up sky,
and they'll be once more
what clouds overhead ought to be:
lofty and rather lighthearted
in their likeness to things
drying in the sun —
isles of bliss,