Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Wisława Szymborska Died Today

Wisława Szymborska died today in Poland.  There was nothing about it in the New York Times, but there probably will be.  She was a great poet and won the Nobel Prize in Poetry back in 1996. 

She is one of my favorite poets.  She has the kind of strength in the face of real trouble that I admire and wish I had.  She survived the Nazis and the Communists and lived to talk about it with clarity, honesty, humor, and charm.  

Here are two of her poems:.  "On Death, Without Exaggeration" and "The End and the Beginning" (my favorite):

On Death, without Exaggeration 

It can't take a joke,
find a star, make a bridge.
It knows nothing about weaving, mining, farming,
building ships, or baking cakes.

In our planning for tomorrow,
it has the final word,
which is always beside the point.

It can't even get the things done
that are part of its trade:
dig a grave,
make a coffin,
clean up after itself.

Preoccupied with killing,
it does the job awkwardly,
without system or skill.
As though each of us were its first kill.

Oh, it has its triumphs,
but look at its countless defeats,
missed blows,
and repeat attempts!

Sometimes it isn't strong enough
to swat a fly from the air.
Many are the caterpillars
that have outcrawled it.

All those bulbs, pods,
tentacles, fins, tracheae,
nuptial plumage, and winter fur
show that it has fallen behind
with its halfhearted work.

Ill will won't help
and even our lending a hand with wars and coups d'etat
is so far not enough.

Hearts beat inside eggs.
Babies' skeletons grow.
Seeds, hard at work, sprout their first tiny pair of leaves
and sometimes even tall trees fall away.

Whoever claims that it's omnipotent
is himself living proof
that it's not.

There's no life
that couldn't be immortal
if only for a moment.

always arrives by that very moment too late.

In vain it tugs at the knob
of the invisible door.
As far as you've come
can't be undone.

The End and the Beginning

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won't
straighten themselves up, after all.

Someone has to push the rubble
to the sides of the road,
so the corpse-laden wagons
can pass.

Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
sofa springs,
splintered glass,
and bloody rags.

Someone must drag in a girder
to prop up a wall.
Someone must glaze a window,
rehang a door.

Photogenic it's not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.

Again we'll need bridges
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.

Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls how it was.
Someone listens
and nods with unsevered head.
Yet others milling about
already find it dull.

From behind the bush
sometimes someone still unearths
rust-eaten arguments
and carries them to the garbage pile.

Those who knew
what was going on here
must give way to
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.

In the grass which has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out,
blade of grass in his mouth,
gazing at the clouds.


Here's a link to the InfoPoland site at SUNY-Bufallo where you can find dozens of poems by Szymborska in English translation along with interviews.  Just click here.


Danuta Hinc said...

Thank you for this post.
I am sorry for all of us -- there will be no more new poems by this great poet.
Although, she will be alive in our hearts forever.

Sidney Grayling said...

Thank you for the notice. She will be missed. She was a great one. I shall put a tribute to her on Onager Editions.
Steve Poleskie

Linda Nemec Foster said...


Although my heart is heavy with this sad news, I am heartened by the fact that I heard it first from you--a good friend and superb poet--and not from some anonymous journalist or news outlet. I do hope that the NYT gives Szymborska a fitting tribute--one that reflects her extraordinary gifts as poet and literary artist. She truly was (and still is) one of the greats.
Linda Nemec Foster

Miguel said...

I mourn her loss deeply. I read Poems: New and Collected back in 2010 and immediately she became one of my favourite poets. I'll miss her gentle sense of humor immensely.

Urkat said...


John Guzlowski said...

Poet Marian Shapiro sent me a copy of her favorite Szymborska poem:

Could Have

It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Nearer. Farther off.
It happened, but not to you.
You were saved because you were the first.
You were saved because you were the last.
Alone. With others.
On the right. The left.
Because it was raining. Because of the shade.
Because the day was sunny.
You were in luck -- there was a forest.
You were in luck -- there were no trees.
You were in luck -- a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake,
A jamb, a turn, a quarter-inch, an instant . . .
So you're here? Still dizzy from
another dodge, close shave, reprieve?
One hole in the net and you slipped through?
I couldn't be more shocked or
how your heart pounds inside me.

John Guzlowski said...

Linda, The New York Times did post a piece on Wislawa late yesterday afternoon.

John Guzlowski said...

Poet Martin Stepek wrote the following tribute poem:

Goodbye lady

I can’t pretend to know your life
What you saw
What you did not want to see


I don’t think we’ll ever know
What you felt
What you were unable to feel

Goodbye writer of atoms of life

I can’t imagine being you
What you cried over
What you dared not cry about

(on hearing of the death of Wislawa Szymborska)

Gloria Mindock said...

This is so sad. Wislawa Szmborska was an amazing poet. Her poems will live on forever. I am going to see if I can track down the article that was in the NYT yesterday. I missed it. I loved the poems you posted of hers John. I will share this news with some of my writer friends who don't know this news yet. I know they will feel very sad too. I will also post something about this in my Cervena Barva Press Newsletter.