To readers who never think to trespass down the poetry aisle of the bookstore; to those who point to the arbitrariness and obfuscation rampant in contemporary poetry as proof that the literary emperor has no clothes (and little regard for the harried, hard-working souls who do), I happily offer two words in rebuttal: Wislawa Szymborska. The acclaimed Polish poet and Nobel Prize laureate, who died in 2012 at the age of 88, cast a careful gaze at everyday life and uncovered a quiet dignity in our ache for purpose and emotional clarity.
Now, with the publication of “Map,” which gathers work from across Szymborska’s nearly seven decades of verse, this already popular figure is sure to win over a host of new converts who will discover — as the poet certainly believed — that the longed-for sanctuary from the angst of modern life may be as close at hand as a few lines scrawled across a page.
These English versions of her poems are compellingly rendered by Clare Cavanagh and the late Stanislaw Baranczak, building on their previous award-winning translations. They are marvelously adept at capturing the playful but nuanced tone of Szymborska’s poetic voice, which somehow fuses an emotional gravity with sudden tenderness and delightful flights of the imagination. She’s become the most widely read poet of what was a renaissance in Polish poetry after World War II, but the roots of that movement can be traced back much earlier, to 1795, when the Polish state was obliterated. More than personal expression, poetry became the repository of national identity and a refuge from the suffering of a people.
Following World War I, when Poland regained its sovereignty, poetry not only maintained a central place in its literature but was regarded as a vital presence in daily life. When a nation’s social institutions, its very language, are subjugated from without, it seems the hopes and ideals of a people demand an equal intensity from its artists. It’s a lesson tyrants never seem to learn and one that poets such as Szymborska take with the utmost seriousness.
Of the four 20th-century luminaries of Polish verse — Milosz, Herbert, Rózewicz and Szymborska, she is the one whose influence is likely to be the most lasting. Her accessibility belies the achievement of a startling, deeply humane vision. Consider her poem entitled “Photograph from September 11.” The enormity of the tragedy, the utter senselessness, provoked an outpouring of elegiac verse, often straining to be commensurate with the magnitude of our grief. Szymborska’s poem, taking the opposite approach, is couched in the smallest of particularities, the most subdued of emotions:
They jumped from the burning floors –
one, two, a few more,
The photograph halted them in life,
and now keeps them
above the earth toward the earth.
Each is still complete,
with a particular face
and blood well hidden.
There’s enough time
for hair to come loose,
for keys and coins
to fall from pockets.
They’re still within air’s reach,
within the compass of places
that have just now opened.
I can do only two things for them –
describe the flight
and not add a last line.
In the strands of loose hair, the clink of coins spilling from pockets, Szymborska situates her poem “within the compass of places” that you and I inhabit everyday. And just when we might expect a poetic statement to rise to some aesthetic intensity — as if comfort could be found in a grand gesture — she is at her most stolid and self-possessed, undertaking two actions we bystanders can echo honestly: to insist on an unflinching attention and to refrain from poeticizing what’s taken place.
I can think of no other contemporary voice who so consistently intrigues poets and casual readers alike, offering surprise and delight on both a first read and repeated study. Her work seemed to give permission for a wide range of poets to take themselves a little less seriously (though never the work at hand nor their hoped-for readership). Milosz once called Szymborska’s poetry “very grim. . . . A comparison with the despairing vision of Samuel Beckett and Philip Larkin suggests itself. Yet, in contrast to them Szymborska offers a world where one can breathe.” Breathe, and wipe away tears, and gasp at how beauty is never extinguished despite the brutality that abounds — and then, perhaps calmer than before, to breathe again.
Steven Ratiner’s interview collection, “Giving Their Word: Conversations with Contemporary Poets,” has recently been reissued in paperback.
MAP: Collected and Last Poems
By Wislawa Szymborska
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 447 pp. $32