Wislawa Szymborska

04/02/2012 § Leave a comment

Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska died last Thursday aged 88 (Guardian obituary). I came across her poetry first in Daniel Weissbort’s anthology The poetry of survival and loved it for her matter-of-fact, rather serious, but conversational voice. Her writing is like overhearing the private conversation of a teacher you’ve always admired.

You can read her speech on receiving the Nobel prize here:

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. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself “I don’t know,” the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriotMarie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself “I don’t know”, she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and would have ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying “I don’t know,” and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize.

Poets, if they’re genuine, must also keep repeating “I don’t know.” Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement, but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift that’s absolutely inadequate to boot. So the poets keep on trying, and sooner or later the consecutive results of their self-dissatisfaction are clipped together with a giant paperclip by literary historians and called their “oeuvre” …

She carries on with the theme of ‘not knowing’ in this Guardian interview from 2000, found via the roundup of tributes to her on the Poetry Foundation blog. Also on the Poetry foundation blog, an old post translating Szymborska’s advice to would-be poets in a Polish literary journal:

To Marek, also of Warsaw: “We have a principle that all poems about spring are automatically disqualified. This topic no longer exists in poetry. It continues to thrive in life itself, of course. But these are two separate matters.” 

To Ula from Sopot: “A definition of poetry in one sentence—well. We know at least five hundred definitions, but none of them strikes us as both precise and capacious enough. Each expresses the taste of its own age. Inborn skepticism keeps us from trying our hand at our own. But we remember Carl Sandburg’s lovely aphorism: ‘Poetry is a diary kept by a sea creature who lives on land and wishes he could fly.’ Maybe he’ll actually make it one of these days?” 

I posted her poem In praise of my sister on my old blog; tomorrow I will post another favourite poem, Monologue for Cassandra.


 

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