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Wislawa Szymborska: Poems New and Collected

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jun 20, 2012
Category: Poetry

It sounds like a Polish joke: Did you hear about the Polish poet who won the Nobel prize?

There are certainly some nearly comical responses.
 
In 1996, Wislawa Szymborska (l923-2012) won the most money in the history of Nobel awards and the most money ever won by a poet: $1.2 million. You or I might have upgraded our real estate. She stayed in her small apartment — a fifth-floor walk-up.
 
Her output was small, just 350 poems. Why so few? "I have a trash can in my home.”
 
This is how she began her Nobel acceptance speech: "They say that the first sentence of any speech is always the hardest. Well, that one’s behind me."
 
Wislawa Szymborska’s favorite phrase was “I don’t know.” This was not conversational. It was the entire matter. Her take on history was harsh, as you might expect from someone who was born in Poland and had to endure the Nazis ("Old age was the privilege of rocks and trees”) and the Communists (“At the very beginning of my creative life I loved humanity. I wanted to do something good for mankind. Soon I understood that it isn’t possible to save mankind”).
 
And her poems? They’re direct, conversational. You could say: easy to read. Until you walk away from them. [To buy the paperback of her Collected Poems from Amazon, click here.]
 
An early poem, “Classifieds,” is a collection of advertisements never placed in newspapers. A few are light:
 
I RESTORE lost love.
Act now! Special offer!
You lie on last year’s grass
bathed in sunlight to the chin
while winds of summers past
caress your hair and seem
to lead you in a dance.
For further details, write: "Dream."
 
But then:
 
WANTED: someone to mourn
the elderly who die
alone in old folks’ homes.
Applicants, don’t send forms
or birth certificates.
All papers will be torn,
no receipts will be issued
at this or later dates.
 
She likes to imagine life from other angles, as in “The Railroad Station,” which begins:
 
My nonarrival in the city of N.
took place on the dot. 
 
You’d been alerted
in my unmailed letter. 
 
You were able not to be there
at the agreed-upon time. 
 
The train pulled up at platform 3.
A lot of people got out. 
 
My absence joined the throng
as it made its way toward the exit. 
 
Several women rushed
to take my place
in all that rush.
 
It follows that history cannot be trusted:
 
Those who knew
what this was all about
must make way for those
who know little.
And less than that.
 
Some are like short stories. A terrorist has planted a bomb in a bar. There are 13 seconds before it explodes. From across the street, he watches people walk in and out.
 
A poem about a funeral is all direct quotes: what people say. You wait for a comment about the deceased. And wait….
 
A cat. In an apartment. Alone — its owner has died.
 
And one, “A Contribution to Statistics,” in its entirely, because it was the one that seduced me.
 
Out of a hundred people
 
Those who always know better:
fifty-two.
 
doubting every step
— nearly all the rest.
 
Ready to help,
as long as it doesn’t take long:
forty-nine.
 
Always good,
because they cannot be otherwise:
— four, well, maybe five.
 
Able to admire without envy:
— eighteen.
 
Led to error
by youth (which passes):
— sixty, plus or minus.
 
Those not to be taken lightly
— forty and four.
 
Living in constant fear
of someone or something:
— seventy-seven.
 
Capable of happiness:
— twenty-something tops.
 
Harmless alone,
 savage in crowds:
— half, at least.
 
Cruel
when forced by circumstances:
— better not to know
even ballpark figures.
 
Wise after the fact
— just a couple more
than wise before it.
 
Getting nothing out of life but things:
— thirty
(I wish I were wrong).
 
Doubled over in pain,
without a flashlight in the dark:
— eighty-three, sooner or later.
 
Righteous
— thirty-five, which is a lot.
 
Worthy of compassion
— ninety-nine.
 
Mortal
— a hundred out of one hundred.
Thus far this figure still remains unchanged.
 
And, finally, this:
 

Yes, that’s what the Nobel for poetry looks like.
  
(Many thanks to Jo McGowan Chopra)