Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Wislawa Szymborska, curious about everything

We are all wise, of course, but it takes considerable work to give voice to wisdom into a form free of condescension, disarming resistance through wit and perhaps warmth. Do such voices often seek to express themselves in verse? Perhaps not. As a rule poets tend, no doubt for reasons beyond their control, to encourage calumnies such as that perpetrated by the young Mark Twain, who, writing that a fire had destroyed his home, his happiness, his constitution, and his trunk, remarked that the loss of his happiness fazed him very little, "because, not being a poet, it could not be possible that melancholy would abide with me long".

Certainly it could not be said that melancholy is missing from the work of the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska. The great devastations of war and politics in the twentieth century affected Poland more than most countries; "hatred, in our century./How lithely she takes high hurdles./How easy for her to pounce, to seize" writes Szymborska in one poem. But even so Szymborska remains, even at her advanced age, the most witty, spry and searching of contemporary poets. If there is a strong line of irony running through her poems, it is more warming than brooding. Her work is so accessible as to be almost conversational, yet there is a curiosity and metaphysical intelligence that informs even her simplest lines, and at the same time a happy engagement with the surface textures of ordinary existence and what lies just beneath them, binding day to day and life to life.

Here, for instance, is her delightful poem "Funeral", in a translation by Joanna Maria Trzeciak. It is a poem that has possibly as many speakers as it has lines:

"so suddenly, who would've expected it"
"stress and cigarettes, I told him"
"not bad, thank you"
"unwrap these flowers"
"his brother's heart did him in too, must run in the family"
"I wouldn't have recognized you with that beard"
"it's his own fault, he was always getting himself into something"
"that new guy was supposed to speak. I don't see him anywhere"
"Kazek is in Warsaw, Tadek went abroad"
"you were the only one with enough sense to bring an umbrella"
"so what that he was the most talented of them all"
"it's a walk-through room, Baska won't go for it"
"sure he was right, but that still isn't really the reason"
"and a paint job on both doors, guess how much"
"two egg yolks, one tablespoon sugars"
"it was none of his business, why did he mess with it"
"only in blue, and in small sizes"
"five times with no answer"
"all right, I could have done it, but so could you have"
"good thing she had that part-time job"
"I don't know, maybe the relatives"
"the priest is a veritable Belmondo"
"I've never been to this part of the cemetery"
"I dreamed about him last week, something struck me"
"the daughter's not bad-looking"
"it happens to all of us"
"give my best to the widow, I have to make it to"
"it sounded much more solemn in Latin"
"it came and went"
"good-bye Ma'am"
"let's go grab a beer somewhere"
"call me, we'll talk"
"either No. 4 or 12"
"I'm going this way"
"we're not"
The mood of mourning, the freshened awareness of mortality, the words of commiseration expected in a funeral are there, but they are mixed in with trivial scraps of conversation. Even so sombre an occasion returns inevitably to the human mean; life goes on.

In "The Poet and the World", her Nobel Prize lecture of 1996. Szymborska says of the people she admires most:

inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It's made up of all those who've consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners - and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it's born from a continuous "I don't know."
This sentiment undergirds one of her best poems, titled, with her characteristic reticence, "A Few Words on the Soul". The translation is by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh.

A Few Words on the Soul

We have a soul at times.
No one's got it non-stop,
for keeps.

Day after day,
year after year
may pass without it.

it will settle for awhile
only in childhood's fears and raptures
Sometimes only in astonishment
that we are old.

It rarely lends a hand
in uphill tasks,
like moving furniture,
or lifting luggage,
or going miles in shoes that pinch.

It usually steps out
whenever meat needs chopping
or forms have to be filled.

For every thousand conversations
it participates in one,
if even that,
since it prefers silence.

Just when our body goes from ache to pain,
it slips off-duty.

It's picky,
it doesn't like seeing us in crowds.
our hustling for a dubious advantage
and creaky machinations make it sick.

Joy and sorrow
aren't two different feelings for it.
It attends us
only when the two are joined.

We can count on it
when we're sure of nothing
and curious about everything.

Among the material objects
it favors clocks with pendulums
and mirrors, which keep on working
even when non one is looking.

It won't say where it comes from
or when it's taking off again,
though it's clearly expecting such questions.

We need it
but apparently
it needs us
for some reason too.
What is so charming about this poem is the way the soul is imagined as a kind of dandy whimsical companion, always disappearing whenever something dull or routine is going on, and positively unhelpful whenever hard labour must be done. We are clearly elevated by it, yet strangely "it needs us/ for some reason too". The form of the poem and the details it picks on ("mirrors, which keep on working/even when no one is looking" - yes, that would impress the soul) is quite beautiful. We end up thinking that yes, we should be more hospitable to our souls.

Szymborska radiates the same charm and good humour in her exceptionally agile prose, of which she has written a good amount (for decades she wrote a newspaper column called "Nonrequired reading", the pieces from which are collected in a book by the same name). Here, for instance, are some highly entertaining excerpts from her columns for the newspaper Literary Life, in which she gives advice to novice poets. Although she is never condescending, she can be quite firm, and although there are no deliberate jokes here, lots of the answers are really quite funny, not to say insightful:

To Mr. K.K. from Bytom: "You treat free verse as a free-for-all. But poetry (whatever we may say) is, was, and will always be a game. And as every child knows, all games have rules. So why do the grown-ups forget?"

To Marek, 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 Mr. Pal-Zet of Skarysko-Kam: "The poems you’ve sent suggest that you’ve failed to perceive a key difference between poetry and prose. For example, the poem entitled ‘Here’ is merely a modest prose description of a room and the furniture it holds. In prose such descriptions perform a specific function: they set the stage for the action to come. In a moment the doors will open, someone will enter, and something will take place. In poetry the description itself must ‘take place.’ Everything becomes significant, meaningful: the choice of images, their placement, the shape they take in words. The description of an ordinary room must become before our eyes the discovery of that room, and the emotion contained by that description must be shared by the readers. Otherwise, prose will stay prose, no matter how hard you work to break your sentences into lines of verse. And what’s worse, nothing happens afterwards."
The whole piece, "How To (and How Not To) Write Poetry", is here.

Here are some other beautiful Szymborska poems: "Consolation", in which she imagines what Charles Darwin must have liked to read ("Darwin./They say he read novels to relax,/But only certain kinds:/nothing that ended unhappily."), "A Cat In An Empty Apartment", and "The Three Oddest Words".

And some other posts on poets: "The sweet voice and harsh words of Osip Mandelstam", "Nazim Hikmet in prison", "The despair of Attila Jozsef", "Constantine Cavafy's City", "Antonio Machado's Eyes", "Dunya Mikhail's war against war", "Chess with Jorge Luis Borges", "Orhan Veli Kanik all of a sudden", and "Tigers in the poetry of William Blake and Salabega".


Anonymous said...

this is the kind of topic that drew me to middle stage initially. you need to do more of these people-hikmet, szymborska, borges, cavafy and the rest on your links. this is the kind of vintage middle stage work that remains true to what it intended to do at the first place.

Chandrahas said...

Anonymous - I'm glad to know that you were once drawn to the Middle Stage, and that after a long hiatus you have come back again.

Unfortunately my own estimate of my talents tells me that I'm more competent writing about prose than poetry. And as I'm a prose writer myself, and don't really read poetry with what one might call a practitioner's sensibility and curiosity, that bias will and probably should remain.

That said, I agree that in the last few months I've been too preoccupied with current books, and perhaps too much non-fiction over fiction. There again, these problems attend the task of being a weekly reviewer, which I was not when I began work on this weblog.

But, as John Smith once said, everybody goes through phases, and nothing lasts forever. So I feel hopeful that there will be a better balance of current and classic books in the months to come.

But thanks very much for your carefully considered comment, which I take as a reprimand but also a compliment folded into one. Appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

thanks hash. its me. its less to do with poetry as much to do with classics. you have an edge on classics and that is clear. let everyone else deal with everything else. not too many people can deal with the themes of classics, simply because not too many people can pause at the inflection, at the delicate turn, at the genius of a line. it has to come from love of discipline.

well, you have been complimented enough, and if you still take it as a reprimand, i would take it as a reprimand of my ability to praise.

take care and all the best. we understand concerns of bread and butter, dal roti and the price one has to pay for them. you have done admirably and continue with the good work, a lion's share of which includes the classics, especially from what has come to be known as world literature, where all the happening things are happening.

Chandrahas said...

Anonymous - I now see what you were trying to say. Thank you also for your very kind words.

In fact I myself get the greatest pleasure of all out of reading classic works and finding something new to say about them, or at least making a case about their abiding relevance. It's just that recently time has run forward so fast and there have been so many fronts to cover that I've fallen behind a bit here. But your point resonates strongly with me, and I'll be more mindful of it now.

Shweta said...

Just popped in to say thanks, for this very lovely post which introduced me to WS and to warn you that you have been linked to.

Chandrahas said...

Shweta - You're very welcome, and I see you've linked to one of Szymborska's best poems too. Glad to have been of use.

Anonymous said...

Just discovered this blog. I think I will return.

Thanks for a wonderful post.
I cannot resist the temptation to link to one of my favourite Szymborska poems, the one that started it all.
True Love