Thursday, 30 August 2012

A Wislawa Szymborska Poemarium

The word doesn’t exist, I know, but it really should. Poemarium, I mean. Such a beautiful and useful word, similar to the Portuguese poemário, a collection of poems. (1) The most useful words are never available in a language. Maybe that’s what a language is, all the wrong words people need in their lives. But I digress.

Wislawa Szymborska, a Polish poet, passed away last February. Writing about poetry is difficult, which is why I avoid it so much. Szymborska’s also a poet writing in Polish and being read by a Portuguese reader in English, in Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baránczak’s translations, which makes it impossible for me to truly appreciate her poetic language. Although I can’t judge the translations against the original Polish, they have given me a lot of pleasure, moved me, and made me think, which is what I only ask from literature.

I had the good fortune of discovering her poetry some time before her death. I can’t explain why, but for me there’s always a different, more intimate, relationship between reader and author when we still read them in life, a feeling, egocentric perhaps, that we are closer, sharing the same time. I first read her poems when, after living on a diet of novels for years, I felt an inexplicable urge to read poetry; it was the time when I first read Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, Carlos Drummond, Harry Martinson, George Seferis, Jaroslav Seifert, Paul Valéry, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Mário Cesariny, Adam Zagajewski, Zbigniew Herbert, Octavio Paz, and of all those poets Wislawa Szymborska was the one I liked the most. And yet at a first glance there’s nothing remarkable about her poetry. Borges talks somewhere of intellectual poets and of poets who had ordinary ideas, more images than ideas. (2) He couldn’t, however, conceive poetry without emotion. And this is what I feel with Szymborska’s poetic language, emotion in everything she writes.

I love Szymborska’s poetry for the same qualities I find in Alexandre O’Neill’s poetry: a different way of seeing ordinary things, a transformative power over reality. Truth be said, these qualities can be generally applied to most poets. But I also enjoy in her poetry the tone of friendly mockery and irony, a resigned tolerance of mankind’s stupidity, which brings her close to O’Neill. I like how, using simple words and syntax, she makes very precise and revelatory observations about things we take for granted, how she makes us see them from different angles. Her poetry is very topical, in that each poem works as a dissection of a topic, an idea, an object, a thing, a concept, in order to reveal nuances that routine looking has made us blind to. One can almost imagine her opening up an encyclopaedia and randomly picking a topic to write about. It’s a strange way of making poetry, but it worked very well for her.

I’m not here to discuss her poetry at length. This is a short collection of poems I love: some are complete, others just a stanza I loved. A poemarium for fans of her and perhaps for people who never read her before.


We’re extremely fortunate
not to know precisely
the kind of world we live in.

One would have
to live a long, long time,
unquestionably longer
than the world itself.

Get to know other worlds,
if only for comparison.

Rise above the flesh,
which only really knows
how to obstruct
and make trouble.

For the sake of research,
the big picture
and definitive conclusions,
one would have to transcend time,
in which everything scurries and whirls.

From that perspective,
one might as well bid farewell
to incidents and details.

The counting of weekdays
would inevitably seem to be
a senseless activity;

dropping letters in the mailbox
a whim of foolish youth;

the sign “No Walking on the Grass”
a symptom of lunacy.


If there are angels
I doubt they read
our novels
concerning thwarted hopes.

I’m afraid, alas,
they never touch the poems
that bear our grudges against the world.

The rantings and railings
of our plays
must drive them, I suspect,
to distraction.

Off-duty, between angelic-
i.e. inhuman—occupations,
they watch instead
our slapstick
from the age of silent film.

To our dirge wailers,
garment renders,
and teeth gnashers,
they prefer, I suppose,
that poor devil
who grabs the drowning man by his toupee
or, starving, devours his own shoelaces
with gusto.

From the waist up, starch and aspirations;
below, a startled mouse
runs down his trousers.
I’m sure
that’s what they call real entertainment.

A crazy chase in circles
ends up pursuing the pursuer.
The light at the end of the tunnel
turns out to be a tiger’s eye.
A hundred disasters
mean a hundred comic somersaults
turned over a hundred abysses.

If there are angels,
they must, I hope,
find this convincing,
this merriment dangling from terror,
not even crying Save me Save me
since all of this takes place in silence.

I can even imagine
that they clap their wings
and tears run from their eyes
from laughter, if nothing else.

There’s one called “The Real World” whose first stanza reads:

The real world doesn’t take flight
the way dreams do.
No muffled voice, no doorbell
tan dispel it,
No shriek, no crash
can cut it short.

This is the amazing first stanza of “Hatred:”

See how efficient it still is,
how it keeps itself in shape –
our century’s hatred.
How easily it vaults the tallest obstacles.
How rapidly it pounces, tracks us down.

And one of the funniest war poems I’ve ever read:


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

Someone has to shove
the rubble to the roadsides
so the carts loaded with corpses
can get by.

Someone has to trudge
through sludge and ashes,
through the sofa springs,
the shards of glass,
the bloody rags.

Someone has to lug the post
to prop the wall,
someone has to glaze the window,
set the door in its frame.

No sound bites, no photo opportunities,
and it takes years.
All the cameras have gone
to other wars.

The bridges need to be rebuilt,
the railroad stations, too.
Shirtsleeves will be rolled
to shreds.

Someone, broom in hand,
still remembers how it was.
Someone else listens, nodding
his unshattered head.

But others are bound to be bustling nearby
who'll find all that
a little boring.

From time to time someone still must
dig up a rusted argument
from underneath a bush
and haul it off to the dump.

Those who knew
what this was all about
must make way for those
who know little.
And less than that.
And at last nothing less than nothing.

Someone has to lie there
in the grass that covers up
the causes and effects
with a cornstalk in his teeth,
gawking at clouds.

And perhaps her most famous poem:


Some people—
that means not everyone.
Not even most of them, only a few.
Not counting school, where you have to,
and poets themselves,
you might end up with two per thousand.

but then, you can like chicken noodle soup,
or compliments, or the color blue,
your old scarf,
your own way,
petting the dog.

but what is poetry, anyway?
More than one rickety answer
has tumbled since that question first was raised.
But I just keep on not knowing, and I cling to that
like a redemptive handrail.

A recent new favourite, because I’ve been re-reading her poems, is “True Love,” in which she asks in the first stanza:

True love. Is it normal,
is it serious, is it practical?
What does the world get from two people
who exist in a world of their own?

Also extraordinary is the poem about the pointlessness of space exploration, “Warning,” in which she asks not to take jesters into outer space:

Fourteen lifeless planets,
A few comets, two stars.
By the time you take off for the third star,
Your jesters will be out of humor.


The buzzard never says it is to blame.
The panther wouldn't know what scruples mean.
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they'd claim their hands were clean.

A jackal doesn't understand remorse.
Lions and lice don't waver in their course.
Why should they, when they know they're right?

Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton,
in every other way they're light.

On this third planet of the sun
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is Number One.

And one poem so attuned to our dehumanized age:


What needs to be done?
Fill out the application
and enclose a résumé.

Regardless of the length of life
a résumé is best kept short.

Concise, well-chosen facts are de rigueur.
Landscapes are replaced by addresses,
shaky memories give way to unshakable dates.

Of all your loves mention only the marriage,
of all your children only those who were born.

Who knows you counts more than who you know.
Trips only if taken abroad.
Memberships in what but without why.
Honors, but not how they were earned.

Write as if you’d never talked to yourself
and always kept yourself at arm’s length.

Pass over in silence your dogs, cats, birds,
dusty keepsakes, friends, and dreams.

Price, not worth,
and title, not what’s inside.
His shoe size, not where he’s off to,
that one you pass yourself off as.
In addition, a photograph with one ear showing.
What matters is its shape, not what it hears.
What is there to hear, anyway?
The clatter of paper shredders.

Wislawa Szymborska is dead, but her poems still exist, so I encourage everyone to read them. A collection I recommend is Poems – New and Collected 1957-1997.

1. Of course now I’m not sure if it shouldn’t be poemary instead, by analogy with bestiary. Morphology is a complicated business. Poemarium seems nicer, it has a Latin tinge that adds respectability.

2. He considered, for instance, Ralph Waldo Emerson an intellectual poet and Paul Valéry a poet without great ideas, who nevertheless was a great poet too.


  1. I had never read Wislawa Szymborska until I read the poems that you posted. They are all superb. In particular "We'er Extremely Fortunate" seems to mirror thoughts and feelings that I have extremely closely. Sometimes I think that i am the only person who ponders such things. It is really nice when one finds an artist who does so also.

    1. I'm glad to have helped you discover her poetry, Brian.

  2. Thank you for sharing these beautiful poems. Szymborska, together with Paul Verlaine, Horace and Leopardi, make up the list of the greatest poets I've been lucky enough to read.
    Since you mention Borges on poets, perhaps it may be appropriate to remember his Ars Poetica:
    "Cuentan que Ulises, harto de prodigios,
    lloró de amor al divisar su Itaca
    verde y humilde. El arte es esa Itaca
    de verde eternidad, no de prodigios."
    They say that Ulysses, fed up with wonders,
    Cried out like a child upon seeing Ithaca
    Green and humble. Art is like Ithaca,
    Green and eternal and not full of wonders.

    1. Thanks for the poem. That does remind me of something I read of him today, that writing a poem that is beautiful and eternal is more important than an original poem.

    2. You're welcome Miguel. The first poem you shared, 'We're extremely fortunate' reminded me of an old Ricardo Reis' Poem -the one that mixes Pastime Paradise with Grease lyrics :) -.

      Some, with eyes fixed on the past
      see what they don't see. Others, fixed
      the same eyes on the future, see
      what cannot be seen.

      Why go so far to get what is near?
      What can we count on? This is the day,
      this is the hour, this is the moment, this
      is what we are, and that is all.

      Forever flow the endless hours
      leaving us empty. In the same breath
      that we live, we'll die. Seize
      the day, because that's it.

      Uns, com os olhos postos no passado,
      Vêem o que não vêem: outros, fitos
      Os mesmos olhos no futuro, vêem
      O que não pode ver-se.

      Por que tão longe ir pôr o que está perto —
      A segurança nossa? Este é o dia,
      Esta é a hora, este o momento, isto
      É quem somos, e é tudo.

      Perene flui a interminável hora
      Que nos confessa nulos. No mesmo hausto
      Em que vivemos, morreremos. Colhe
      O dia, porque és ele.

    3. Yes, Reis' poetry is quite amazing, even if he ripped off a lot from his mentor, Caeiro :)

      I much prefer it in Portuguese - of course - because the idea of the last verse is more poignant. The way idea that you are the day that you've seized has a subtler, more powerful meaning.

    4. Excellent point about the last verse. The sad truth is that abstract things like the day or hope are ele and ela in Portuguese but become a mere "it" in English defeated my limited powers of translation.
      How would you translate "nos confessa nulos"? I could not find a good, idiomatic match... :( "Exposes us as a nullity" sounds awful and "reveals the truth of our emptiness" is a bit too translation-y.

  3. I was thinking about

    O dia, porque és ele.

    Perhaps we could write

    it, for the day is you.

    An inversion that, I think, captures the original meaning better.

    "nos confessa nulos"? Hm, that's trickier:

    Forever flow the endless hours
    that show/prove us void.


  4. Thank you so much for your kind revisions.
    Your translation:
    "Forever flow the endless hours
    that prove us void."

    does feel more natural.
    These things are tricky to get right. Portuguese, after all, is not my first language, and neither is English.
    As for that faker (fingidor) Alberto Caeiro, did you know he was never a Shepherd? He even bragged about it:

    "Eu nunca guardei rebanhos,
    Mas é como se os guardasse.
    Minha alma é como um pastor".

  5. I bought Caeiro's complete poetry weeks ago, I'm just waiting for a quit moment to dip into it. I've read some poems, of course, and I love them.

    How did you learn Portuguese, by the way? And what is your first language?

  6. This woman won the Nobel Prize in 1996, I think.

  7. Yep, in 1996. One of the few poets I think deserved it.