Wislawa Symborska (1923-2012)

By Elizabeth Petersen

wisaawa-szymborska-300x196I take Szymborska’s lead when I say the hardest sentence of an elegiac blog post is the first. Well, now that one’s behind me.

In many cases, when a poet passes a small part of the world mourns. This little world of poets and poetry readers feels a tingeing of their hope, but soon a this too shall pass sigh becomes a sort of resolution, and they (we) try to carry on. Szymborska, though, feels different. After decades of remarkable work that spoke both to the social issues many poems fear to enter and the weird wonderment that many poems fail to achieve, I realize, in a childish way, that I never thought Szymborska would ever leave the world, that she was too good, too smart, for anyone to pull a fast one on her. And part of me thinks such thoughts would make her grin.

Coming from the movement of Polish postwar poets, Szymborska made a way for herself among the dark, the guilt-ridden, the exiled, and the reactionary to create poems that meant something to everyone who read them. Her poems grew to take up the whole world, and the world noticed, offering her the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996, a prize that was difficult for her to make sense of. Her translator Clare Cavanagh said in a recent interview, “Her friends called it the Nobel Tragedy…It was a few years before she wrote another poem.” Which I think just attests to what a genuine person she must have been.

From the title poem of her latest book, Here, she wrote, “I can’t speak for elsewhere, / but here on Earth we’ve got a fair supply everything.” And ain’t that the truth? Because that’s the thing with Szymborska, she says it before anybody else could—about pierogies and cultured microorganisms and the words we think we know. She was the best sort of riddler. As Charles Simic said, Szymborska was “[n]ot only one of the finest poets living today, but also one of the most readable.” Readable but layered, her images simple but expansive.

Which is why I am happy we got one last book, one last morsel to save in our cheek. Szymborska is the poet I save for bad weather—so that I can coop myself up and spend the day staring first at her words, then the ceiling, then the window.

In her book, Monologue of a Dog she has the line, “When I pronounce the word Nothing, / I make something no non-being can hold.” Give it to Szymborska to make nothing into something, literally, abstractly, literally. She inspires me to try and do the same.