The great Polish poet Wisława Szymborska died last week at the age of 88. You can learn a great deal about my own taste in poetry, and ambitions for my own work, when I mention that she was one of my favorite poets ever.

Since Szymborska dealt so profoundly with the life of ordinary things, I’ll start off by telling you how to say her name correctly. That funny symbol of the L with the line through it, which I believe may be unique to the Polish language, is pronounced like a W in English. The W in Polish, as in some other languages, is our V. So her name is pronounced vis-WA-va shim-BOR-ska.

I am not really equipped to write an analysis or appreciation of Szymborska’s poetry. That task has already been accomplished satisfactorily by Billy Collins, in his introduction to “Monologue of a Dog,” the first collection of her work published in English after she was awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature. (Her friends referred to that event as the “Nobel Tragedy” because she stopped writing for several years after the prize was awarded.) Here’s the quote that appears on the dust jacket: Szymborska knows when to be clear and when to be mysterious. She knows which cards to turn over and which ones to leave facedown. Her simple, relaxed language dares to let us know exactly what she is thinking, and because her imagination is so lively and far-reaching–acrobatic, really–we are led, almost unaware, into the intriguing and untranslatable realms that lie just beyond the boundaries of speech.”

Collins is a profound fellow, despite the conversational nature of his prose and poetry, and he has given a good definition of poetry here, at least poetry as I conceive of it: “realms that lie just beyond the boundaries of speech.” That’s why I cannot summarize one of Szymborska’s poems–not only because they are so concise, but because in their selection of images, their unconventional thoughts, and their precise expression, they are indeed beyond the boundaries of speech. That paradox–using words to express what lies beyond words–is the nature of great poetry. Szymborska travels in that land very often, and in moving and surprising ways. And although I read her only in translation, I feel that I do understand what she is getting at. The concepts come across.

Although half of “Monologue of a Dog” is wasted on us because it includes the Polish originals of the poems as well as translations, I still recommend it as an introduction to her work. If you want to see how this modest woman, working in obscurity as an editor at a Polish literary magazine, developed her unique voice, you can get either of the earlier English language collections, “Poems New and Collected” or “View with a Grain of Sand.” Both volumes include a lot more poems than “Monologue of a Dog,” and both include many examples of the work Szymborska did–including much rhyming verse–on her way to mastery. But “Monologue of a Dog” is all masterpieces. It includes the great title poem, which shows how the choice of a limited perspective (a dog’s) on human activity illuminates human experience; “A Few Words on the Soul,” as amusing as it is a profound exploration of human nature; and the heartrending “Photograph from September 11,” in which a few words recreate the awful experience of that day with the most beautiful compassion and sorrow. These poems are magic tricks as much as they are explorations of the experiences we share.

If you don’t know this magnificent poet, even if you are usually not a poetry consumer, take a few minutes to read some of her work. These poems may not change your life the way they have mine, but the will put you in touch with one of the most beautiful people ever to walk our planet.

You can find out more about Wislawa Szymborska on the Culture.pl page about her at http://www.culture.pl/web/english/resources-literature-full-page/-/eo_event_asset_publisher/eAN5/content/wislawa-szymborska

One Response to “Wisława Szymborska”

  1. sean Says:

    I heard about her by reading Billy Collins. Thank you for this beautiful introduction, the poems you chose will stay with me

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