The poetry of Wislawa Szymborska

I find it hard to understand why most people never, literally never, read poetry. The best poetry discloses in a few lines more than whole volumes of other writing begin to do. The best poetry deals with great issues which are crucial in our lives but which we hardly care to think about most of the time. The best poetry suddenly reveals truths which otherwise would have remained hidden or distorted in our confused minds full of superficialities and shadows.

Confirmation of this comes from the poetry of Wislawa Szymborska, the 1996 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. She was Polish, an old lady hardly known to the rest of the world until she won the Nobel. I certainly had never heard of her until then and it made me wonder, not for the first time, how many other great poets I have never read. Since then, however, Szymborska’s poems all over again convince me of poetry’s truth and beauty and its supreme relevance in our lives.

Perhaps her greatest book of poems is People on a Bridge. There is not one poem in it which fails to make you think more deeply or dream more vividly or feel more intensely. Her writing, in translation anyway, is matter-of-fact, relaxed, homely and direct. I think it must also be so in the original since in an interview she was quoted as saying, “I would like everything I write to be clear, intelligible, and I worry a lot if something proves unintelligible to a reader.”

The poems in this book take us deep into the great issues: how real is reality (‘Reality‘); are we alone in the universe (‘Unwritten Poem Reviewed’); what is the nature of our existence (‘A Version of Events’); can we arrest the flow of time (‘People on a Bridge’); infinity (‘Pi’); is there a mind inside a body (‘Experiment‘); are we evolutionally better adapted than creatures now extinct (‘A Dinosaur’s Skeleton’); is there life after death (‘Elegiac Account’). And so in a single Sunday morning on my veranda with the wind in the trees making one of those eternal sounds mankind has known for a million years I listen in my mind to a great poet writing on themes which are eternal and which, however much we tend to avoid thinking about them, concern us all.

Let me introduce you to the poetry of Wislawa Szymborska. This is not one of the poems from People on a Bridge. It is a poem I return to often and it struck me immediately as true and beautiful.

I Am Too Close For Him To Dream About Me

I am too close for him to dream about me

I’m not flying over him, not fleeing him

under the roots of a tree. I am too close.

Not with my voice sings the fish in the net.

Not from my finger rolls the ring.

I am too close. A large house is on fire

without my calling for help. Too close

for a bell dangling from my hair to chime.

Too close for me to enter as a guest

before whom the walls part.

Never again will I die so readily,

so far beyond the flesh, so inadvertently

as once in his dream. I am too close,

too close – I hear the hiss

and see the glittering husk of that word

as I lie immobilized in his embrace. He sleeps,

more available at this moment

to the ticket lady of a wandering circus with one lion

seen but once in his life

than to me lying beside him.

Now for her in him grows a valley, ochre-leaved,

closed off by a snowy mountain

in the azure air. I am too close

to fall out of the sky for him. My scream

might only awaken him. Poor me,

limited to my own form,

but I was a birch tree, I was a lizard,

I emerged from satins and sundials,

my skins shimmering in different colors. But I possessed

the grace to disappear from astonished eyes,

and this is the rich man’s riches. I am too close,

too close for him to dream about me.

I pull my arm out from under his sleeping head.

It’s numb, full of imaginary pins and needles.

And on the head of each, ready to be counted,
dance the fallen angels.

I will not interpret the poem if only because each person interprets a good poem differently. But does it not make you think a little more clearly, feel a little more intensely, about something we all think and feel now and then but not often enough – how what is good in our lives we too easily become accustomed to, how those we love deeply we too often take for granted, and how these all too human tendencies can be the source of intolerable loss?

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