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. I often return to this marvellous lady’s work.
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 betted 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.
Here is one of Wislawa Szymborska’s shrewd and luminous poems. It is about ruined expectations on a massive scale.
The Century’s Decline
Out twentieth century was going to improve on the others:
A couple of problems weren’t going
to come up anymore
hunger, for example,
and war, and so forth.
There was going to be respect
for helpless people’s helplessness,
trust, that kind of stuff.
Anyone who planned to enjoy the world
is now faced
with a hopeless task.
Stupidity isn’t funny,
wisdom isn’t happy.
isn’t that young girl anymore,
et cetera, alas.
God was finally going to believe
in a man both good and strong
but good and strong
are still two different men.
In a few lines we experience the 20th century’s terrible failure – leading into continuing failure in the 21st – and the realization also how very seldom great political expectations at any level are ever fulfilled.