Wislawa Szymborska, poet, died on February 1st, aged 88
WHEN Wislawa Szymborska won the world's top literary prize in 1996, her friends called it the “Nobel disaster”. This was not just because she had spent an uncomfortable night before the award ceremony in the bath: the bathroom was the only part of her quarters in a grand Stockholm hotel in which she could manage to turn on the light. Nor was it the “torture” she felt in having to make a speech—one of only three she had given in her life. The real disaster was the trauma of fame and fortune. It was years before she could publish another poem. Her fans' delight in her Nobel prize was mixed with disappointment that it had rendered her mute.
Like many Poles who survived the war, Ms Szymborska readily accepted communism in early life, seeing it as a salvation for a ruined world. Early poems praised Lenin and young communists building a steel works. Later she blamed her own “foolishness, naivety and perhaps intellectual laziness”, but some found it hard to forgive her for signing a petition in 1953 backing a show trial of four priests.
Her ironic and individualistic spirit was ill fitted to the grey conformity of “people's Poland”: the Nobel citation said she wrote with the ease of Mozart and the fury of Beethoven. Playful, subtle and haunting, her poetry could never be in harmony with the socialist realist style dictated by the country's cultural commissars. She mocked their intolerance of dissent in a poem on pornography:
There's nothing more debauched than thinking.
This sort of wantonness runs wild like a wind-borne weed on a plot laid out for daisies.
Communism she likened to the abominable snowman—horrid and unreal—though she stayed in the party until 1966, hoping “to try to fix it all from the inside”. That, she said later, had been another delusion.
Ms Szymborska was 16 when Hitler and Stalin carved up Poland between them. “Old age was the privilege of rocks and trees,” she wrote. Although not a mainstream dissident, her poems distilled the essence of individual stubbornness in the face of what the party bosses said was historical inevitability.
I believe in the refusal to take part.
I believe in the ruined career.
I believe in the wasted years of work.
I believe in the secret taken to the grave.
These words soar for me beyond all rules without seeking support from actual examples.
My faith is strong, blind, and without foundation.
Scepticism was her watchword. She eschewed political causes; her fight was “against the bad poet who is prone to using too many words”. Her favourite phrase was “I don't know”. She told the Nobel audience: “It's small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended.” Without it, she said, Isaac Newton would have gobbled apples rather than pondering the force that makes them drop. Her compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie would have “wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families.”
An accretion of answers
It was the same for poets. Each poem was a kind of answer, but as soon as the last full stop hit the page the result seemed inadequate. “So the poets keep on trying, and sooner or later the consecutive results of their self-dissatisfaction are clipped together with a giant paper clip by literary historians and called their ‘oeuvre'.”
Her own output was slender in quantity and lean in style. For all her erudition, she did not come across as intimidatingly brainy (unlike some other Polish post-war poets). Schoolchildren learn her poems by heart, like this one about a bereaved pet.
Die—you can't do that to a cat.
Since what can a cat do
in an empty apartment?
Climb the walls?
Rub up against the furniture?
Nothing seems different here
but nothing is the same.
Nothing's been moved
but there's more space.
And at night-time no lamps are lit.
Invented words and syntactic tricks made some of her poems for Polish-speakers only. But her translators, chiefly Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak, did a fine job, particularly in the New Yorker, which has published 16 of the best.
自造词和句法变化的把戏让她的一些诗只能被说波兰语的人欣赏。但她诗的译者，主要是Clare Cavanagh和Stanislaw Baranczak，却做得很好，特别是在《纽约客》上，这本杂志已经刊登了她最优秀的诗歌中的16篇。
Her humour was mischievous: the lavatory seat in her Cracow flat was made of barbed wire encased in clear plastic. Asked why she had published so little—her entire canon was only some 400 poems—she replied gently that she had a waste-paper basket. Success left no dent in her reclusive modesty, and she would never claim that her external life was interesting. Imagine trying to make a film of a poet's “hopelessly unphotogenic” life, she said: “Someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling. Once in a while this person writes down seven lines, only to cross out one of them 15 minutes later, and then another hour passes, during which nothing happens Who…could stand to watch this kind of thing?”
Who, indeed? But plenty read and love the results of her self-imposed solitude.