Posts Tagged ‘Wisława Szymborska’

Happy birthday, Wisława Szymborska!

Sunday, July 2nd, 2017
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“I cannot imagine any writer who would not fight for his peace and quiet.” 

—Wisława Szymborska, born this day in 1923

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Berkeley poet Chana Bloch: “There’s no point in wanting to be a different kind of a writer than you are.”

Saturday, December 19th, 2015
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Chana Bloch-Peg SkorpinskiWe’ve written about Berkeley poet Chana Bloch before (here), but it’s been a few years since I spoke with her at the university, so I was happy to get an update at the “Talking Writing” website. Poet and translator Bloch, who has just released a “new and selected” Swimming in the Rain this year, was a longtime professor at Oakland’s Mills College. This first question (or rather, a comment, really) caught my eye – I’m constantly chastising myself because I’m not the fastest, most prolific, most profound writer in the English-speaking world. Apparently I’m not alone. Then I was caught by her list of favored poets.

Excerpt from her Q&A with Carol Dorf:

TW: I’m a slow writer.

CB: Slow is not necessarily bad. There’s no point in wanting to be a different kind of a writer than you are, though I must admit I’ve envied poets who are quicker, more prolific. I myself rarely stay with my early drafts. I tend to go over and over a poem—revising, distilling, trying to get at the essence.

TW: Most of your poems are brief lyrics. How do your longer sequence poems function compared with those that represent a single moment?

CB: I tend to write very short poems. Most of them fit on one page. Sometimes, a group of those poems asks to be stitched together. For example, I wrote a number of poems about my experience of ovarian cancer in 1986 that were then published in various journals. At some point, I realized that, by bringing them together in a sequence I called “In the Land of the Body” (from The Past Keeps Changing, Sheep Meadow Press, 1992), I could offer differing perspectives on the experience: that of my then-husband, our children, the radiologist, the surgeon.

TW: Which poets have been especially important to you?

swimmingInTheRainCB: George Herbert, Emily Dickinson, Yehuda Amichai, Tomas Tranströmer, Elizabeth Bishop, Zbigniew Herbert, Wisława Szymborska, Charles Simic, Gerard Manley Hopkins—not necessarily in that order.

George Herbert was an early influence. In grad school, I fell in love with his work. We made a very odd couple. I was a Jewish girl from the Bronx, and he was a seventeenth-century Anglican minister. But his poetry was about the inner life, and that drew me. There was a human depth in his poems that I found very appealing. He wrote about the self with an unsparing candor—about his irresolution, his inner contradictions. And I loved the music in his poetry.

I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation about his work, and then a book—Spelling the Word: George Herbert and the Bible (University of California Press, 1985)—about how he transforms the biblical sources in his poetry. Seeing him take a verse from the Bible and combine it with something from his life was like watching a mind in the very process of creation.

Read the whole thing here.

Getting ready for the Nobel in literature. And where better to do it than Stockholm?

Monday, October 5th, 2015
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Concert Hall with nobel program. Stockholm 8/2015

Laureates are seated onstage at the Concert Hall during the ceremony. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

The Nobel Prize for Literature will be awarded this Thursday in Stockholm. While we await the announcement, our New York City-based  correspondent, roving photojournalist Zygmunt Malinowski, reports on his recent visit to the Nobel Empire in Stockholm…

During last summer’s visit to Gdańsk for the opening of European Solidarity Center (read about it here), I found a nearby harbor with ferry to Sweden. I remembered a well-known photograph of Polish poet Czesław Miłosz dressed up in a tuxedo receiving his diploma from the king of Sweden, and I wondered what traces his visit to Stockholm might have left.

8 © Zygmunt Malinowski

Stockholm City Hall for the Nobel banquet (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

A journey without the usual hustle of airports and cramped airplanes makes a ship seem more natural way to travel. Even though the ferry was spartan in its accommodations, it felt spacious (except for the usual closet-sized sleeping cabin). In the evening at the large cafeteria with panoramic windows, time passes slowly. One can order a coffee or something stronger and gaze at the grayish Baltic Sea and the semi-circular, unending horizon, where the distant water edge never seems to get any closer.

After about 19 hours, we arrived at the port city of Ninanshamn. From there, it’s a short rail ride on a comfortable train to Stockholm. Stockholm consists of interconnected islands; its many bridges and water taxis efficiently transport passengers on its clean waterways and canals. The historic old town (Gamla Stan) with the narrow cobbled streets and shops, restaurants, and cafés, dates back to 13th century. The neoclassical Nobel Museum, home of the Swedish Academy that nominates the literature award, is pretty much in the center of it.

Nobel Ice Cream at Bistro Nobel, Nobel Museum. Stockholm. 8/2015

Nobel ice cream at Bistro Nobel (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

I took advantage of a guided tour offered in English. As a young man, Alfred Nobel wanted to be a poet. Inspired by Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, he wrote all his poems in English. His father dissuaded him, saying that it was not a real job, so Alfred Nobel is remembered for inventing dynamite instead.

He also wrote several plays, but his family destroyed most of these papers, since they wanted him to be remembered for chemistry and inventions. He lived most of his adult life in Paris, never married, and had no children. His last will and testament gave away most of his fortune as annual prize. According to the museum, “Nobel was against inherited fortunes that he believed contributed to the laziness of humanity. The will was an ingenuous way of solving this dilemma. The inheritance, in the form of a prize, would reward those who have made themselves worthy by way of their work.”

Nobel had over 350 patents and made a fortune, but his idea of ideas was establishing the Nobel award in five categories: physics, chemistry, physiology and medicine, literature, and peace (later a prize for economy was added). The peace prize is awarded in Norway. Nobel met Victor Hugo in Paris, and throughout his life corresponded with Countess Bertha Von Sutter, founder of Austrian peace movement and author of Lay Down Your Arms. The latter influenced the formation of a peace prize, which she won in 1905.

The Nobel nominating process begins in September of the previous year, when the Swedish Academy committee responsible for the literature award sends out hundreds of letters to universities, institutions, and individuals qualified to nominate Nobel laureates. By the following April, the list that’s been gathered is whittled down to about 20 candidates. In May, the selection is narrowed to five candidates. The Academy becomes familiar with the proposed authors and their work. In September, the Academy finally makes a decision and the winner is announced in October. On December 10, laureates receive their prizes. The decision process remains a secret for fifty years – only now can we learn who nominated the winner from 1965.

6 © Zygmunt Malinowski

Would you sign my chair, please? (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

The ceremony takes place in three separate locations. The laureates are invited to the Academy for lunch, on December 9, and afterwards a rehearsal. On December 10, during a ceremony at the Concert Hall they receive an elaborate calligraphy diploma and medal from the King of Sweden, in addition to a check. Attendance is by invitation only. Limos line up to take the 1,300 guests to City Hall for the banquet, first walking through the Golden Hall down marble staircase to the spacious Blue Room. In Sweden, the event is almost a holiday; it’s followed closely on TV throughout the day.

One of the highlights while visiting the museum is having lunch and Nobel ice cream with chocolate Nobel medal at the Vienna-style ‘Bistro Nobel.’ Yes, the ice cream tastes as good as it looks, and it’s actually the same dessert that was served for many years at the Nobel Banquet. Another tradition started in recent years is signing the back seat of bistro chairs. One can turn over a chair to see which laureate signed it. Signatures started after Miłosz’s visit, but I located Mario Vargas Llosa on chair #26 and Seamus Heaney, chair #23.

So where was Miłosz? See the photo below, from the central area of the museum. Also, all Nobel winners are featured on a ceiling display (also pictured below), but it would take hours to find a specific person since they are not in any particular order. I know, I waited as Samuel Beckett, Wisława Szymborska, and Madame Curie-Sklodowska, the first woman to receive Nobel Prize and first to receive it twice, rolled past, before heading for the ice cream.

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2 © Zygmunt Malinowski

Miłosz at last. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

9 © Zygmunt Malinowski

After the feast, the ball – and it takes place at the gorgeous Golden Hall. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

3 © Zygmunt Malinowski

Previous winner Wisława Szymborska in a rotating ceiling display at the museum. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

1 © Zygmunt Malinowski

The august Nobel Museum and the Swedish Academy. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

4 © Zygmunt Malinowski (1)

In my end is my beginning. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

Nobelist Wisława Szymborska on “work as one continuous adventure”

Friday, October 24th, 2014
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May in Kraków – must they be compared?

When I saw her Kraków, with poet Julia Hartwig (at right) – in May 2011

An embarrassingly long time ago, someone from the Adam Mickiewicz Institute’s online magazine, Culture.pl, wrote to bring my attention to a recent post about Wisława Szymborska and her “9 Secret Sides” – I’ve written about the poet here and here, but not much since. I liked this story about getting the Nobel Prize, though I’m not sure how “secret” it is. In Kraków, I spoke to the friend, Michał Rusinek, who “cut the cord,” literally, after the announcement was made, severing her endlessly ringing telephone line with a pair of scissors. Anyway, from the website:

“Szymborska was notoriously private and rarely gave interviews. It is thus not surprising that she met the sudden global recognition thrust upon her with the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996 with great hesitancy, calling it the ‘Stockholm Tragedy.’  Szymborska was at a writers’ retreat in the Polish mountain town of Zakopane when the prize was announced and initially refused to take calls with the news, preferring to instead finish her lunch privately.  It was only after a number of calls – including one from her friend and colleague Czesław Miłosz – that she agreed to speak to the press.  By the end of that day, however, she’d had enough and retreated to place even more remote, where she hoped she would not be found by reporters.

“Though the majority of media coverage of the prize feature quotations from her colleagues, rather than from Szymborska herself, she was, of course, center stage at the awarding of the prize.  She admitted to Miłosz that ‘the most difficult thing will be to write a speech.  I will be writing it for a month.  I don’t know what I will be talking about, but I will talk about you.’  In the end she delivered one of the shortest Nobel Lectures to date, the beautiful The Poet and the World.

Szymborska

With “love and imagination”

She didn’t mention him in the speech, actually, but it’s a good Nobel talk nevertheless (translated by the incomparable Stanisław Barańczak over here). I picked this passage out, in particular, on today’s rereading:

“I’ve mentioned inspiration. Contemporary poets answer evasively when asked what it is, and if it actually exists. It’s not that they’ve never known the blessing of this inner impulse. It’s just not easy to explain something to someone else that you don’t understand yourself.

“When I’m asked about this on occasion, I hedge the question, too. But my answer is this: inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It’s made up of all those who’ve consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners – and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.’

scissors“There aren’t many such people. Most of the earth’s inhabitants work to get by. They work because they have to. They didn’t pick this or that kind of job out of passion; the circumstances of their lives did the choosing for them. Loveless work, boring work, work valued only because others haven’t got even that much, however loveless and boring – this is one of the harshest human miseries. And there’s no sign that coming centuries will produce any changes for the better as far as this goes.”

I may not be a Nobel poet – but let’s raise a glass in thanks from those of us (Humble Moi included) who get to do our jobs with love and imagination. It’s always a privilege. I never forget it. Now let me get back to my work…

Wisława Szymborska’s funeral on a snowy day in Kraków

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012
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One of Poland's most famous cemeteries

I missed the news of Wisława Szymborska‘s funeral earlier this month, and only just found this youtube clip of the quiet, secular ceremony that nevertheless attracted more than a thousand people in a Polish winter.  According to the Associated Press:

Freezing temperatures and falling snow at the Rakowicki Cemetery in the southern city of Kraków, where Szymborska lived, did not discourage the mourners, including Prime Minister Donald Tusk, writers and actors, from attending the ceremony.

An urn with Szymborska’s ashes was placed in the family tomb, where her parents and sister are buried, to a recording of Ella Fitzgerald, Szymborska’s favorite singer, singing “Black Coffee.” The poet was a heavy smoker and a lover of black coffee.

“In her poems, she left us her ability to notice the ordinary, the tiniest particles of beauty and of the joy of the world,” President Bronisław Komorowski said.

“She was a Krakowian by choice,” said Kraków mayor Jacek Majchrowski in the clip below. “The climate agreed with her, so did the people.”

Krakowian by choice

Adam Zagajewski, a good friend of hers, tried repeatedly to introduce me to the reclusive poet – with no success; her circle in her final years was pretty much kept to the closest friends. She wanted to save her energy for her poems.  I’m glad I caught the reading last year, perhaps it was her last.

In the clip, Adam Z. notes that “she survived a horrible war, and lived through two totalitarian regimes, but she didn’t choose to keep silent – she chose a way of expressing herself that never led to pointless chatter – but on the contrary, to intelligent expression.”  I don’t trust the voiceover translation.  It doesn’t sound like the man who has been shortlisted for a Nobel himself.

Rakowicki Cemetery is a huge place – truly an empire of the dead.  I can’t remember how I came to see it, but I remember it seemed out of the way, on the edge of town; it must have been during my first visit in 2008, since the  Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, where I lived last year, is relatively close. Whatever.  John Paul II‘s parents are there; heaps of flowers are still placed on their graves, and candles, too.

And soon we join them.  How fast it all goes!  It is banal to say so. But one hits at some point in middle age the Great Reversal, where we sees clearly that the way ahead is shorter than the way behind, and that it is only luck or chance that we are still eating, talking, taking out the trash and doing the laundry as if nothing particular were happening.  This realization creates a revolution in the brain. One sees that life really is an incessant conversation between the living and the dead – and what one writer called “the tyranny of the living,” “the small, arrogant oligarchy of those who happen to be walking around” is a shortsighted view. Nothing we touch, think, feel, or love is other than a gift from those who came before us, passing on literature, painting, domesticated cats, architecture, silver spoons, flush toilets, witty sayings, lullabies, chocolate éclairs, systems of government, habits of kindness before they, too, close the door of their room and, one by one, check out of this giant, raucous hotel.

Wisława Szymborska: a feather touch that, for all its lightness, lingers

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012
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Wisława Szymborska is dead at 88.  It’s after 1 a.m., but it wouldn’t seem right to let the night pass without a comment.

In 2008, I had tried persistently to meet the reclusive Nobel poet in Kraków – another story, for another time.  During my return for the Year of Czesław Miłosz last spring, my time had run out too quickly, and now apparently hers has also.

But I did see her briefly last spring, at a rare public appearance at St. Catherine’s Church, a reading where she shared the stage with her friend Julia Hartwig, the Chinese poet Bei Dao, and others.  The formidable figure seemed friendly, frail, exuding warmth and authenticity.  Afterward, she was whisked away through the back, like a rare and delicate doll that must be exhibited, but not touched by the fans who had flooded the medieval church.

Somewhere on a thumb drive I have a photo, but I’ll settle today for the more magical one from the Poetry Foundation website.

According to the New York Times obituary:

Despite six decades of writing, Szymborska had less than 400 poems published.

Asked why, she once said: “There is a trash bin in my room. A poem written in the evening is read again in the morning. It does not always survive.”

When I reviewed her collection Monologue of a Dog for the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005, I wrote this:

Perhaps the reason for the paucity is because it took a long while to edit the “I” out of her poems, which slip in and out of personal identity. The heart-breaking title poem assumes the voice of a dictator’s dog; “Among the Multitudes” considers the wonder of being born human rather than with fins or feathers; another poem ponders her one-sided relationship with plants; “Plato, or Why” asks about the Ideal Being — “Why on earth did it start seeking thrills/ in the bad company of matter? … Wisdom limping/ with a thorn stuck in its heel?”

Or perhaps it’s because, as she has written elsewhere, she has tried to borrow weighty words, and then labored to lighten them. As always with Szymborska, a poet who survived the Nazi and Soviet regimes in Poland, poems of war and dislocation are told with a feather touch that nonetheless, for all its lightness, lingers. “Some People” describes the plight of refugees: “Always another wrong road ahead of them,/ always another wrong bridge/ across an oddly reddish river.”

Szymborska’s lightness is never denial or indifference; it is a subtle means of defiance. Italo Calvino, who praised the literary virtue of leggerezza, which he called the “subtraction of weight,” elaborated: “Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. … I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification.”

The BBC included this poem, the wisest epitaph:

The Three Oddest Words

When I pronounce the word Future,
the first syllable already belongs to the past.
When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.
When I pronounce the word Nothing,
I make something no non-being can hold.

 

TLS: Czeslaw Milosz around the world

Thursday, November 24th, 2011
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Rock star treatment

What a nice way to celebrate Thanksgiving!  My article in the Times Literary Supplement is online today, and not behind a paywall.  It begins:

In May this year, the streets of old Cracow were dominated by two names, two events. Czeslaw Milosz’s centenary jostled with Pope John Paul II’s beatification in windows, on banners and billboards, on bookstore shelves, in fliers and leaflets – the pope, perhaps, having the edge over the Nobel laureate, except on the kiosks where Milosz Festival posters prevailed. “It seems to me every poet after death goes through a Purgatory”, Milosz told me over a decade ago. “So he must go through that moment of revision after death.” The “revision”, at this point, is a triumph of twenty-first-century branding and marketing, featuring commemorative books, pens, postcards, blank books, and T-shirts; Milosz’s scrawled signature appears on napkins and even on the wrappers of tiny biscotti.

The Works

Few poets have been feted with such rock star exuberance. The “Milosz Pavilion” on Szczepanski Square hosted literary luminaries such as Adam Zagajewski, Bei Dao, Tomas Venclova, Adonis, and Natalya Gorbanevskaya. (Even the reclusive Wislawa Szymborska made a rare public appearance with her colleague Julia Hartwig at the medieval St Catherine’s Church.) Meanwhile, the Jagiellonian University’s Collegium Novum sponsored a week-long scholarly conference with seventy participants from around the world, including the eminent critics Helen Vendler and Clare Cavanagh, and some leading Polish scholars. The Jagiellonian Library, farther from the centre of town, exhibited manuscripts, photographs and first editions. The events were attended by thousands. All this year, books have poured from Polish publishers. Most notably, Milosz’s own publisher, Znak, issued two hefty volumes: Andrzej Franaszek’s 1,000-page biography – a bestseller – and a new 1,500-page Collected Poems. A few of the literati complained to me that Milosz was not receiving his due among the younger generation – an honoured marble bust to be dusted off seasonally, but not read or remembered – but I saw plenty of evidence to the contrary.

The rest is here.

Happy 90th birthday, Julia Hartwig! Poland’s late-blooming poet is still in glorious flower.

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011
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The birthday girl in Warsaw (Photo: C.L. Haven)

I wrote about the Polish poet Julia Hartwig some months ago on the Book Haven here – but now there is an special occasion for celebration.  The poet turns 90 on August 14th.

It’s rare that a poet’s supreme moment of recognition should occur so late in life – rarer still that the poet’s productivity is unimpeded by age.  However, the Grande Dame of Polish poetry is clearly an extraordinary woman.

I made sure to celebrate my own way, with an article in the July/August issue of World Literature Today.  It’s not online, alas, but here are a few excerpts to familiarize the West with a poet who received as much applause as Nobel winner Wisława Szymborska when they shared the stage last May in Kraków’s medieval St. Catherine’s Church.

“My way of poetry is a long way,” Julia Hartwig told me on a hot August night in her Warsaw apartment.

Her comment is at once enigmatic and precise. Precise because the poet, who turns ninety this year, has been writing for eight decades, since she was ten. She has been publishing collections of her poems since the 1956 thaw over half a century ago. Yet her long career is still in glorious late flower.

Enigmatic, too: her range of vision roams through centuries, continuing a conversation with her recently dead colleagues, literary forebears, and friends throughout time. All great poetry does that, really—but in Hartwig’s case the search is direct and unambiguous. Titles of poems in her newest collection in English, It Will Return, reference Arthur Rimbaud, John Keats, and Joseph Brodsky as well as Vincent Van Gogh, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Henri Rousseau.

Her life was largely a quiet and orderly one, after the national upheaval of war, when she worked as a runner for the Home Army, and studied in Warsaw’s underground university (the Gestapo’s attentions forced her into hiding for a time).  After the war, she went to Paris on a scholarship and never lost her love for France.  She wrote about Guillaume Apollinaire and Gérard de Nerval and translated Rimbaud:

“What is striking about French literature is the range of scale: the Hugo-style genius of the French spirit and the Rabelaisian bawdiness, de Musset’s charm and Apollinaire’s thrilling melody, Lautréamont’s madness, the inexhaustible passion of Rimbaud’s poetry, the latent sensitivity of Reverdy’s cubism, the inventiveness of the lyrical paradox in Jacob’s work,” she wrote. “Old and new, separate and shared, like the root, stem, leaf, and flower in one plant.”

In 1954 she married the eminent poet, writer, and translator Artur Miedzyrzecki (1922–96), who had served the Polish Army in Italy. She published her first book during communism’s brief 1956 thaw, when she was in her mid-thirties.

“I waited for good poems, it’s true,” she said. “But still the attention was . . . it was remarked.”

I find the frequent comparisons to Szymborska to be a bit offensive, as if there were only one slot were available to a female poet per generation.  I aired my grievances … well, a little, anyway:

May in Kraków – must they be compared?

She is often compared to Wisława Szymborska. One wonders if the association would come less easily if Szymborska were not a woman of the same generation. But it’s not entirely the comparison of poetess with poetess—both have a light, deft touch and a taste for whimsy.

But Hartwig’s terroir extends into a different psychological landscape. She has called her way “reality mysticism,” extending her acceptance of the world to all its horrors, then moving beyond to transcendence. Of the world, she wisely told her translator Bogdana Carpenter, “One cannot set oneself apart from it and be alone like an underground man or a misanthrope.”

But it’s more than that. Reality mysticism doesn’t abstract or withdraw from the present, or use it for a jumping-off point for dreamy speculations, but holds us steadily there, using it to increase our attention, our presence, and our appreciation.

For example, “Return to My Childhood Home” begins with wonder and loss, moving to consolation and light:

Amid a dark silence of pines—the shouts of young birches calling each other.
Everything is as it was. Nothing is as it was. …

To understand nothing. Each time in a different way, from the first cry to the last breath.
Yet happy moments come to me from the past, like bridesmaids carrying oil lamps.

Many more happy moments  in your beloved Warsaw, Julia  – a thousand lamps to greet you on your way!