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


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.


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3 Responses to “Wisława Szymborska: a feather touch that, for all its lightness, lingers”

  1. Diann Blakely Says:

    How sad that two such great spirits left the world on the same day!–


    [Even though the usually crackerjack editors at the Poetry Foundation misspelled her first name.]


  2. Jan Says:

    Yes, it was very sad day, especially here, in Poland, her country ;(

  3. fragile tears Says:

    fragile tears…

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