Wislawa Szymborska

In 1996 Wislawa Szymborska was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Before then, I had never heard of her. Not long after, I started reading her poems. They were so unlike most contemporary poetry in one key respect—I could understand them.

They were also smart, uncomplicated and perceptive. Her poems created larger meanings out of simple things—a chair, a tree, and what she called the “daily bustle.” Szymborska died last week at the age of 88.

She dreaded the increasing popularity that followed the Nobel award, preferring instead to live and write in solitude. In 2002 she said:

“Everyone needs solitude, especially a person who is used to thinking about what she experiences. Solitude is very important in my work as a mode of inspiration, but isolation is not good in this respect. I am not writing poetry about isolation.”

She continued: “For the last few years my favourite phrase has been I don’t know. I’ve reached the age of self-knowledge, so I don’t know anything. People who claim that they know something are responsible for most of the fuss in the world.”

In October of 2010 I posted one of her poems. The poem, like so many others that she has written, lingers. In memory of Szymborska, here is the poem that I discovered at the end of Julie Orringer’s remarkable novel The Invisible Bridge—an epic tale of three brothers trying to survive during the Holocaust in Hungary.

It is a long novel that drew me in from the fist sentence and would not let me out for a full 600 pages. The following passage occurs in the novel:

…the excruciating smallness, the pinpoint upon which every life is balanced. The scale might be tipped by the tiniest of things: the lice that carried typhus, the few thimblefuls of water that remained in a canteen, the dust of breadcrumbs in a pocket.

And here is Szymborska’s poem that appeared in her collection, View With a Grain of Sand:

Any Case

It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Closer. Farther away.
It happened, but not to you.
You survived because you were first.
You survived because you were last.
Because alone. Because the others.
Because on the left. Because on the right.
Because it was raining. Because it was sunny.
Because a shadow fell.
Luckily there was a forest.
Luckily there were no trees.
Luckily a rail, a hook, a beam, a brake,
A frame, a turn, an inch, a second.
Luckily a straw was floating on the water.
Thanks to, thus, in spite of, and yet.
What would have happened if a hand, a leg,
One step, a hair away?
So you are here? Straight from that moment still suspended?
The net's mesh was tight, but you? through the mesh?
I can't stop wondering at it, can't be silent enough.
How quickly your heart is beating in me.