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Szymborska's 'View': Small Truths Sharply Etched

Book Cover: 'View With a Grain of Sand'

Every other year, it seems, the Nobel Prize in literature goes to an obscure European writer, full of hard consonants and solemn purposes, whom we all agree to honor for a day and forget all about right after.

This list of the Great Obscure is long, but the bright exception to it is the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, who won the Nobel in 1996. Szymborska is not merely a great writer, like many others; she is a necessary writer, as necessary as toast. Every month, it seems, I give to someone a copy of one of her books and get for her work, in response, not mere admiration or respect but eyes alight with delight, recognition, laughter and that special kind of happiness that comes from seeing a small truth articulated as a sharp ironic point, an emotion given a shape neither all too familiar nor all too abstract.

No one could possibly have chosen a worse time to arrive on the planet, or a harder place to arrive. Born in 1923, and spending most of her life in the Polish city of Krakow, she survived the Second World War as a railroad worker, and then spent the long years of the Russian occupation as one of the more discreet kinds of dissident.

Yet her exposure to the pain of history did not turn her into a poet of history in the usual sense. She lived through some horrible times, but rarely wrote about them directly. Her experience, instead, deepened her commitment to the belief that the poetic impulse, however small its objects, is always saner than the polemical imperative, however passionate its certitudes.

Her poems take small subjects and make much of them. In her poetry, a child about to pull a tablecloth from a table becomes the type of every scientist beginning an experiment; a visit to the doctors, with its stripping down and piling on of clothes, a metaphor for all we go through in the company of the odd mechanisms of our naked bodies; she ponders the onion's many layers, and the inner life of Hitler's dog.

In the poem that I used for the epigraph for my own latest book, she writes all about the range of human difficulties, over time, that make the decision to have a child impossible at any moment. We just can't do it, it's the wrong time; and yet, we do. (Read "A Tale Begun.")

And I have always been moved and inspired by the text of her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, in which she takes on the "astonishment" of normal life:

"Astonishing" is an epithet concealing a logical trap. We're astonished, after all, by things that deviate from some well-known and universally acknowledged norm, from an obviousness we've grown accustomed to. Granted, in daily speech, where we don't stop to consider every word, we all use phrases like "the ordinary world," "ordinary life," "the ordinary course of events." ... But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone's existence in this world."

That's Szymborska's faith. I have a hard time knowing how I would get through a single ordinary day without her poetry.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

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