Wislawa Szymborska: We leave without the chance to practice - Macleans.ca

Wislawa Szymborska: We leave without the chance to practice


The great Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska died today in Krakow. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. The Gazeta Wyborcza website is, at this hour, draped in black, with tributes from Poland’s president, prime minister, foreign minister. Woody Allen is quoted — he apparently viewed a paper bouquet from Szymborska as a greater honour than the awards he makes a show of ignoring. The Gazeta’s headline is taken from this poem:

Die? One does not do that to a cat.

Because what’s a cat to do in an empty apartment?

Climb the walls.

Caress against the furniture.

It seems that nothing has changed here, but yet things are different.

This was her thing, the surprising angle, the constant gentle surprise, the way she insisted on seeing the familiar in a new light. More of her poems, from assorted tumblr sites, here. New York Times obit here.

Apparently the Nobel thing rattled her badly — she was a shy, private woman, never prolific, her point of view intimate, even when she was taking a quiet but determined stance against the Communist regime — and she was unable to write a new poem for years. But she delivered one of the great Nobel lectures. It opens with a very good joke: “They say the first sentence in any speech is always the hardest. Well, that one’s behind me, anyway.” It moves on to offer an insight that’s easier to reach, I think, if you’ve suffered under the crushing certainty of authoritarianism, but useful for us all.

This is why I value that little phrase “I don’t know” so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings… Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself “I don’t know”, she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and would have ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying “I don’t know,” and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize.


Filed under:

Wislawa Szymborska: We leave without the chance to practice

  1. Thanks for letting us know about the passing of this amazing woman.  I was not aware of her poetry nor of the accolades she had received.

    I would also note the passing of two great personalities that certainly had a populcar culture presence in my own life and quite possibly yours:

    The great Angelo Dundee who helped make Muhammed Ali float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.  He, along with Dr. Ferdie Pacheco and Bundini Brown, added new names to the glossary in my head.

    As well, the great Don Cornelius who helped bring black American culture into the living rooms of North America.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KB-3ow8KXNI.

    Wishing you all love, peace and SOUL!

  2. Thank you for posting that.

  3. They say I looked back out of curiosity,
    but I could have had other reasons.
    I looked back mourning my silver bowl.
    Carelessly, while tying my sandal strap.
    So I wouldn’t have to keep staring at the righteous nape
    Of my husband Lot’s neck.
    From the sudden conviction that if I dropped dead
    He wouldn’t so much as hesitate.
    From the disobedience of the meek.
    Checking for pursuers.
    Struck by the silence, hoping God had changed his mind

    That’s wonderful. For me it illustrates one of lifes most abused and overlooked insights, that people are capable of having more than one single reason for doing anything – even disobeying God.It’s probably a truism that most of the reasons we have for doing anything are rooted in the banal and the deeply human as the poet speculates here.

    I’m not familiar with Ms Szymborska’s work, i should be. She was right surely? The reason we soldier on is not just because we must anyway, but because we haven’t begun to scatch the surface of what we don’t yet know.  There may well may be nothing new under the sun but it’s all still new to you and me; and the fact we’ll never get a chance to revisit should make the search all the more urgent.