Ottawa

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.

 

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.