By Carl Dennis
Go in fear of grand generalizations is the usual advice we give our students; let particulars carry the thematic burden, not abstractions. But we all know many poems that defy the rule successfully. One that I particularly enjoy is a poem by Wisława Szymborska entitled “A Contribution to Statistics,” in her most recent collection in English, Monologue of a Dog. This poem is of special interest in this regard because the will to generalize is itself part of the subject of the poem, and seems, on the first reading at least, to be treated critically, as the poet gives us the statistics about the prevalence of various character types in the population at large. Here is the opening:
Out of a hundred people
those who always know better
doubting every step
—nearly all the rest,
glad to lend a hand
if it doesn’t take too long
—as high as forty-nine,
because they can’t be otherwise
—four, well, maybe five . . .
At first these lines seem to be mocking the wish to quantify what can’t be quantified, but as the poem goes on we are drawn in because the categories are intriguing, because they seem to suggest the poet’s perspective is not conventional. She seems rather to be speaking out of long experience in dealing with our species, an experience that has had time to distill itself into the earned finality of pronouncement about our moral status.
If we smile at the precision she claims to offer, we also assent to the percentages, aware that they express a realistic assessment of our nature. We can call the speaker’s attitude calmly impersonal, in that we feel that the time of fretting over the facts is long behind her, but the term ought not to imply that she has no clear personality. The suggestive phrase, “as high as forty-nine,” tells us she has no investment in gloom, and is willing to give a high figure, not a low, though she knows it’s not common. And in adjusting her limit for the “good / because they can’t be otherwise,” for those saintly by nature, she appears to be willing to listen to an appeal from the reader for a more hopeful number. But she raises the number only by one digit, suggesting that her final concern is not with mollifying those who find her “contribution” harsh but to tell the truth. This is a stance that comes out of a wisdom tradition in which the poet is the final arbiter, and the fact that the poem manages to make the tradition work for us skeptics, that its speaker is completely convincing, is a rare achievement.
Carl Dennis is the author of many books of poems, including Selected Poems, 1974-2004, and, most recently, Night School. A winner of the Ruth Lilly Prize and The Pulitzer Prize, he lives in Buffalo, New York.
Originally appeared in NOR 5