Vaster: Wisława Szymborska and Elizabeth Bishop

By Kathy Fagan

“A Speech at the Lost and Found,” a poem published by Szymborska in 1972 (translated by Joanna Trzeciak in Miracle Fair, 2001), is remarkable for its wit, its polymorphic leaps, and its cosmic vision; equally remarkable is the resemblance it bears to its younger sibling, “One Art,” published by Elizabeth Bishop in her 1976 collection Geography III. These are of course not the only charming poems on the subject of relinquishment to be published in the 1970s. The 1970s were, after all, the moon-stone-bone era, and use of the autobiographical “I” was for many progressive and/or restless poets becoming passé as they raged against the excesses of rampant confessionalism. In Szymborska’s case, of course, political circumstances fostered reticence and inventiveness as much as, if not more than, aesthetic taste, but each poet struggles and thrives within the constraints she’s given, whatever those may be.

While Bishop would most certainly not have seen “A Speech at the Lost and Found” before working laboriously on her famous villanelle, the echoes are uncanny:

I lost a few goddesses on my way from south to north,
as well as many gods on my way from east to west. [Szymborska]

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. [Bishop]

That two women of roughly the same generation, living and writing under such different circumstances, could share a trope or two may not be unusual, and coincidence may account for their common interest in literary translation and visual art. But what is noteworthy is how companionable these poets appear as one reads their poems side by side: ironic, shapely, modest, playful, fundamentally grave, and above all, intensely aware of our solitary positions within a larger community. The vision shared by Szymborska and Bishop is a capaciously human one, encompassing vast spaces, psychological as well as historical and geographical.

Kathy Fagan’s fifth book, Sycamore (Milkweed, 2017), was a finalist for the 2018 Kingsley Tufts Award. Milkweed will publish her new book, Bad Hobby, in 2022. She has received fellowships from the NEA and the Ohio Arts Council. Recent work has also appeared in Poetry, Tin House, and The Nation. Fagan directs the MFA Program at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, where she serves as series co-editor for the OSU Press/Wheeler Poetry Prize.

Originally appeared in NOR 5

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