Vaster: Wisława Szymborska and Elizabeth Bishop

By Kathy Fagen

“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.

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Thinking Out Loud

By Lawrence Raab

One of the ways a poem can be eloquent is by pretending to have nothing to do with eloquence. This strategy has many dangers. If we catch the writer cultivating modesty, putting on airs by pretending to do the opposite, the poem’s plain clothes will appear calculated for effect. Of course we know that all good art has been calculated for effect. Nevertheless, the directness of certain poems can seem wholly natural, as if the poet desired only to speak in the clearest possible way, saying just what needs to be said.

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On Szymborska

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:

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“Non Omnis Moriar”: Reading Szymborska in Translation

By Jennifer Clarvoe

I go back again and again to one of the first poems of Szymborska’s that caught my attention, “Autotomy.” In it, she incorporates a Latin phrase, from Horace’s Ode III.30, “Non omnis moriar,” which means (the notes tell us helpfully), “I shall not wholly die.” The slightly disorienting pleasure of finding a Latin phrase in a Polish poem stands in part, for me, for the continuously disorienting pleasure of reading any poetry in translation—at least as much pleasure in what carries over as in wondering what is lost. The “I” in “I shall not wholly die” seems to me to be the phrase itself speaking, the poem speaking from the page, even more than it speaks for the poet, either Horace or Szymborska. In my facing-page text (in Krynski and Maguire’s translation), the Latin remains untranslated, identical, on both pages—the part I don’t entirely get in the English version, and the part I recognize with relief amid the Polish.

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On Szymborska’s “Travel Elegy”

By William Olsen

Wisława Szymborska has the practical self-regard I imagine an anthropologist might have, all that much more functional for being a little off to the side. She does not deal in ironies as cosmic betrayals, as Milosz does, but in ironies as human fictions. Her poems are often written in a mood I’d describe as defenseless yet deliberate. They may maintain comic perspective on mood, but they do undergo their emotions. They can wince and smile at once, if doing so makes things clearer.

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